Saturday, November 16, 2013

Navarino Part IV: Refugio Charles and Lago Windhond

Part IV in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part III: Paso de los Dientes and Descent into the Swamp. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

I woke with the sun at 5:40 am (later in the darkness of the woods than out in the open), but despite the window of good weather I let laziness get the best of me, justifying it with feeling a cold coming on and needing the rest to stay healthy, and went back to sleep. I didn’t wake up for another three hours.  I shoveled in a handful of trail mix for breakfast and assessed the water damage. My sleeping bag was dangerously damp and I would need to dry it if I was going to sleep the coming night. My hiking socks all had holes burnt in them from being put too close to the fire the night before. Everything was cold and wet. It was a cold morning. But I wasn’t going to get any warmer staying put, so I braced myself and put on my cold, wet clothes, my cold, wet socks with holes in them, and my cold and still very soggy boots, and packed the rest of my cold, wet things into my cold, wet pack.

View from inside the damp sleeping bag.

I soon had something to cheer me up when I finally picked up a GPS signal and was within 500 meters of where I thought I was, within throwing distance of the official “trail” (which thanks to beavers didn’t actually exist anymore), and very close to the refugio, which I reached after an hour and a half of slogging through more bog (but no more swims, thank God).

More bog to wade through, but I didn't almost drown this time.

I arrived at the refugio—a rough log cabin with a corrugated metal roof—feeling uneasy, having seen boot prints from a group of men again and having in my head the unsettling parting advice of the Carabineros that “if you meet other people while you are out there, say you are not alone, okay?” I really didn’t want to run into a group of strange men out deep in the middle of nowhere. Most people are great and these men were probably nice people, but I just wanted to be alone. So I snuck up on the refugio, listened as I approached, listened at the door, and didn't go in until I was satisfied that nobody was inside. I was much relieved when I found a notebook inside that served as the guestbook and read that three men had just left the refugio the day before—no doubt those were the bootprints I had seen. They had either gone out by the other valley trail to the refugio or we had passed by each other without realizing it. Regardless, I had the place to myself.

The refugio guestbook.

Flipping through the notebook, I was only the fourth “group” to have arrived at the refugio since May, and the only person alone in, it looked like, almost a year. Most of the people there were there to fish, it seemed, and fishing gear was scattered around the refugio. There was a wood stove inside and dry firewood and I set to work building a fire in the stove and hanging my dripping wet things around it. As my stuff dried, I amused myself by collecting wood from the woods around the refugio to replace the dry wood I was using, stoking the fire, sweeping out the refugio, attempting to take as much of my camera apart as I could with the rough Swiss Army Knife tools I had to dry it out. I made lunch, and looked over my maps to plot my next move: How far was it to the bay? I was disappointed that it wasn’t in view from the refugio, having thought it would be.

I wandered off to get water. The nearby river was red with humic material that, having just slogged through the nasty-ass bog it came from, I was reluctant to drink without treating. So I brought out my UV pen to sterilize the water, and of course promptly dropped it right into the river where the protective rubber cap covering the electronic bits popped off and—fried. Shit. So I filled my cooking pot with water and put it on the wood stove to treat it by boiling.

View from the refugio and the red river that killed my water sterilizer.

I lost half a day drying things at the refugio and had underestimated the distance to the bay which was beyond the range of my topographic trail maps. If I wanted to go there versus just turning around at the refugio, it was going to be at least a full day, maybe as long as two and a half days out and back, to get there. Would I have time afterwards to still do the rest of the Dientes circuit as I had planned? There was a chance if I was lucky with weather and a good path and I was fast, but “lucky” with weather seemed very unlikely and having better luck with speed in a place with an off-map place with no trails seemed unlikely. Was I willing to potentially give up on hiking the rest of the Dientes circuit to make it to the bay?

For me, the decision was easy. More time in toothy snowy mountains (which I love, but had already spent a few months doing elsewhere) or go dip my toes in the Antarctic Ocean (I know I’m using that term extremely liberally, but I’m just going to go ahead and call it the Antarctic Ocean because the water is neither Pacific nor Atlantic and is really far damned south)? I didn’t come to the end of the world to not go to the end of the world. Plus the Dientes were wrapped in what looked like a pretty fierce rain cloud and I was not anxious to go right back out and into that again.

So I decided to extend my planned side trip to Lago Windhond into a hike all the way out to Bahia Windhond. I figured it would require an overnight out and back, maybe two if my bad luck with weather and terrain continued. I decided to stash a bunch of stuff (food mostly, and my now-fried chargers) in the refugio to lighten my load. I re-packed and waited for things (especially my sleeping bag, tent, boots, and socks) to dry.

The wood stove in the refugio

And I waited and waited and waited. Meanwhile the weather had gone from cloudy to sun to drizzle to hail to downpour and I was starting to wonder if I’d ever be able to leave and move on, but when the red river water had spent what I deemed long enough at an almost-boil to be safe to drink and my boots had gone from soaked to just damp, the sky cleared briefly. And I was off.

There was no trail—not even a theoretical one now, as I was now venturing off the southern end of my island topographic trail maps. The only paths were periodic little muddy lines that the beavers had left as they shimmied their way out collecting wood around the lake. I mostly followed the shore of Lake Windhond for three and a half hours in a drizzle as the boulders gave way alternately to fine sand, skipping stones, and sharp eroded layered rock to round pebbles, softball-sized pebbles… I wondered what caused the differences since the landscape itself was relatively consistent. Wind direction? The geology of the rocks being washed off the hills to the shore of the lake?

My footprints on the shores of Lago Windhond

The views the entire time were spectacular and despite the misery of the day before and the spitting rain I was very happy and had to stop every once and a while to look around and laugh and grin at how lucky I was to be where I was. When I finally reached the south end of the lake and turned to look back at the Dientes my heart stopped. The light—the sun filtering in beams through the clouds on to the lake and the mountains—was incredible. It was the most beautiful vista I had ever seen.

No photo could truly do the view justice, but this gives you an idea.

After taking some photos with my fingers crossed that I had properly dried the camera out and it wasn’t going to be a foggy mess (which is how it looked in my camera viewfinder) and standing and soaking in the impressiveness of it all for a bit, I hiked the hill that separates Lake Windhond from a smaller bog lake to the south. On the other side of the hill I found a place in a meadow to pitch my tent and was treated to a light show as the sun set over views of Bahia Windhond in the distance and the mountains of the Cape Horn archipelago beyond. It was amazing.

The weather was dry for a change, so I was able to sit outside and watch the sunset while celebrating with a feast: my standard spaghetti but this time with a package of tuna (the luxury!), a packet of pesto seasoning, another cup of runny pumpkin soup in my leftover pasta water, and the special treat: one of the super-dense cookies that Anneke had packed me for this trip before I left Bariloche and that I had hidden in my gear so that I wouldn’t be tempted to eat them before the hike.

Dinner and a show looking west from the south end of Lago Windhond

It was an evening I hope I will never forget. I had the feeling that I had been permitted an early glimpse of heaven, but allowed to stay on Earth to show the photos. I was alone, completely alone, in every direction as far as I could see from the south side of the Dientes to the north to the bay to the south and the last chain of islands beyond that, to the mountains to the west to the hills to the east, almost certainly the only human in all that landscape. I had all that beauty to myself for that night. I felt like the luckiest person on Earth.

I fell asleep at around 11 pm as dusk finally started to settle in to the sound of waterfowl squawking in an amusing sound like a poorly-oiled rotor. At least it was amusing for the first twenty minutes, after which the earplugs went in.

Another Lake Windhond view

And the next day I hiked out to the bay: Navarino Part V: Bahia Windhond, or the day I stood naked at the end of the world

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