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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Patagonia The Last Wild Place

The new book, Unknown Patagonia, tells the story of the precious and unexplored region of central Chilean Patagonia and the environmental threats it faces

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A fiery cloudscape above Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in Patagonia and second largest in South America after Lake Titicaca. Behind the far peaks, an enormous ice field, the Campo de Hielo Norte, slopes down to the Pacific.
The heart of Chilean Patagonia is water. Each river has its own color, which is usually some shade of turquoise. The water is crystal clear and so blue that the color looks like the work of Photoshop. The most intensely colored rivers and lakes that we’ve seen anywhere in the world are in Patagonia. Our favorite lake, Lago Carrera, is the jewel of Aysén and the second largest in South America. We love this lake because of its deep and beautiful color. At the lake’s western end sit sculpted marble caverns eroded by centuries of waves at the base of steep cliffs and stone stacks. Real marble is fairly rare in nature. The combination of marble and turquoise water is even more so.

While they’re now protected from logging, the famous alerce trees are diminishing in number. Alerces are a kind of cypress that stand more than 100 feet high and are centuries old, making them the largest and oldest trees in South America. Thousands of hectares of native forest stretch from the deep fjords of northern Palena to the giant ice fields that separate Aysén from Magallanes in the far south. Along the Enchanted Forest Trail, twisted trees are covered with a layer of smaller green plants and climbing vines, covered and re-covered by moss.

Alerces, a species of cypress, are the largest and oldest trees in South America. Some are estimated to be more than 3,000 years old, and they often reach 130 feet tall. Now protected, only about 15% of Chile’s original alerce stands are left.
Perhaps most identified with its mountainous regions, in Patagonia, even those are different. The peaks of the Andes aren’t as high as those closer to the Equator, but they’re still enormous because they rise some 10,000 feet from near sea level. Some peaks in the far south rise straight from the sea. More than the peaks, Patagonia’s mountain landscapes are defined by ice fields. Much bigger than simple glaciers, they’re formed by years of snow compressing, freezing and turning to ice. The 1,500-mile Northern Ice Field is mostly unseen behind the big peaks. The fields play a big role in the region’s unusual geography. When the winds get going, they pick up clouds of moisture vapor and huge storms form from the vast plains of ice.

In Eastern Aysén, the dry terrain looks more like Argentine Patagonia, the side most often photographed and displayed in climbing magazines. Vast semi-arid valleys cover the landscape with spiky, thorny plants and fast-moving clouds that don’t often bring rain. Beauty here takes on a minimalist tone with stunted, windswept trees and wide, open grasslands.

All of this is southern Patagonia. And because so few have seen this land in person, its beauty remains unknown and unspoiled. Nature put up roadblocks, effectively keeping developmental threats out for a long time. But now there’s pressure. Even the most beautiful and poetic landscape can’t defend itself. So those who know and love this place have to tell the story, show the pictures and tell others to explore it while it’s still perfect.

To see more of Linde Waidhofer’s photography, visit www.westerneye.com. Unknown Patagonia is available as an ebook that can be copied and shared, free of cost, on the Western Eye Press website. A deluxe, large-format hardbound edition, limited to 500 copies, is also available.


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