Southern Chile: Living on the Most Southerly Locations on Earth

Southern Chile: Living on the Most Southerly Locations on Earth

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Somewhere on Earth is off to visit the faraway land of Patagonia, one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth. Southern Chile is a vast territory, where the cloud seem within arm's reach. At the extreme tip of South America, the only limits are the sky, the sea, and the still unexplored peaks of the Andes.

Patagonia lifts the veil on its fragile beauty. Jorge Arratia knows all the secrets of the balseros, the Patagonia raftsmen. In this remote valley, the lumberjacks harvest cypress wood and transport it down the Rio Baker to the sea. Philippe Reuter's childhood dream was to explore the planet's wildest places.

This enthusiastic mountaineer is a certified alpine guide and lives at the foot of the Andes immense glaciers. Carlos Barria is one of the southernmost men on Earth. He fishes the icy water of the Beagle Channel. Carlos is a seaman, but also a cattleman. His ranch is situated at the ends of the Earth, very close to the mythical Cape Horn. Nature is part of my life.

When I fish, I'm communing with nature. It's my livelihood. The sea and the land, I make my living from both. I live thanks to nature. Here, at the ends of the Earth, live people who can resist anything. Isolation and the glacial winds have molded inhabitants of Patagonia.

Perhaps the only place left where legends are still being written. Carlos, a king crab fisherman and rancher, lives beyond the end of the Earth on the Beagle Channel. The mountains and the sea are his never-ending test of courage. Carlos possesses the integrity of seafarers and the force of landsmen. This is a very dangerous place in bad weather.

We don't go fishing for centolla, the king crab, with today's weather. It gets very tricky, the sea's too rough for our boats. I know this region like the back of my hand. I've been working here over 30 years. On the Beagle Channel and further south, as well.

We're just across from the Tierra del Fuego. That's Argentina on the other side. The canal is split in two, one half's Argentine, the other Chilean. Sailing here, where two great oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, meet, means taking a trip back in time. The Beagle Channel, a passage gouged out of the cliff faces at the tail-end of the Andes, is the last strait in southern Tierra del Fuego. The waterway, discovered in 1825, gets its name from the British brig, the Beagle.

Its captain, Robert FitzRoy, undertook several Patagonia expeditions. On one, he took aboard a young naturalist who would become one of the most famous scientists of his time, Charles Darwin. Ever since their discovery by Magellan, the icy waters of Patagonia's channels have preserved traces of the great age of discovery.

These shores are a huge maritime cemetery. This is both the beginning and end of the world, one of our planet's most inhospitable regions. This land of high latitudes with its dreaded cape, the legendary Cape Horn, gateway to the vast South Pacific.

At Puerto Williams on the island of Navarino, the fishermen are getting ready for the centolla, or king crab season, their main source of income. Onboard Carlos' boat, Rodrimar, things are going wrong. The reverse gear is broken. The only way to fix it is to take out the engine and ship it to Punta Arenas, where they'll be able to replace the part.

I've got to hurry and get this engine onto the ferry boat. There aren't any mechanics here in Puerto Williams. The nearest one is in Punta Arenas, the main port of Patagonia, two days away by boat. The crab season starts in a week and I've got a motor that breaks down. This is really rotten luck.

What Carlos fails to mention is that not only could he miss out on the crab season, but he could also lose his crew. Many men in Puerto Williams earn their living from crab fishing, and for them, it's out of the question to lose work due to a faulty engine. Carlos knows this.

Not only is his fishing season imperiled, but he'll have to take a boat to Douglas, where he has a ranch and a herd of cattle. Douglas is seven hours away by boat. Life on the edge of the Earth has its constraints. One needs to accept them. I was 20 years old when I came here from Puerto Natales. For more than 30 years, I've been living in Puerto Williams.

Life was hard back then. Things are a little better now. There was only the naval base and very little work. That's why I came here to work.

I liked the spot for its peace and quiet. So I stayed in Puerto Williams. I started a family and became a fisherman, here in the world's southernmost village. I fell in love with this spot, and that's why I stayed.

Puerto Williams, on the shores of the Beagle Channel, is Chile's southernmost community. The village, located across from Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, is a formal naval base. Now, the town has a population of just over 2,000, half of which are military personnel. Once a week, the Yaghan makes its regular run to Punta Arenas. Carlos may miss the beginning of the king crab season, but he's taken care of some of his worries. His mechanical problems will soon be solved, but he'll have to be patient.

It will take a month to get the repaired motor back. The southern storms swirl around the Antarctic. Patagonia is the first land that the West winds and the Pacific depressions encounter. Sailors call this part of the globe the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties. Sailing conditions are some of the most extreme that navigators could ever encounter.

Carlos is heading for Douglas, to his ranch way off the beaten track. With his crab-fishing boat out of order, he boarded the Orca Via, a rapid boat that serves the isolated communities along the Beagle Channel. We're coming into Douglas Bay.

I'm worried because I haven't checked the fellow working there for over 20 days. He's all alone, and I haven't had any news from him. I'm worried about his health. I have no idea if he needs anything. You never know. Douglas is an old Anglican mission, abandoned in the early 20th century.

Carlos took over these lands at the Earth's end about 20 years ago. He owns around 100 head of cattle. As soon as he sets foot on dry land, he gets to work with Jose, the silent caretaker of the Campo.

Jose has been totally cut off from rest of the world for four months. You have to have someone who knows how to work, and even more important, who can stand the isolation. You have to like being alone. Out here your only friends are the radio and dogs. There's no other company. You have to get used to the solitude.

It's hard for those who can't live alone, it's a real problem. [Spanish spoken audio] Here in the far south, Douglas is the only place between Williams and Cape Horn where you can buy meat. We sell to the fishermen most of the animals we slaughter.

They come through here for the crab season starting February. The boats that sail south all pass here and buy their meat from me. Carlos has created a refuge for himself in Douglas, a parcel of forgotten land that is an ideal spot to appreciate the full measure of the beauty of the world. Carlos has left his worries behind for the moment.

There will always be time to get back to sea. Meanwhile, he can still do some fishing here without a motor. Even though I had a problem with the motor and had to send it to Punta Arenas, I can still work and fish for crabs now that I'm here in Douglas. It's very early in the season.

First, I just set two traps to see if there are any centolla. If there are, I'll set some more. These are all males. We're not allowed to keep the females. If we catch any females, we have to throw them back. I'm lucky, I got all males, good-sized adults.

They'll sell well. I really love this spot. I've always worked in fishing, but I wanted to have a place of my own. Where I could come and recharge my batteries and work a little as well.

Live as I please. I'm a fisherman, but I love the land. I'm not a rancher, but I really like it. I'm still learning about ranch work. I'm still more of a fisherman than a cattleman. There's nobody from here to the end of the land, only passersby, like fishermen.

For the moment, it's completely uninhabited. This place means a lot to me. Right after my wife and children, it has a very important place in my heart. I realized that here, on the island of Navarino, I'm living in the southernmost spot on Earth.

If I hadn't settled here, I would have gone further south. Philippe, an adventurous alpine guide, has a keen instinct for the extreme. This is the kind of spot where there are no limits. No limits to the forces of nature, the adventures you can experience without seeing anyone else, and no limits to the distances.

They are vast. There are no limits to anything here. This is a practically unexplored territory with thousands of places where man has never set foot. A vestige of long-gone ice ages, the valley of the Rio Leones is a gateway to the summits of Patagonia. For almost 20 years now, Philippe has been opening trails for the climbing expeditions he organizes.

The Rio Leones is one of his itineraries, not the easiest, but it leads to the glaciers without passing by the sea and the Pacific Ocean. Now we have some work to do in the river. We're going to remove stones that are a hazard when we go upstream by boat. There are two big stones that are a little tricky to get past when the river is low.

We're going to try to get them out. I hope the water won't be too high to work in today. You lost a cow? We didn't see it anywhere, but if we find it, we eat it. [Spanish spoken audio] Hey Pato, pretty good weather today, huh? We can see the stones sticking out of the river there. We should be able to get the job done. Every summer Philippe has to negotiate with nature for a ride of passage on the Rio Leones.

With puny means and the folly of those who dream of moving mountains, Philippe takes on this unusual job. This is what I like about this work. Creating, assembling, and constructing. Today, I'm dredging this stone.

I come so close to it every time I come by here. I might wreck the boat and end up in the water. If we can get it out today, it'd be a great relief, one stone a day. We have to spend hours in the cold water and move tons and tons of stone by hand, but nature lends a hand. We take out the stone and she carries away the rest.

That's how it goes. At last, the way to the summit is clear. It's summer in Patagonia, the best season for the Andinist, the mountaineers of the Andes. After a lifetime of pushing his limits, Philippe came to live on the shores of Lake Carrera General, in the heart of Patagonia. Philippe was born at the foot of French Alps into a family of avid mountaineers.

Then he spent a large part of his childhood in Santiago. Ever since, he has been following his dreams of peaks and pinnacles. He decided to put down roots in the village of Puerto Guadal.

A veteran of Everest and extreme challenges, he is one of Chile's best climbers. I was raised in the great outdoors. My father was an alpine guide. I remember when I was two and a half, I walked on the summit of Parmelan in the French Alps. At four, I climbed La Tourne.

I was raised outdoors. All my professional activities were linked with the outdoors and nature. Photographer, ski instructor, and then Alpine guide.

Like many things, you catch the nature bug when you're little. That's what happened with me. When I'm out in the wild, I don't think about anything but the stone or the tree I have to move, or the cabin I have to build.

It's a way of doing yoga. Its my own brand of yoga. Its life in its simplest form, eating, sleeping, walking.

That's all there is to it. It really does me a world of good. Philippe is taking a group of climbers to the foot of the Leones Glacier, the base camp for the expeditions up Monte San Valentin. Over 4,000 meters high, it's one of Patagonia's tallest peaks. There are three passes to cross.

The climb will take 20 days. The success of an expedition depends on the weather conditions, but perhaps even more so here with the cold and wind. The weather is extreme, identical to the nearby Antarctic. Only ten percent of the climbers who tackle this mountain get to the peak. From here on, you'll be crossing glaciers, climbing rocks, clambering up a crest, and all your encampments will be on ice.

The main problems are the distances and the climate. Know that you're in for a rough time. You're doomed to sleep in your tent during a storm that can last a day or two.

If things go bad, you have to start rationing early, so that the trip can leave your head full of breathtaking images. The rest is a human experience that you will live to the fullest. Mission accomplished for Philippe.

His alpine guides will take charge of the mission from here on. After the Arctic and the Antarctic, this is the largest frozen area on Earth. Patagonia is home to the world's third-largest ice field. All along the Cordillera of the Andes, the ice sheet stretch north and south for close to 500 kilometers. This is the realm of the williwaw, the cold, violent and unpredictable wind that barrels down the mountain slopes at speeds up to 300 kilometers an hour. As soon as the weather permits, Philippe makes for the Leones Glacier.

It's a fascinating monument, an imposing mass, and a fragile testimony to the upheavals of our planet. Well, it gives me a feeling of sadness. The chunk that dropped off was very high. It gave the glacier its characteristic height.

You can see another one falling. You can tell summer is here. It's really typical. I know from experience and the saddest part of this whole thing is that there's no going back. We'll never recover that, that's very old ice.

There's not much precipitation in the region anymore. The glacier really took a body blow today, and that's sad. I've been coming here for 17 years.

Back then, the glacier covered the rocks. The face was much higher and covered the width of the lake. About five years ago we started noticing an acceleration in the melting of the ice that we didn't have in earlier years. Scientists said the glacier would lose six centimeters a day in summer and one centimeter a day in winter. There's no way to get that back.

I think that in five years it won't come down to the water's edge anymore. This is the pulse of the planet. A little finger on the planet's pulse. There are other spots where it beats stronger, but this is my own pulse. The village of Tortel, ensconced in the Gulf of Penas, was for a long time isolated from the rest of the world.

It was not until the early 2000s that the arrival of Route 7, La Carretera Austral, broke the isolation of the inhabitants. Jorge was 14 when he came to Tortel. Like everyone else here, he became a lumberjack. Tortel saw the light of day thanks to cypress wood. The boardwalks are all made of the local wood. For years, cypress wood has been Tortel's livelihood.

Tortel was founded in the 1950s by the balseros, the raftsmen. They assembled thousands of rafts in order to transport logs to the sea. Jorge knows all the balseros' secrets. He wants to relay his knowledge to his sons.

They're going to make a descent to one of Patagonia's major rivers, a voyage through the heart of dark forests in the wake of the old raftsmen. The memory of the Rio Baker. Thanks to the cypress trees, people have settled in this valley. Now, Jorge is not permitted to log the greenwood, only the trunks burned in the tragic forest fires of the 1960s, which destroyed a part of Patagonia's virgin forest.

I communicate with the trees, they also have a life of their own. In a certain way, we depend on them. They are a source of work for us. The trees give us everything we need. Cypress wood is resistant to rain and humidity.

You don't need to treat it for it to age well. It has a natural property. It is rot-resistant. Unlike the other trees here, that is its number one quality.

We're going to Luis Jimenez Gonzalez's place. He's a descendant of the early settlers in the region of Rio Baker and Tortel. They came here around 1945. His father was one of the very first settlers here. Getting to know these people has been the best thing to happen to me. They were special people, and made a lot of sacrifices.

They were brave, bravos, as we say in Patagonia. [Spanish spoken audio] Jorge and Luis Jimenez are going to spend the day in the forest. They have to gather the timber to finish the rafts before the bad weather sets in.

[Spanish spoken audio] We've made huge sacrifices to make this land our own. A lot of sacrifices. Despite the progress, it's still hard.

Even now, we woodsmen who've made this place our land, we don't get help from the government. In the 1940s, a few pioneering families like Luis's settled in this valley here in southern Chile. It was a handful of men and women who decided to colonize this virgin land far off the beaten track. The early settlers had nothing but courage and a healthy dose of hope. Now, some 60 years later, life hasn't changed much for the men and women of Patagonia here on the banks of the Rio Baker. In the forest, everyday life is still laced with adventure.

Luis and Diego, Jorge's youngest sons, have long dreamed of the day they would raft down the Rio baker. They grew up listening to tales of the balseros, those men of the forest who carved in wood, the legendary history of this corner of the world. Flanked by steep mountains, the valley is difficult to access. There's no road. No machine can fray a path into this forest.

Oxen are still the best way to haul the cypress wood. Time has stood still here in the Baker Valley. Today, 70 years after the arrival of the first pioneers, Jorge and Jimenez carry on the tradition of the balseros.

The saying goes, in Patagonia, he who hurries loses time. Everything is difficult here due to the great distances between one place, village and another. The job we're doing today is tricky. They say, you must walk slowly over pebbles. That's another Patagonian saying.

It's the School of Life. The School of Nature. Life teaches you so many things.

It teaches you to improvise. Everything we learned here has been transmitted by the pioneers, the early settlers. We've learned it all from them.

I certainly did. They have left us the heritage of the balseros, the art of log rafting. It's very important for us and for future generations.

It's a privilege to be able to do this and to maybe one day pass it on. So that it doesn't die out. These people are like living treasures. I think it's the most valuable aspect of our culture. Jimenez, Jorge, and his sons have finished constructing five rafts. Now, they'll take them down to the Rio Baker one by one, to assemble them all into one large timber raft.

It's very moving for me to see them working like this because I've been doing this for more than 20 years. Back then, I would work with the old-timers. I didn't take things so much to heart. It was just my everyday life.

Now there are more than 400 cypress logs assembled into one huge timber raft. It's a beautiful sight, but it's very dangerous. I've done this all my life and I've never had a problem, thank God. It's not pleasant work, but it's God's will. This is how we make our living here.

There's a Patagonian saying, if you live in Patagonia, you're doubly Chilean. Not everyone can put up with the way of life here. It's too hard. People from Santiago or any other big city are used to an agreeable climate.

They've acquired a taste for modern conveniences. If they were to come here, they wouldn't be able to stand it. It's just too harsh. [Spanish spoken audio] This morning the weather is perfect to tackle the descent of the Rio Baker and reach the northern region of Patagonia's channels. If El Senor Baker, as they call the river, is in a good mood, it will take them two days riding the current to reach Tortel.

When the winter is harsh and summer mild, the water level can rise quite suddenly. Upstream, the glacier melts and tributaries carry tons of alluvium. Trees torn from the banks form dams that'll give way in flood periods.

The river dwellers know that these natural phenomena can submerge the valley in a few hours. All the balseros remember those who lost their lives on the Baker. The balseros are at the mercy of the river and its whirlpools. The river has a very strong current. It sweeps you along and tosses you from side to side. It's really swift.

If you're overconfident, nature will not give you any breaks. You have to respect her, and even so, always anticipate. Nature is good, but all the same, you should never forget that she is the one who's in charge. You have to navigate at her rhythm. The rapids are difficult.

The river is very high, but we made good time. I'm speaking from experience. We have much respect for El Senor Baker. Jorge is quite proud of his sons and they're not about to forget their first descent of the baker. Sharing a mate on the river out in the wild.

A lot of folks from the city, even if it is the most beautiful and posh city in the world, would envy this pleasure. Here, we're breathing good, pure air. We're together as a family. This is one of life's greatest riches.

The men and the women of Patagonia possess a good number of qualities. They're able to overcome difficult situations, to live in isolated areas, wild, untamed regions, where the smallest job requires a great effort. All that is a vast treasure.

2023-03-19 08:35

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