Monday, 17 March 2008

Crashing Ice and Fleeting Rainbows

The milky blue waters of whale sound were several degrees colder than the Straits as the melt water gushed from the base of the glacier. Long slivers of brash ice drift on the current towards the mouth of the fjord. As we made our way in the kayak towards the terminal face of the glacier we saw what looked like a waterfall on the central nunatak that separates the two sides of the face. This waterfall was actually a huge shower of ice caused by a large section of ice high on the face calving off and pulverising on its descent to the fjord. Every few minutes there would be another crack and thunderous rumble as another section of the face parted company with the glacier. This glacier is in retreat, as are many others. The tell-tale signs of the retreat are plain to see in the rock faces that surround the face. Indeed, the central nunatak was recently entirely encased within the ice of the glacier. However, as the ice retreats these orphan rocks are left, scraped clean by the erosive power of the ice, as future islands in the fjord. The most recently uncovered rock is easily distinguishable by the absence of lichen that over a couple years will change the colour of the rock from orange to a dusky red or green.

Being so close to such an active glacier is an astonishing and belittling experience. As we paddled closer our guide Jem made his way over to the other side of the fjord. As he got closer to the glacier the perspective of the size of the face became more apparent. He became an infinitesimal dot under the towering face of ice. The sections of ice that were calving were the size of a eight story building but, from a distance, looked insignificant. Scale is so deceptive in Patagonia as everything is so vast. There are so many fjords, sounds, channels and islands here that few are ever visited. The archipelago west of Tierra del Fuego is so remote and the weather conditions so unpredictable that few visitors deign to travel here. This isolation is itself a huge attraction as you feel like you are one of the privileged few to experience the landscape that is one of the last true wildernesses.

After an al fresco lunch on a beach we made our way down a small adjoining fjord with towering mountains on either side. After negotiating the eddies and currents created by the turning tide at the mouth of the fjord we had a wind assisted paddle down the southern shoreline. The mountains tumble so precipitously into the water that we had to crane our necks back to see the peaks. Overhead we were lucky enough to see the unusual sight of two of the largest birds flying together. There are few places other than Patagonian archipelago that you can see albatross and condors flying together.

On our return to the Zodiac we could see the waves of showers as they rolled down the valley towards us. Every shower was accompanied by a rainbow as the low slung sun refracted through the approaching curtain of rain. In fact rainbows were the one constant over our stay in the archipelago as the weather changes so fast; clouds and showers roll in rapidly on the ever present wind and disperse as quickly.

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