Today is our day to hit the northeast coast of Península Hardy. We moored last night in Bahía Tekenika and left for the peninsula at 5 a.m. We had been told it would take 3-4 hours to reach our first site, but we arrive at 7:30 a.m. Only Blanka and I are up and about. The day promises to be beautiful once again, with partly cloudy skies, almost no wind, and surprisingly warm temperatures. Everyone is complaining about how warm they are inside their rubber rain gear. It would be great if this weather holds up though, but given my previous experience, I cannot be too optimistic.
Our first site is Bahía Allen Gardiner (55°24’S, 68°19’W), named for an early British missionary who, while dying of starvation, maintained his diary and his optimism about establishing a settlement in this region.
It’s been a long day. Initially we planned to leave Seno Ponsonby at 3 a.m, but instead at 10 p.m. we travel for an hour and then tie up to some rocks for the night, leaving again at 5 a.m. and arriving at our current location around 8:30 a.m. The captain and motorman spent most of yesterday working on some mechanical problem I didn’t understand until this morning when I learned that one of the ship’s two batteries would not recharge. This placed a limit on various electrical functions. It appeared as if we might need to go to Puerto Williams early and have someone fly in to fix it. However, miracle Nano (the motorman) managed to fix it today. Apparently this is why we had been traveling in daylight, because the loss of charge was affecting the navigational equipment. I was a bit nervous about all this and chose not to discuss it with the group. Fortunately, everything now seems fine.
All this activity means a slow start this morning. However, about 10:30 we ferry ashore to find one of the most difficult terrains I have ever tried to traverse. There are more downed trees than standing ones, stacked one on top of another at every conceivable angle. In addition, there are numerous large boulders. The whole landscape is coated with a carpet of hornworts, adding a highly precarious nature to our collecting because they are intensely mucilaginous.
The boat starts moving at about 6 a.m. and we arrive at our destination at 7:30. We anchor between Isla Hoste and a smallish island with a big name, Isla Grande, in Ponsonby Sound. As usual, I picked out today’s locality almost by random on the map. The region is immense and we can only sample a very small percentage of it, so we try to find localities of various vegetation types and moisture gradients in order to find as much of the diversity as possible. And then we hope for the best!
This morning I am lured to a small dark-looking forest in a small cove on Isla Grande. The maps and the captain all indicate that there is no stream anywhere on this island. However, as we approach the shore, it is obvious there is indeed a stream–shallow, but by all indications a permanent watercourse. Within moments of walking up the stream–one of the many advantages of rubber boots–it becomes clear this is a nice site. It is a small, rocky stream heavily shaded by the mature southern beech forest. Since most of the rocks are bryophyte-covered, they aren’t slippery and so it is easy to make my way upstream.
We don’t move to today’s locality until this morning. The ship starts up at 6 a.m. for the five hour trip to Bahía Helada. I am told the bay is so named because in winter it completely freezes over with the ice reaching 6 inches thick. Fortunately it’s now summer! Because it is so late when we arrive, I ask if we can have an early lunch before heading into the field. Unfortunately lunch can’t be ready until 1:30 p.m., so we all head into the field for a couple of hours first. Blanka and Laura decide to forgo lunch completely and try to reach some higher elevations.
Most of the group heads to a Sphagnumpeatland while I choose a coastal southern beech forest with a large epiphyte component. The weather is surprisingly nice and mostly sunny, though a few spits of rain fall. The problem with nice weather is that it is hard to dress for because invariably it will get worse and no one wants to be out in the field with inadequate clothing.
On the edge of the forest I find mostly epiphytes, almost all of which are mosses. However, as soon as I enter the forest, it becomes strongly hepatics-dominated and so I switch gears and start primarily picking up hepatics, lichens, and fungi that grow on the two. Somehow in the scant two hours I find 50 things to collect.
Not too surprisingly after yesterday’s physical exertion, we are all slow to get up this morning. Much to my delight, I am not nearly as stiff as I had expected I might be, but several others are. After a leisurely breakfast, I offer two options to the group, go into the field in the morning and the afternoon, or spend the morning processing the previous day’s collections–since no one did that last night. I am the only one to stay on the ship. I want to insure that the Serka Glacier collections are dry, or at least on the dryer, before gathering more. Being the only scientist to stay on the ship, I am able to process all 90 of yesterday’s collections; get them on the dryer; empty the dryer of earlier, now dry collections and move them to the engine room for storage; and catch up on the blog.
We arrange for the horses to be ready at 9 a.m. Initially the crew tell us it will cost about $30 to rent a horse for a day, but the ranchers counter with $50. This is more than I am prepared to spend, but with some negotiation we settle on $40 for each of the seven horses plus a guide for the day. I decide $280 is well worth the opportunity to access an area in our flora region that otherwise would be unreachable.
The ship moves overnight. We arrive here at 4:30 a.m., just 15 minutes after I come up on the deck. However, except for the captain’s area, all is quiet with the crew and so I return to my bunk until there is more activity and the sun is up. Returning to deck at 7:30 a.m.–still the first non-crew–I find that we are in a quiet bay and that there is a light rain falling. The bay is fed by a shallow but broad river originating at a glacier. As a consequence, the water in the bay is milky and opaque from the large silt load. I don’t remember ever having seen this down here before and I wonder if it will be an indication of a different local substrate (and thus a different bryoflora).
After several seasons of collecting in pristine areas, the existence of a ranch just over the hill from where we are anchored and evidence of human influence on the landscape seems quite odd. When we split up half the group goes to see the ranch and look for bryophytes on disturbed substrates. I, along with Paddy and Niels, choose to cross the bay which proves quite the challenge. The cloudiness of the water combines with what I can only interpret as low tide making the bottom invisible. As the Zodiac approaches the shore, the water begins to churn with the activity of what seems to be a large number of large fish (we couldn’t be sure because the water is so cloudy we can’t actually see what is causing the commotion).
Our Zodiac runs aground at least 50 yards from shore and we are surprised to find the water shallow enough to wade to shore through a muddy, seaweedy slush. Our boots sink into the slimy mess up to our ankles making each step a chore. While we struggle to shore, the existence of fish is confirmed; after dropping us off the crew get a net and go fishing. By the time I return to the Zodiac the crew have caught well over 20 fish, each about a foot long, each the same and going by the local of name of robalo. There will be fresh fish for dinner tonight, and for days to come. The freezer is now well stocked!
The engines of the ship start at 5 a.m. and, as promised, we get an early start toward our next site. Also as promised, the seas are relatively calm and the bunk room remains a seasickness free zone. I get up at 7 a.m., but when I get up to the galley it is still dark with sleeping crew (after all, their beds had been occupied by oil-body photographers until midnight) and the bathroom is occupied. I tried waiting on deck, but wind and rain chase me into the threshold of the galley where I stand quietly in the dark awaiting my turn. Since there isn’t much point in being up, I return to bed for a couple of hours until there is more activity.
Last year we had a dedicated cook for the whole trip but this year we are told it will be a team effort among three members of the crew. We are initially somewhat apprehensive, but also know the crew themselves won’t tolerate poorly prepared food. It turns out we have nothing to worry about–the two guys who are primarily responsible for the food have proven to be better even than previous years. We get our first fresh bread for breakfast, which completely eliminates our last reservations about the food.
We reach our destination for the day in the early afternoon. This is our second repeat site chosen to show the new people a really mature southern beech forest. Only Laura and I have visited this forest before; it is special enough to show the others and to explore what might have been missed the first time. Much to our delight, the forest doesn’t disappoint.
The night ends early and abruptly. Right after 1:30 a.m. we hit a very rough stretch of seas where we have to cross–perpendicular to the wind and waves–a large stretch of open, rough water just south of Cape Froward (the southernmost tip of continental South America). At first the ship is tossed into the air and banged back down into the sea, awakening everyone. Our little ship, a mere 60 × 20 feet, tosses about for hours on end. Anything not tied down or already on the floor is soon there.
Quite reasonably, the crew closes the door to the bunk room so waves won’t slosh down the ladder. However, this makes the room quite warm and increases the prospects of seasickness. And then, just like that, around 4:15 a.m. it all stops; I feel a cool breeze and the seas calm. Most of the group, exhausted from fighting to stay in our bunks and not get sick (some more successfully than others) fall swiftly back to sleep. Unfortunately it is to be a short reprieve.
Ed. note: NYBG scientist and Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany, Bill Buck has just returned from his annual expedition to the islands off Cape Horn, the southernmost point in South America, to study mosses and lichens. For the past two years he was able to file stories from the field, but this year’s locations proved so remote he was forced to wait until his return. We will be publishing them over the course of several days.
The waiting is finally over. I arrive here Sunday evening after a grueling 36 hour trip from my home in New York. The trip is always horrible with inevitable long layovers, a 9+ hour international flight, an an additional 4-5 hour flight down to Punta Arenas. It seems somehow unjust after enduring that long flight to then be crammed into an Airbus 320 with scarcely enough leg room for someone significantly shorter than me.
I meet up with Juan Larraín (of previous trips) who is now a post-doctoral student at the Field Museum in Chicago. Juan has already been in Chile for a few weeks to visit his family over the holidays. I hardly recognize him because he has shaved his beard since I saw him last, but he hasn’t shrunk and so is still at least a head taller than most Chileans. I had asked Juan to arrive in Punta Arenas a day earlier than everyone else so he and I could start preparations for this year’s expedition. Additionally, we are welcomed to Punta Arenas by our old friend Ernesto Davis, who also acts as our local facilitator.