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From the National Geographic Explorer in South America

Nov 3, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer

The Bernal Glacier and the silt-laden fresh water lake at its terminus
The red berries of the Prickly Gush Bush are left over from the previous growing season

Estero las Montañas, Chilean Patagonia

We began our trip around Patagonia east of the Andes mountain range, on the Argentinean side of the continent. Now, in Chile we are on the western side, and the two sides are very, very different. In Argentina, we sailed along a relatively simple coastline, broken by broad bays (Bustamonte; Deseado) that are flooded river valleys and estuaries. Here, we find a maze of narrow, deep fjords, and myriad islands. The fjords are valleys that were carved by the glaciers but are now flooded by the sea. In the east, we found arid steppe and semi-desert shrubland; here we find temperate rain forest. A rain forest demands water. It comes from the Pacific Ocean, carried ashore by westerly winds that are deflected upward by the Andes. At sea level, the water falls as rain; in the Andes above us, it falls as snow that accumulates and compresses into ice to form the large Patagonian ice fields from which descend the glaciers that have carved in the past, and continue to sculpt the landscape even in this era of shrinking glaciers.

All of this is to say that rain is a necessary part of the West Patagonian landscape and experience, and experience it we did. We were moving northward up Estero las Montañas, looking for a promising site for an afternoon excursion. Glaciers exploit weaknesses in the Earth's crust. The glacier that carved this long, straight fjord was probably following a major fault line. We found our spot where the Bernal Glacier reaches the Estero, or, actually, it almost reaches the Estero, for it no longer touches seawater to dump its ice into the fjord. Instead, a fresh-water lake has formed between the present glacier and its terminal moraine. Like most of the glaciers of Patagonia, and, indeed, elsewhere in the world, the Bernal Glacier is retreating, but even in retreat, ice continues to move downhill, pushed by the mass of ice in the mountains above.

Well dressed in our wind and rainproof (or almost rainproof) garb, we landed on a rocky shore. We walked through the southern beech (Nothofagus) forest that is growing up on the rock rubble of the moraine and surrounding slopes. We admired the abundance of mosses, lichens, and ferns that are diagnostic of temperate rain forest wherever it is found. It was a short and easy walk to the face of the retreating glacier where we could touch the ice as it ended its journey from the ice field above us. Red parkas added a splash of color against the blue of the glacial ice.

We continued on, passing through Kirke Narrows at slack tide. The National Geographic Explorer docked for the evening at Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, the site of tomorrow's excursion.