Springtime in Tantauco

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This past spring was one of rainiest on record in Chile. The ground was wet and oozing. The sun—when it surfaced—a frail lemon ray lost in grey horizons.
 
But I found myself on the way to Parque Tantauco to backpack with a friend. Of our original group, four had already bailed. Yet we persisted, probably against better judgment. 
 
It was simple: the southern winter is long. We wanted movement. We wanted outdoors.
 
At 118,000 hectares, Parque Tantauco (founded by Chile President-elect Sebastian Piñera) is more than just a little wilderness area -- its almost a third of Chiloe Island. The entire region's hills, inland lakes and rocky seashore comprise vital organs of the island landscape. Yet it was a blank slate to most, including myself. While it is still under construction, the park is putting in seven huts—more than Torres del Paine has—and creating an enviable infrastructure that will eventually bring trekkers in numbers.
 
But today it’s different. The unpaved road approach is hairy. We had heard that the condition was maintained (or not) to discourage illegal logging. Otherwise, the park was void of people. The parking lot was empty. The park manager warned us:  “You will be utterly alone. I hope this doesn’t disturb you.”
 
 
On the trail, boardwalks give way to muddy rises and descents, slippery roots and bogs. With the last light we arrive to Lago Chaiguaco which will be our base for the next two days. The hut, a solid, stout wood cabin, features bunks for eight, a wood stove and outhouse complete with lake views. Do you need anything else? Henry David Thoreau would surely approve.
 
Mind you, nature in Parque Tantauco is neither brazen nor stunning. It is not the sculpted towers of Torres del Paine or the sea green of a Patagonian river. Its appeal comes slowly in unnumbered shades of green and abundant ferns, lichens and clear waters. This is an utter quiet of true wilderness.
 
On our second day, we set a groove through mud and raindrops, barely speaking and remembering our agenda. Halfway into our day hike, we see a shirtless man approach through a boggy meadow. He notices us and freezes. We stare. 
 
I don’t know what he expected. In the middle of nowhere, after hours of nothing, we half-thought him to be Trauco—the crafty imp from Chilote myth who preys on women in the wild.
 
He was headed for our cabin—‘if we didn’t mind.’ At the hut he is polite. His name, he says, is Carlos. He splits wood, does our dishes and hangs up our boots to dry. 
 
I am reminded precisely what a hut is. A hut teaches hospitality and the great value of shelter in the wild. In other places—El Bolsón, Colorado and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, huts are central to the outdoor experience, providing only the absolute minimum but making us secure in weather we would usually avoid. It is not the same as sharing a hotel. Huts create communities out of strangers at a time when we seldom share anymore. 
 
The following day we embark for our return. Carlos, who turned out just to be a trail worker, leaves long before us. We follow his boot tracks, spotting others in the mud: a fox, a wild cat. The air is fresh. 
 
Springtime in the south. The grey hasn’t left us, who knows when it will. But it feels that much better to be outside in it than just looking outward at it and waiting.
 
 

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