A Spectacular Day

Friday, June 29, 2007

Most of the time, there are clouds in the sky. Any blue sky showing counts as a sunny day for us. But today, we woke up to a sky filled with stars and no clouds in sight.

Last night, we saw the very rare Geoffrey's cat on our way back from puma territory. We haven't met a guide nor a park ranger who has seen one. Unfortunately, the cat wasn't willing to wait around for us to take out all of the camera gear which was packed away, so we have no pictures. It was in a tree, only 20 feet away from us. It's a small cat with lots of spots. It looks like more spotlighting at night is in store for us.

Ranchers and Puma

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The closest town to the park is Cerro Castillo (http://www.torresdelpayne.cl), which is about 50 km outside the central park entrance. Approximately 100 years old, it is the center of operations for three sheep ranches. The perimeter of the three-block town is surrounded by pens used, I guess, for processing the sheep. Not much more than a crossroads, there are two small coffee shops that also sell souvenirs.

Stopping by for lunch on my way back from errands in Puerto Natales, I discovered that a dozen or so local workers eat at the coffee shop daily. Rather than order typical tourist fare off the menu, I was invited to join the men eating the “house menu.” I had to stop after the soup course – a hearty soup with whole corn, chicken and potatoes – but decided this would be a welcome treat for the boys and arranged to return for dinner.

Dinner, like lunch, was a three-course meal served to the local workers. This time, a seafood soup was followed by a huge serving of (appropriately) shepherd’s pie. We didn’t have room for dessert. For $28, we were well fed with a hearty meal. But the best part of the evening was when we were introduced to one of the ranchers. An owner of 80,000 hectares, he was introduced to us because he knows a lot about puma. Basically, he doesn’t like them much. He claimed that one puma could be responsible for as many as 40 baby sheep in one night. Ranchers in the area have hunted for the puma in the past with dogs. This rancher says that the puma “hide in the park” during the day, but continue to hunt on the ranches at night.

The next day, we reported the conversation to the park rangers. We were assured that a puma might kill as many as 40 sheep in a year, but certainly not in a one night!

"First Impressions of Patagonia"

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

There is a terrific website where the scholars have transcribed the writings of many early settlers here in Puerto Natales and the area. (http://patlibros.org/) One early writer was Arthur Button (1880-1965, amatuer naturalist), who wrote the following:


"Do not go" I was advised by various persons. "You will die of cold, and
misery awaits you there. You will get bronchitis or pneumonia. It is
near the Antarctic: the climate is fog and rain. You will know nothing
but ice and cold and terrible winds."

"You do not know what you are doing. There is nothing there. It is a
land of barrenness. You will find that for hundreds of miles there is no
grass, only tufts here and there. It is fit only for cold-blooded
Indians, who keep a fire perpetually burning: hundreds of them, all over
the land and in their boats, when changing camp; them, and the sheep
that have wool on their backs to keep them warm."

“It is not fit for civilized man, for he soon dies, if he does not
return to a warmer climate."

For three days, there have been strong winds (they can reach 100 miles/hr. here) and rain (or snow in the higher elevations). Apparently, it rains more because of global warming, but it is still quite cold and miserable. Regardless, the boys go out and do their best to find guanaco kills or puma tracks. We did go into the town and enjoyed a hot meal.

Stop the Press - Puma!

Friday, June 22, 2007

These pictures are by Alex. The first day of looking for puma was productive, as we met the rangers and learned more about puma habits. Generally, most people don't see puma here in the park. The trekking guide had only seen one puma in years, which is pretty typical for the trekking guides here. Mostly, they spend time taking the tourists to the glaciers and are more interested in the spectacular scenery. The puma generally hunt at night, which also limits the sightings.
Yesterday, day two of puma spotting, was extraordinarily successful. In the morning, on our way to the ranger station, I spotted an adult near the road. The female was stalking guanaco (seen in the above picture.) A few minutes later, Trent spotted a pair of cubs lounging on some rocks. Alex and Trent spent a while with the pair, and were able to take more photos, including the third photo above.
The boys continued hiking for a few hours, and they came across one more puma. At the end of the day, when checking in with the park rangers, Trent managed to spot yet another puma. Trent saw FIVE puma in a single day in four separate sightings.
In case you're worried about how close the boys are to the puma, know that the boys have pretty large lenses on their cameras. Trent is shooting with a 500mm lens, and Alex has a 400mm with a 2x converter. The pumas were much farther away than they seem in the photo!

Living in Puerto Natales

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Americans would be surprised to see how small the typical homes are here and elsewhere in Latin America. The average house is only about 500 square feet on a single floor. Here, corrugated tin roofs are most common, with some houses being entirely constructed of corrugated tin. Above, the picture is of some new house construction. I didn't see any "For Sale" signs anywhere around town, so I'm guessing the turnover is limited and mostly private. This is the only new construction I came across. The picture below is taken from the new cemetery, but shows part of an older neighborhood.

For a small town, Puerto Natales has a lot of shops. There are small shops for fruits, others for meats, and then small grocery stores for dried and refrigerated goods. One store, still much smaller than the average grocery story in the States, carries just about everything else you would want for your house. This is where I found a can opener, in preparation for the many tuna fish and cracker meals I expect we’ll have in the upcoming weeks. But this store also has furniture, pots and pans, trophies (!), toys, school supplies, and both small and large appliances. I can’t seem to find, though, a store that sells computer cords (to attach my external hard drive to my computer) or a cooler (to keep cold foods in when we’re out and about – I’m worried about keeping the foods insulated from freezing). We did, though, manage to find a battery charger for the 12V batteries in an auto supply store!

Getting acclimated

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Days are pretty short this time of year. It’s pitch dark, with stars visible in the sky, until after 8 a.m. and again after 5:00 p.m. With the sun low in the sky, it’s never a bright sunny day. The whole town shuts down at 12:30 or 1:00 for lunch, when you’ll see the shopkeepers leave and the students on their way home. At 2:00 the students are out again going back to school, but the stores don’t open until 3:00. It does not leave a lot of time left to run errands in the daylight.

Weather is pretty consistently cold, ranging from 25 to 32 degrees in the daytime, and there are always clouds in the sky. Occasionally there are very strong winds that blast across the sound. Snow falls, but disappears quickly in the area near the water. The weather forecasts are not trusted by the locals. So far, the wind storms and snow showers that have occurred were not predicted on weather.com, but snow is expected for tomorrow. We’ll see.

There are two Roman Catholic churches in the town. The church pictured is on the main plaza. Built in the early 20th century, it was the first brick building in town. The other buildings were made with corrugated tin.

Arriving in Patagonia

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A lot of people are wondering why I'm not spending what promises to be a warmer than usual summer in the United States and instead writing this blog during winter in the Patagonia, Chile. The short answer is that my two sons, Trent (18) and Alex (15), are both avid wildlife photographers. They are spending ten weeks in the Torres del Paine park looking for wildlife, especially puma. I'll report on their success periodically. They are currently trekking with a guide and two porters, trying to get a sense of the area, while I am hanging out in the nearby town of Puerto Natales. Even with porters, they'll have lots of camera gear to carry! I have my projects, too, this summer. I'm preparing a course on Climate Crises which I am planning to co-teach with Dr. Diane Husic in 2008. So when I'm not chasing after mountain lions, I'll be collecting information on glaciers and climate change here in Chile.

Getting to Puerto Natales (seen in photo from our hotel on the sound) is a bit difficult. Our goal was to arrive after 50 hours with all of our luggage. We travelled with two tripods and ten bags -- approximately two bags of outdoor camping gear, four of camera gear (including one large backpack for the 500mm lens we rented for this adventure), a 50 lb. box of two large 12V batteries for the spotlights (scooter batteries), one bag of spotlights and other assorted electronics, and two bags with books, computers and clothing. (We are very minimalist on the clothing – three outfits each with an extra two shirts.)

We drove to Washington, DC, and then flew (changing planes in Miami and Santiago, with an additional three stops in Chile) to Punta Arenas (the southern most city in the world – jumping off point for the Antarctica). Finally, a bus ride of three hours brought us to the town of Puerto Natales where the driver from the hotel was waiting for us. Only two problems occurred with our luggage: the day before we left an embargo on boxes was announced by the airline. But they didn't want the batteries in the duffel bags either ... so they agreed to allow the box if TSA would approve it and the batteries. The special line for TSA clearance worked just fine. We had arrived three hours early on purpose, which turned out to be a good thing. And when we arrived in Chile, the 500mm lens (approximately 2 feet long) got us sent over to the customs police section. After 15 minutes of dicussion, in Spanish, they decided to let us take the camera equipment with us after we filled out a list of every piece of photographic equipment we had in our possession along with serial numbers. We were also told to allow extra time for another visit with the customs police when we depart. We then ran to catch our final connection! All in all, pretty straightforward.

After some unpacking and sorting, the boys were already to leave with the prearranged guide, leaving me to explore the town of Puerto Natales!