Books: The greatest adventurer you’ve never heard of

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It was an audacious youth that any globetrotter would envy: Lucas Bridges hunted wild bulls, pillaged abandoned shipwrecks and explored a once-unblemished Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of the Americas. In time, he would befriend the “savages” that Charles Darwin had sneered at from the H.M.S. Beagle. 
 
Meet E. Lucas Bridges, the greatest adventurer you’ve never heard of. 
 
Recently, Bridges’s classic 1947 autobiography Uttermost Part of the Earth returned to print in an unabridged version released by Overlook/Rookery Press. The hefty 558-page tome bears witness to Tierra del Fuego’s transformation from an untouched wilderness to a frontier molded by fortune seekers, sheep ranchers and missionaries.
 
Born in Tierra del Fuego in 1874, Lucas was the son of Thomas Bridges, a mild, hardworking minister who founded the Anglican mission of Ushuaia. Other missionary attempts had already failed, starved or ended in massacre. Undaunted, the Bridges family, including six children and an aunt, settled in. At the time, the island was an 18,000-square-mile roadless no-man’s land of mountain and marsh, river and lake, inhabited by seafaring Yaghan to the south and Onas to the north.
 
The book’s nature observations are astute. Yet more noteworthy is its knowledge of cultures that no longer walk the earth. Bridges tells of how Yaghan women skin-dived for mollusks and initiated their newborns in the same frozen seas. The book explains how to make fires under the rain and hunt the crafty cormorant, all thanks to the knowledge of natives, who would startle the sleeping birds at night from seaside cliffs, allowing their canoe-bound companions to catch them.
 
True frontier travel and hardship probably made for better postcards than today’s eco-tourist adventures. Bridges built the first cross-island road (now an abandoned trail) with a team of Ona workers. Reporting home to the family, he wrote, “One gets thin on a diet of lean guanaco meat, especially when one works too hard.”
 
Lucas Bridges lived in Patagonian history’s key moment: when worlds collided. He saw the native population “in the act of taking, in one generation or less, the stride from prehistoric man to a civilization that has taken us thousands of years to accomplish, if we have accomplished it yet.”
 
In their modern absence, the Yaghan and Onas have only become more misunderstood and cartooned. On Ushuaia’s pier, cruise ships gobble up the postcards of undressed natives. Adventure outfitters take indigenous names and then there’s the Jimmy Button souvenir shop on the main drag.
 
If the Bridges family was a testimony of the success of colonization, Bridges’s account is a testimony of its failures. After living abroad, marrying and running a ranch in South Africa, he returned to Tierra del Fuego. It was 1944, and though no petroleum plants had been built yet, and fishing lodges and ski areas were yet to be established, the island held only a handful of the 9,000 indigenous that once inhabited it.
 
Noting the disorientation caused by civilizations once thousands of years apart now intersecting, he says, “It was queer to hear Ona spoken on the telephone.”

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