Feb. 16, 2011

Chilean Fjords

by Milbry Polk

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

I have just finished a most wonderful excursion through a wilder part of the world, nearly devoid of human activity; a place of great beauty and one of titanic geologic force. Along with my daughter Bree, and friends and fellow lecturers, Catherine Hickson, a volcanologist and thermal energy explorer, and Constanza Ceruti, a high altitude archaeologist in the Andes, I cruised through the wilderness of the Chilean fjords in splendor on board The World. We left Ushuaia, Argentina in a hail of rainbows, forged through storms, and sailed across glistening still waters, swept past towering volcanoes, and got up close to enormous glaciers for two weeks, until we reached Valparaiso, Chile.

The Chilean fjord region was shaped by the clashing of tectonic plates that caused an enormous up-thrust of the earth's crust. The Andes mountain chain is a result of this clash. This region of Chile is part of the Ring of Fire, a loop of volcanoes that mark plate boundaries, a visual indicator of the changing dynamics of our planet. Here, many of the volcanoes are covered in glaciers, which pour down into the valleys and move towards the sea. The glaciers relentlessly grind up the bedrock of the mountains, carving their signature u-shapes through the mountains. The rivers that pour off the ice melt carve a distinctive V shape. The resulting Fjords, which are found in several parts of the world, including Norway and Tasmania, are long narrow water filled valleys with steep sides, noted for their glacial activity.

From Ushuaia we sailed through the Beagle Channel, named for the ship made famous by its passenger, the naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin sailed aboard the Beagle it when he visited South America, an experience that resulted in his ground breaking opus, The Origin of the Species.

We left the southerly glaciers and traversed the Magellan Strait, threading our way through the islands of the fjord region. The ship squeezed through some rather tight passageways -- at times the ship was right next to the ice of Skua, Pio XI, and Europa Glaciers. On one zodiac trip to the glacier, a storm came up and the swift currents moved the ice right against the ship, barring our way back on board. Some very clever zodiac driving eventually got us back.

Primeval forests blanket the very steep mountains that cascade into the water. There is little or no sign of animal life on land. The beavers of southern Patagonia have not made their way up here. So, we searched for whales and, while the few we spotted were too far away to be captured by my camera, it was wonderful to see them. This is a beautiful, if lonely, stretch of the world.

The landscape began to change as we sailed up the Aisen fjord to the little port of Chacabuco. The high glaciers were no longer visible. Volcanoes, though, still towered over the landscape. Here we saw the first sign of humans in over a week.

In 1991, the volcano known as Mount Hudson explosively erupted, resulting widespread melting of glacial ice and earthquakes that caused massive landslides. It was just after the explosion of Pinatubo in the Philippines, and due to the massive amount of aerosols and sulfur dioxide gas ejected into the atmosphere by these two volcanoes, there was worldwide cooling. Mount Hudson’s eruption also caused the largest recorded depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic. We saw whole sides of mountains still marked by landslides.

On an excursion to visit one of the National Forests that dot the region, we hiked around a small lake and could see trout swimming in the water, which reminded me that this region is a favorite of sport fishermen. One day we kayaked up a glacial stream. Lots of birds were in the trees just overhead and a curious sea lion followed us. However, since he was probably in there to raid the fish farms that dot the banks, he soon disappeared. Being right on the water was glorious!

We sailed on towards the port city of Puerto Montt and its spectacular Lake region. This is also home to many of Chile’s wineries and to the explosive imported salmon farming business making Puerto Montt the salmon capitol of the world. Two volcanoes dominate the skyline of the surrounding area, Orsono and Calbuco.

Puerto Montt was first settled in the 1850’s by Germans who were invited by the then President, Manuel Montt. They were told they could have the land if they cleared it. They took the invitation to heart and cut down everything. Today the stumps of the enormous trees they felled -- Araucaria araucana and Fitzroyawhich are now on the endangered species list -- litter the countryside. Wedged between the Andes and the Pacific, this is the home of the one of few temperate rain forests in the world. A few individuals like the family of Silvio Rossi are trying to preserve what is left of the virgin forest. The forests are under siege as the trees are highly valued for their wood, and the forests face threats from fire, and encroachment by agriculture and cattle grazing. The forests are home to the elusive puma, several kinds of wild cat, numerous birds, and pudu, which are the world’s smallest deer. The Rossi’s have a rehabilitation center where wounded wild animals can recover. They estimate about nine puma live in their forest.

From Puerto Montt, we rolled up the Humboldt Current to Valparaiso, the largest port in Chile. We made a brief stop in Concepcion, home of a violent 8.8 magnitude earthquake, which struck on February 27, 2010. Geologists discovered that the city suffered about 10 feet of displacement. Luckily, the tsunami following the quake did not greatly impact the city. Yet, some damage is still evident. It is a tectonically active region and has suffered several strong earthquakes in the recent past.

This region, the Lake District, is home of Mapuche or Araucanian peoples. At one time, the Inca had tried to extend their Empire, based in Peru, into Chile. But they were met by fierce resistance from the Mapuche so they only reached as far as Central Chile. The arrival of the Spaniards in Chile in 1540 -- and Pedro de Valdivia’s founding the capital city of Santiago -- began the slow decline of the Mapuche power. But Mapuche descendants live on in Chile and Argentina, and words of their language pepper Chilean Spanish.

Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is charming for the brightly colored homes -- many of which are constructed out of shipping containers -- that dot the steep hillsides. Funiculars, which rumble at alarming speeds, carry people up and down the slopes. Alison Silveira, editor of the Santiago Times (Chile’s first online English newspaper) and a great friend of Bree’s from Barnard College, met us there to guide us around the town.

We spent the last night on The World and prepared to head back to Puerto Montt and the volcano Osorno.

About Milbry Polk

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