Bottom of the World

I wrapped up my job in Lima over the last weekend of March. Before I caught my flight back to Chile, I felt confident in the team I’d be leaving behind in Peru to continue with the project. Though we collected fewer blood samples than we hoped for, due to the civil unrest in Peru and the storms that blasted across the North, there were enough supplies to continue after I left and the crew was trained in both blood collection and white blood cell isolation. This chapter (and job position) had come to an end.

I flew back to Santiago and crossed customs nervously with my emergency passport. The only comment I got was that it was a surprising color, bright purple. No issues though and my shaky hands and sweat ceased as I was now officially back in the same country as Savannah. I collected my bag and rechecked it for the national flight down to Punta Arenas. I landed around midnight and caught a taxi into town to stay at the same hostel I had stayed in the last night in Chile, Hostel Entre Viento. I could hardly sleep that night between anticipation for reuniting with Savannah the next morning and starting my next big adventure.

I chatted with Victor, the man who guarded Savannah while I was away, for about an hour. He showed me his refurbished RV he bought in Florida and shipped to Chile. It was from the 70s and decked out with the shag carpet and jade green counter tops. He explained how he installed a diesel heater under the hood with vents blowing hot air out around the glove box and tried to convince me I would need one in Savannah down in Puerto Williams. I let him go ahead and try to sell it to me, also allowing me to brush back up on my Spanish. I knew I wouldn’t install one though, not like I had any room in the van anyway. We chatted about the possibility to keep Sav there while I work in Germany. He said he’d talk to Aduana (customs) and see if there was a way he could store her for a couple of years.

Savannah cranked to a start, phew! We rolled out of Punta Arenas and back North to take care of a few things before our final journey South. I had met a guide in Torres del Paine who was keen to join me on this adventure and help me with my study. It would boost his resume as well to tackle the big hikes I was planning on doing for sampling. Through the course of my time in Peru, we kept in touch and slowly solidified plans. I wasn’t sure until the day I picked him up that he would actually come along, but after I arrived at his house, we meticulously packed Savannah and smoked a ton of guanaco jerky for the road. Savannah was packed to the brim. He would be joining me for the next three months, I think we were both a bit shocked that we were actually doing this.

We made a quick border run to Argentina. Savannah needed a new TIP to be able to stay in Chile for another 3 months and food was incredibly cheap over there. We stocked up on pasta, rice, vegetable oil, and whisky. The emergency passport worked just fine crossing into Argentina and out and back into Chile. My worries were over, no more border crossings for some months!

The ferry from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams would be around 32 hours. We actually lucked out by getting a spot on an extra unscheduled ferry. This ferry really wasn’t for passengers like the usual ones that I was told were booked out for the next month. This supply ferry had 2 gas tankers and a steam roller on it. A few other pick up trucks accompanied Savannah, but we were really the only “tourists” on the boat and had the entire inside seating area to ourselves. We were served three hot meals a day, and unlimited coffee and mango juice.

We spent most of the trip out on the upper deck battling the wind to try to spot marine life or gawk at the mountains. Words cannot describe the beauty and intensity of the landscape along this rugged coast line. Mountain islands rose out of the sea and glacial covered peaks hugged the coast. It was a scene from a fairy tale, one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. When we would go into the lounge to warm up, we’d bounce from one side to another, not sure of which way to look for the best views or chances of wildlife. We saw the Chilean dolphin and tons of sea lions curiously checking out the ferry as it chugged through the rough waters. Luckily neither of us got sea sick, there were some choppy sections. The most intense section was after we left the northern channels and crossed open water for a bit before retreating back behind the safety of the mountain islands. In this open section, the boat rocked back and forth so much that the horizon line came in and out of view from the windows in the lounge. The windows of the lower seating area, where the meals were served, got hammered by big waves that completely would cover the glass. I was half expecting Savannah’s burglar alarm to go off with so much movement. It was wild!

The best parts were the sunrises and sunsets and we made sure to not miss a single one on the trip. During the last sunset before we arrived, we saw a huge Nat Geo cruise ship pass. The cook guessed it cost about five grand per tourist on the ship. Sure, they had fancy cabins and stopped at a lot of places along the way, but we couldn’t help but chuckle at the opportunity we had to just pay about four hundred bucks for 2 passengers and a van to take the same trip with the same incredible views.

We arrived in Puerto Williams at the crack of dawn. As the ferry turned in towards the island, we realized just how small this little town was that we would be calling home. I somewhat nervously looked towards Nacho wondering if he regretted taking this adventure with me here, but he seemed just as stoked. The lights of the buildings took up a tiny portion of the land we could see with the rising sun. This would be a very new experience.

It was all becoming very real then. Savannah and I had completed our trip, this was the end of the world. There were no more roads South. I can’t drive anymore. I couldn’t stop the tears leak out. I was so proud of her, and us, for what we overcame on this journey. It was the hardest thing, and the best thing, I had ever done. That van has been the most consistent thing in my adult life and, despite some tantrums along the way, she carried me to my dream. We made it.

The hostel was a stone’s toss from the ferry. We pulled off the ferry, hung a right, and arrived in front of the hostel before the sun fully rose. I had messaged Cecelia, the owner of the hostel, while I was back in Peru. We had an arrangement where I would sleep in the van and use the kitchen/bathroom/shower. I had asked for a quote for just one person, but then also for two just in case. She seemed confused by this over text, but we agreed to figure it out once I/we arrived. Nacho and I were greeted by this wonderful woman with a big smile and hugs for both of us, instantly making us feel at home. I had thought there was a driveway I could park in but no such thing existed, so road parking it is. But this is such a sleepy little town, especially in off season such as now, that the road feels safe and it’s relatively quiet at night.

During the first week, we took long walks in each direction of the town. We walked the coastline and identified new bird species and picked up an excessive amount of cool shells and stones. We walked East, then out along a spit, then up along some crazy, sandy cliffs one day. Another day we walked West, about another 10 miles (round trip), to a lighthouse we had seen in the far distance. The first (and so far only) penguin I saw was, unfortunately, a headless dead one being pulled apart by vultures, but it was still cool.

During that first week I had a slew of meetings with my new colleague, whom I had been speaking with for years… since the Kalahari. Elke and I discussed what project we could do together for the three months I would be here. I wouldn’t be getting paid, and I hadn’t planned on it since I wasn’t successful finding funding. But, I would get a small stipend, which will help with food and paying about 100 bucks a month to use the hostel. This is a passion project and is just something I want to do to share a bit of what I know here on the island. We instantly hit it off and our meetings were full of excitement and brainstorming and also a bit of story exchanges about how we each got to where we are now.

The North American mink is a big problem in the Cape Horn Biosphere. They are incredibly successful invasive species and predate on endemic birds. The beaver is also an issue here (I’ll get back to that later) but it’s so far gone and the evidence is apparent about where they inhabit that a noninvasive surveillance method is not really needed. The mink, however, are elusive. After much discussion, we settled on a cool project that I will be carrying out during my time here. I will be comparing camera trap detection to environmental DNA detection from water samples. I’ll also look to detect feral dogs amd cats since they are a new problem on the island as well… and why not if the camera traps and water samples are already being deployed. A simple abstract for my final project proposal is below:

The Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, Chile, protects pristine sub-Antarctic ecosystems. However, this remote area lacks a long-term surveillance system of non-native species. Without an accurate account of invasive species distribution, it will be difficult to prioritize conservation efforts. Environmental DNA (eDNA) detection offers a sensitive, noninvasive method to detect and monitor species in the wild. Navarino Island has recently been invaded by the American mink and affected by growing populations of feral dogs; the island offers an ideal study system for developing an eDNA detection tool for invasive species in the Cape Horn Biosphere.

I currently have 11 trail cameras in my possession to deploy at rivers and lakes. In the days leading up to our first trip in the field, Nacho and I bought and studied maps of different areas of the island. I wanted to get pretty decent coverage of the island for the study, but of course for us also to explore as much as we can while we are here. Evenings after our walks and my meetings, we would spend on the porch sipping whisky, hanging out with the local dogs, and scheming plans. The local dogs knew where to find pets and hugs and frequently visited us in the evenings.

Our first trek to deploy the cameras would be the big one, the circuit of Los Dientes de Navarino (the Teeth of Navarino). We were nearing the end of the season, since the circuit closes at the end of April due to dangerous winter conditions. The mileage wasn’t crazy, but the elevation gains over the multiple passes made it require about 5 days of walking, with 4 nights out. In total the trek is only 53 kilometers (33 miles). Apparently about 200 people attempt this trek per year, and most guided. We planned to carry 8 cameras, since there were lots of lakes along the way. This also meant 64 batteries, since each camera requires 8 batteries. As we sorted our winter gear, food, camera equipment, etc… the bag weight began to add up. We would each be carrying about 25 kilos in our packs (about 55 lbs).

For this trek, it’s mandatory to check in with the local police. If you don’t come out around the day you predict, they send in a search party. We checked in the morning of and gave ourselves an extra day in case weather hit or we moved slower with the heavy packs. The police-woman advised us not to go given the storm predicted. But the storm was expected at the tail end of our trip, and we were both pretty confident with our winter skills. We insisted we’d be going anyway and would report back when we came out.

The first day out, we lost the trail immediately. Usually, hikers go up Mt Bandera to summit, then down to the lake near the first pass. Since we wanted to set a camera at a lower lagoon, we took the trail up the ravine. It was definitely less used. Luckily, I had downloaded the map layers on Caltopo and could guide us on the “trail” up to Laguna Robalo. It took about 5 hours to travel 3 or so miles up the ravine. I would give it a BW4 on the bushwacking scale (this scale can be found here). Once at the lagoon, we set a camera in a cove and nailed a can of tuna about 3 meters as a lure for mink and dogs in the area. Nacho’s job was nailing the tuna and spiking holes in the top while I set up the camera. I had done some camera trap work during my master’s with feral pigs and felt right back in grad school setting up my experiment.

From this lagoon, we climbed another 300 meters to Laguna del Salto. It was too late in the evening, and we were pretty thrashed from the day, so we postponed the second camera deployment for the next morning. A nice platform had been built on an outcrop above the lagoon and served as an excellent place to make camp. Off the ground, we would be dry and a bit warmer, though exposed to wind. Nacho had made “fire in a can” in the days before we left his home. Basically, it’s a small can (like from canned vegetables) with rolled up cardboard inside. You then melt a bunch of candle wax and saturate the cardboard inside the can. This creates a fire source that can light in wind or rain or whatever. We lit one, mostly for fun, but also to kinda dry out our sopping wet boots and socks from slogging up the valley.

The next morning, after setting up the camera, we made our way up and over the first pass. The landscape changed drastically from thick, wet forest to barren, snow covered scree fields with peaks soaring into the sky around the edges. We had opted not to bring snowshoes, though we had rented them, since we thought that if there was only knee deep snow in some places (which is what was expected) we wouldn’t add the extra weight. There were indeed sections with knee deep snow that made the going slow, but it was interspersed with enough rocky sections that we were happy we didn’t lug them along. Instead we brought microspikes, which were definitely a must. Especially in the early mornings when there was still ice topping the snow, we were happy for the extra traction. After we passed over Paso Australis, the snow conditions worsened. On the way down, at times, we’d plunge to our hips. The skirting around the next lake, Laguna del Paso, we couldn’t even see the trail as we kicked steps into the steep bank of snow. I had originally planned to deploy a camera at this lake, and others farther along the trek before we crossed back over to the North. Seeing the conditions now, we needed to reassess. We could, and were, doing the full trek this week, but would we be able to repeat it to remove the cameras and take water samples in 2 more weeks? Given the deterioration of the weather according to the forecast and normal conditions coming in to winter, it was unlikely… though possible? Ultimately, I decided not to deploy cameras on the South side of the pass. They weren’t mine, just loaned to me, and I wanted to make sure whatever we placed, we could get back.

This meant carrying a ton of extra weight for the next few days as we made our way along the southern circuit. We passed over 2 more passes and spent nights in the most beautiful places. The sites were always by lakes, which made the nights quite cold. Our coldest night was -5C (23F) in the tent, it was probably a few degrees colder outside. The sunsets cast amazing light on the peaks around the lakes. In the mornings, we’d usually wait until the sun hit the tent to start our day. A few mornings, we’d wait until the sun melted the ice on the rainfly. My job was usually packing up our belongings, and finally the tent once it thawed, as Nacho made coffee and some breakfast to get us started.

Each day on the trek brought unique challenges that made the day its own kind of hard. This could be either gaining a ton of elevation to get over a pass, some sketchy snow covering big boulders that were begging for you to slip and snap your leg, or slow travel in deep snow. Our hardest day was the second to last day when we had to cross the pass back to the North, Paso Virginia. None of the passes were very high (the highest being 859 m, Paso Virginia… about 2800 feet). It was the drastic elevation change over a very short distance that presented the challenge. With Virginia, we pulled ourselves up through thick forest, using the roots and branches practically as ladders. Then we were spat out onto vast, empty scree fields. On this day the storm was predicted, and it was hot on our tails as we pushed our legs and heart muscles to keep moving, quickly. Once we reached the final plateau, the wind bringing in the storm actually helped push us along up to the summit. I personally was in my glory up there. It had been a long month in Lima and my legs and heart were happy doing what they do best, working hard. Nacho was a bit more concerned about the storm and was feeling an old shoulder injury with his heavy pack, so I tried not to be too chipper up there. It was truly amazing though.

After we summitted, our adventure wasn’t quite over for the day. The storm had caught up to us and we were now in nearly white-out conditions as we tried to navigate down the North side of the pass to Lago Guanaco. The barren rocks turned to snow and as we neared the edge of the plateau, Nacho in lead, I shouted “to the right!” as I saw him about to step near what I thought was the edge of a cornice. He shifted quickly and we made our way down some sketchy scree. Looking back up towards to the top of the pass, we didn’t exchange many words, but I’m pretty sure we were both thinking about how scary it would have been if we continued straight instead of right. Luckily even with the poor visibility, we could steer clear of the huge drop off.

We stopped and leaned against the stronger gusts as we made our way along Lago Guanaco. The gusts were so strong, they literally felt like they could knock you off your feet. Despite now being back on North side, I decided not to place a camera here since the lake looked barren. There were a few ducks in the lake, but not much vegetation in or around the lake… highly unlikely for mink or dog to want to hang out here. The wind pushed us along the coast and down into the next ravine. We camped that night in a forest, sheltered from the wind. Since it was still rain/snowing we strung up my big green tarp over the tent to try to avoid the ice issue again.

The next morning, we set up a camera at the lower lagoon and crashed back down the forest with a mix of bushwhacking and finding traces of trails, either human or animal. Throughout this trip, I had vivid dreams of my family. I dreamt I was hanging out with my parents, both at home and down here, and that I finally met my new niece. I shared these dreams with Nacho and he remarked that I must be missing my family then. I am, but I’ve been since I left. I’m not sure why on this trek they appeared more in my dreams, but I was happy they did. As we got closer to the road, it was evident we were nearing civilization as horse and cows tracks tore up the mud. In one moment I wasn’t paying attention to the footing, my left foot slid fast in the mud and my right foot got caught behind me. A sharp pain stabbed my quad. I tried to laugh it off with having a mishap but couldn’t help but try to compensate with left leg for what right leg had endured. We hit the road and started the 5 km back to Savannah chewing on Coca leaves. These leaves have lots of caffeine and masked any appetite (and pain), since we were pretty much out of food at this point. We tried hitchhiking with no luck, but once we gave up, a friendly dude in a camper bus stopped without us even sticking out a thumb and offered us a ride part way. Eventually we made it to Sav, absolutely exhausted from the trek, but super happy.

That evening we bought some white wine and 10 crab empanadas… yes actually 10. While we were out, two Aussies and a Swiss came to visit the hostel. We all met once Nacho and I arrived. One Australian was a world reknown 67 year old sailor who was the 6th person to sail solo around the world, and was the fastest Australian to do so. We all sat starry eyed around the dinner table as Tony Mowbray shared his tales. One of which was how he and his mates had seriously thought they were about to die in the Sydney Hobart race in ’98, which is considered the deadliest Australian sailing race in history. He wasn’t the kind of adventurer who would simply spout his stories. He really wanted to learn about each and every one of us as well. He asked a lot of questions about the project we were working on and brought me to near tears when he said farewell and that his life was better for having met us.

The other Aussie (Rob) and Swiss (Jonas) were super fun and we spent our nights in the hostel getting to know each other, sharing dinners, and swapping stories. Both also took interest in the project and wanted to help. I felt touched that strangers, whom I’d just met, would volunteer to help me on this pretty crazy endeavor. Tony said it was because they could all tell I was 100% in on what I was saying I would do, and I am. I just had never felt so much support and kindness for something that felt personal to me. For those couple of nights we all overlapped, we had the warmest experiences together. For instance, on the second night, while we were preparing dinner we joked that we shouldn’t have high expectations for as fun of a night as the last… but it held, and we had another amazing night of budding friendships and life long connections. It was amazing.

They wished us well as we set off on our second trek. We would be doing 4 days out, heading to Lake Windhold and back. Lake Windhold sits far South and is a huge lake that’s a popular fishing destination. We adjusted our packs to be a bit lighter, cutting out things we didn’t use the first time around. And we only carried 3 cameras this time, the exact amount I planned to deploy. Before we left, we smoked some more jerky (beef this time) and made some variations of trail snacks.

We left Savannah parked at the hostel, since the trail started only a few kilometers from town. As we passed the villas and their local dog packs, one pup decided to tag along on our next adventure. He was young and scrappy, with a total of 22 toes, and looked like a jackal. From the moment I laid eyes on him as he nipped at our heels, I called him “Jack.” Nacho and I placed bets on when he’d hightail it back to his home. But as we ticked away the kilometers up the valley, Jack tagged along, usually between us and bouncing back and forth between whoever was leading and who was following. It turned out Jack was quite the jack rabbit adventure dog as well, as he could easily leap up and over logs or boulders or anything along his way.

We found out on our way up that the eggs we had purchased and hard boiled were actually bad. So Jack had quite the feast. We made our way up through the forest, across some bogs that nearly ate Nacho, and up two waterfalls to the pass. The quick sand bog was quite unexpected and I had to first pull his pack out of the bog, then his body, since he was pretty stuck. Just after the pass, we made camp by a lake where I would set the first camera trap. Jack wasn’t allowed inside the tent, but seemed perfectly happy curled up under some trees.

The next day we made our way down the other side of the pass to Lago Windhold, setting up one camera trap at a river site along the way. The amount of beaver damage on the island is incredible and devastating to the ecosystem. Beavers are basically ecosystem engineers and have completely changed the hydrology and forest of the island. Some of the stretches of “trail” were so burdened with fallen trees that our speed was turtle pace and our shins were beat up with each log rodeo we encountered.

On the southern side of the island, we encountered another invasive species, didymo (also known as snot rock). This diatom plagues freshwater sources once it’s introduced. Sometimes it reminded me of intestines, other times brains. Overall, it was gross, and sad that it seemed to have hit every little pool across the last stretch of bog to Lake Windhold.

We had read that there was a refugio we could sleep in, a nice break from the tent. Once we arrived though, we noticed a large tree had fallen across the roof and the whole structure looked slanted. Nonetheless, a storm was blowing in and the three of us (Nacho, me, and our 22 toed mutant dog) would benefit from shelter with a wood stove. Inside, the place was trashed… it was sad. Past visitors left tons of plastic garbage, old food, and empty gas canisters. We piled the trash into garbage bags in the corner and tried to straighten the place out. Nacho chopped some wood for the fire as I piled some chunks of foam near the woodstove for a place where we could sleep.

Our dinners out backpacking are usually some sort of paste created from instant potatoes, lentils, and soy meat. We bring a mixed bag of spices to add some flavor, and usually bring some chocolate and flask of whisky to end the night. This night we hung what tarps we had around the area of the woodstove, since the wooden planks of the refugio had large gaps where the wind from the storm was blasting through. It ended up being quite warm inside this hippy tent we made and we cooked a delicious paste for dinner on the woodstove. Jack curled up next to the fire looking like the happiest dog I’ve ever seen, especially after his egg.

The next morning we walked the rest of the way to the lake to set up the final camera. I think we were lucky with our weather window. The lake was perfectly still, in a region where wind is simply always expected. We found a perfect place for the camera trap and tuna lure and marveled at how lucky we were to be in this amazing place.

We hauled out the 8 empty gas canisters. I joked that the weight was about the same as I had shed from my pack in the form of cameras and batteries. Training weight then, why not? We retraced our tracks back to our first campsite. This time navigating the beaver dam bogs a bit better knowing where we had gone wrong before. On the way, Nacho found the elusive underground raspberries. I did not even know these existed, raspberries are my favorite food!! Our pace was slowed as he foraged and handed me the ripest ones. They were amazing. That night wasn’t quite as cold as the nights before and we were lucky no rain or wind woke us in the middle of the night.

Our final day was to cross back over the pass and walk the 12 km back to town/Savannah. Weather was threatening in the morning so we broke camp quickly and persuaded Jack out of his nap to start our way back. We overcame the pass quite quickly, already feeling stronger after just these few days out. On the northern side, on our way down past one of the beaver ponds, left leg caught a slick section of mud again. Right heel met ass and as I slid the pain that shot through my leg broke the pleasant silence of the mountains with “F^$&!” As I recovered myself I could see even Nacho grimaced, this was not good. I tried to laugh it off and he said that even though he knew I was tough as nails it was okay if I needed a break. I couldn’t help but laugh at this expression though since my dad always taught me to be tough as nails, and used that saying often whether I was tossed from a horse or beat up in the woods. I insisted I was fine, at least 50% fine because when I was using left leg I didn’t feel any pain. He eventually persuaded me to let him wrap my right quad to at least give it some support. It did help.

Between his shoulder being duct taped in place and my wrapped leg, we made quite the geriatric team trying to haul through 12 km of fallen forest and deep bog. Each time we’d rest, Jack would take the opportunity to have a little snooze as well. I think this was quite the adventure for him too. The weather caught up with us and we made the last few hours back to town in the rain and, despite the drawbacks of the day, in high spirits. Something about a good sufferfest is enlightening, and addicting. And it better be, since we go back out there in 2 weeks with likely worse conditions.

Last night we went out, though dead tired, and devoured the burgers we had been dreaming about on our hike out. Today we took a much needed rest day, and I finally had the chance to write a bit which feels really good. The tent, sleeping bags, and biohazard socks/boots are out on the porch to dry. Tomorrow we drive Sav West to set some camera traps in short hiking distances from the road. On the 28th we’ll take a little boat to the East side of the island, Puerto Toro, and hike over a pass back West to Lago Navarino. We’ll set a camera there, then bushwhack through some bog to Lago Rojas to set another camera, then catch a bus back to Puerto Williams on Tuesday. For each camera we set, we’ll go back in 2 weeks to retrieve the camera and take water samples. So, for April and May, it’s mostly field work (and lots of hiking!). In June we’ll travel with the Navy to some islands around Navarino to set up cameras/collect water samples, then I’ll be doing lots of lab work in Centro Subantártico Cabo de Hornos. I’m very excited.

I really appreciate those of you who have stuck with me on this big adventure. I cannot express how happy and full I feel being down here, on this little island at the end of the world. My reasons for attempting this journey at the start of the trip were a bit obscure, even for myself. But as I’ve made it down here, it all seems to make sense. I really needed to do this. I joke sometimes and say that I had a lot on my mind and went for a drive, then found myself at the bottom of the world. But it is true in a lot of ways. This was a physical and emotional journey for me and I feel like I’ve found my best self (so far) now that I’m here. My heart is so full.

Song on repeat (for obvious reasons): Spitting off the edge of the World, by the Yeah yeah yeahs

Sorry, I’m too far behind on the map 🙂 refer to next post if interested!

2 thoughts on “Bottom of the World

  1. Hi Kel! Another amazing blog …. full of information, beautiful pictures, deep thoughts and adventures. You look absolutely beautiful, Kelly….healthy, happy, rosy-cheeked. It makes me happy to know that these many months away have brought you so much happiness, following your dream. Stay happy and stay safe! Love you, Kel Kel!
    Aunt Pap

    Liked by 1 person

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