Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Schoolwork and a little bit of sunshine

School has been a lot of work, but I did escape for three very short hikes over the weekend to take advantage of unusually good weather.

First, I went to a couple of beaches with Ian and Mac. It is a bit strange to go to the beach when there is snow on the ground, but I really enjoyed it. I even found a few ferns. I am looking forward to start studying botany when there are more plants around.

I then went for a walk out the mudflats by the airport. I didn’t see any rare birds (apparently, there might be a McKay’s bunting out here), but I did find some brant and a shoveler, although they shouldn’t be here in the winter. I was also very, very lucky to see a pod of orca whales out in the distance, just beyond a group of scoters that I was unsuccessfully trying to identify. I also took the mandatory bald eagle photo. Yes, I am a little sick of bald eagle pictures, but after all – they are pretty cool looking.

I then went with Mac to look for mountain goats on the side of Mount Juneau. It was quite a fascinating trip. Mac knows a lot about the local area (he grew up here), and about the mountain goats (he's been paying close attention to their movement for a long time). Mountain goats are - to my surprise - mostly a forest-dwelling animal here. They spend most of the year in forested slopes close to cliffs over which they can escape. It was odd to see mountain goat tracks, feces, and sleeping spots all over the forest, and to need crampons to negociate ice-covered ridges in the trees!


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Living and studying in Juneau

It has been a tough change coming from Chile to Juneau. I knew things were going to be hard when I walked out of the Los Angeles airport for a connection and I was cold. And I knew things were going to be really hard when I walked out of the Sitka airport and everything was dark and smothered in snow.

I only stayed in Sitka for a couple of days, which I used to do paperwork and get ready to move. I took advantage of the fact that my Spanish was still fresh to take a Spanish language test, and I scored high enough to obtain four semesters’ worth of Spanish credit. At the end of this semester (in May – an American semester is actually a trimester), I should be only two classes short of graduation, and I should be able to get my diploma in August. That would be a bachelor of liberal arts, with a minor in Spanish and an emphasis in English.

Juneau is rather depressing in the winter. I live in a chunk of suburbia in Mendenhall Valley and study at UAS at Auke Bay. The distances here are too great for walking and the roads and sidewalk are coated with ice or covered with snow, so I have to take the bus everywhere, in the dark, in a city that I don’t know. Even when the sun is out, everything is in black and white, as this photo of Auke Lake from the university:

And I forgot to tell everyone that I met Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in a bar in Santiago! I thought his populist stuff was just an act, but he really seems to be an outgoing, friendly person:

Just kidding! That’s just some guy who happens to look a little like him.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Chile trip is officially over :(

Well, I got back to Sitka last night, and now I am planning to move to Juneau to study. Two reasons to be a little wistful, but I am curious to see what is going to happen.

So after I left Torres del Paine, I took a six-hour bus trip to Punta Arenas (the largest city in the region), and then a thirty-some hour bus trip to Valdivia, where I just walked around, drank excellent local beers, and ate a fish that made me horribly sick for a couple of days. My next destination was the Cajon del Maipo, but by the time I got there I was just too weak to do any high-altitude hiking so I went to Santiago to relax for my last few days. In the end, the bus trip was basically just a long exercise in suffering. The only upshots are that I saved a lot of money by not flying, and that I saw the Coscoroba swan and the lesser seedsnipe during a maintenance stop in the middle of the pampa in Argentina.

Santiago is, well, a big city. I spent a lot of time walking, drinking coffee, reading, and taking advantage of cultural activities such as museums, street performers, a representation of "Twelfth Night" in Russian with subtitles in antiquated spanish (my first play with subtittles - very odd), literary cafes, etc. But I missed the simplicity of my volunteering days, people were just not very friendly, and even in the city "green belt", drinking untreated river water was just out of the question.

I then went to Valparaiso because I was feeling better and well, it's a mythical city after all, I just couldn't miss it. Valparaiso was indeed quite fascinating, with lots of interesting people and things to do. There was even a little of birding to do, with inca terns and grey gulls in the harbor. I went to see a free puppet show at Neruda's house , which was by far the best live show I have seen during this entire trip. The kids in the audience were half the fun, as they kept talking to the characters and the artists who would talk back, shift roles, and exploit zones of ill-defined identity (for lack of a better term). For example, the character of the devil exists, and doesn't exist, inhabits other puppets, and then tells the kids that the devil doesn't exist - it's just a character some puppeteers chose to represent evil. But then again, as the kids will tell him loudly - he obviously is the devil!

I also went to Viña del Mar, and to see natural stands of Ocoa palm trees.

On my last day, when I had finally recovered some strength and appetite, I went hiking in Parque Nacional La Campana near the charming town of Olmue, where I made a light and fast (2.5 hours to the top) ascent of Cerro La Campana, a rather unimpressive 1800 meter mountain (1400 meters from the base) that is mostly known for having been climbed by Darwin.

I was hoping to see a giant hummingbird on the mountain. I didn't, but I was not disappointed because I made incredible observations of moustached turca, dusky tapaculo, aplomado falcon, and many birds I had seen before such as the white-throated tree-runner which is uncommon this far north. I also saw a lot of interesting plants, such as this interesting solanacea, Schizanthus hookeri:


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine (1 of 3)

It’s been a long time since the last post, because I was in Torres Del Paine national park. I was there volunteering with an association called Agrupación Medio Ambiental Torres Del Paine. There was too much there to tell and I have little faith in the internet connection here, so I decided to make more than one post.

One is about park itself, one about the work with AMA, and one about the wildlife. That should work.

The hiking was incredible. We worked cycles of eleven days on, four days off. I myself worked two of the eleven day cycles, and hiked for four days. I also hiked in the evenings, and we did one early morning hike to the top of Cerro Paine Chico (in the back of the picture below). The yellow flower is Mullinum spinosum, and the red is Rumex acetellosa. This is a typical burned lowland.

The ascent of Cerro Paine Chico was our early morning hike. We started at 0120 and climbed by flashlight, and summited at 0510. This is a photo of another volunteer, Elias from Spain, at the top of Cerro Paine Chico with a nice view of the famous Torres Del Paine. The Cerro Nido de Condor, and a small piece of the Monte Almirante Nieto.

On my four days off, I did a nice hike to some parts of the park that I hadn’t yet seen before. This is a photo from my favorite part, the Valle Bader. From left to right, the mountains in the picture are the Cuerno Norte, La Mascara, La Hoja, and La Espada. The best part of the Valle Bader is that I didn’t see a single other tourist in there.

And this is the view coming down from Valle Bader, with the Lago Nordenskjold and a “fosforito” shrub in the foreground. A very nice place, and the Cuerno Este side has no trail at all.

This is another one of my favorite parts of the park – a small, easily accessed, and little-seen area to the South of Guarderia Laguna Amarga. Over there, I found interesting plants, rocks, animals, and even cave paintings.


Trail work with AMA

The Agrupación Medio Ambiental Torres Del Paine is a non-profit organization that is linked to the owners of the estancia Las Torres, a private landholding within the park. I decided to volunteer for them because a lot of the things I had been doing before felt overly touristy and artificial. I didn’t save the world or anything, but this was really a fun experience and I got to practice my Spanish a whole lot more than before. Oh, and it was free, too. We were provided with a place to camp and three meals a day. Besides a little bit of work on an interpretative trail, almost all of our work was in the Valle del Asencio:

All the work we did during the month of December was trail work. We built most of a new trail, improved a planned detour, and tried to get the section of trail downhill from the Paso De Los Vientos under control by filling in the side trails with debris and improving the main trail. This was not the funnest part of the work, but probably the most urgent one. In the photo below, we are taking rocks out of the main trail so that pack horses don’t have to be driven through side trails:

Here Elias from Spain and his wife Bridget from the US are emplacing pieces of wood in the side trails that were opened by horses and people that were frustrated by the main trail. We used a lot of dead Nothofagus wood, which is left over from when the early settlers burned the native forest to make pastures.

This is our supervisor, Daniel, a very nice guy from Punta Arenas, and a good “jefe”. He is cutting a fallen tree on the trail that we built:

Three of the volunteers were from Spain, two from the United States, and two from France. Besides one girl from the United States who didn’t work with us very long, we all spoke Spanish. This is Rodrigo, a botanist from Madrid, and the skull of a skunk Conepatus humboldtii that I found while looking for austral pigmy-owl pellets:

And this is Séverine, a French volunteer, digging rocks and islands of vegetation out of the main trail to put them into the secondary trails and facilitate regrowth:


Wildlife in Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine

Because we were fortunate enough to have a botanist along with us on the work crew, I got to improve my knowledge of botany a little bit. There are many interesting plant species in the park, and we were there at the perfect time to see the majority of them in bloom. This one, for example, is the amaryllidacea “Mariposa del campo” Alstroemaeria patagonica:

This one is the scrophulariacea Calceolaria biflora (same genus as the flower in the previous post, which was C. uniflora. C. tenella is common as well):

And this is the common proteacea shrub Embothrium coccineum:

I didn’t take many bird photos, because I didn’t bring my camera with a zoom lens (wise choice, as I would have spent half the time taking photos). But I just had to take pictures of the Darwin’s rhea Pterocnemia pennata. I also saw the Baird’s sandpiper, the scale-throated earthcreeper, the Patagonian sierra-finch, the mourning sierra-finch, the grass wren, several austral pigmy-owls, a white-throated tree-runner, lots of South American snipes, the striped woodpecker, and the cinnamon-vented ground-tyrant.

There were not a lot of mammals there for a national park. A month in Denali National Park, for example, would provide one with the chance to see a small zoo’s woth of species. In Torres Del Paine I saw mice, tracks of the huemul deer, puma tracks, and a lot of foxes like this Pseudalopex griseus pup:

The dominant mammal in the low parts of the park was the guanaco. I saw many, many, many guanacos. The young guanacos here are called Chulengo:

And I am leaving on the eighth of this month.