Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Navarino VII: Blizzards and Beavers

Part VII in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part VI: Bushwhacking North. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

The blanket of dry powder snow that I
woke up to on Morning 6 in the tent
An all-day blizzard
on Isla Navarino

It was so cold on my sixth night that it actually snowed inside my tent when condensation from my breath hit the tent wall, froze, and fell back down. So I woke at 6 am to a thin layer of snow on my sleeping bag and pack and ice encrusting the inside walls of the tent. The blizzard outside was still raging but I had a fairly full bladder so I decided to brave it.

In the time it took for me to open the tent door, use my poles to lean my ass as far out of the tent as I could, pee, and retreat back into the tent, there was a small snowdrift inside the tent that I then did my best to shovel back outside with my cooking pot. If you've been following this story, you've probably noticed that my reaction to morning adversity is to crawl back into my sleeping bag and sleep a few more hours, and that’s exactly what I did.

Around 8 am I woke again and it was somewhat warmer, so I poked my head out to see if it was safe to leave. It was still snowing hard and the tent was now buried in six-inch drifts (of dry powder! If I had had my splitboard with me, that might have made me happy). My retreat back into my tent and sleeping bag was like The Oatmeal’s Nope Godzilla scene (if you don't know what I'm talking about, click here and thank me later):

My response to waking up in a blizzard.


I may never have left my tent that day if, at around 9 am, I hadn't suddenly had to poop. Like two days earlier, it was preceded by that “DO NOT IGNORE” gurgle and although I pleaded with my bowels, “Can’t it wait? Have you seen the snow outside? Can we at least get things packed up first?” the answer was an insistent, “NO, must poop now!” So out I went. Sorry if this is too much poop talk and grossing you out (maybe put your breakfast away?) but the pile I left was so large that I was concerned. Was I not actually digesting anything? I needed all of the calories I could get. What was it I was eating? At first I blamed the garbonzo beans, but the timing was off… Time to head back to civilization. I had a cold, now diarrhea, and my feet hadn’t been warm or dry since the first day and were starting to turn a disturbing shade of yellow.

Stepping in holes like this probably hadn't helped my foot situation. Although I almost felt sorry for the poor cold microbes living in these stanky ponds...


It took a while to pack that morning. It isn't easy to maneuver inside a one-man tent and since the blizzard was still raging I needed to pack from the inside. Also, I wasn't terribly motivated to get up and go in the middle of the storm, but it wasn't showing any signs of letting up. So I cooked up a quick breakfast (very runny oatmeal since my supplies were low and one of Anneke’s Power Cookies), got my bag packed, threw it outside into a snowdrift, put on my rock-hard frozen-solid boots, packed up the tent, keeping it as dry as I could (the advantage of really cold snow is that it is fairly dry, so although I couldn't avoid including some snow when I rolled it up, at least it wasn't sopping wet from rain), and was off.

I decided to head back down the hill that I had struggled up the evening before in an attempt to find the alternate trail to and from Lago Windhond. The alternative was to head up into the mountains and back over the Dientes, which in the storm and after the past several days of snow in the mountains did not seem like a good idea. I thought the alternate route, which stayed at a lower altitude, would be easier and safer. So off I went, wading through shin- to knee-deep drifts of some of the driest powder snow I had ever been in (it was delightful, it really was, despite the cold I was enjoying myself…I love snow!). Downhill on the “trail” (a winter storm had blown down a lot of trees, including many that had once marked the way) was not much easier or faster than my long struggle up the evening prior, and I was once again reminded of Darwin’s description of his hike up Mount Tarn, or more specifically this time, of his description of the descent:

“The strong wind was piercingly cold, and the atmosphere rather hazy, so that we did not stay long on the top of the mountain. Our descent was not quite so laborious as our ascent, for the weight of the body forced a passage, and all the slips and falls were in the right direction.”

View from the ridgeline where I had camped looking out at where I had come from the day prior: Lago Windhond and Bahia Windhond beyond.


I arrived back at the bottom of the hill with only a few falls and was hoping for smooth sailing…if only I could find the trail.

Because beavers. I fucking hate beavers. After getting down the hill I spent all day shin-deep in muck and mud in a blizzard while trying to pick my way through the beaver-flooded terrain and fallen logs that were everywhere. Trail markers, when I happened to see any, were few and far between (I maybe saw 10 in an entire 6 hours of hiking after getting down the hill), the beavers having run off with them, apparently viewing the painted red stripes as “fell this tree” signs. Somewhere in that miserable valley there must be a beaver who decorated the interior of her fetid dam home with chunks of red-painted marker signs.

To my Caltech and MIT friends: your mascot is Satan dressed in fur.

Logpocalypse courtesy of the introduced North American Beaver

I was stuck in a wet maze of the logpocalypse. Between wheezy breaths, I cursed the beavers out loud while I walked (after 7 days without communicating with anyone, long one-way tirades directed at the beavers seemed like the thing to do). The problem wasn't a lack of track, the problem was figuring out whether that track was made by humans (probably the men whose tracks I had seen leading up to the refugio) and therefore indicative of a path passable by humans, or whether the track was made by beavers and would dead-end in the forest or lead straight to some filthy little beaver lair in the muck. Beaver tracks and human trails were indistinguishable in width and appearance except, when the mud was clear, the occasional bootprint. When the mud was not clear, occasionally I would see the shimmer of a parallel set of lines which could have been made by boot tread…or just accidentally by sticks. So for hours I honed my tracking skills and played the “human or beaver” game, picking my way through that final cesspit of beaverdom.

At one point I had stopped to wheeze for a bit when I had once again lost the trail to a dead-end of beaver track when a movement caught my eye. I turned toward the nearest beaver pond and saw a splash. MOTHERFUCKER, I thought. Sure enough, one of the filthy little beasts poked its furry little brown head out of the water and looked right at me. I stared at it, scowling. It floated to the top of the water so that its whole body was visible. I stared. It stared back.

“You filthy little piece of shit!” I yelled. Then wheezed for a bit.

The beaver didn't move.

I looked around me for a rock to throw. There were no rocks, only logs and sticks left by no doubt that very same little hellbeast. I looked around for a pointy stick and found a few, but remembered how poor I always was at javelin in high school track and field. Still… Patty at the hostel had mentioned that, in an effort to eradicate the beavers from the island, the government pays out $10 USD per dead beaver. I didn't think $10 was worth schlepping back a dead beaver to town, but maybe I could kill it and cut off its tail. I picked up a stick with a sharp, pointy end.

My nemesis

“Come here, I dare you, you fat brown turd.” I said.

The beaver swam closer. Still out of range.

“Your mother has big ugly yellow buck teeth, doesn't she?”

Beaver swam a little closer.

“You’re an invasive species. Know what that means? It means you don’t belong here.”

Closer. I suck at insults.

I stepped toward the pond, crawled up on a log, stick in one hand, and as I was stepping down to the other side, slipped and fell face-first into the mud. Fortunately not onto the pointy stick. I laid there, chest in the mud, backpack pinning me down, wheezing. I looked up and there the beaver was, just out of spitting distance, no doubt laughing at me. I didn't have the energy or the breath to laugh, but had to smile at the absurdity of it all. Me, hand bloodied on my spear during the fall, faceplanted in mud, beaver swimming smugly in its little engineered swimming pool as the snow fell lightly. In the standoff of me vs. beaver, the beaver had won. My species had inhabited this island at least ten thousand years longer than its species had, and yet here it was, the homes it and its forbearers had built essentially restricting human habitat to where the beavers were not. Having grown up in a part of the world where beavers have been largely displaced by humans from their native habitats, there was a certain poetic irony in that thought, and I granted the beaver his last laugh as I limped away.

I stopped to make camp at 7 pm having not really stopped all day except to try to figure out where I was and where I was going, pulling cookies and pieces of a sort of gross butter and mystery-paté sandwich as I walked. I was hungry, soaked, tired, but the lake that I stopped at was gorgeous and surrounded by high mountains, it was snowing lightly, and it was hard to not feel like I had landed inside a beautiful End of the World snowglobe.

Inside my end-of-the-world snowglobe

I unpacked and set up my wet tent. It had been so cold when I had packed it in the morning that the ice had remained as a thin sheet on the inside walls of the tent and had slowly melted throughout the day, soaking the tent from the inside as I walked. My sleeping bag was slightly damp which meant it was going to be cold. I wiped the inside of the tent down as best I could and try to let the bag dry (unlikely in the below-freezing weather) while I cooked dinner.

Dinner was spaghetti (again! But spaghetti makes great trail dinners and I can’t say I was sick of it…although being starved at the end of a long day means I was just grateful for something—anything—to eat) with pesto seasoning and a few scoops of the weird-tasting mystery paté, and, again, packaged instant pumpkin soup mixed into the pasta water. Although by this point I had gotten the hang of the soup-water proportions and the soup finally tasted pretty good. I threw a scoop of butter into the spaghetti for good measure. Then another into the soup. Calories.


I prepped lunch and breakfast for my final day in the morning, pre-packed my bag for a fast exit when I woke up wanting to get an early start, and slipped myself a melatonin in hopes of getting myself to sleep despite the damp and cold. I had a long day ahead of me with more beavers to come and did not trust the weather to get any better, so I was going to need the energy. It was full daylight when I closed my eyes at 9 pm.

View from near camp on Night 6
The story continues for my final day of the trek in Navarino Part VIII: The Feral Swampbeast Returns to Civilization