Monthly Archives: February 2011

Volunteer Spotlight: Pierce and Ann Mond Johnson

Our volunteer program attracts many interesting and enthusiastic participants, but at the end of February, everyone got lucky when Pierce and Ann Mond Johnson, from Chicago, returned to lend a hand for the second year in a row.   Pierce ran a French culinary school for years; Ann and Pierce put their skills to use cooking up delicious meals for everyone after hard days of work.  We chatted with them as they packed up to continue their travels.

CP:  What made you interested in joining us here at the future Patagonia National Park?

PJ: We first heard about Conservacion Patagonica from a one-page profile in a Patagonia clothing company catalogue.  We thought, what a wild thing to take part in creating a new national park in Chile.  We wanted to be down in Chile, doing volunteer work that fit in with our love of hiking and spending time outdoors.  We’ve been here for two years, working for two weeks each year, and it’s been a great experience.

CP: Rumor has it that you are great cooks.

AMJ: Pierce won Iron Chief, Patagonia edition, two years in a row!

PJ:  Cooking here is an interesting challenge.  You’re feeding 15- 20 people, with an assortment of ingredients that’s pretty different from what you’d find in a grocery store in the US.  The goal is to put something edible together cooking out in the field. We enjoy it and it’s a great group of people.

AMJ: And it’s fun because it’s a way of bringing people together.  There’s nothing like sitting around the table and having a good dinner together.

CP:  Can you describe the volunteer group a little more?

PJ: This year, the group was half Chilean, half North American.  Th is blend is interesting because both the Chileans and the gringos get to learn about each other’s culture, slang, interests.  The program’s a rich cultural experience, too.

CP: Have you seen any changes in the program since last year?

PJ: Substantial improvements—much more organized—

AMJ: I think it’s a couple factors.  Now the program is structured so that volunteers arrive and leave on Fridays, so that new waves of people come in at the same time.  Second, the program now has a Volunteer Team Leader.  We had the pleasure of working with Susan for the past two weeks, who is awesome.   That’s really an improvement.  The third is the reorganization of the volunteer base camp, especially the addition of a big communal tent where people can get together, have a coffee or tea, so that’s been very nice as well.

PJ: Communication as well has improved, between the white board inside the tent, which records plans for the upcoming weeks, the orientation meeting, and presentations for volunteers about the project, which really gives the overall picture of what we’re doing here to help form this park.

CP: What brought you back to the program for a second year?

AMJ: We really believe that helping to create a new national park is a once in a lifetime opportunity; that was a huge incentive for us to participate and to return.

CP: Thanks so much for your time, and safe travels!


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Species Profile: Chilean Flamingo


Flamingos might seem out of place in Patagonia, far from the tropical lands where we usually imagine them, but Chilean flamingos (Phoenicopterus chilensis) are regular inhabitants of numerous lakes and lagoons in the Chacabuco Valley.  A substantial population of flamingos feeds at Laguna Seca, a shallow lake about 10 km east of the main park headquarters on the main international road. Migratory birds, these flamingos spend the spring and summer months here, usually from October to the end of March.  The Chacabuco Valley serves as a corridor to the Argentine steppe to the east, where the birds head for the winter in search of the milder Atlantic climate.

Chilean flamingos, pinker than the slightly larger Greater Flamingo but paler than the Caribbean Flamingo, are distributed in temperate South America from Peru south, inhabiting alkaline or brackish shallow lakes. Standing four to five feet high, Chilean flamingos are large birds that weigh thirteen to sixteen pounds.  Gregarious, social birds, they live in flocks of up to several thousand individuals, breeding, feeding, and flying all together. Flamingos can live for up to 50 years in the wild.

Other species of flamingos live in the Caribbean, Africa, southern Europe, and south to southwest Asia. The name “flamingo” comes from the Portuguese word for “flame,” appropriate for the bird’s bright color.

Like other species of flamingos, the Chilean Flamingo lays a single egg on a mud mound.  The chick hatches after about a month.  Both parents nurse it with high-fat “milk” produced in glands lining the upper digestive tract.  The chicks feed on this milk for two months until their bills are developed enough to filter feed.  Young flamingos hatch with grey plumage, becoming pink as they eat animal and plant plankton, which contain carotenoid proteins that supply the pink coloration as digested. Vibrant coloration indicates good health and nutrition, making a bright pink flamingo a more desirable mate.  To feed, flamingos sweep their bill upside down through shallow water, filtering plankton through their finely toothed beak by pumping their tongue up and down rapidly.

As frequently depicted on lawn ornaments, flamingos often stand on one leg, keeping the other tucked beneath the body.  Standing in this manner helps them to conserve heat, since they spend many hours a day wading and feeding in cold water.  They typically stand facing into the wind or rain so that the water does not get into their feathers.

Although flamingos have few natural predators, Chilean flamingos are listed as Near Threatened, likely to become endangered.  Humans represent their main threats, either from hunting, habitat loss, or changes in the water systems on which they depend.  They are vulnerable because their large flocks depend on relatively few lagoon and wetland areas, which are fragile and often converted to human uses.  Here in the Chacabuco Valley, we’re fortunate to have a fairly large and stable population that can rest assured of the continued wildness of its home turf.

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Glaciers, bushwacking, and high rivers: a bit of park exploration

A different face of the future park

Mid-summer, it’s time for a big walk: to exchange construction sites and computers for a bigger, more tangible perspective on what it is we’re working on here.  Conceptualizing 650,000 acres stymies most of us.  We talk about Yosemite as a parallel for this project, in terms of both scale and vision, but other comparisons also help visualize its scope.  650,000 acres is about the size of the state of Rhode Island and larger the combined areas of the New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Patagonia National Park will be 110% the size of Chile’s Torres del Paine.  It would be among the ten biggest parks in the contiguous US, and is over twice the size of both Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Parks.

Enough trivia fodder.  Better than searching for paper comparisons is experiencing the vast-and uncommon-potential for exploring the unknown, still within the future park’s boundaries.  So last week, Ana Brown, Volunteer Program Leader this season, and I (Nadine) pulled out the maps to scheme up a trip in the mountains of Jeinimeni National Reserve, the northern part of the future park.

Our route. Main park headquarters are off the map, to the SW.

Starting off up old mining road running from Lago General Carrera to a high plateau in the Furioso sector saved us a long uphill bushwack.  As we unloaded from the truck, two things caught our attention: the scope of the mining operation and the wind.  Mandalay, an Australian mining company, built innumerable roads cutting across this area, which lies just outside of Conservacion Patagonica’s property, simply to assess its potential mineral wealth.  Despite never finding much of anything worth mining, they made a mess and still have employees on site overseeing the problem-ridden shutdown of the operation.  The orange-jumpsuited man we saw invited us into his metal container office, where he expressed his surprise at two girls out hiking and we stole a peek at the various plans posted on the wall.

Then we stepped outside, put on our packs, and proceeded to get blown over.  Literally. The ripping wind brought clouds in and out; when they momentarily cleared, familiar landmarks—Tamango/ Tamanguito, Lago Gutierrez, Rio Furioso—emerged, at new angles.

Mining camp: impacts just from exploration

View down Furioso Valley, into Chacabuco Valley

We followed the perplexingly interminable mining road for a ways before dropping down off the plateau into the valley to the northwest, Valle Los Hormiguos.  Despite dreading forest-walking from high up, we found the going easy below tree line.  A livestock trail ran alongside the river; we had no idea who would keep cows up here, but saw plenty of fresh evidence of both cattle and horses.  When we came to the top of the valley, we crossed over into Valle Los Maitenes, where a bigger, brown river runs through lenga, coigue and nirre forests.  The composition and character of the forests changed often, from stretches of enormous old trees with little understory around them to patches of dense, shrubby trees with no room to walk in between.

Several kilometers up the valley, we encountered our first problem.  The river became a series of tall waterfalls, twisting back into a canyon, with steep rocky hillsides on either side.  We cursed the large contour intervals on our map, and set about crawling and clawing our way up and around.  Rain decided to make our lives more pleasant.  We spent the night in a flattish spot in the soggy, rocky forest, and the next morning continued the slog until we saw a wonderfully wide, gravelly riverbed stretch up to the high pass into Valle Hermoso.

We still had no idea if we could make it over this pass: as far as we could find out, no one had come this way before.  So we picked our way up scree slopes and across swollen rivers, looking up at the steep peaks and big blue glaciers with some trepidation. But good old Google Earth had served us well, and we trotted up and over the pass no problem, only photo breaks slowing us down.

Looking down to Valle Hermoso, with Lago Verde in the distance

Lunching by the shores of the lake at the top of Valle Hermoso, we marveled at the impressively different face of the future park we were looking at.  After spending months in the Chacabuco Valley, we can deliver lengthy dispositions on the fine points of guanaco mating behavior or the removal of pimpenellas and other sharp grassland plants from one’s socks.  Hikes through the lush southern beech forests, with their marvelous array of delicate ground cover plants, give a taste of what this much-discussed “diversity of ecosystems” means.  But walking a continuous loop through several forest types, grasslands, bogs, rivers, and high, glaciated mountain areas, brought this concept to life in a deeper way.   In a fairly short span of time, we watched the plant and animal life, topography, and climate undergo numerous transformations.  Watching waterfalls drain from glaciers, pouring over polished granite, felt worlds away from grassy-guanaco-land.

From there, we cruised down the appropriately-named Valle Hermoso, a wide gravel valley leading towards Lago Jeinimeni. Several kilometers down, we took a right to come over a low pass into Aviles Valley, the long north-south valley that would take us back to the Chacabuco Valley.  Once we found a horse trail running down the east side of the valley, we made quick progress, crossing between the open forests and gravelly riverbed.  That night, we slept on a grassy plateau above the river, and ate dinner as the almost-full moon rose.

Heading back home: dropping down into the Chacabuco Valley

The next morning, we found a good spot to cross the river, still high from all the rain, and continued down through the canyony sections of Aviles onto the flat grassy plateaus, and then down to the Chacabuco Valley.  All in all, a fantastic taste of what this park will have to offer that makes us psyched to get out and see more.

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First Campground Now Underway

As happens every week or so around here, we had an asado the other night.  No particular occasion marked, but plenty of good food eaten—salads and cakes as well as the ubiquitous lamb.  Summer holiday season means that many of our extended families are passing through, for a day or two or ten, so the crowd included some new faces.

Walking to dinner

This season, we’ve had asados up at Camping Los Alamos, two or so kilometers west of the main park headquarters.  This pleasant meadow, the site of one of the former estancia’s puestos, lies right beneath Cerro Tamanguito. Once the sun begins to set, Cerro Kristine and the other peaks of Jeinimeni light up in unbelievable pinks and oranges.   Already, we’ve had several community gatherings and feasts up there, including a baseball game/ asado combination on New Year’s Eve and a memorably windy mid-January birthday party.

Sunsets like these are a staple of evenings here

This time, we had another treat in store for us.  Construction has begun on the campground; in just a week of work, the team had made impressive progress.  This large, road-accessible campground will offer park visitors bathrooms (including showers), covered cook shelters, tent sites, parking areas, and places for larger groups to gather.

Construction begins!

Last weekend, the building team reviewed the precise siting of the cook shelters, making sure to maximize the view and privacy of each one while minimizing the overall impact of the campground.  They walked the distances from each tent area to the bathrooms, double- and triple-checking that facilities are close enough to assure their use.   Since then, they’ve staked out the perimeters of each structure and laid the groundwork for construction.

Members of the building team discuss siting with Kris and Doug Tompkins

Landscapers have cut back the thick meadow grasses to leave a clear, flat area for tents.  A crew of trail builders has begun laying out the paths that will link different areas of the campground.  These paths already make walking around the area easier: terrain safe for sandals, not exclusively the land of hiking boots.   Meanwhile, the trail crew is test driving the campground, living up there as they work.

The first stage of a trail to a cook shelter

As excited as a well-prepared asado makes us, that delight pales in comparison to the thrill of seeing real, fast progress towards opening this park to the public.  Completing this campground will enable us to host overnight visitors to the park for the first time.  Right now we have a provisional campground established as a base for the volunteer program, but this area cannot support any more traffic.

Getting to work on a quincho (cook shelter)

The transformation of the Chacabuco Valley is certainly attracting more attention: the main road through the park is busier than ever before, with many tourists stopping in to find out what’s going on.  Sitting on the stoop of the future restaurant after dinner today, we watched a dozen cars, pick-up trucks, and vans full of travelers drive up the road and stop.  Some had kayaks, some had bikes, some had odd mattress contraptions tied on top.  Most took a photo of the guanacos grazing or turned around to have another look at the buildings underway.

Next summer, we’re looking forwards to welcoming these visitors—and many more—to spend more time with us, and learn the story of the Chacabuco Valley.  Meanwhile, we’re enjoying watching a campground appear at an old puesto, in a field of regenerating grasses and returning wild creatures.  We’ll take that as cause for celebration.

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Over 100 Hikers Complete the Ruta de Huemul

Last weekend (January 28 – 29), Conservacion Patagonica co-sponsored the 6th Annual Ruta de Huemul, a two-day community hike from the headquarters of the future Patagonia National Park to the town of Cochrane.   The event, free of charge and open to people of all ages from Cochrane and beyond, engages participants in conservation and the fate of the endangered huemul deer.  Hiking through lush southern beech forests, hikers have a chance to spy huemuls and other animals, from woodpeckers to guanacos.  The overnight trip introduced many participants to the beauty and camaraderie of backcountry camping.

We began the Ruta de Huemul hike six years ago, with a group of forty walking from the town of Cochrane to the Chacabuco Valley.  Over the years, this community celebration has morphed and grown. Always well attended, the hike drew the largest crowd yet, an enthusiastic bunch that included three babies, several pregnant women, a troupe of boy scouts, and numerous grandparents. More children and teenagers completed the hike than ever before, making for a lively celebration. Conservacion Patagonica President Kris Tompkins found this year’s hike “the best ever—better organized, more participants, great spirit.”  When asked about their experience, almost all hikers commented on the beauty of the route, their sense of accomplishment, and the privilege of sharing this experience with so many others.

Early on Friday morning, about a dozen park guards from Conservacion Patagonica and Tamango National Reserve gathered at our office to finalize plans for the hike.  Most of them had ridden the route earlier in the week to check the condition of the trail and mark the route.  At 9 am, the buses from Cochrane began to arrive, bringing all participants (and their backpacks) to the starting point of the hike.   Everyone got an official “Ruta de Huemul” badge and snacks for the day.  We split into eight groups of approximately fifteen—a good size to allow people to stay with friends or family members while still getting to know new group mates.  With park guards as guides, the groups remained spread apart but in contact throughout the day.

After departing from the park headquarters, the route climbs gradually over the Tamango/ Tamanguito hills. Although the first section contained the most severe uphill—a bit intimidating for those who had never hiked before—views of the valley’s verdant wetlands and the Chacabuco River below provided motivation to continue climbing.  The first few hours of the hike pass through the grassland steppes that formerly held thousands of sheep.  Hikers stopped often to admire the herds of guanacos that have taken the sheep’s place, running up and down the hillsides, grazing, and keeping watch on high rocks.  Some even wondered, “Shouldn’t we call this the ‘Ruta de GUANACO?’”

By mid-morning, we’d entered the forest.  Plants like murtilla and zarzaparilla offered up berries for snacks. Park guards provided interesting tidbits about the native flora and fauna we passed. We stopped often to take photos (almost everyone had brought a camera to record their accomplishments), exchange impressions of the hike, and bird watch.

Around lunchtime, the horses made a grand entrance.  Several Conservacion Patagonica park guards trotted by, leading the pack horses carrying provisions for our dinner and breakfast.   By the time we arrived in camp later in the afternoon, they had set up a kitchen area, started a fire, and begun dinner preparations for all the hungry hikers.

Our campsite for the evening, a refugio in Tamango National Reserve, looked out over bright blue Lago Cochrane.  The large grassy field provided plenty of tents for the dozens of tents that sprung up soon after our arrival in camp.  While many groups of friends hung out in tents, playing cards, singing, or relaxing, others began gathering by the fire, eagerly awaiting dinner.  Right on cue, a huemul appeared in the forest nearby, attracting a crowd of eager (but respectful) observers, psyched to see the totem animal of the celebration.

Meat was the theme of the night—first churripan, then more meat.  Serving food by hiking group allowed the cooks to maintain some order around the busy kitchen area.   Kris Tompkins served as Bread Master, handing out rolls to the line of diners.  Luigi Solis, in charge of trails for Conservacion Patagonica, manned the meat cooking, with help from park guard Eduardo Castro.   After numerous helpings of meat, rounds of mate and conversations with friends new and old, the tired hikers headed to their tents.

The next morning, more meat mobilized the crowd for the final kilometers of walking towards the town of Cochrane.  The trail meanders along the shore of Lago Cochrane until the lake drains into even more shockingly blue Rio Cochrane.  After a few hours of mostly downhill walking, the groups assembled in a large field and hunted for wild strawberries while waiting for all hikers to finish.  The regional head of CONAF congratulated all participants while emphasizing the importance of this hike in raising awareness of the plight of the huemul.  Kris Tompkins thanked those who organized the event, and all who came to the future Patagonia National Park to walk its trails and demonstrate their interest in protecting nature.

The crowd marched up the hill to the closing asado, where over a hundred friends from the future park and town of Cochrane greeted participants with food, traditional music and dancing, commemorative postcards, and plenty of good cheer.  For many, the Ruta de Huemul marked the longest hike they’d ever taken: some participants commented that they had never hiked before.  Others, seasoned outdoorsmen, found the experience relaxing and exciting, an opportunity to share what they love with newcomers.  All of us at Conservacion Patagonica felt delighted to host an event that physically links the park to our closest neighboring town, a symbol of our shared commitment to the wild future of this region.

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