We’re winding down to the final frontier of our trip to northern Patagonia, where we’ve encountered more obstacles—rocky roads, falls, and delays—than opportunities to skip over steppingstones.
On this last full day, we “sleep in” til 7:30! Perhaps it’s the lullaby of the rain pattering on the tin cabin roof. Even so, we take our time over a basket of homemade bread, a pan of soft-scrambled eggs, and a block of country cheese like we haven’t eaten since leaving Chiloé Island.
We’re not sure what to expect of today’s adventure, except that it’s going to be a wet day in hard driving. But our first stop at the Hanging Glacier is on this north side of the pass, so we prepare backpacks and extra clothing and set off for Queulat National Park.
The park’s main entrance is off Aysén’s Southern Highway, just past a bleak restaurant in brown wood siding. It’s the dreariest, most desolate welcome you could imagine, but we park in the mud lot and dash through a downpour to pay the fees at the rangers’ station.
“Discouragement and failure are two of the surest steppingstones to success.” –Dale Carnegie
If they consider us ‘Chileans,’ we can get a senior discount here. Of course, we dig out our ID cards, but the guy checking us in waves them away. “Here’s a sure way to tell if you’re Chilean,” he says. “Just fill in the blank. You’re ‘more Chilean than…’”
“Beans!” my husband shouts. He provokes a hearty laugh around the room–and we get a free pass.
Sadly for my book research, we can’t take the necessary three hours to hike to the best lookout at the top of the ridge. “We only have an hour or two at most,” I say. “What you recommend we do here?”
The men offer some enthusiastic suggestions, but I can tell they have reservations about how far these ‘seniors’ can make it over the steppingstones of the paths. Armed with only some vague ideas—no map—we head out.
We drive farther into the woods, past a rustic campground, and park near a closed (and shabby-looking) interpretive center and a graffitied container with toilets.
My husband decides to wear a hooded sweatshirt. It’s too warm for more, he insists. And he’s right, because though it’s very wet, it’s too close to summer to be cold. However, the steady drip from lead-gray skies can chill you. I choose boots and a winter jacket, since I’m only just feeling recovered from the fall of a few days ago. The climate presents a continual wardrobe challenge.
First, we clip along for five or ten minutes max to the Mirador (the Lookout), a thicket of trees where we can see the Hanging Glacier in the distance. Barely. It’s shrouded in mist. We recognize it only because we’re expecting it.
In Swan Island Secrets, I’ve made the higher lookout–on the trail we’ll miss–the setting for the climax of Swan Pose and for another significant scene in the series. I’m disappointed that we can’t distinguish much through the swathes of fog and low cloud.
But we backtrack and try the longer hike that the rangers told us would take about 40 minutes. This one immediately crosses the Ventisquero River via a LONG wooden suspension bridge. Here’s a piece of my story! Frothing water steams from below in a mentholated vapor.
We can’t delay much here, though, as it’s a narrow “no-passing” zone and others want to squeeze by. The trail downgrades into true wilderness rainforest, paved with steppingstones that are more stumbling blocks than anything helpful. But the dense vegetation forms a green canopy overhead and cloaks us from much of the rain.
I find I’m in a botanist’s paradise. Thanks to our naturalist guide Tamara, I’ve learned to identify a lot of plants: rosehips, Magellanic fuchsia, and several fern species, including the giant clambake-crowning rhubarb, nalca.
We’ve heard this park is also prime territory for spotting the pudú, the world’s smallest deer. Like the character Marcos Serrano, I keep alert, but no luck—they’re also one of God’s most timid creatures. Once or twice I almost think I’ve glimpsed something, but it always turns out to be leaves quivering as raindrops hit them.
I’m crossing my fingers that the next lookout on our hike will provide a more substantial vista for our efforts. Even though we’ve stopped for tons of nature photos, it takes us only 20 minutes–by my watch–to emerge onto the shore of the glacier-fed lagoon at the bottom of the Hanging Glacier. I guess the rangers never thought we seniors could walk along at a good pace 😊.
We crunch across the graveled beach—is there no end to the stones on this trip?—but find the object of our interest still mostly veiled in mist, drifting languidly to allow the occasional peer through the layers. On the other hand, we make out clearly a short dock area and shift our hopes to the single unexpected Zodiac tied up there.
We turn to the rain-blackened shack behind us to negotiate a ride out closer to the glacier. The price isn’t outrageous, but yet…we have to foot the entire expense ourselves since few folks are clamoring to go on this day for ducks. We met others on the trail, but everyone’s vanished now. Finally, we shrug…it’s what we came to see.
And as soon as we commit, God sends along a big Chilean family to join us. I mean, Mom, Dad, two or three kids, as well as Grandma and Grandpa (who are our age)! Funny how that works, isn’t it? Our cost slides down to almost nothing.
While all of us wriggle into life jackets, we discover they’re homeschoolers from Los Andes (near Santiago’s main border crossing into Argentina) on a month-long camping trip all the way to Punta Arenas (the jump-off to Tierra del Fuego). Now there’s a story worth jotting down in my idea notebook, no? We share about our recent voyage to Laguna San Rafael.
This is It
Then we’re off across a round silver-mirror lake, created by glacial run-off, that didn’t exist just a few years ago. The air glitters with clear beads of rain. The heavy clouds continue to press down on the drizzly view. But as we close in on the Hanging Glacier, the park’s most famous geological feature, the gray curtain lifts.
Not that the landscape’s suddenly bright and beautiful. But at least it’s visible. And today that’s a Bucket List achievement—one of several steppingstones to victory.
A sheer wall of ice “hangs” between two blue-veined mountain ridges. It’s shaped like a porcelain teacup, with streams trickling—probably gushing, in reality—out the bottom. As if a cup of milk had a crack in it.
Of course, I’ll admit I wanted to see this closer up, from the higher trail. I wanted to hear and smell the glacier, to trace the fissures in its snowy crust and marvel at the eagles that nest nearby.
But it’s enough, for this time. Marcos and Coni’s first visit didn’t unfold well either. It means we have a reason for another trip, right?
Our Zodiac pilot, a (very young!) bearded guy in a navy trench coat and sou’wester hat, stands at the wheel, beeper in hand. A Patagonian version of the iconic river boat captain. When I ask, he tells me he’s neither a ranger nor a military man—he works here on a Merchant Marines subcontract.
Blocks and Beans
The accommodating fellow inches right up to the bottom of the cliff below the glacier. This is as good as it gets from this angle. Then he trails along both flanks of the glacier/cliff so we can get close-ups of the lacy network of finger falls. I count five cascades on the left face, three or four on the right. The pilot says they fill and fade with the seasons. Maybe eight are permanent.
I’m imagining blue dolphins at play under Swan Island’s green finger falls. Anything’s possible in a story…
After that, the cloud curtain starts to drop again, so we head back, drenched but dazzled. Once again, we blaze our trail through Queulat National Park—and I glimpse why God put these rocks in the path. They so often turn out not to be stumbling blocks at all.
“The difference between stumbling blocks and steppingstones is how you use them.” –Daystar
For one thing, the steppingstones along this wet, muddy trail prevent my feet from getting submerged in the ooze. For another, even boots tend to slip on the downhill here. The stones don’t just slow me, sometimes they’re all that’s keeping me standing upright.
Today holds many moments when I’d definitely prefer to huddle by a fire eating beans and wieners. However, where’s the adventure in that? If I just look at the obstacles from a different perspective, in many cases I discover more helpful advantages than hindrances.
As we drive out of the park, we wave a triumphant adios to the rangers. Perhaps we should change the proverb and say we are more Chilean than…stones. Tough old birds, and still full of beans.