Jan. 25, 2011

Exploring Usuaia

by Milbry Polk

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

January 21, Beagle Channel

I am writing from Ushuaia, Argentina, the “End of the Earth,” where I am staying in a hotel perched high on the mountain that gives me a commanding view of the port and the Beagle Channel. Snow-covered mountains, the Patagonian Andes, cascade into the sea around us. Small islands dot the distance in either direction. South lies Antarctica.

The Beagle Channel is a strait separating islands in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It was named in honor of the ship, The Beagle, commanded by Captain Robert Fitzroy, who arrived in 1833. He found that the area was populated by Selk’nam, also known as the Ono, who had arrived in the area some 10,000 years ago. By the early 1900’s, nearly all the Ono had died as they were wiped out both by disease and warfare with the Europeans. There is a lovely tiny museum in town, Museo Yamana, that encapsulates the little that is known of these hardy people who lived for millenia in a remote part of the world.

I was surprised at the extent of the forests that blanket the area. It is very different from the dry moonscape we flew over from El Calefante to arrive here. Although forests march up the hillsides to the ice and snow there are surprisingly few land animals. With one exception.

Worried that Chile might seize Tierra del Fuego, which was then sparsely populated, in 1882 a penal colony was established in Ushuaia built on the lines of British penal colony in Tasmania. It was thought a good place for such a project as there was virtually nowhere to escape to, and the manpower could be put to good use building a town and a railroad. The prison is now a museum called Museo del Fin del Mundo. They have kept one wing as it was, and it was a grim place indeed. When the prison closed, a new means of keeping the area going economically was thought up. Beavers!

Fifty beavers were imported in the 1940’s and let loose in the hopes of starting a fur industry. Alas the fur was not good enough quality as the winters in Argentina -- unlike Canada -- were not frigid enough for the beavers to grow the soft fur that made their pelts so prized. Now there are at least 120,000 beavers throughout the region with no end in sight. There are no natural predators for the beavers, so they are busy doing what beavers do -– cutting down trees and building dams. We saw many dams on the several hours of drive through the forested areas west of Ushuaia. There are a few fox and other small animals in the forest, but not in much evidence. Most of the animal life here is in the sea, so Bree and I took to the sea.

Of course the main attraction in the region is the penguins. To see a rookery, Bree and I drove to Harborton, 85 kilometers west of Ushuaia. Harborton is an estancia established by the missionary Thomas Bridges in the mid 1800’s. He compiled the first dictionary of the local Yachan language and his son wrote the famous book The Uttermost Part of the Earth about growing up in Tierra del Fuego. The family still runs the homestead, which is now kept afloat by tourism.

We took a dinghy to Isla Martillo to see the Magellanic penguins. The penguins and their burrows covered the island, including up the hillside into the scrub. The penguins all hovered near their nests where the fledglings were shedding the last of their brown fur in preparation for a life at sea. We saw Gentoo penguins, distinguished by their orange feet; hundreds, if not thousands, of Magellanic penguins; and one King penguin -- a rare sighting in this area. The noise was deafening and the curiosity of the animals charming. The Island is a preserve and the activities of the guests carefully monitored so the animals are not disturbed.

We also boarded a catamaran to go out to several small rocks that dot the Strait which are home to thousands of sea birds and sea lions. It was a lovely, if cold and rainy, ride out. The sea lions barely moved as we approached them. Only a few females roared, but not at us. The enormous males lolled on the rocks surrounded by their harems. They lay in the path of the sun so when it chanced from behind the clouds they were able to absorb the rays. One of the islets was by the Les Eclaires lighthouse a 33 foot high brick tower, built in 1920, that guards the entrance to Ushuaia.

Bree is editing some film of the penguins and sea lions, which we will post shortly.

On to the world!

About Milbry Polk

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