So I got it in my stupid head that it would be a good idea to do a 3 ½ hour hike in the Tierra del Fuego National Park followed by a 1 ½ hour canoe trip to through the various little tributaries in the park that lead to the Beagle Channel with the tour group Canal Fun. All I can say now, as I nurse my aching shoulders and arms and very tired legs and backside, is what the hell was I thinking?
Anyway, the folks from Canal Fun picked me up at 8:20 a.m. and me and 15 other daft people were transported by mini-bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Now Tierra del Fuego National Park was established by Argentina in 1960 and expanded in 1966. The park is framed by Chile in the west, Lago Fagnano in the north and the Beagle Channel in the south. The park is filled with mountains, both lowlands and highlands, glacier valleys, forests, waterfalls, rivers and lakes. The park is over 160,000 acres and was created by glacier erosion. The park is also filled with many kinds of animals, birds and deciduous and evergreen trees. The park is the southern most park in the world and can experience dramatic weather changes over the course of the day. (I wish I had known this fact before I signed up for the tour.)
Anyway, the drive to the park was lovely as we left the city of Ushuaia behind and drove 12 km to the park, passing outlying residential areas as well as the lowland Andes Mountains framing a local golf course. We each paid the park fee at the entrance and then climbed back on the bus for the short ride to the start of the “Coastal Path”, which is one of many hiking trails in the park. The trail is bounded by the Beagle Channel to the west and trees and lowland mountains to the east. Our guides, Flor and Mauri, would be accompanying us on the hike and paddle.
We started the hike on the water front and immediately took the trail up a short hill that wound around the trees and just above the shoreline. This trail pattern would continue over the next three and a half hours. Now the hike started out in fairly good weather. The temperature was certainly cool, but there was intermittent sunshine that made it feel a little warmer. In addition, Flor kept up a steady if not quick pace. Instead of trying to stay near the front, I took my time as I wanted to capture some of the beautiful scenery. (It seemed odd to me that Flor did not recognize that we also wanted to take pictures or admire the scenery. Instead, it was full speed ahead.)
Anyway, we continued on through the trees and up and over sometimes rocky paths. Now about an hour into the hike, we walked down the trail to the shoreline where we were going to have a coffee, or in my case, tea break. And this is where the fun began. As we continued our hike, I could see a wave of low clouds moving in off the water. By the time were reached the shoreline, the sun was a distant memory and it started to rain. And then the wind kicked up. It made for a rather unpleasant coffee break.
Despite the bad weather, I did enjoy the scenery. In fact, the little grey sandy, pebble beach and rocky landscape (which we would see again and again) reminded me of the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Island. Even the bitter winds coming off the water left me feeling like I was back home.
So after the 15 minute, rather wet, break, we hiked along the beach and then back up into the forest, which protected us quite well from the wind and rain. Eventually, the rain let up and we were back to hiking in decent weather.
Now one thing that was weird about the hike is that we had two couples who insisted on holding hands through the entire hike. And in many spots, the trail was only wide enough for one person to cross. This meant that the hand holders, would hold everyone up as they shlepped along the narrow path much more slowly, but being every careful not to let go of each others’ hands. Come on people, this a a hike, not a motel room. Gesh.
Anyway, as we hiked, Flo explained a little bit about the history of the park and the landscape we were traversing. Apparently for thousands of years, the park was occupied by indigenous nomadic people known as the Yamaná, who lived by hunting. The men hunted sea lions, while the women dove to collect shellfish. Now the interesting factoid about the Yamaná is that they did not wear clothing. Yep, that’s right. These folks were naked even in the dead of winter with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground. It is believed that they received some protection on their skin from the sea lion oil that rubbed off on their skin during kills. They also, apparently believed that the natural oil of their skin was better protection than wet animal fur. Uh sorry, but I have four layers of clothing on and I am, in the immortal words of Dr. Evil, “frickin’ freezing”. Unfortunately, the arrival of western people brought diseases, which wiped out the Yamaná.
The park also has two different types of beech trees, deciduous and evergreen trees. Now these trees aren’t really beech trees, but apparently when westerners arrived they described the trees as beech trees and the name stuck. Flor also picked some small pods from a tree and gave us each a seedto try. She said that it was a form of pepper tree and that for the first minute you taste cinnamon and the next three minutes you taste a biting pepper flavor. Now while I did taste a bit of cinnamon and a slight burning pepper flavor, it was not a dramatic flavor for either taste.
We also saw a weird looking mushroom fungus that had overtaken many of the trees in the forest. It is apparently edible, but has a bitter taste so it is not usually used in cooking.
And of course with the constant winds and massive storms common to this area, we also passed numerous downed trees and and broken branches. In fact, in one spot we passed, it appeared that the entire grove of trees had collapsed under the pressure of the winds. Yikes.
Anyway, we continued on, periodically crossing bridges over little streams and listening to the sounds of parrots (yep, parrots) in the trees), as we started our decent once again down to the beach. And of course, being on the beach once again meant rain, or in this case, sleet with high winds. We could literally see the storm crossing the Beagle Channel and coming straight towards us. Fortunately, the trip to the beach was quick and we began the last twenty minutes of our hike.
Now here’s my question. Why the heck would they make 15 of the last 20 minutes of the hike straight up hill. By now I was very tired and slightly wet, and I am sure that I was not the only one as I looked around at the weary faces of our little group. Nevertheless, there were no alternatives so up we went. And, not surprisingly, the first part was incredibly steep. And with the rain and sleet we had throughout the morning the tree roots that were visible everywhere were super slick. More than once I heard people shout out to be careful of the slick roots. Fortunately, no one fell.
Anyway, as we hiked up the hill wouldn’t you know it … the sun came out. Just what we need as we are huffing and puffing to the end. The sun beating down on us. We finally reached a little crest on the trail, and I could hear cars in the distance. We walked along a flat area through a small clearing and reached our waiting mini-bus. Yay!! Victory. And we finished the hike in just under 3 ½ hours, and while I may have found the hike challenging, it had been really very enjoyable.
So the min-bus took us to the park headquarters to use the bathrooms and then it was on to the little domed style outdoor tent where we were to have lunch. And lunch turned out to be fantastic. Appetizers of bread, cheese, meats, chips, wine and water. Then stewed chicken with tomatoes and carrots along with rice. And for desert, pineapple cake. But to be honest, though, as lovely as the lunch was, It could have been franks and beans for all I cared. I was starving.
And we would need our energy for our afternoon canoe trip. Now the canoe trip had been billed as a EASY 1 ½ hour paddle. Unfortunately, this could not have been further from the truth. As we were wrapping up lunch, the wind picked up and it started to sleet. Ugh. I began to dread this part of the day.
I put on another layer of clothing, as well as my rain poncho. Then we donned rain pants as well as rubber boots. Mauri divided us up into three groups and for some reason put four women and one guy in our boat while the other two boats had two and three guys respectively. This fact was pointed out to Mauri by at least four people (not including me), but he did not seem to care. I could see the problems coming, but decided to let it play itself out.
Anyway, we put our little 5 person rubber kayaks into the water at just after 2:30. By their calculations we should be finished by 4:00 p.m. The route would take us from Mirador Lago Acigami down a short canal to the Lapataia River, then on to Lapataia Bay, finishing up near the mouth of the Beagle Channel. Sounds easy enough. And along the way, we would be passing by Laguna Negra and Laguna Verde, which are supposed to have lots of birds and beautiful grasses, as well as taking in views of the surrounding Andes Mountains.
As we set off, the winds died down a bit and the rains stopped so I became cautiously optimistic that we were going to be OK, but as we went around a bend and into the Lapataia River, we were immediately met with a headwind and a few waves. The four women (including me), were paddling hard, hard, hard, while the guy at the back of the boat was supposed to keep us on course steering the boat. He as doing a pretty lousy job as we meandered back and forth wasting precious paddling energy. This was going to be a long hour and a half.
Once we rounded another bend, the waters smoothed out completely and we paddled a little less hard. Unfortunately, we soon faced another challenge. The river was very shallow in spots so we were soon scraping the bottom of the river that was covered in sand and rocks. We had to paddle hard again to move the boat beyond the shallow area and over to the other side of the river. This back and forth continued for about 10 minutes and just as we were taking a break, the rains hit again. Geesh.
However, now that were got into deeper waters the paddling became easier. And even better, the rains started to let up, the sun came out again, and we had the wind at our back. Suddenly, the trip became much more enjoyable. We had a few laughs and joked around in the boat as we meandered back and forth down the river. We even passed the two beautiful areas of Laguna Negra and Laguna Verde and saw some bird life floating by.
Sadly, this respite from the weather was all too short as we watched a storm coming in from the mountains. In fact, the top part of the mountains that had been free of snow were now covered with a light dusting. And not more than ten minutes later, the winds really picked up and it began to snow. Good grief. We were once again back to paddling harder as we fell behind the other two groups.
We eventually saw more sun again just in time to approach a small bridge. At this point, we told Mauri we were exhausted. (And we were.) He told us we had two options. We could continue for another 20 minutes to the end of the trip or we could put in ahead and call it a day. After talking amongst ourselves, we decided to push on. BAD DECISION. Not only was Maury’s calculation about time way off, but we were about to enter the worst conditions of the day.
The sun was still shining as we paddled under the bridge (with all of us leaning back to ensure we passed clearly under the bridge). However, as we pushed on towards Lapataia Bay, another wave of high wind and sleet pelted us. And, unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the problems. In order to reach the bay, we had to go around a corner heading straight into the high winds and against the current. At one point, the four of us women were paddling and going nowhere, and the dumb ass guy in our boat just kept yelling “Ladies paddle harder”, while he sat back and did nothing. Seriously. At one point, his wife who was paddling beside me, turned around and told him to shut up and help out. What an ass.
And our illustrious leader, Mauri, was no help. He just paddled his boat and let us fend for ourselves. At one point, he slowed the boat down, and I yelled at him to help us out and give us some directions to where we were going. He just pointed ahead.
After a massive paddling effort, we made it out of the bay and headed towards the Beagle Channel where we were going to finally land our canoe. I finally figured out where we were going when I saw Flor standing on the shore. We all dug in and paddled against the current and winds and, by now, pelting snow showers to finally reach the beach.
I was done in. And if that weren’t enough, we had to haul the boats to the mini-bus parked across a little stream and field. By the time we dropped the rubber canoe at the mini-bus, I could not feel my face or arms. I pulled off the rain pants, boots and poncho and got on the bus to warm up. Then Flor reminded us that we were parked at the end of the Pan American Highway and to not forget to take a picture. I pulled my tired butt out of the seat on the mini-bus, had a couple pictures taken and called it good. All I wanted was a nice hot shower and a cup of tea. It had been a long, exhausting and at times, exasperating day. Loved the hike, the paddle, not so much. And that 1 ½ hour paddle … yea it was just over 2 ½ hours. Time for a lot of rest.