Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Navarino VI: Bushwhacking North

Part VI in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Navarino Part V: Bahia Windhond or the day I stood naked at the end of the world. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

Some of the remnants of the snow patches around the tent after breakfast.
I woke up after sleeping for eleven hours feeling decidedly under the weather. I had a headache, sore throat, full sinuses, and felt absolutely exhausted. But I got up and opened the tent door to find patches of snow around the tent from the storm overnight.  I made myself a sad breakfast of runny oatmeal (next time: pack more oatmeal) mixed with trail mix and honey, packed my pack, and headed back along the shore of Lago Windhond toward the refugio.

Lago Windhond

I walked slowly along the lake, stopping often to empty my sinuses and observe and note the changes in the rocks along the shoreline, but still made it back to the refugio in three hours and change. It was cold, but I made a sort of lunch with crumbly packaged wheat pita bread (having exhausted my supply of the much tastier and more robust fresh Chilean flatbread), butter, and a mystery pate smear. The treat, however, was the garbonzo mash, and I ate half of what was left. The flavor, garlic, and salt was just what I was craving.

I was back on the trail by shortly after 3 pm after having left my name with the others in charcoal on a wall inside.


I turned on my MP3 player for the first time on the trip—which had miraculously also survived the swim in the Death Swamp three days prior—for an energy boost. This time I followed the trail (which was mostly intact and visible at the refugio) instead of going through the bog I had come in on. It felt good to be on a trail, knowing I’d finally make good time again. Even if “trail” meant largely sparsely-spaced sticks in a different peat bog with the occasional boot print from the guys who had come through several days prior to reassure me that I was on the right track. For a good hour, I was moving fast.

But beavers. Beavers, goddamned beavers, who once again were the bane of my existence having absconded with critical waymarkers in a confusing beaver-y area. After trying in vain to re-find the trail after crossing the beaver zone, I gave up and started to reluctantly climb the ridge the map said the trail climbed—the ridge I had avoided on my way down to the refugio three days earlier. The beavers and winter storms had turned the previously forested ridge into a labyrinth of fallen trees.

Domain of the Beavers

Here’s the thing about a labyrinth of fallen trees: it’s a jungle gym. And climbing a hill over logs, attempting to crawl under logs, balancing on slanted logs to climb over other fallen logs, shimmying up logs too slippery or narrow to confidently walk on—all with a pack—once again progress slowed to a literal crawl. What would have taken maybe 20 minutes with a good trail took over two hours of ducking under, crawling over, and falling into trees. 

It reminded me of a passage from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which I had been reading on my borrowed Kindle, about a side trip he made to climb Mount Tarn (on the coast south of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego), just 200 km to the NE of where I was on Isla Navarino:

“We went in boat to the foot of the mountain (but unluckily not the best part), and then began our ascent. The Forest commences at the line of high-water mark, and during the first two hours I gave over all hopes of reaching the summit. So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out…So gloomy, cold, and wet was every part, that not even the fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish…it was scarcely possible to crawl along, they were so completely barricaded by great mouldering trunks, which had fallen down in every direction. When passing over these natural bridges, one’s course was often arrested by sinking knee deep into the rotten wood; at other times, when attempting to lean against a firm tree, one was startled by finding a mass of decayed matter ready to fall at the slightest touch.”

The hill was muddy so even when I had ground (versus fallen trees) to walk on it was difficult. More than once I slipped and fell, each time grateful that the branches and sticks were just enough out of the way that one didn’t end up through my eye. After my fifth slip with branches alarmingly close to my face I became so certain that this climb was going to lose me an eyeball that I amused myself for the next hour of the following slog by trying to figure out how I would deal with the inevitable loss of an eye.

Would there be much blood? There are blood vessels in the eyelid, but to the eye? Could I just get by with sticking some gauze in my eyeball-less socket and call it a night? Maybe I could save the eyeball (assuming I could find it in the mess of logs and bushes and mud) and maybe it could even be rewired or something? But what if it was one of those blood-gushing injuries? Then I’d have to light a fire, get a stick glowing hot, and cauterize my own eye socket. That did not sound fun, but I mentally prepared myself for the possibility. At least it hadn’t rained since morning and there was relatively dry firewood around, so I probably could take care of business without having to move too far from where I fell. And once I cauterized my eye socket and made it back to civilization then I’d have to wear an eye patch because glass eyes look weird. And if I had to wear an eye patch then I should probably just go all out and dress like a pirate because people would be less weirded out by someone with an eye patch if they just imagined I was a pirate than they would be a normal person with an eye patch or a glass eye. Or definitely less weirded out than by a person with a puckered stick-cauterized vacant eye socket. And isn’t that a sad statement on our treatment of people with disabilities? And on my train of thought went.

It looked like this for hours.

Incredibly, I made it two hours later to the top of the ridge with both eyes intact, the only injury a puncture wound in my right hand. Better than having to cauterize my blood-gushing eye socket with a red-hot stick for sure. Sure enough, at the top of the ridge I found the trail again, although it looked like I wouldn’t have been much better off if I had found it at the bottom of the hill judging by the trees blown down in the “trail” at the less storm-affected ridge top.

By that time it was almost 7 pm so I started looking for a place to camp, especially since snow was starting to fall. No sooner had I found a spot and put up my tent than a full-on blizzard started, coating my tent in a two-inch blanket of snow as I tried in vain to start a fire for half an hour in order to melt snow for water. I shook the snow off the tent-turned-igloo, scooped it away from the zippers with my once-again-wet feet, and let my trusty camp cooker do the snow-melting job. I was trying to save gas with the fire, but oh well, I still had plenty of gas to last the final two nights, I hoped.

My campsite, just minutes after setting up the tent.

So I melted myself some snow and the resulting water was half sticks and leaves but tasted wonderful (and was clear vs. the weird red of the water the previous two days), and I even managed to cook myself a feast of multi-colored pasta with butter, my second package of tuna, some more mystery seasoning, and pumpkin soup again with the leftover water. All cooked by setting the stove outside in the snow and hiding in my tent, periodically thumping snow off the tent, reaching an arm out to check on the progress of the cooking, and retreating again for a few more minutes. The cooling of the gas can from the loss of gas while cooking caused the can to freeze solidly to the ground, and I was unable to pry it off of the ground, so left it in the snow overnight to deal with in the hopefully warmer morning.

Meanwhile, snuggled up in my sleeping bag, I planned a route for the morning. I decided to cut down to the valley I had just come from since with all this snow I didn’t think continuing on this trail up into the mountains was wise. I plugged my phone in to my spare battery bank to charge since it was getting low on juice and I might need the map and GPS on it. I was in the habit of keeping all of my electronics in my sleeping bag in order to keep the batteries warm and preserve their charge. Great idea in theory, but of course I promptly rolled over on the whole charging setup, broke the tip off the charger, and that was the end of that. No matter, I had managed to get the battery up to 70% first and had already plotted my GPS waypoints, so as long as I didn’t screw around with the phone too much in the coming days I figured I’d be okay. Still…dumb.

Then I settled in for my coldest night yet.

Snow sure is pretty though.

Continued in Part VII: Blizzards and Beavers

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