Exploring the Pascua - Part II

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The next day we all crossed the Quiroz. Halfway through our crossing, a yellow helicopter slowly approached and passed us from one direction, then turned around and buzzed past us again from the other direction. We didn’t pay much attention. We were too busy actually having a little fun riding the cable car–even though we were getting thoroughly soaked from the waist down because the cable sags and the car drags the rushing water for most of the trip across.

magellanic coigue and guaiteca cipres

Gary Hughes

After everyone changed into dry socks and pants, we began walking toward the most unusual terrain of our expedition, a type of marshy area called mallín. Fortunately, the weather had been dry, and the mallín was crossable–just barely. It looks solid until you step into it. That’s when you realize that it’s just a very thick and very soggy carpet of peat moss and other vegetation floating in water. At regular intervals there are islands of magellanic coigue (nothofagus betuloides) and guaiteca cipres (pilgerodendron uviferum). We made a beeline for these tree islands at first, thinking that those trees had to be growing on solid ground. Instead we found the most bizarre forest we had ever seen, with very old but diminutive–some of them even bonsai-like–trees growing on huge humps of peat moss surrounded by water. We were finally able to cross the mallín only by walking around these miniature, floating old-growth forests!

After the mallín, we began climbing toward the high points from which we would eventually descend to our pick-up point on Lago Quetrue. Between the mallín and Lago Quetrue, the Pascua is so fierce, and its banks are so dense with forests and tributaries draining through impassable canyons, we had no way forward without climbing to what we thought would be more level terrain. Think again!

Densely Forested Rio Pascua Canyon

Gary Hughes

The higher terrain was passable, but it was no more level than what we climbed and bushwhacked through before crossing the Quiroz. And though the need to bushwhack subsided as the vegetation thinned, the climbing became much more intense. After reaching about 700 meters of altitude, we followed a series of streams and small lakes along a fairly level stretch until we met a most impressive obstacle.

It was not the Grand Canyon–because that canyon isn’t covered by as much forest at its lower levels or by as much snow at its higher levels. But to our expedition trying to reach a pick-up point in just 3 more days, thinking how we could get around this Pascua canyon was as daunting to us as the Grand Canyon. While we sat on the edge of this gigantic precipice, the yellow helicopter appeared again. It made a number of passes over our heads this time, clearly either taking notes or pictures.

Camp Just Below Snowline

Gary Hughes

Ultimately, to get around this particular Pascua canyon, we had to climb all the way to the snow line. After that, we were more than ready to camp. Nestled in a deep bowl formed by snow-covered peaks joining the initial slopes of the canyon, the camping site we chose bordered the swiftly running snowmelt stream that would become the raging torrent responsible for that massive canyon we were trying to get around. When we arrived, a family of ashy-headed geese (chloephaga poliocephala) slowly waddled away, but our almost daily companions, a family of Andean condors (vultur gryphus), continued to circle overhead. Just below our campsite, a beautiful waterfall graced a steep break in the canyon as it abruptly became deeper.

The next day we climbed out of this little oasis at the top of the canyon and began to ascend toward those three unnamed peaks. During this stretch of the expedition we saw more huemul tracks than we had seen all the other days of the trip combined. The elusive huemul is a large, very beautiful deer, native to Patagonia. Chileans are so proud of this creature that it is on their national coat of arms. But Chilean society has been so destructive of the huemul’s habitat that less than 3,000 survive today. Its scarce numbers and extreme shyness make it a very rare sight for humans. I saw only one of these extremely shy huemules, and he was running away quickly when I spotted him.

We camped above the tree line the night before our pick-up date. Our site bordered snow patches melting into crystal clear ponds. While we prepared our dinner, a little dark-bellied cinclodes (cinclodes patagonicus) joined us. Other than this intrepid bird and a little moss, we were the only visible life forms at this particular spot on Earth. But on the horizon all around us were some of the most beautiful sights on Earth, the snow-covered Andes and the sun setting behind the Patagonian coastal range.

The next day was our scheduled pick-up date. By that point, many of us were feeling blisters on our feet that would ultimately take weeks to heal. Fortunately, thanks to Gary’s care, serious blisters waited until the last day of our expedition. Unfortunately, this last day of backpacking we had to climb to the highest point of our expedition, and then we had to descend to its lowest point through the most intense bushwhacking conditions of the trip.

It started with several exhausting ascents and descents to get around numerous ravines. At one point we had the exhilarating experience of two consecutive sightings of the rarest bird we saw during the trip, the white-bellied seed-snipe (attagis malouinus). The first time, two flew over our head. Later we watched for several minutes while three bobbed around on a rocky ledge only a few meters away.

Andes in the Distance

Gary Hughes

And once we reached the highest of the three unnamed peaks, we had the most breathtaking view of the expedition. We saw around us in the full circle of our view the Pascua roaring through one of its biggest bends, the Andes peeking above the horizon, icebergs floating in a lake–and the very inhospitable looking terrain we had just backpacked through.

After resting and taking some pictures, we began descending to the terrain where, according to Gary’s now infamous words, “gravity will be our friend.” For a short time that was true, and our destination, Lago Quetrue, quickly came into view. And then we discovered the biggest challenge of our trip. The decline in altitude from the 1000+ meters of our highest point to Lago Quetrue was accomplished by sheer drop-offs and a series of nearly vertical declines covered by dense, regenerating forest.

We ended up slipping and sliding down into thicker and thicker undergrowth until we were literally lost. At one point, Gary went ahead to scout a path forward, and I waited for the rest of the group to catch up. For 15 minutes I was totally alone in a dense stand of trees, listening to the sound of a creek that I hoped Gary could find–because it would surely lead us closer to Lago Quetrue. During those 15 minutes I was visited by a Chilean bird whose distinctive call is often heard, but who is less often seen, in southern Chilean forests, the chucao (scelorchilus rubecula). Neither the bird nor I made a sound as we each enjoyed the closest and longest view that we had ever had of each other’s species in the wild.

Gary found the creek, and we all followed him downstream for about 10 meters to the sizable waterfall that blocked any further progress. We were forced to scramble up the sheer slope of the creek to the crack of sunlight we hoped would be an opening in the bush from which we could get our bearings.

We were able to find our way only by threading our way through a number of additional densely vegetated mazes. The sight of two green-backed firecrown hummingbirds (sephanoides sephanoides) was inspiring, but ironically the beacon of hope keeping us going was the sight of a road leading to a gravel quarry. We knew that road had to lead to other roads that would take us to our pick-up point.

Near sunset on January 29, 2008, we arrived at our pick-up point and waited, but nobody arrived to meet us. (We learned later that our pick-up person had checked for us earlier and then had given up on us.) So, we camped on the rocky road for a eighth and final night beside the mighty Pascua River. As the river roared by, we made dinner with the dregs of our camping rations, compared notes about the birds and other creatures we had seen and looked forward to a hot shower.

Aquamarine Waters of the Pascua

Gary Hughes

The next day, we spent 30 minutes or so in a boat traveling on the Pascua from our pick-up point to our sponsor’s small hostel on Lago Quetrue. At the confluence between the lake and the river is a striking color contrast, with the bright aquamarine color of the glacial sediment-fed Pascua next to the deep blue of the lake. When we crossed that boundary, I felt something that I would only be able to understand later, after making the incredibly long return trip, from 49 degrees south where I began to know the Pascua to 49 degrees north in Bellingham, Washington where I live and work. By that time I had crossed many other borders, many of them just imaginary lines on a map, but when the aquamarine turned into blue between the Pascua and Lago Quetrue, I experienced a very real boundary between me and the river. And that’s when I understood most clearly that, for a week, I had been inside its ferociously wild world.

To be inside the world of the Pascua is to understand things like the vanishing treasure of pure water, the precious magic of wildlife that does not yet fear humans, and the sanctity of natural places unchanged by man–things that are very attractive to me and others with similar values. But the experience also involved something else, something that should be repulsive to me and my fellow humans. At many points during the expedition, I felt that I was an intruder, and that I did not belong in this exquisitely beautiful place. And I believe that this is true, that maybe the reason we saw so little evidence of previous human presence–no petroglyphs, arrowheads, pottery shards, old walls or bone piles–is that, until only very recently, our species has had the good sense to stay out of the Pascua’s world.


Aaron Sanger is our Patagonia Campaign Coordinator and a former trial lawyer whose ground-breaking work protecting Chilean forests has been featured in the Wall Street Journal as well as in high-profile Chilean publications such as El Mercurio. Read his full bio here.


Here are some animals and plants–part of the Pascua’s world–that we observed on our expedition:


Cinereous harrier (Circus cinereus)
Hellmayr's Pipit (Anthus hellmayri)
Dark-faced ground tyrant (Muscisaxicola macloviana)
Red-backed hawk (Buteo polyosoma)
White-crested elaenia (Elaenia albiceps)
Austral thrush (Turdus falcklandii)
Mourning sierra-finch (Phrygilus fruticeti)
Thorn-tailed rayadito (aphrastura spinicauda)
Andean condor (vultur gryphus)
Torrent duck (merganetta armata)
Ashy-headed goose (chloephaga poliocephala)
Magellanic woodpecker (campephilus magellanicus)
Patagonian tyrant (ochthoeca parvirostris)
Austral blackbird (curaeus curaeus)
Black-throated huet-huet (Pteroptochos tarnii).
Chucao tapaculo (scelorchilus rubecula)
dark-bellied cinclodes (cinclodes patagonicus)
Yellow-bridled finch (melanodera xanthogramma)
White-bellied seed-snipe (attagis malouinus)
Green-backed firecrown hummingbird (sephanoides sephanoides)


Yellow-striped toad


Huemul (hippocamelus bisulcus)


Magellanic coigue (nothofagus betuloides)
Guaiteca cipres (pilgerodendron uviferum)
Nirre (nothofagus oblique)
Lenga (nothofagus pumilio)