Day 7 – Tierra del Fuego

Town of Ushuaia

Town of Ushuaia

After rounding the cape, the ship docked in Ushuaia. This small city in Tierra del Fuego belongs to Argentina and is known as the city furthest south in the world. Ushuaia began as a penal colony.  The site was perfect for this use since Tierra del Fuego is an island and the extreme nature of the climate and its remote location made escape impossible.  No walls or fences were needed! Disembarking the ship, it feels raw and cut-off from civilization even though there is a significant population there now.  Originally, Tierra del Fuego was inhabited by the Yaghan people.  When Charles Darwin visited Tierra del Fuego and met the Yaghan, he said he had never see so primitive a people. None of them remain today because when the Europeans arrived, they were displaced by disease and encroachment.  These people are something of an enigma. Why? Photos nearly always show them without clothing or covered in simple animal skins. Let me tell you, Tierra del Fuego is a place you need clothing (think Alaska)!  No doubt they were hardy and sturdy folk.  Their language was simple.  They lived, as all native peoples, close to the land.  Or, in this case, close to the water!  They lived off fish, seals, sea birds and whales. We were told that the men refused to do the swimming necessary for collecting food.  Instead, they required the women to do this work!  (In their mythology, in ancient times, women ruled over men so they took the lead in many things.)

Outside Ushuaia

Outside Ushuaia

So how did they keep warm?  Fires were always lit. Actually, the name “Tierra del Fuego” (Land of Fire) was coined by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 during his rounding of Cape Horn.  He saw the light of many fires burning, and he believed that the native people were lying in wait for them to land so that they could attack his ship. The name stuck,.  The necessity for fires makes sense when you see the conditions.

The Beagle Channel passes by the city of Ushuaia.  This is the passage named after the ship Charles Darwin was on when he made passage there.  The wildlife of the channel is stunning: penguins, seals, a extraordinary variety of water birds, and numerous whales.  Many people from the ship took boats out on the channel to get a closer look.  Sandy and I opted for an alpine hike in the mountains outside of town. We disembarked the ship and were taken by bus into the mountains to a rustic cabin.  Upon arrival we were issued rubber boots not quite knowing why we would need them.  Soon enough we found out.  We were led by our guide from one ridge-line across an immense peat bog to a mountain range to our north.  The peat bog is a dense but spongy mass of plant material that has collected in the valley for millennia.  It is topped with a mixture of grass, moss and various types of ferns.  The valley was dissected by a number of tributaries, and we could see quite a few beaver dams blocking the streams that created lakes and sloughs.

Alpine Hike

Alpine Hike

The story of the beaver is an interesting one.  Land mammals are scarce in Tierra del Fuego. Some wise people got the idea of bringing mammals from North America to enrich the landscape and help with water management.  As is often the case, the experiment was a disaster.  Having no natural predators on the island, the beavers flourished building dams in all of the valleys like the one we were hiking.  The dams created so many lakes that many valleys are now flooded.  The result: many trees have been drowned and are dead.  Now, they would like to be rid of the beavers, but they are everywhere and it is too late for that.

The valley was about a mile and half wide where we crossed it.  The peat bog retains an untouched beauty.  It is filled with an array of flowers and ferns, grasses and many types of mosses with colors from across the range of the color spectrum–green, orange, red, purple, and even blue.  The sounds of birds filled the valley and the mountain we climbed afterward.  We did not see any land mammals on our hike. This gave a feeling that the land was empty.  Perhaps, this was part of the reasoning in bringing in beavers.

Alpine Valley

Alpine Valley

On our return from the hike, we were greeted at the cabin with coffee, hot tea, fruit and sandwiches.  Everyone had walked up an appetite and we had also gotten rather cold at times during the hike. Two squalls had passed through the valley.  Each time we were pelted by freezing rain and sleet!  But, the whole experience was one of beauty and feeling close to the diversity of life on the island. Very nice.

We were returned to Ushuaia early enough that we had time to walk the town.  The youth of the buildings makes it clear that the town is young and has been growing rapidly because of tourism and shipping. There is little to commend the town itself.

That evening when the ship pushed away from the dock we were in for two amazing treats.  First, entering the Beagle Channel brought us around a famous lighthouse on an island covered with seals and inhabited by many sea birds.  The island is stained white by their droppings, and we could hear the seals barking as we passed.  This little area was swimming with life and our presence didn’t seem to disturb the activity at all. The next destination along the channel is called Glacier Alley, named in part after Richard Alley who passed through this part of the channel and helped name the Glaciers.  A stretch of the land at this point is dotted by one glacier after another, all of which he named for European countries.  France, Germany, Italy, and so on.  Some of the glaciers are tidal, coming all the way to the water.  Others are alpine glaciers that appear to cling to the side of the mountains.

sandy glacierOur stateroom was on the starboard side of the ship so we sat on our balcony and watched as we passed each of the glaciers.  This was such a sweet time for us to enjoy (although quite cold at times!).  The presence of the fog shrouding the glaciers along the full distance of the route gave an eerie sort of feeling to the whole experience.  And, the run-off water bears silt that gives the channel a unique blue-green color.  The experience is extraordinary and part of the creation to be treasured as a rare sight for us Floridians.

What a day!  We were so grateful for our time together and this new place to see and enjoy.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Sandy on February 4, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    🙂

    Reply

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