Patagonia truly is wild. Jagged purple peaks, crowned with white glaciers, rise starkly out of turquoise blue waters. Golden grasses share the hillsides with stunted trees. All around us is color so vibrant it almost hurts. This land is vast.
And the glaciers, so many shades of blue. The ice is also massive and almost overwhelming in its sheer scope.
Along the coast, the sea lions hang out sunning themselves and poach the salmon from the local fisheries. Herds of guanaco roam the prairie. The condors rule the sky. And penguins! Look up at night and see the Southern Cross, the same stars Ferdinand Magellan used to navigate his boat through the Strait of Magellan.
This past spring, SFS Dean Dr. Mark Seifert and I spent several weeks traveling through Patagonia. We began our trip up north in the lakes region, looking at the implications of living in the “Ring of Fire” – the area situated next to several active volcanoes. We traced Darwin’s path onto the island of Chiloe, a biodiversity hotspot. We looked at the impact of the salmon fisheries all along the coast. Then, in the south, we met with park managers in Torres del Paine and other national parks who told us about their biggest challenges in managing these parks, protecting endangered species, and conserving habitats, all while keeping the parks open to visitors. We visited estancias and learned about the baqueano and gaucho ways of life. We hiked with guanaco, went frogging, walked the coastline with wild horses, and traversed glaciers. We visited penguin colonies and heard about the challenges in protecting marine species that call the Patagonia fjords their home. We drove through the desolate landscape of Tierra del Fuego, finally arriving in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. And just to be thorough, we jumped on a boat and went around Cape Horn.
What do you think of when you think of Patagonia? Pristine ecosystems and protected lands? The clothing brand? Patagonia is one of the last truly wild places in the world…but it’s in trouble. Patagonia is like no other place on earth and this has not gone unnoticed. Some want to protect it. Some want to exploit it. And some just want to carve out a decent living there. Habitat degradation? Check. Endangered species? Yup. Competition for and exploitation of natural resources? Always. Climate change wreaking havoc? That too. With Patagonia’s host of environmental issues and livelihood challenges, we knew this was the perfect place for an SFS program.
As you might imagine, in my role with SFS, I get to see some pretty spectacular places and am regularly inspired by the people that make this world diverse and great. Never have I been so moved by a place, not just the landscape but the people, who are fiercely Patagonian. You may have heard of the Argentine gauchos. But have you heard of the Chilean baqueanos? Often translated into English as simply “cowboys”, they are so much more. They are pathfinders, wandering the wilderness, connected to the land. It takes a unique type of person to thrive in such an intense climate and landscape. Patagonians are challenged by many of the same environmental issues we see all over the world – but true to their roots, they are connected to their land and set on protecting this precious piece of the planet.
Mark and I were truly inspired by our time in Patagonia. We want our students to be deeply affected by this wonderful place as well. So, grab your hiking boots and join us in the field!