Saturday, January 31, 2009

Río Grande - the estancias

January 31, 2009
The city of Río Grande is about the same size as Ushuaia, but there the similarity ends. Ushuaia is set against the gorgeous Andes range, whereas Río Grande is about half way up the island and set right on the Atlantic coast. My hotel is one block from the ocean. All one sees around this area is steppe, softly rolling and grass-covered, with no mountains or forest. Because of this, it is ideal for producing high quality sheep in great numbers.

Numerous shallow lakes dot the landscape, though many are dry because of little rain. We searched for miles to find the flamingos who inhabit the lake shores. Though we saw several condors overhead and other typical birds of the region, not a flamingo was to be found. Here are some that Fernando captured with his camera on a previous trip.

Our first stop was 12.5 miles inland at the María Behety estancia. Originally the ranch consisted of 475,000 acres and was like a small village with quarters for 100-150 men. It has since been divided into four properties and now has only (!) 154,000 acres. The Corriedale sheep produced here are some of the most important of the race in the world. The ranch was named for the wife of José Menendez who founded the estancia in 1898. It has the largest shearing shed in the world, which we visited. It helps to travel with someone like Fernando who is known to many of the workers, so we had easy access to the property and the shearing shed.

Next, we visited the Los Flamencos estancia, once part of the María Behety, and located several miles to the east. Here is their shearing shed which was also in use today.

Segunda Argentina was the name of this estancia founded in 1902 by José Menendez.

This is the heavy machinery imported from England in the last century to form the wool bales.

We returned to town for lunch, then paid a visit to the Salesian Museum. The order came to Tierra del Fuego in 1894 to preach to the indigenous Yahgan and Ona people. Because of the recent gold strike and the importation of sheep, the people were being exterminated at an alarming rate. The padres brought them to a mission in Río Grande and another on Dawson Island in the Chilean fjord country. They were taught to pray, wear clothes, and learn European ways. They quickly died out from disease and a broken heart. This small museum and the larger one in Punta Arenas preserve many of the artifacts of these people. Here is a modern representation of a typical Ona house or choza.

Tomorrow: my bus leaves early for a 4-hour trip to Porvenir across the border in Chile. From there I take a ferry to Punta Arenas.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A word on Fuegian people

January 30, 2009
After two weeks in this lovely area, my memories are of people who continually impress me with their generosity and love of life. Fuegian is anything from Tierra del Fuego. For example, the delicious fuegian lamb has a flavor all its own due to what the animals have to graze. It is the signature product of the island since the English brought animals from The Falkland (Malvinas) Islands in the late 19th century. The fuegian people of today are mostly from beyond the island, from Chile and from the north of Argentina, people who search for opportunities to work and raise their families here. Many work on the sheep ranches. In Ushuaia many are involved in the tourist industry. In Río Grande, further north, they come to work in the petroleum industry or in the manufacture of automobiles or electronic devices. They can make double a typical salary in Buenos Aires.

Across the border in Chilean Tierra del Fuego most people are working the large sheep ranches. I will only pass through there in a couple of days on my way to Punta Arenas. However, earlier this month I sailed through the impressive channels and fjords of Chile which are home only to elephant seals and seabirds.

Of course my experience has been heightened by having good language skills. Tour guides do their work with an enthusiasm and love of the land that comes through in their talks. Restaurant waiters excuse my occasional faux pas with a smile. Hotel workers have been very accomodating. But my favorite fueguinos have been the taxi and bus drivers. Yesterday, a fellow asked if I was German. Even my negative reply gave him the opportunity to tell me about his grandfather who, at age 14, avoided the military draft in the World War II when Germany was sending youngsters to the front. Now his grandson is a happy taxi driver in Tolhuin, a small village dedicated to forest products.

A small bus with 14 passengers took me the 90 minutes to Lake Fagnano. The driver indicated I should sit up front with him and the young Argentine woman. We engaged in enthusiastic conversation about a thousand things. I worried that he didn't always watch the road. When we said goodbye, I expected to shake hands, but he gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek before the bus continued on north.

This morning I said farewell to Sonia and Jorge, the wonderful people at Lake Fagnano who provide horse outings, including the famous Bridges Trail crossing. A Chilean man across the road has cabañas for rent on the lake. I was sent there to ask if I could buy his CD of folkloric music. There are no more, but after a short conversation, I now have the CD cover and his book of song lyrics which he autographed for me. He will send me his next CD and book which are almost ready. I felt that I shouldn't offer payment, as this was obviously an act of friendship. I will of course send him some things of mine. This is a man I knew for 15 minutes and we already have commitments. We clicked even further when we discovered we have both been radio announcers as well as performing musicians.

Today, in Río Grande, a taxista took me to the bus station to buy a ticket. He has been here less than five years, and was a taxi driver in Buenos Aires since 1966, where he routinely carried a revolver in his pocket. Arriving here with thousands of others, he is very content. Many locals leave for the summer weeks to take a vacation. He says he is here on vacation, or so it seems compared to his life in the capital city. He took his visiting grandson on a week-long trip to Lake Fagnano and Ushuaia where they did many of the usual tourist outings.

Fernando has gone way beyond the limits of generosity with his photos of our horse trip on the Bridges Trail. He is an amateur photographer with professional standards. He presented me with several large prints of his beautiful work, and also gave us his new DVD of our trip with music. Then he gave me a ride to his town of Río Grande where I had made hotel reservations for a couple of days. Tomorrow we will visit one of the largest estancias in the area and also the local Salesian museum.

The Goodall family invited me to their table at Harberton Estancia on the Beagle Channel. Juan Pablo is the enthusiastic university student who took me under his wing at the estancia and gave me a private tour and helped with all arrangements.

These are just the most vivid recollections. There have been many more moments of interaction with the locals that have impressed me with their gentileza, or generosity. Perhaps I will have to return to do some outings that I missed. Besides, I ate some wild calafate berries the other day on the Beagle Channel. "He who eats calafate will return."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rowing in the Beagle Channel

January 27, 2009 (Mozart's birthday)
Today I joined a group of about 14 tourists for a day tour to the Beagle Channel and Harberton Estancia. We left early from Ushuaia in the Yellow Submarine (bus) for the 90-minute dusty ride to Harberton. Arriving at the Lashifashaj River on the historic estancia property, we unloaded two large rubber canoes and donned wet weather gear and life jackets. We rowed down river to where it meets the Beagle Channel. Here we carried and towed the canoes to the nearby bay and headed into the Channel. Marine birds were numerous, especially the black and white imperial cormorant, some white terns and flightless steamer ducks. Unfortunately my camera was packed in a dry pocket. I was busy rowing into the wind.

Just as the wind became stronger, we landed on the Harberton Peninsula. A large zodiak picked us up and delivered us to the estancia where we had a delicious lunch on the hill above. After lunch we boarded the zodiak once again to visit a couple of islands in the channel.

Martillo Island hosts a large colony of Magellanic penguins and a small colony of gentoo penguins. We were careful to keep a distance, both to protect the birds and to avoid their curious and dangerous beaks. What is the fascination we humans have for these gentle animals?

This nest contains an adult and two almost full sized chicks.

After spending about an hour in the penguin colony we boarded the zodiac for a short ride to Gable Island. This is where the Harberton ranch used to deliver cattle and sheep to graze. It provided a natural way to prevent the animals from roaming. The name Gable was given because there are cliffs which resemble gables on a house.

We took a hike around the island, which consists of many acres. It is a model of the forest on the mainland, and our guide Freddy had a good understanding of the flora. This parasite is found in the magellanic forest throughout the southern continent. It reminds us of mistletoe and comes in a variety of colors from brown to green and yellow.

We soon met our bus on the mainland and returned on the dusty road to Ushuaia. The next day I took a bus north for 90 minutes for a return visit to Lake Fagnano for a bit of a rest from the adventure of the past week. Today (Jan. 29) I walked almost 5 miles to the village of Tolhuin to visit the famous La Unión bakery for treats. The rain discouraged this tired walker and I returned to my lodge on the lake by taxi. Throughout the day the sky changed constantly, from no clouds and bright sun to torrential rains. The sky in Tierra del Fuego is as dramatic as any of the sights on land or sea.

Tomorrow I have a ride north to Río Grande. My visit to Argentine Tierra del Fuego is almost over and I return to Chile and Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan in a few days.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Estancia Harberton

January 24-25, 2009
It was exciting to arrive at this historic place by horse over the mountain pass.

According to Natalie Goodall's book, "the first estancia on Tierra del Fuego, Harberton was founded in 1886, by Thomas Bridges and his sons. The land was a gift from President Julio A. Roca and the Argentine Congress to Bridges for his service to the country - thirty years years of work among the Yahgans, rescue of numerous shipwrecks, and help given to the new Subprefecture in Ushuaia. Originally called Down East, the name was changed to Harberton for the town from which Bridges' wife, Mary Varder, had come. Now property of the several grandchildren of Thomas Bridges, the estancia is managed by a great-grandson. Located 40 miles east of Ushuaia, Harberton also claims the oldest house on the Island... The coastline is very broken and undulating, with four large bays... The houses are situated on a long narrow peninsula." (Tierra del Fuego by Natalie Goodall, 1979.) The gravel road to the estancia was made in 1978. Tourists arrive by car and bus and many come from Ushuaia on the daily catamaran. People, not livestock, are the main source of income for the ranch.

Below is the main house, said to be the first house on Tierra del Fuego. I was lodged in a refurbished workers' house but was invited to take my meals with the family here. The house is filled with original furnishings. There was a definite sense of connection to the past. English was the main language, but it was always mixed with Spanish, especially with the younger generations who were at the ranch for the summer weeks. Several university students serve as guides and take turns at the family table. Mealtimes provided a unique experience to share stories and experiences.

Below are farm buildings which are maintained to exhibit original machinery and boats.

Natalie Goodall is a distinguished scholar and scientist. She has created a museum on the property which exhibits Yahgan artifacts and examples of the flora and fauna, including skeletons of marine mammals and birds. All the exhibits were discovered on the estancia. Her husband, Tommy Goodall, is a great-grandson of Thomas Bridges. They were gracious and fascinating hosts. It was a pleasure to share their table.

After breakfast I toured the museum until Natalie called for me in the farm jeep to visit the archeology digs on the ranch. Ernesto Piana is the Argentine expert on Yahgan history. His students were enthusiastic and dedicated to their work, which can only be described as looking for needles in a haystack. They are looking for any signs of any artifacts in the middens that are so common in the area.

As we were talking with Dr. Piana, a student found a stone with chipping marks. Here she is taking measurements.

A second dig was further east, at Cambeceres, where Lucas Bridges had built a structure to stay in while caring for livestock.

From the main house looking southeast to the Beagle Channel through Harberton Bay. Cruise ships and tankers regularly pass by. They are only visible for a few minutes before they are hidden by the mountains. This is a magical place.

Paso Bridges - Day 3

January 24, 2009
It was a beautiful night last night, with a sky full of bright austral stars everywhere. There is no hurry today, no mountains to cross. Breakfast was leftover lamb. The gaucho method is to slice off a hunk of meat and eat it cold in a bread roll. No muss, no fuss, easy to eat and sticks to your ribs. Nearby is the site where Lucas Bridges and the Ona built a corral to hold the sheep before the treacherous bridge crossing to our side of the Varela River. Huge logs cut from the forest are still in place, though the bridge is mostly deteriorated. Again, one marvels at the ability to create such a structure out of the forest that could provide a way for thousands of sheep to cross the river. And this was in 1902!

It was a beautiful ride down the mountain. Here we encounter the last castorera, where the beaver have created a swamp that is not always passable. Jorge carefully tests the 100-year old logs that the Ona laid here. We dismount and carefully lead the horses across. I led another horse as my Truco followed behind. At the last minute he changed his mind and headed for the swamp. I called out to him and he changed course toward us. What a team we make!

After crossing over the seven hills we arrive at a small bay on the Harberton Estancia. The mountains of Chilean Navarino Island are in the distance.

The estancia is on the Beagle Channel, and is noted for a very irregular coastline. The Yahgan people were attracted to this area because of this. It provided for abundant shellfish and easy access to the sea in their canoes when they hunted sea lions. Within the hour I will say adios to Fernando and Jorge, the only people I have seen in the past three days. We will arrive at the estancia soon.

Next: overnight at the first ranch on Tierra del Fuego and meals in the first house on the island.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bridges Trail: Day 2

January 23, 2009
It was very cold last night, but with the right clothes and sleeping bag I slept quite well. For breakfast we ate leftover carbonada (meat and veggie stew) that was even more delicious warmed up than it was last night. We packed up our things and loaded the horses for the next leg, a ride over the Andes mountain range. By the time the Cordillera de los Andes reaches Tierra del Fuego, the mountains are not very high above sea level, with the tree line around 2,000 feet. After slicing the continent from north to south, the mountains take a turn on Tierra del Fuego from west to east. I still can't believe we rode up this steep and rocky trail. My horse, Truco, worked hard this day, choosing each step carefully. I let him make most of the choices. Occasionally he ventured too close to the cliff when it was wet, and I had to guide him closer to the mountain.

But we still have much to climb. Here is Jorge as we rest the horses for the next pull up the mountain.

Yes, this is the trail. The shale and scree were not quite as slippery as one might expect.

Almost there. The views are breathtaking. This is looking back to the northwest, with a view of Lake Fagnano where we began yesterday.

And this is the view south to the Beagle Channel. We are crossing the Andes here. Chilean Navarino Island is now visible across the Beagle Channel.

We stopped for lunch at "Rancho" Lata on the River Lata. The ranch is a simple gaucho shack on the edge of yet another castorera, beaver land. The marks are fresh, indicating recent activity. I don't care if I ever see another castorera.

We made camp on the Varela River. This is a choza that Jorge built previously. He and Fernando slept inside. I was in my tent nearby.

We had been carrying this half lamb carcass on the trail for 36 hours. It was time to heat the parrilla and cook the cordero fueguina. This is the most typical meal on the trail.

The Bridges Trail - Paso Bridges: Day 1

January 22, 2009

It was my good fortune to join Jorge Bruzzo of Sendero Indio and Fernando for a 3-day horse trip along the southern portion of the historic Bridges Trail. The Bridges family was the first from Europe to settle in Tierra del Fuego. Thomas Bridges created the Anglican mission in Ushuaia in 1871. In 1886 he was granted 20,000 hectares by the Argentine president Roca to create the first ranch on the island, Estancia Harberton, 85 kms east of Ushuaia, in a protected bay along the Beagle Channel. There they discovered the indigenous Yahgan people, rather small in stature, living along the coastal areas, who hunted sea lion in canoes. The rest of their diet consisted of fish and shellfish and marine birds such as cormorant and penguin. The Ona, a race of larger people who roamed the plains and forests of Tierra del Fuego, hunted the guanaco, a relative of the camel, their main source of food and skins. Both groups had adapted to conditions on the island and lived a nomadic life for the past 7,000 years. Both were living in the area of Harberton when the Bridges family arrived.

As Europeans began coming to Tierra del Fuego in the late 19th century, hunting for gold and creating massive sheep ranches, the Ona people became an obstacle to this expansion. They were hunted and killed, and the word extermination is not too strong to describe their plight. Here is the well-known photo of the Romanian Julio Popper posing proudly with his rifle and a murdered man.

Many Ona found refuge at Harberton, and were protected by the Bridges family as they became farm workers on the estancia. The Harberton lands were not ideal for raising large number of livestock because of the thick forests that were difficult to clear. However the Ona explained that the land further north was open and supported large numbers of guanaco and might provide excellent pasture for sheep.

Lucas Bridges was among the first generation to be born on the island. His friends and fellow ranch workers were the Ona, and he learned to speak that language. Present members of the family tell me that the children all spoke Ona, Yámana, Spanish and English, and that the indigenous people learned to communicate in Spanish and English. Years earlier, Thomas Bridges had created a Yámana-English dictionary that is still available today.

A second estancia, Viamonte, was created near Río Grande, on the Atlantic coast further north. A road over the mountains was built in 1902 by Lucas, with his brothers Despard and Will and the Ona, felling trees along the way, creating a wide passage through the forest. Logs were laid horizontally in the wet turba, the red, spongy peat bog (Sphagnum magellanicum) and across the swamp areas. They took 2,300 sheep, cattle and horses from Harberton to Viamonte. It was later repaired in 1916 by prisoners from Ushuaia. Today the trail is known as Paso Bridges. It was abandoned in the 1960s, and has only recently been rediscovered and made passable.

The trail has been obliterated in the river valleys by the introduction of the beaver in 1946. It is said that four pair were brought to Tierra del Fuego to begin a fur industry. Unfortunately, the climate here is not conducive to good fur production. The pelts are of inferior quality. Meanwhile, those four pair have multiplied into millions, and have spread to neighboring islands in the south and to continental Patagonia in the north. There is no known method of eradication, and they are literally destroying the native forest. The beaver, along with introduced mink, are also destroying the native birds which nest on the ground by eating their eggs. Upland geese populations in the area have been considerably reduced.

As we explored this beaver house, my right leg suddenly broke through and I was up to my thigh in the living room of a castor canadiense. Jorge pulled me free.

Next: Day 2

Much of this information is taken from the book Tierra del Fuego by Rae Natalie Prosser Goodall, facsimile edition published 1979 by Ediciones Shanamaüm.