Running with wildlife through Patagonia’s frozen lands

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On July 28, 2012, summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of the London Olympics, two figures brace themselves against the driving snow at the foot of continental South America. Above the roaring wind and crashing waves, they scream the start of their own Olympic-sized challenge -- the “5000 mile project,"  an unprecedented run the length of South America, more than 250 marathons in a year, for the continent’s wildlands and wildlife.
On that day, our minds raced as we processed what would lie ahead and whether our bodies would allow us to run 20 miles per day. But there was no time for contemplation: the perfunctory winter’s day would soon shroud us in darkness. We had limited food, three near-zero rivers to swim, thigh-high drifts of snow to navigate and a jagged coastline which seemed intent on pitching us into the sea. Our only choice was to run.
We’re ecologists, “not athletes”, as we’ve been reminded by our parents on several occasions, but the thing about running is that just about everyone can do it and humans have been doing it since we first rose from the Rift Valley. All you need are shoes (they’re not even crucial!) and you’re free to explore some of the most incredible wild places on earth.
For 30 blissful miles, that’s exactly what we did; running through southern beech forests, stepping past puma tracks, catching glimpses of black-capped albatrosses slicing across the waves and finally finding the road that would take us forever northwards through Patagonia’s secret winter.
Over the coming weeks we would wind our way to Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, El Calafate and El Chalten. We took it in turns to pull our trailer, made from recycled bicycles, inner tubes and cane; much of which was gleaned from the side of the road. It is key to the expedition, allowing us autonomy for eight-day stretches; containing all we needed to survive in a Patagonian winter.
We ran the entire length of Chile’s infamously rugged road, the Carretera Austral, from Villa O’Higgins to Puerto Montt (purportedly the first in the world to do so) before crossing the border once again into Argentina and Bariloche. From there we would strike northward, leaving Patagonia’s mystical icy lands as a distant, but cherished memory.
With a strict running itinerary and legs that would not dream of walking a single step further, there was little scope to explore Patagonia’s wildlands. Yet it seemed that behind whatever boulder or bearded tree we pitched our tent, wildlife would find us!
A culpeo fox, large and slightly chestnut coloured, sat by the steam I was collecting water from. Our eyes met momentarily before he disappeared, leaving only a trail of neat little padded pawmarks in the snow to mark his passage. The next day a cacophony of squeaking alerted us to one of the most spectacular of Patagonia’s temperate rainforest residents; a pair of Magellanic woodpeckers, meticulously probing juicy grubs from a “plateau” of standing dead wood. Wrapping two rocks in quick succession on a hollow cypress, David called them in for a spectacularly close view , the females “top knot” quivering which each frenetically, inquisitive hammer!
While our daily bird surveys were incomplete without the presence of one key character: the nosy chucao! With a magician’s art of appearing from nowhere, she would scurry to our side like a brightly coloured little mouse. Then, as if to ensure we were quite certain of her presence, she would throw back her head and deliver the most enormous of “chucaos” that were sent echoing through the tree tops!
Armed with data and footage of these charismatic species, we presented to schools in the towns along our route; quizzing students on the region’s habitats and occupants and discussing the environmental impacts we had encountered and how they could be alleviated.
Patagonia has not been immune to change. On alighting from the bus, your eyes scan the bewitching snow-capped mountains, imbibe the crystal gushing waterfalls and focus on the emerald depths of the rivers. The structure of the landscape is still resplendent, but its ecological integrity has and is subtly being modified.
One of the greatest threats we observed while running through steppe and ancient temperate rainforest was that of overgrazing. The forests and grasslands are still there in many cases, but their vegetative structure, ability to support wildlife, capacity for holding soil and storing water have, over thousands of hectares, has been altered by millions of bovine and ovine chomping mouths.
In some cases, their impact has been inflamed by burning. A Chilean kayak instructor recounted that, “vast tracts of land were left smouldering for years during the Chilean’s government’s 1950s-60s push to populate the south and clear the southern impenetrable forests for grazing." The charred remains of rainforest graveyards are still visible in many of the hills and valleys of the Carratera Austral.
As ecologists, it's impossible not to analyze the landscapes we pass through. Our running challenge is as much about the habitats, birds, rubbish and road-kill surveys we're undertaking, as it is about the sheer joy of running through wildernesses. So we're aiming to connect people at home in the UK and around the world with this incredible continent. We’re reporting on the issues, but also the successes, as well as raising money for conservation charities such as Conservacion Patagonica (CP).
CP is just one of the success stories. They're currently restoring nearly 200,000 acres of the Chacabuco Valley, just north of Cochrane, Chile. Slowly this formerly overgrazed estancia is returning back into functioning Patagonian steppe. We visited the future Chilean national park along our route and the contrast to the overgrazed lands just across the border was startling.
Ecotourism is also flourishing in Patagonia, with low-carbon, low-impact pursuits such as kayaking, cycling, horse riding, sailing and trekking providing opportunities to experience its amazing wildlands and wildlife; vital to ensuring that these natural assets are economically valued and their future protected.
But ecotourism, unfortunately, can lose its "eco." One hostel rated it self "green," but the only evidence we could find was its long-life bulbs, which are important, but are just the start. If tourism companies, organizations or individuals care, there are a huge range of amazing, ecologically thoughtful practices to follow which will not only conserve the very lands and wildlife they are promoting, but reduce outgoings in the long run.
"Greening" can include: ensuring buildings are located and designed sustainably, including with insulation; checking where firewood comes from and hopefully using less due to that insulation; growing native plants to benefit native wildlife; collecting rain water; using natural cleaning products; ensuring effluent is filtered properly and does not enter water courses; prohibiting cats and dogs from wild areas; sorting and composting rubbish; ensuring food is grown and sourced locally; giving a percentage of profits to local conservation charities who are working to conserve and promote the habitats ‘on show’.
And it’s those little steps that we can all take that matter, to make sure we tread more lightly on this enchanting corner of the earth. Each individual, seemingly disconnected step, that each one of us takes towards conservation or sustainable living, strung together, can make a real difference to the natural landscapes of Patagonia that we all cherish. And we should know; after 2,900 miles of running, the importance of each of our individual footsteps has never been more clear! We're now in the searing heat of northern Argentina, with cacti and acacia trees skewering the sky and enormous insects whizzing passed. Patagonia is now a dream, but the fact that with small steps each of us can make a difference to one of the last remaining wildernesses on earth, has never been more real.
For more info about Katharine and David’s 5000mileproject expedition check out and follow them on Facebook or Twitter. To support the expedition or their conservation charities, including Conservacion Patagonia, please click here.