Punta Arenas, Chile -- A transition zone between grassland steppes and the Andes is a forest reserve just above this frontier town. Predominant trees are lenga, or southern beech, Nothofagus pumilo, and the Magellanic coihue, Nothofagus dombeyi. These slow-growing trees have just put out their new leaves, which are small and deeply veined with serrated edges. Attached to the gray bark are all kinds of lichens, which are excellent indicators of clean air. We hike up several kilometers, finding mistletoe and a weird parasitic fungus called Darwin's bread, which grows out from gall-like formations and produces yellow knobs that are the fruiting bodies or mushrooms. Darwin noted that the mushrooms were collected by women and children and eaten uncooked.
The beech trees evolved to grow in a very cold climate, and as the climate changes, they are not reproducing as they did once, but instead putting out root suckers.
There's a small fern that grows on the forest floor called simply small fern, Blechnum Penna-Mariana, as well as a low-growing clumping plant called diddle-dee, Empetrum rubrum, which loves the boggy soils here, and a dwarf form of gunnera, Gunnera magellanica, which is the size of a half dollar.
The higher we climb, the windier it is. Patagonia is famous as the windiest place on earth. Yet, near the top of this hill, a sweet mountain dog appears, asking nothing more than to walk a bit in human company.
|Dog of the Mountains|
From Punta Arenas, we sail to the Strait of Magellan, a tricky place to navigate. Then to Admiralty Fjord,where the Karukinka Natural Park showed off its splendors to hikers: a gray wolf, Andean condors and lovely kelp geese. Unhappily, bronchitis kept me aboard the ship.
As we cruise through this Strait of Magellan, we are surrounded by sharp cliffs and rounded hills with rock that reminds me of the folds of loose skin of sharpei dogs.
They are the tail end of the Andes, sliding into the sea. Squalls, huge waves, and gray skies abound one minute, followed by rainbows and calm. The Cordillera Darwin offers waterfalls and green-black forests, and a sweet, enfolding calm.
A day at sea and into the Strait of Magellan. Oil platforms are a surprise; Commerson's dolphins are a delight. Only 4 1/2 to 5 feet, the dolphins are in everyone's view finders, but rarely in focus because they are so fast. Black and white, they swim close to our zodiacs, teasing us with their breakneck speed.
|A Commerson's dolphin|
Only about 40 people live there now, but at one time some 500 residents -- mostly single men-- worked in Bahia Bustamente harvesting seaweed. The village was founded in 1952 by an Italian, Lorenzo Soriano, who was looking for a source of seaweed for hair gel. With his four sons, Don Lorenzo established the first seaweed village in the world. Four types of seaweed still are harvested, washed, dried and packaged for markets around the world, used in Japan for sushi and in nutritional and medicinal products, though only four men are needed to harvest seaweed today.
The workers' spare quarters are used as storerooms, while some of the larger quarters can be rented by tourists, some containing kitchens, baths and patios.
In addition to his seaweed business, Lorenzo purchased 210,000 acres for sheep ranching and wool production. This estancia serves also as a nature preserve.
Nearby is Malaspina Bay, which has become part of Argentina's first marine national park. Here are sea lions, penguins, seabirds, and a wonderful little duck called a steamer duck. Somehow, steamer ducks ceased flying but learned to use their wings as paddles to scoot through the water. Our expedition is the first to be allowed into the park and we were accompanied in our zodiacs by park rangers, proud to show off their sanctuary.