From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn, Day 15
February 4, 2012; Isla O’Brien, Caleta Americana, approximately 54º53’S, 70º23’W
I told myself last night, shortly after I went to my bunk, that I would have a better attitude today.
The ship moved in the early morning to our field site for the day, Seno Ventisquero in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. I was summoned to the bridge from my bunk, so I quickly dressed and went upstairs. The seas were very rough and the captain wanted to explain that rather than heading for our tentatively agreed upon site, we would instead be tying-up in a calm harbor at approximately 54º45’S, 70º19’W. I always leave these decisions to him anyway so it was just a formality.
The day didn’t look like it was going to be a good one; the clouds were so low that they seemed to be barely hovering above the waves, and sleet pelted the ship’s deck. As a consequence, most of us were a little slow in getting ready to head into the field. Lily and I boarded a Zodiac and were taken to what appeared to be a coastal southern beech forest with a small river running through it. Throughout the entire ride we suffered through continual sleet, but, the moment we stepped ashore it stopped! Surely a good sign!
We waded into the forest through a narrow band of shrubs along the shore, expecting to find the forest floor carpeted in the usual, dense understory of wiry, shin-high shrubs that catch your feet like traps and are, at best, merely difficult to wade through. But what we found was the day’s second nice surprise: a beautiful, open forest. And then as an added bonus, the sun came out! Of course the sunshine was a momentary treat, but it still served to highlight the intense beauty of the locale. The forest floor was dotted with the little white flowers of Luzuriaga marginata (quilineja), seemingly immune to the weather. Seeing these pretty little flowers made me recall the anecdote in Howard Crum’s Mosses of the Great Lakes Forest about the explorer, Mungo Park, who, lost in darkest Africa and almost surrendering to death, sees a tiny moss which lifts his spirits and gives him the energy to continue on, and eventually make his way home. The specimen, a Fissidens, is in the British Museum.
I let this small flower serve a similar role for me, and even though it had started sleeting again, my spirits were lifted. I continued collecting, almost oblivious to the weather. I got back to the beach and found our Zodiac already waiting. Since Lily was still out in the field, I attempted to carry-on a conversation with the crew member. In the last couple of days I have noticed that my comprehension of Spanish has improved, much to my delight, but I’m not sure my spoken Spanish is keeping up. Finally Lily arrived and we returned to the ship in a sleet-rain mix.
During lunch we moved to the head of the sound, near where a large glacier comes to the sea. By this time the clouds had descended and it was dark, like dusk; the sleet continued. I was thinking of wimping out figuring that it would be too dark to see anything, but after a trip to the bunk room, I was pleased to find the sky much lighter as I reappeared on deck, and so I suited up in my head-to-toe rubber outfit and headed out. It turned out to be a longer Zodiac ride than we had expected and we were all surprised at how small our ship looked in the distance.
The sleet continued and our enthusiasm waned as we reached the large rock outcrop just west of the glacier itself (approximately 54º42’S, 70º12’W). But, we were here, and so, weather be damned, we started our collecting. The site proved very rich in bryophytes, including a few we had not seen before, but collecting was difficult due to the dim light. At one point it briefly brightened and it was nice to actually see what we were collecting, since hand lenses in this weather are all but useless. Considering the weather, most of us chose a short afternoon in the field and the sound of the returning Zodiac’s outboard motor was welcome to our ears. The time during the ride back to the ship would be the last sleet we would have to endure today.
We have only a day and a half left of collecting and it will be on smaller islands, further to the west. In other words, we’re moving back into the wet region of last year and today’s weather may well be repeated in the next couple of days.
Ed. note: NYBG scientist and Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany, Bill Buck is currently on expedition to the islands off Cape Horn, the southernmost point in South America, to study mosses and lichens. Follow his journeys on Plant Talk.
Bill Buck’s Previous Reports From the Field: