The Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers are gathered outside in the hall of the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, dressed in their regalia. Their drums, made with a moose hide and painted with motifs whose century-old designs, quiver with hypnotizing resonance every time the padded stick hits them. Their moose leather moccasins, embroidered with thousands of multicolored beads – all sewed by hand, one by one, are adorned with fluffy hare fur that whoosh with each move. From their cedar hats, several small snow ermine pelts hang loose and create a bright white streak when moved rapidly. Around their knees and at the bottom of their robes or button blankets, long fringes dance like the leaves on a Peking Willow, shoved around by a fierce wind, giving a whirlwind optic illusion. Singing in their native tongue, they announce to the waiting crowd that the ceremony is about to begin and beat their drums like the stomping hooves of a herd of caribou. In a long crescendo, the rumble grows louder and louder, like an approaching storm. The percussions turn into the roar of thunder pounding its way through. Their singing cracks through the atmosphere like lightning. The walls might be vibrating and the ground might be shaking, but the crowd of First Nation people waiting inside the great hall knows this is no regular storm; it is a storm of change, the return of a long lost tradition. This is their cultural phoenix reclaiming its legacy, its place, as the pillar of their ancestral identity. The crowd is ecstatic. It is time to celebrate!

A Fortunate Encounter 
I met Marilyn Jensen, the leader of the dance group last May in Montreal, during the International Polar Year Conference. They had just performed, leaving me mesmerized and with so many questions that I had to meet them and find out more. Although we talked at length about their performance and today’s struggles and challenges for the indigenous communities of Canada, called First Nations, it was our mutual love of folkloric art and my fascination for Native mythology that bonded us.

Marilyn Jensen (right) & members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers

Marilyn Jensen (right) & members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers

From the Inland Tlingit and Tagish Nations, Marilyn was born in Whitehorse, Yukon, in Northern Canada. Her village, Carcross, whose name stands for Caribou Crossing, is known for its 4,500-year-old aboriginal artifacts that were found some years ago. Her clan, the Dakl’ aweidi, an ancestral name that means “People of the Black Sands”, belongs to the Wolf/Eagle moiety (one of two groups within a culture). The Dakla’weidi crest is the Killerwhale. With a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Alaska and a Masters in Indigenous Governance from the University of Victoria in Canada, Marilyn worked for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Council for Yukon First Nations. Today, beside teaching Indigenous Governance at the Yukon College, she dances, manages and is the group leader for the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers.

Her mother, Doris McClain is the matriarch of her lineage and former Chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. It is no surprise that Marilyn is a key player in her community’s cultural revival. Her mother started a dance group back in the 1970‘s, where her own children danced. For several decades, she was extremely active and vocal on the necessity for her people to preserve, honor and recapture their ancestral heritage. Now it is Marilyn who is carrying on her mother’s work, fulfilling a dream that has been in the works for many years. To say that courage, strength, and dedication runs within the family is an understatement. These women are empowered with an energy that defies any norms, as if through them, their ancestors were channeling their powers and making them heralds for the return of the lost Inland Tlingit identity.

A couple of weeks after our encounter, she contacted me telling me that there was to be a very special and historical event coming up in Whitehorse. Trust me she said, “You definitely don’t want to miss it!” The event in question was the re-raising of the Dakl’ aweidi Keét Hít (Killerwhale House), which had been burned by the Anglicans over one hundred years ago. It was to be a milestone in the revitalization of the Inland Tlingit/Tagish community, something almost unheard of. The occasion was so unique that several Tlingit chiefs from the Alaska coast were traveling to attend it, reigniting a long-lost tribal custom. In the old days, traveling long distances to visit other clans was not only common but necessary for maintaining good relationships and trade deals. But when the territorial border between Canada and the United States of America along the pacific northwest coast of America was created, the Tlingit territory was literally cut in two, making any communication or movement between the Inland and Coastal Tlingit a challenge.

To be invited at a historical cultural ceremony was not to be taken lightly, so it was important for me to find out more about Marilyn’s past, her clan, about the Tlingit and why this event was so special.

Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancer

To Be Conquered 
Famous anthropologist Wade Davis once said: “Cultural survival is not about preservation, sequestering indigenous peoples in enclaves like some sort of zoological specimens. Change itself does note destroy a culture. All societies are constantly evolving. Indeed a culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will inevitably undergo.” 

It is hard to imagine what assimilation means when you stand on the side of the perpetrator, when your people are the ones who conquered and took over new worlds. What is it like to loose your cultural identity? To be forbidden to practice and honor rituals that were passed down through many generations. What does it do to your spirit when you find yourself stripped of all liberties and possessions and outlawed to live the way you lived only yesterday?

How would we, dear modern citizens of this world, react if what we took for granted, what we called “Our World” and “Our Rights”, were taken away from us? Surely we would fight. Surely we would defend ourselves. Confronting this new and challenging situation we might even find added value and turn it all around, giving it a positive twist. God knows that this nation of builders and fighters has what it takes to do so. Our optimism, and Hollywood, love to believe that our ability to overcome the impossible ultimately always triumphs – aren’t we a society of winners? In reality, history has many more losers than winners and in the end, against a force that is simply too great to resist, would we accept assimilation for the sake of survival? Or would we go down in blazing glory and take our pride to the grave?

Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, Whitehorse, Canada

In America, for thousands of years, indigenous societies lived in a relatively constant environment. Life was of course not easy – survival is a strenuous task and nature is unforgiving, but overall, their world was a stable reality in which one only needed to find a safe way to eat and a safe place to sleep. When the Europeans arrived, and officially terminating what anthropologists refer to as the Pre-Columbian Era, everything changed.

Colonization is a positive term that explains the process of a group of individuals taking possession of a new place. Although our semantic and politically correct system indicates otherwise, the truth is that when that place is already occupied by a different group, colonization turns into conquest. Our righteousness with history is so deeply rooted that on Wikipedia, the word “Conquest” is mainly associated with military subjugation, with no mention of the assimilation of the indigenous North Americans. In fact, when talking about “Conquering America” we allude to the Spanish invasion and the disappearance of the Aztec-, Inca- and Mayan empires. But when we talk about the Apache, the Navajo, the Tlingit, the Iroquois, the Cherokee, the Cree, the Inuit, the Sioux, the Blackfeet, or the Comanche, we then choose to refer to the colonization of North America. Our literature might fool us into thinking that what happened was for the good of everyone, but the truth remains, for the Native Americans, the Europeans conquered their territories and forced them to assimilate by taking away their culture, livelihood, and self determination. Over the course of the several hundred of years, the indigenous peoples saw their numbers decimated by wars and diseases and their land possessions dwindle to a fraction of what they were, while their culture became outlawed and gradually disappeared.


300-year old Chilkat blanket

In Canada, this process culminated with the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. These bills made it mandatory for indigenous people to fall in line with the system. The bills came to be known as the “Enfranchisement of the Indians”. To be enfranchised, any “Indian” over twenty-one years of age, had to speak, read and write either English or French, be well educated, of good moral character and free of debt if they were to receive “a piece of land not exceeding fifty acres out of the lands reserved or set apart for the use of his tribe, as allotted by the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, and a sum of money equal to the principal of his share of the annuities and other yearly revenues receivable by or for the use of such tribe”. Incredible since under such rules, half of the Europeans would have not even qualify for anything!

All enfranchised “Canadians” were required to choose a new surname that needed to be approved by appointed commissioners, by which they would become legally known. The wife and descendants of the enfranchised man would also be enfranchised, and would no longer be considered members of the former tribe. Finally, in 1876, the Federal Government of Canada passed the Indian Act, stripping the indigenous people of any rights over how to handle their lives and giving Canada exclusive authority to legislate in relation to “Indians and Land Reserved for Indians”. 

The assault on the First Nations’ cultural heritage didn’t stop there. In a letter to the Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald on the 27th of October 1879, Indian Reserve Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat reported that the potlatch, an indigenous cultural ceremony, was:

“… the parent of numerous vices, which eat out the heart of the people. It produces indigence, thriftlessness, and habits of roaming about which prevent home association and is inconsistent with all progress. The potlatch directly causes a large amount of prostitution common among the Coastal Tribes and is directly opposed to the inculcation of industriousness or moral habits.” 

“River Corridor”, Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse

In 1885, six years after Sproat’s condemning letter, and after much pressure from Missionaries, always with the intent to “civilize” the “Natives”, an amendment was added to the Indian Act prohibiting cultural events, such as “potlatches”. Pushing even further, in 1895, the Act was again amended so that all dances, ceremonies and festivals that involved the giving away of money or goods, were to be outlawed.

Much has changed since – the Potlatch ban was repealed in 1951, but the Indian Act remains to this day the basic foundation for the relationship between the First Nations and the Federal Government.

Despite the tragic and disastrous effect the arrival of the European had on the indigenous communities’ cultural identity some centuries ago, it seems that remnants of their heritage survived. Against all odds, a strong movement, both in the United States of America and in Canada, has been active in reviving their culture, bringing back long forgotten ceremonies and the practice of traditional art – for a much awaited revitalization of their ancestral identity.

Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancer

The Tlingit, a Powerful People 
The Tlingit, a name that translates into “People of the Tides”, were once powerful hunter-gatherers with a structured and complex society. Established on the pacific northwest coast of America, their origin is directly linked to the “First Americans” whom migrated from Asia over the Bering Strait, some 15,000 years ago. Unfortunately, being a society that transmitted knowledge through oral traditions, much of their millennial existence has been lost through the assimilation process and what we know today of their history, culture, customs, and lifestyle comes from accounts written after the arrival of the Russians and Europeans, circa 1740. However to the Tlingit themselves, all of their history is remembered through their oral traditions, at.oow (clan owned possessions) and within the collective memories of their elders and Ancestors.

Benefiting from a rich and bountiful world, where salmon and seals abounded, these coastal people were important traders. Although wealth was valued in some ways, it was the ability to share and good ethics that made social status. Of matriarchal lineage and aristocratic, kinship was fundamental not only for internal governance but also for keeping good relations with other tribes and forging trade alliances. One of the most comprehensive studies of the Tlingit people was done by Lieutenant George Emmons of the United States Navy, who was stationed in Alaska in the 1880s and 1890s. After he passed away, the American Museum of Natural History commissioned American anthropologist and former professor emeritus of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, Frederica de Laguna to take over Emmons’ work and complete his unfinished encyclopedia. The results were finally published in 1991 in a 530-page book titled “The Tlingit Indians”. Today, it is considered by many to be a very important resource available on the Tlingit people.

at.oow (clan owned possessions)

The HÍt (clan lineage house) was the most important unit within the social structure. Part cultural center, part political arena and part spiritual retreat, the clan house was also where all the clan’s possessions were stored, under the care of a hít s’aatí (caretaker). It was where trade issues were discussed, where kinship matters were dealt with, where marriages were held and where births and deaths were celebrated and mourned. The houses were laboriously decorated with carvings and ornaments, representing their clan association, moiety and history. Today, just a few authentic HÍt can be found on the coast of Alaska, in Saxman, near Ketchikan, Haines, Klukwan, and Angoon. One of the most important, the Chief Shakes Tribal House, located on Wrangell Island, was destroyed in 1869 by the US Navy. An exact replica of the 19th century building was built in 1940 and today, the house is undergoing extensive conservation work financed by the Rasmuson Foundation. The clan house in Sitka, built in 1997 is a modern rendition but has successfully kept its historical integrity.

The Koo.éex (Potlatch) was and remains at the core of the Tlingit culture and economic system. The word Potlatch is believed to originate from the Chinook jargon, a mix of indigenous languages with European words. While Koo.éex, which translates to “giving”, is defined in the modern dictionary “as an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige”, in reality, it is far more than that. While the HÍt is the physical location where all affairs are conducted, Koo.éex represents the structure and process, the spirit with which these matters are orchestrated. In some ways, it could be said that simply it is a form of ceremonial syntax, to be applied to any ceremony or meeting held in the clan house. More than a mere “feast” the Koo.éex embodies the Tlingit’s values and code of ethics. And it is precisely for this reason that it was seen as a direct threat to the mission to assimilate and convert the indigenous tribes.

Split Raven chief from Alaska dancing at the Potlatch

While dancing, singing, speech making, conducting protocols and gifting are the manners in which Koo.éex is executed, its structure is based around the principles of sharing and reciprocity. Originally, it was also often used as a tool to gain social status. Culturally, the social status of a clan or individual was based not on possessions, but on the capacity to give away and share. This principle was important for the redistribution and reciprocity of wealth, a strategy crucial for keeping good trading relationships with other clans. This aspect was contrary to, and totally clashed with the European Christian capitalist system. It was impossible for the colonists to comprehend how people could work so hard and then give everything away, almost bankrupting themselves in the process. This misunderstanding only reinforced their loathing of the indigenous culture. Today, although the grandeur of the Koo.éex has decreased, it is still an important ceremony and practiced amongst the First Nations of the Northwest Coast communities.

Rising From The Ashes 
Tagish is a short drive east of Carcross, on Road 8, passed Chootla and Crag Lake. Sitting on the banks of the Six Mile River, the small community, whose name means “fish trap” in Athapaskan, was an important First Nation trading settlement, serving as a middle point between the coastal and inland peoples. Today, besides being a fishing heaven for Lake Trout, Arctic Grayling and Northern Pike, it is mostly known as, along with Carcross, one of the villages of Skookum Jim, Patsy Henderson and Dawson Charlie, all credited to having discovered the gold that led to the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1800’s.

Chilkat Blanket “Frog Coming Out of the Den” belonging to the Kiks.adi clan of Sitka

Right after the Tagish River bridge, to the right, near the campground, is where, about one hundred years ago, the Dakl’ aweidi HÍt was turned to ashes. There are no ruins or remnants of any structure that could give clues as to its exact location, only rumors and memories. Besides the knowledge passed down from the great great parents, a very few accounts point to the existence of the building – “As mentioned, the nineteenth century Daql’awedi house at Tagish was called either kit hit or gotc Hit.” (McClellan, My Old People Say, 453.)

The Tagish clan house was burned down in a final and desperate attempt by the Anglicans to crush the Tlingit’s fighting spirit. On the premise that if you destroyed the “Indian’s Temple”, the “Natives” would be forced to let go, convert, and embrace a new god. But the spirit of these Kwáan (people/nation) that has lived for thousands of years managed to survived this last century. The walls of their clan house might have been reduced to dust, washed away by the rain and returned to the ground, but their identity, their Haa latseení (people’s strength – body, mind & spirit) never truly disappeared. Just like a dormant seed, waiting for the right time, nurtured by the soil and surrounding elements, gathering its forces before it re-flourished. Just like a dormant volcano, seemingly quiet and subdued, buried forever in a prison of rock, but when ready, will explode and no forces on earth will be able to stop it.

Members of the Deisheetaan Clan, Raven Moiety.

On a large patch of tall grass, surrounded by pines, through which the river can be seen flowing, two groups are facing each other. On one side, the Dakl’ aweidi clan, from the Wolf/Eagle moiety, and on the other, chiefs and representatives from the Raven moiety. The gentle breeze and warm northern summer sun are good omen an elder confines to me, “The Ancestors are here” she concludes. Everybody is dressed in full regalia. Some of the outfits have literally been taken out of museums especially for the occasion. One of them worn by a Raven Chief, is a 300-year old Chilkat blanket that is normally on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Another precious artifact, brought by a Killerwhale Chief in Juneau, is a Tlingit dagger. From around 1650 to 1700, the dagger was forged out of a meteorite by a man of the Dakl’ aweidi named Kucheesh (Dark Wolf). The display of priceless at.oow (a clan’s most prized collectively owned possession), more than a million US dollars in value, is a reminder to all of us present just how unique and important this event is.

Tlingit dagger from the 16th century

The ceremony is a series of exchanges and acknowledgements between the two moieties. The beauty and richness of the moment is not really about what is being said, but rather about what transpires. Everything revolves around the notions of respect, cooperation, honor, the care for the clan and the value put into the wisdom given by the Elders. The way they talk and address each other embodies these beliefs. As one of the Chiefs explained to me, whether by telling stories, or addressing the clan, talking is an act of reciprocity. There is an art to it. There is a rhythm, there are pauses and silences. There is a time to talk and a time to listen. There are times to ask and times to wait for an answer. You need to let your audience acknowledge what you are saying and let them participate. He confesses to me that this art is one of the most difficult ones to teach today and he is conscious on how hard it is for the younger generations who live in an exponentially fast world that is focused on the individual. He finds it hard to convince the young ones to emphasize the value of the clan and of the family while the society around them glamorizes self-indulgence, fame, and short-term gains. Right now however, to see these Elders, these Chiefs, conducting the ceremony and addressing each other with such respect is a treat. If only our own legislators and politicians did the same, I am sure that our world would certainly be in a better place…

Raven Chiefs

Chiefs at the Dakl’ aweidi HÍt (clan house) raising ceremony: 3 from the Raven moiety, (from the left) and a Wolf moiety, (far right) – Sitka Kaagwaantaan Naa Shaa dei hani – in Alaska

As the sun disappears past the tip of the trees, two Dakl’ aweidi matriarchs take a shovel and break the ground, turning the sacred soil around several times. A chief comes and kneels, rumbling his finger through the dirt. He thanks the Ancestors, the ones who have lived, prospered and died on this land for several thousands of years. Then taking a handful of the earth, he stands up and goes around giving some to everyone. This is a moment of utmost importance, by binding the past with the future, with what was and what will be, and by uniting the dead with the living, a legacy is created.

As each holds in his or her hands a piece of that legacy, a dance begins. Gently bending their knees and bringing their robes and blankets to their faces, the dancers hide their bodies and force the audience to focus on the visual display produced by their regalia. On their heads are “naa s’aaxhwu”, clan hats made of woods and featuring intricate carvings of their clan and history. Dakl’ aweidi “naa s’aaxhwu” all bear the iconic killer whale dorsal fin and by slowly rocking their heads from side to side, with an upward then downward motion, they transform themselves into a pod of killer whales swimming the sounds of the northern pacific coast.

Elders from the Dakl’ aweidi clan distributing the sacred soil

While the “killer whales” swim in a circle, on the very same ground where the clan house will be built, the rest of the group, one by one, sprinkles back the earth they had hold in their hands onto the Dakl’ aweidi dancers, this way connecting their ancestral coastal origins with their inland future.

As the ceremony comes to an end, final congratulations are made, handshakes are exchanged, and embraces are shared. Even though the sun has disappeared behind the mountains – the northern summer sky rarely gets dark before midnight, it has been a very long day and we are all starving. As if on cue, Marilyn announces that we are all to reconvene at her place for a real Tlingit feast!

Tobacco sprinkled on Killerwhale “naa s’aaxhwu”, (clan hats) to brings good luck.

A Time To Celebrate 
Sitting on the banks of the Yukon River, in Whitehorse, the recently built Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, is one of four First Nations cultural centers in Yukon. Designed to honor the river and its people, the building is made up of a series of rooms linked together by a very long hallway, called the “River Corridor”. The front of the building is curved to illustrate the river’s sinuous flow while the off-white rock emulates the natural clay bluffs that are prominent throughout the river valley. Inside are several event rooms, conference rooms, cultural exhibits, an elder room and a spiritual sacred room. It is in the main room that today’s potlatch, a celebration for yesterday’s raising of the clan house, is being held.

Only 60 years ago, the ban on Potlatch was lifted. The Second World War had ended in 1945, yet the First Nations were still forbidden to celebrate their cultural heritage. In 1951, while the Americans and Canadians were busy watching Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the big screen, the First Nations celebrated the ratification of the Indian Act, making “attempts to pursue land claims and the use of religious ceremonies (such as potlatches) no longer prohibited by law”. For Marilyn’s mother, having grown up in an era of “prohibition”, these past couple of days have been like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. After years of repression, years of subdued existence and much effort spent keeping a dying culture alive, her people are finally coming together once again, just like in the old days.

Members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers dancing at the Potlach

From two in the afternoon until midnight, and repeating the same manners witnessed yesterday, speeches are made, stories are sung, dances are performed, gifts are given, and clan names are appointed. Much like their people have done for thousands of years, these Inland Tlingit and Tagish are celebrating their cultural heritage and through it, acquiring the confidence needed to maintain its spirit and historical essence and assure its future.

Walking up to Marilyn, who is catching her breath after such a powerful entrance, I ask her if she ever thought it would come to this, as I point to the crowd, the dancers, the building, the chiefs from Alaska, her daughter who is dancing and her mother who is sitting still, overwhelmed by emotion. Trying to take everything in, she turns to me and I can see a tear lingering on the corner of her eyes. On her face, pride is radiating. This is not personal pride but rather the pride of a people that has finally found its promised land after such a long and treacherous journey.

“Thank you” she says to me. “I am really happy that you were here to see my family and learn more about our culture. It was an honor for us to have you with us.” Her modesty takes me by surprise and I insist that the honor is mine. I ask her if she thinks her grandmother would have been proud of this moment, and of her granddaughter. “She is, don’t worry. Very much so. She is here, along with our Ancestors. And they are really happy and proud of us!”


Four generations of Tlingit First Nation

Bruised & Battered

I often wonder how many expeditions, how many movies, how many books, how many genius ideas or how many dreams almost came to be but never saw the light of day. J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, one of the most successful stories ever written, saw her manuscript refused 12 times. During the five years it took to finish her first novel, between that day on the train when she imagined Harry’s character and that fateful day when finally her book was chosen by a very small publishing house – what motivated her to keep writing, against all logic and financial realities? What motivated her to keep presenting her book, rejection after rejection? She had no money. She lived off social security, saw herself as “the biggest failure”, her marriage had failed, and she was jobless with a dependent child. What pushes people to give up any sense of security and stability for a quest that makes no sense to anybody other than themselves? What is it that they see, or feel, that is worth risking everything for? Even their relationships with cherished ones. They will lose friendships and money and instead rack up tons of debt, stress and worries. Morgan Spurlock had more than $200.000 in credit card debts before his movie “Super Size Me!” came out! They will have to constantly justify their choice to a world that doesn’t understand. Every day, they will face the judgement of their families, loved ones, and even strangers. Do they need to be crazy? Self centered? Egoistic? Masochistic? Loners? The odds that their efforts will come to fruition are minuscule, and, if by a miracle, they do succeed, they will arrive bruised, battered, and with a sense of disbelief. Having been refused and let down, broken and having fallen so many times, they have come to accept their struggle without ever imagining that making it was any longer possible. I remember reading the story of Edward W. Gillet who kayaked solo his way from San Diego to Hawaii. Within sight of his destination, sixty-three days after leaving the California coast, he was so beaten and disillusioned that he didn’t believe he had actually reached the islands until he literally felt the sand under his feet.

The world of exploration is filled with expeditions that saw their major source of funding disappear on the same week that they were scheduled to leave. Where do people get the energy to keep going? How do you keep believing, when everything you have worked so hard for is crumbling again and again? How do you stay optimistic when you are up to you neck? Or when do you decide that you have had enough? Some projects take one year, others ten years, but many more end up in a dusty corner, simply forgotten. So when do you decide that you have invested too much, lost too much and that it is time to throw the towel and give up?

The truth is that Dreamers can’t be explained. They defy the norms of logic. There is simply no way of making sense of what they do and why they do it. For them, it is an emotional quest, it is in their guts, and in their hearts. They don’t believe in something because of its potential to succeed. They believe in it because it is simply stronger than them. For every time they will fall, they will get up and continue, even if they die trying. They might be told that they have only a 0.001% chance of making it, yet they will discard the remaining 99,99% of improbabilities and hold on to that fraction of a possibility. As a matter of fact, Dreamers tend to think in a binary mode. There are no fractions or percentages, only yes or no, can or can’t. I can climb this mountain or I can’t. I will reach the pole or I won’t. I will survive or I will not. There are no in-betweens.

Sadly, in a world that has become ever more obsessed with numbers and statistics, all we want is to find ways to quantify dreams and determine their potential. Scientists, mathematicians and Hollywood spend millions every year working out the perfect equation that will predict success and minimize the losses. Banks and investors now solely rely on numbers and before you can count on a loan, their computer will have to approve the worthiness of the return. It is really sad to see that our society has come to put so much emphasis on the financial aspect of dreams. What happened to the mystical aspect of dreams? The possibility of breaking new grounds and new frontiers, just for the sake of it, without a dollar sign at the end? What happened to teaching our children the simple notion of following their intuition and to dream the impossible – the “Sky is the Limit”, we used to say! Having a financial return was never a requisite to dream. Why is it so today?

If some of the great explorers were to do today what they did in the past, would Hillary get his funding to climb Everest? Would Columbus get his boats to cross the Atlantic and discover the Americas? Would Scott and Amundsen find the necessary support to explore the South Pole? Would Armstrong have set foot on the moon? Maybe, but unlikely. I do agree that we need to keep in mind the financial aspect, but we have to be careful not to use it as the only measure with which Dreamers are valued.At the end of the day, I want to live in a world where dreams and ideas are encouraged and welcome even if it is only to give people hope and to teach the children that anything is possible!

“Our dreams disturb us because they refuse to pander to our fondest notions of ourselves.  The closer one looks, the more they seem to insist upon a challenging proposition: You must live truthfully.  Right now.  And always.  Few forces in life present, with an equal sense of inevitability, the bare-knuckle facts of who we are, and the demands of what we might become.” Marc Ian Barasch, Founder and Executive Director of the Green World Campaign

Dream Big & Dare to Fail, by friend and fellow explorer Julian Monroe Fisher

Radio Interview on CHON FM

While on assignment in Whitehorse, Yukon, for the Tlingit Cultural Revitalization, I had the opportunity to sit down with radio host Christine Genier and chat about my work, the EPIC expedition and our relationship with nature.

Click here to listen to the interview

Recap Day 4 & 5 at IPY 2012

Day 4 started with a video summarizing the Indigenous Knowledge Exchange. With performances by the ArtCirq, the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers and throat singers, photo exhibits, forums, award winners, exhibitors, guest panelists, keynote speakers, representatives on the executive committee, and even a strong presence in the conference “twittersphere” and a special degustation of northern delicacies, the indigenous people and their voices have been a top priority during this event. Most importantly, it was crucial to make the scientists understand the value of their traditional knowledge and the necessity to include it in their work.

After a short keynote policy address by Dr. Palle Christiansen, Minister of Education, Research and Nordic Cooperation in Greenland it was time for one of the most remarkable keynotes of the week, Dr. Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As well as member of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as President of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Humbly presenting herself as someone who simply teaches and writes about knowledge, she let  the audience know that she saw herself in group that could be summarized, using the words of H. L. Mencken, by “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” She talked in length about the failures of the Linear Model and its unfortunate results, “minilateralism not multilateralism seems to be the discord of the day” she says.

Yet in spite of this unproductive system, the science world is quick to claim and hold tight to its presumed benefits. Dr. Jasanoff goes on identifying presumed assumptions and presenting a different perspective and what that perspective should entail. She also talks about the politics of science and the complexity of knowledge making, leading unfortunately to many faulty courses of action. What is missing, Dr. Jasanoff points out, is the human factor – how people understand science and how culture shapes understanding. She goes as far as to ask the audience “Why should we believe scientists?” Is it because they are close to nature – a questionable statement. Is it because of science integrity, which is hard to prove. Or is it because of a strength of consensus, which they often don’t have. She even wonders if Rio+20 is actually an admission to failure, recognizing a global environmental exhaustion on the matter and the lack of international treaties and consensus. But she finishes hoping that the summit will present a chance to move away from business as usual and act on today’s challenges by building a bridge to the future. I strongly recommend that you listen to her speech and read each slide of her presentation on the webcast by clicking here.

In the afternoon, I attended a session given by Dr. Elizabeth White, director of BBC’s Frozen Planet series, titled “Behind the scenes: Broadcasters and Scientists Working Together” White spent an hour showing us scenes from the show and telling us how the filming team had only succeeded because of a strong partnership with field scientists. She also demonstrated how new filming technology and science knowledge had created never filmed before opportunities.

Next stop was the Martin Bergmann Medal Award ceremony, hosted by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Bergmann was director of the Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program and personal friend of Mr. Peter Harrison, President of IPY 2012. Sadly, in August 2011, Bergmann was part of the victims in a plane crash in Resolute Bay. Martin’s wife was to receive the first honorary medal. In what was an highly emotional event, Harrison spoke of his friend with honor, pride and nostalgia. “I want to celebrate an Arctic hero, I want to celebrate Marty” he said, “He embodied knowledge to action!” Several of his dear friends came to tell the audience a story that epitomized the good nature of this Arctic legend. In fact, everyone in the room had himself or herself, at one point or another, experienced the magic of Bergmann. Not only was he a master at connecting people, but he excelled at making things happened.

That evening, being the last one before the closing day, it was time for the conference’s big banquet featuring a performance by the prestigious Cirque du Soleil. Sold out and without one single seat left, the packed room dined together for the last time before being treated to an absolute fascinating show. The small troupe demonstrated physical feats that none of us thought even possible. Rolling and spinning in a giant metal ring, bouncing on a trampoline in ways that flouted gravity, and finally human sculptures that were, well scientifically defying the laws of physics! At the table with me was British educational hero Antony Jinman from ETE (Education Through Exploration)

Day 5, the final day, was time to close the conference in the same way it had started, with the educators. The last keynote speaker was Dr. Jose Xavier, a marine biologist with the Institute of Marine Research, University of Coimbra, Portugal and the British Antarctic Survey, U.K. In addition to his work on a number of science projects, he lead a highly successful educational program called LATITUDE60!, which reached thousands of students, educators, and politicians, helping to raise awareness of the polar regions. In 2011, he was awarded the prestigious Martha T. Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. Before starting his speech, Xavier invited the public to watch on the big screen behind him a video honoring the incredible work of APECS’s (Association of Polar Early Career Scientists) founder Jenny Baeseman.

For the closing speech, Harrison summarized what had been accomplished over the last 5 days. While the conference in Olso was specifically focused on science, this year’s IPY 2012, which took 3 years to prepare, was to go beyond the science and move from knowledge to action. By involving the youth, the educators, the indigenous, and the politicians, the goal was to bridge all these parties with the science community. On another level, the green aspect of the conference was acclaimed as goals established prior to the event, were actually greatly surpassed.

What impact will have the conference? No one knows, time will tell. One thing is for sure, up to 4,000 people per day showed up and worked relentlessly at laying the foundations, and the framework on which to build a global partnership, an international momentum involving everyone and working together on a single mission – to preserve and protect the Poles, with their unique environment and their priceless biodiversity. Congratulations to the Steering Committee, the Program Committee, the Secretariat, the Volunteers, the Green Committee and everyone else  involved in the making of this incredible conference!

Deflecting – Preservation and Exploitation

“As long as there are commercial opportunities in the Arctic, local communities, governments, and companies will take advantage of them.” Andreas Østhagen, Research Associate – Norway/EU Arctic Policy

In the conservation world, there are two main ideologies on how to achieve your goal. The first one consist of applying a direct counter force towards an element you wish to stop. The other approach is greatly different. Accepting that the element has too much momentum and its force is too great, it chooses to rather deflect or guide the force towards a different end point. In other words, either you protest against corporations, or you work with them. Although this bureau accepts that there might be some benefits in trying to change the system by protesting, it believes that the forces at play within our society, within our industrialized world are way to big to simply counter attack. Rather, it considers cooperation to be the way to achieve long lasting conservation. The goal is to create win-win situations and, as Østhagen concluded in his article for the Arctic Institute, to establish a balance between preservation and exploitation. One unorthodox way to explain this “cooperation” or “deflecting” concept, is to look at martial art aikido. Aikido is often translated as “the way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the way of harmonious spirit.” It is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical strength.

Some argue that this method is a sell out. But we think otherwise and campaign for it.

One of the most famous conservationists who believed in this strategy was José Márcio Ayres. He believed that nature would stand no chance of survival unless community-based models of natural resource management were applied. In fact he created the Economic Alternatives Program with an aim to change the way in which natural resources are being exploited, to make them generate long-term socioeconomic and environmental benefits.

Per instance, the clearing of forest for lumber, once carried out illegally and on a large scale by forestry companies from outside Mamirauá, is now handled by 20 communities living in the reserve who take into account the sustainability of the tree species — a first for the várzea. This kind of sustainable development has made it possible to increase the income from forest management by 100 to 150 per cent — a huge benefit for the community, as it is the only major work that can be done during the high-water season.

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance is also recommending solutions based on this belief. Its proposal does want a ban on fishing in the wider Ross Sea region, nor a limit on toothfish catches. But rather it proposes excluding fishing from the most ecologically important areas.

This is the strategy we want to see for the Arctic. Here are two solutions we believe could yield tremendous conservation benefits, using the momentum of exploitation to the conservation advantage.

  1. Give Give
    For every exploitation zone given, an area of the same size is declared off limit and protected. The more exploitation, the more protection. Conservationists and biologists would determine what areas are best to protect in relation to the exploitation zones.
  2. Insurance Fund
    Unfortunately, accidents do happen. Even when we don’t want to. That is why we buy insurance. Nobody buys a car knowing that he/she will get into an accident. But we all get an insurance in case one day… According to Wikipedia, insurance is: “a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment.” In 1989, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2010, there was the BP oil spill. Every year, in Russia, 5 million tons of oil is spilled into the environment (6x what the BP spill was). It is only fair to say, that one day, there will be another major disaster. The question is not How, but When. We propose then that all oil/gas/mining companies involved in the exploitation of the Arctic region finance an insurance fund that will go for an eventual environmental tragedy. Part of that fund would be used to manage the protected areas mentioned in point 1 above. The more resources are extracted, the more the fund grows. This concept is also used between Tourism and Conservation. The more tourists you have the more you have to finance the conservation.

Those solutions are not problems free. They do though acknowledge the complexity of our society and work with the parties involved into a constructive relationship rather than a pissing contest, (Shell wins injunction against Greenpeace Arctic drilling protestors) where short term benefits might indeed be achieved, at the price of much needed long term benefits.

The Need for a New Story

Last week in London, I had the privilege of meeting the theologian Martin Palmer. It was one of those encounters when after two hours, we obliged ourselves to continue another time, most likely over dinner, because this discussion could go on for many hours more.

Both of us strongly believe that there is something crucial missing in the conservation movement, that science and technology have taken the center stage, and that what is needed has been demoted to being insignificant. In a previous post, Conservation 2.0, I wrote how we must stop focusing on statistics and need to bring back a certain sense of mysticism and base our desire to change on values, and not just scientific reports. Yes science is good, as a tool, but not as the root of our actions.

Alongside this issue, I was glad to read two recent articles in the the New York Book Review, Age of Ignorance, by Charles Simic and Do We Need Stories, by Tim Parks.

Simic and Parks point out how our society (in this particular case, the U.S.A.) has glamorized ignorance, and embraced a shallow form of storytelling: “there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business”. Our society is filled with junk information. We live in an era of condensed opinionated “blips” of information, in which opinions are valued more than in-depth knowledge. Whomever shouts loudest is the one who will be seen as the expert. Facebook and Twitter are perfect tools for this type of narrative. News is reported in 140 characters or less, based on ever shorter attention spans. It is certainly not a lack of stories that is at the root of the problem, but a lack in the quality.

“Like” buttons will get you “involved” and grant you the title of being a “supporter” of pretty much anything. A cute image of a cuddly seal pup or any other baby animal will do wonders to attracted your attention. No need to know about the underlying studies, no desire to even question the statements made: a look into those big round eyes, suffices to form an opinion! We are gullible to anything that makes us go: “Ooooooh, how cute!” or “Arrrrgh, how gross!” Just look at what is popular on YouTube these days. “In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him.” says Simic

In his article Parks makes an observation that touches some of the issues regarding our perception of Nature.

“There are words that describe objects we make: to know the word “chair” is to understand about moving from standing to sitting and appreciate the match of the human body with certain shapes and materials. But there are also words that come complete with entire narratives, or rather that can’t come without them. The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me. Here not only is the word invented—all words are—but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit.”

Through our views based on science and technology, we have come to believe that nature is no different than a chair. We have stripped it of its sacredness and reduced it to a series of logical facts, from which we ultimately deduced – and finally claimed – our superiority. We have taken possession of the natural world by baptizing it with our taxonomy and putting it under our dominion. The next step was to personify nature, giving it a “Self”. Thus we have come to not only perceive ourselves superior to nature, but now we are making nature like us. This is really the world upside down.

Sadly much of the conservation and environmental community has been following this trend incessantly, dumbing down the storyline. No one wants to talk about values and mysticism, rather, they prefer to use climate-change scares or the plight of poor struggling creatures. The Anthropocene age has not only transformed the planet but also the stories with which we define our relationship with it. It would have been too good to be true if all our knowledge would have made us more humble, rather than haughty and if it had actually brought back the need for something sacred, instead of turning us into “Tweeting Gods”.

The Last Explorers 2

Thanks to James Cameron’s recent extraordinary journey to the bottom of the ocean, and other personal events, I felt the  need to write a second part to my previous post “The Last Explorers”.

Although I could have used a series of other excuses to justify continuing explaining my point about the declining of the spirit of exploration, it was a report on the BBC’s website that got me all itchy.

Journalist Rebecca Morell, on site in Guam, was doing an update right after Cameron had came back from the deepest place on Earth. The short interview featured on the web was so unprofessional, I asked myself if I had mistakenly switched to Fox News.

The other voice in the clip, a man at the BBC studio, started by saying: “This is supposed to be a bit of a race involving a team from Google and one sponsored by Richard Branson – but it is over before it really begun hasn’t it?”

Did anyone brief this person before he went on air? The race to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench has been on for years – the last five mostly in secrecy. Tens of millions have been spent and three other teams have planned expeditions this year alone, DOER Marine, Virgin Oceanic and Triton Submarines. The race is not over before it begun, the race has been won!

Morell continued, cordially, informing him that it had indeed been a race with a winner. She then told how Cameron wanted to inspire a new era of ocean exploration. The man reciprocated: “It is a puzzling point though, if it has been done before because of a US navy team which reached the bottom of the Mariana trench 50 years ago, to what extent is it a pioneering dive that he has just completed ?”.


If that was not enough, they concluded the segment by pointing out that: “Some scientists question whether you actually need to have humans at the bottom to explore when you can do things like drop down underwater robots”.

This should have been a “walking on the moon” moment with the entire world (and most importantly the entire exploration community) celebrating. If this is true that some scientists really question the need to “Physically” explore the unknown, shame on them! Why go to Mars if we can send a robot? Why meet and talk to people in the flesh if you can do it online?

The other surprising fact was the almost total absence of two of the most legendary exploration clubs, the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club. Founded in 1830, the RGS enshrines such famous names as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, Hunt and Hillary. There was not a word about the expedition from them, not on their twitter site, nor their News site. The Explorers Club has members including the first man to reach the North and South Pole, the first to climb the summit of Mount Everest, and the first to step on the surface of the moon. Captain Don Walsh, former Honorary Club President, who was part of the first manned expedition to the bottom of the Trench was actually onboard with Cameron for this historical feat. Sadly, the Club only tweeted little bits about this groundbreaking event, and nothing was written on their News/Bog site. A pity and shame for these institutions who have the responsibility of carrying on the flame of exploration.

As many of you know, I am in the process of putting together a large expedition, a 6-year around the world sailing expedition, called E.P.I.C. Aboard two 35m aluminum hull sailing boats, with retractable keels, we will visit over 250 of the remotest islands in the world. Doing documentary film making, photography, conservation campaigns, and science projects, this endeavor is reminiscent of the Golden Age of maritime exploration. The budget is obviously huge and the challenges seemingly impossible. The reactions I usually get could be summed up in three words: “Really? Why? Good Luck!” No worries, I do get my share of encouragements, but last week I received a couple of comments that reminded me why I was sacrificing everything to make this project of mine happen.

The first one came from Prince Michael of Kent, whom I had the honor to meet in his office at Kensington Palace in London. Listening carefully to my presentation, his eyes opened up and I could see a glare in them. He looked at me and said: ”Finally! It is so refreshing to see that the real spirit of exploration, the one I grew up with, these big dreams of exploring the world, of not being afraid of leaving the comfort zone behind, do still exist. I am glad to know that the flame is not extinguished and is being carried on. Thank you”

The second comment came from Bill Vartorella, who is a fellow of both the Explorers Club and the Royal Geographical Society, and a member of the Overseas Press Club and Rotary. In his email, Mr. Vartorella said: “This is a gutsy expedition that cuts to the heart of grand exploration tradition (something abandoned by some organizations, as per vote of membership several years ago, re: grants), while embracing high-tech, with the ocean as central theme/connective tissue to past and present.   The intro and feel of your 30-page brochure are riveting. This is a great expedition!” 

It is always difficult to explain why I want to commit the next 10 years to a project that seems impossible. It is hard to find people that “get it”! When I see projects like Cameron’s journey to the ocean depths and when I get comments like those two last week, I am reminded that I am on the right track and that I don’t always have to explain my reasons. I just have to listen to that little voice inside of me that tells me to keep on going, and to keep pushing the envelope. One day, when I am on the boat, sailing the oceans like the great explorers of yesterday, all this hard work, all these days where I was left without a single penny, all this hardship, and all these days where I felt like abandoning the project, yet kept on going, to the disbelief of many, all this, will have been worth it. Because that is what these grand-scale expeditions are for, to remind us that everything is possible, that our dreams are never too big.

The Last Explorers

“That is the exploration that awaits you! Not mapping stars and studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”  Leonard “Spock” Nimoy

A new show on BBC has left me with a sour feeling. It is not really that the show is bad, or that the host is annoying. It is not that the topic is stupid nor that the episodes are not interesting. It is rather the title that is raising a red flag in my unconscious explorer mind. Neil Oliver’s new show “The Last Explorers” tags itself as “a series on the golden age of exploration, charting the routes of contact that drew together the farthest reaches of the world”. They could have called the show “The First Explorers”, “The Great Explorers”, or simply “The Golden Age of Exploration”. Instead they chose to epitomize these men as the last of their kind, placing them in the same category as any other extinct species. Unfortunately, and sadly, that knot in my stomach, that needle in my brain, is there because I sadly agree with this statement.

A little bit more than a year ago, I attended the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore weekend and was enchanted by the speech of Arita Baaijens. As she described her journey through the desert with its violent sand storms, she concluded with one of the most sincere and refreshing types of advice I had heard in a very long time:

“…there’s a tendency to cover up expeditions and journeys with noble aims. Either to attract sponsors or to give the expedition a sexy or good feel. But most first timers GO without knowing why they want to follow the Amazon River or reach the North Pole, or cross the biggest desert. It’s an inner drive, and it’s quite a normal thing to do – that is why there are so many legends, myths, fairy tales about the Journey of the Hero (Joseph Campbell). Young people want to test their strength, find out who they are, and what their place in he world is. Those journeys are directed towards your inner world, about WHO am I and WHAT is my place in the world, see Tomson’s words. And when you have learned more about yourself, your motives, your prejudices and opinions, your place in the world, you are better equipped for another type of expedition, journeys of discovery directed towards the outside world, characterized by WHY & HOW. “

I think what “The Last Explorers” means is that the “spirit of exploration” has changed tremendously in the last decades, and for some, including myself, it is more of a loss than a gain. And nothing could be more evident to support this fact, than what is happening at the Explorers Club in New York at this moment.

During my first visit to this historical club – with legendary members such as Roald Amundsen, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Neil Armstrong, I was struck with disbelief when at the entrance to the main saloon, I saw a scale model of the ultra luxurious cruise ship “The World”. Was I at the right place? In the right building? Or had I mistakenly entered an Upper East Side travel agency for wealthy retirees? The latest events that have unfolded in the media seem to be zeroing in precisely on this existential issue. What is exploration? On one side are the “New School Explorers”, to whom exploration is a blend of commercial adventures surrounded by rich people that can pay their way. R.L. (his name is obviously not revealed) precisely embodies this new genre. He is a hedge fund manager from London who made good money and now can afford to “collect“ exploration badges, making him an “explorer”.  The man, who is more at home in Michelin star restaurants then in a bivouac, pays ridiculous sums to be taken into the wilderness by experts, then claiming the credit for himself. His latest adventure was in Antarctica, where he dished out close to £100,000 to get up and supposedly baptized an unnamed peak (needless to say, with a lot of help). His brashness goes so far, that he now gives talks to children on how to be an explorer! For this type of person, the Club is doing really well, befitting these “modern” times. The Club’s supporters defend their position by illustrating how the revenues have increased by adding new members like him – money much needed to renovate the crumbling building, suitably located between Madison and Park streets, on the chic Upper East Side, rather than funding new, real adventures.

On the other side are the “Old School Explorers”, who care more about the “Spirit of Exploration” – It is not what you do, but how and why you do it. The debate is surprisingly similar to what went on in the wine industry – old world wines which were generally subtle and complex, versus the new world wines, usually described as bold, sweet, simple, and with great emphasis on the packaging. At the end of the line, the core of the issue, whether it is exploration or food, is quite the same: Quality versus Quantity. Local or Global? Small or Big? Does exploration have a “Spirit” or is it an industry? And if it is an industry, then how can we commercialize it, make it grow and become more profitable? Herein lies the core of the question: Is bigger really better? – Which brings me back to Arita‘s statement.

Present day exploration could be divided into three categories:

  • A rich pastime
  • A personal ego-trip – the desire to break a record or make an environmental statement
  • A vague, virtual idea of discovering the planet from behind ones’ computer (see Nature is not in your computer).

It is no longer about wanting to disconnect from overbearing city-life to experience the unknown. It is no more about wanting to escape the crazy modern world to seek true, pristine wilderness. It is no more about a journey to discovering your inner self. What it is today, is a business! The magic of new discoveries has given place to self-centered claims of saving the planet.

I explore because for me, the world makes more sense out there, than here. I explore because nature humbles me. I explore because it reminds me that there is something bigger in life, something sacred and mysterious. I explore because it makes me a better person. And, I really wish we would hear the same narrative from other explorers more often. I just hope I am not part of a dying species!

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

The Destructive Nature of Subsidies and Tax Breaks

Subsidies are prima facie evidence that consumers would not buy the product at its market price. They distort markets, compromising economic growth, breed corruption and undermine social welfare by foisting inferior or over-priced goods onto the market” Kenneth P. Green

Cities and markets have historically been created under pragmatic realities. Towns, villages, or any other settlement existed in logical places: by a river, by the sea or close to a trading road. Farming was possible where the soil was rich. Fishing was productive and worth it only if the gains outweigh the costs. The logic was quite simple and fair – either you can or you can’t.   If you could on some times, and not on others, than most likely you would adopt a nomadic lifestyle, looking for certain benefits in certain places on certain times. In this system, the value on goods was equal to the realities of producing it or getting it. It was, at the core of it, the real definition of a free market economy, where supply and demand drive the development and expansion of societies. If a resource was to be mismanaged, abused, and consequently lost, then logically the market and the people would react accordingly. Lessons would be learned and laws would be put in place trying to avoid the same mistakes to be repeated. Then the modern world invented subsidies and tax breaks.

Different from credit – an extension to fulfill an obligation, subsidies and tax breaks are inflationary tools that create a false reality. They support unrealistically what should not exist. Interestingly enough, the etymology of subsidy comes from sub “under, behind” and sedere “to sit”. One could easily concluded that the word was invented to illustrate something that remains still and unproductive. The headline: “EU Subsidies – Millions for Doing Nothing” does more than simply playing on the words. It highlights one of the most dangerous economical inventions our societies have now so well become depended on.

On the conservation and management of natural resources, subsidies and tax breaks are the most destructive force  ever existed. They take away any sense of responsibility and desire to manage with a long term approach. They entice people to be rewarded for being inefficient and corrupted. Giant corporations, with legal and financial power to lobby politicians, themselves in charge of allocating subsidies and giving tax breaks, usually end up siphoning most of the money while the small producers end up being short handed (click here for more information). Our history is filled with examples of how these practices only prolong the inevitable and unfortunately stagnant innovation.

How long would the whaling era have gone on without the subsidies?

Would whaling still go on today in Japan and Iceland? (see more info here)

Would our economy be so oil dependent if we paid the real price for oil?

What would happen if the oil companies did not benefit from any tax breaks?

Would our consumerism be so high if not subsidized?

Would corn and soy be everywhere if their subsidies were taken away?

What would happen if the richest countries did not spend $106 billion per year subsidizing their own farmers?

Would the ocean’s fish stocks be depleted if no subsidies existed? (see more info here)

Does it make sense to fill groceries stores in polar regions with ice cream manufactured thousands of kilometers away? (see video here) The insane thing is not the price they pay but the fact that we have created and supported an economy that is illogic, nonsensical and ludicrous.

Does it make sense for countries to still subsidize families for having children? Isn’t 7 billion enough?

Would our lives really be miserable without these fiscal illusions?

Would the Arctic and polar regions development made sense if governments didn’t help?

Is it viable to sustain a lifestyle that without these supports, would crumble into pieces?

Some say that if the subsidies are taken away, it will hurt major industries and people will loose their jobs. Maybe it is, but everybody will adapt and manage. It is better to deal with reality than fiction. Right now, fiction is king. Financially the world is broken down. The planet’s resources are seeing the end of the line. Our population is unstoppable, and still we look at ways to continue its trajectory.

It is as if a person had spent his salary even before receiving it, eaten away his yearly supply within the first month, and borrowing more than he could even repay in his lifetime, and tell him not to worry, just continue doing what you are doing, the government will back you up, no strings attached.

If we want to grow “sustainably”, the first and most important step will be to stop all subsidies and tax breaks. Obviously it is wishful thinking that will most likely never happen but we must at least look into it. The exercise is crucial to understand the conundrum at play. Energy subsidies, social subsidies, science subsidies, consumer subsidies, environmental subsidies, farming subsidies, and fishing subsidies are nothing more than old and inefficient ways to keep a status quo on declining and obsolete practices. They lure the population and governments into a fantasy world and false beliefs, making people cling on what has already past. Most importantly, they take away any sense of responsibility and accountability.

“Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.”  Mark Bittman

Nature is not in your computer!

“Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.” Richard Louv

The United Nations predicts that by 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. By then, in the U.K., city dwellers will represents 92% of the population. It is quite a sharp contrast to back in 1950, when the world’s urban population represented only 30%. While this new reality clearly shows a growing physical disconnection with nature, another reality, much more subtle, is making people believe otherwise.

When I grew up, there were people who spent a lot of time in nature, and there were people who simply did not. The “outdoor” people were usually fishermen, hunters, campers, hikers, etc. They cared about nature because they spent time in it. The people who rarely ventured away from the asphalt, were, with no shame, just not concerned with the wild world. The environment was not really a debate, but rather a destination. What we learned in school about nature was more scientific, like ecology and biology, alongside geography and history. On television, you had Jacques Cousteau, Jim Fowler, David Suzuki, and David Attenborough. Each was a nature journalist, reporting on the wilderness, out there and out of reach. They showed us wild worlds with amazing animals, feeding our growing appetite for adventure. Back in those days, loving nature didn’t equate with being a vegetarian, or to campaign against animal cruelty. In fact, all the television personalities mentioned above fished or even hunted.

Today, the picture could not be more different. Technology has totally transformed our perception of the wild word.  While nowadays we rarely spend time in nature, people are constantly made aware of it. Discovery and National Geographic stream 24 hour/day entertainment shows. Social media makes it possible for anyone to care about environmental causes, anywhere, independently if they are well informed or affected by it. The Internet allows any individual to post anything they want without any particular context or further explanation.  Not one day goes by without seeing a photo of a baby panda, a dolphin, a shark being butchered or a dead seal entangled in a fishing net. Nature has become an ideology people are fighting for. It is no longer a destination but rather the emotionally charged and personified notion of an animal’s struggle to survive, whether it is the “march of the emperor penguin” or the “fate of the polar bears”. We now live in a world where natural realities are being blown out of proportion and every minute struggle in an animal’s life is over empathized for. Living in cities, feeding ourselves from grocery stores and spending our weekends in the park around the corner, the natural world has become a beautified concept, a Disney story and a pretty picture on the wall. Anything that contradicts this notion is deemed anti-nature or anti-animals. Animal welfare organizations, based in cities, are raging wars against society and anyone who doesn’t agree with their belief that any creature has a soul and humans have no right to take it away. In their view, plastic, genetically created meat, and soy-everything, is the way for the future. A meat eater, a fish eater, or a person wearing leather or fur, independently where and how it was processed, is targeted as cruel and against the natural world. For the indigenous people, who have lived off the land and the sea for millennia, with sustainable practices and honoring their connection with the earth, this intrusion from people who know nothing about their lifestyle and culture is seen as extremely hypocritical and shallow.

Worse, Google Earth and sites like theBlu are advertising themselves as places where one can “explore” the world. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times stated: “It’s a living, breathing ocean that you can “dive into,” exploring underwater habitats from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Cortez while encountering thousands of fish — as they swim across your computer screen.” The computer screen is nothing like being out in the wilderness. It is nothing like exploring other countries for real or mingling with other cultures. Pressing keys on the keyboard does not make you an explorer nor and adventurer, and even less a naturalist or an environmentalist. Clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook Cause does not mean you care or simply understand what you clicked for. Watching Blue Planet on BBC doesn’t mean you love the ocean. What you love is being entertained by something beautiful. But the natural world is not just a cute teddy bear that you can spend your nights cuddling with. Nature is a raw chaotic world where each creature competes with each other, culminating in a very complex, intertwined balance that took millions of years to create, and CONTINUES to evolve .

By being so physically disconnected from it, we have totally forgotten what nature really is all about. We even go as far as to personalizing it, characterizing it as a female, “Mother Nature”. This concept of singularity simply doesn’t exist. In the natural world, both constructive and destructive forces are essential. Both the attack and the defense are crucial for survival. What is motherly? Volcanoes, hurricanes, droughts? Hyenas eating an antelope alive? A pod of orcas drowning a whale calf?

We have to be careful because our lack of relationship with nature and our disconnection from its dynamics and forces, can have grave consequences. As the Arctic is being developed, westernized countries and their mediatically-sensitized populations will most likely clash with indigenous people and their culture, as it just happened in Greenland. The Inuit have been hunting seals for as long as they can remember. And looking at the number of seals, they have done quite a good job at making sure that their hunt was sustainable. Compared to the western world which has had a reputation of decimating everything it goes for, from whales to fur seals, from wolves to buffalos, from tuna to mackerel.  Because we have done such a bad job with the planet’s resources, or such a good job of exterminating them, we now project our guilt onto others. The EU ban on seal products has created devastating effects on the Inuit’s culture and economy. The ban came after emotionally charged media campaigns, portraying fluffy white baby seals being clubbed to death and skinned. In the name of animal welfare, the EU decided to impose the ban. What people didn’t know was that the Inuit have an ancestral right to hunt. The ban didn’t reduce the number of seals hunted every year in Greenland. What it did, was strip away the right of the Inuit to make a living. Consequently, there are over 300,000 skins in stock in Greenland worth millions for the Inuit. Most likely, the skins will be destroyed, taking away with them the welfare of several communities.

It is crucial to do everything possible to take children outside of the cities, away from the computer and television. They need to experience the real natural world, not the urban or virtual version of it. Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, correctly points out in his report: “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability

“While not typically seen as an “environmental issue,” those concerned about the environment should be sobered by the increasing commercialization of childhood, as the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction… What’s more, recent research shows that the materialistic values encouraged by advertising messages are also quite problematic for environmental outcomes. For example, studies around the world make it clear that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life. Other research shows that materialistic values negatively correlate with how frequently adults and children engage in pro-environmental behaviors such as commuting by bicycle, reusing paper, buying secondhand, and recycling.”

Furthermore, We also have to be careful with what we promote and how we promote it. Social media and the Internet won’t make people change their daily routines. It might inform them, make them aware of something, but it is certainly not enough to change them. Writing “Cigarettes will kill you” on a pack doesn’t make someone stop smoking, but paying close to $10 for a pack might.

We might have the knowledge, but we greatly struggle with applying it. Social media, the Internet, computers and television are not a replacement for true wilderness, traveling, or exploring. We must be careful of the pretentious western environmental imperialism we so easily practice. Lets change our own tragically unsustainable culture first. Lets put in place the right legislations, lets decrease our production of garbage, lets reduce our consumption, lets show our children that there is more to life than cities and technology, let ourselves first reconnect with the natural environment and its realities, before telling others, who might be living off the land and sea and have done so in a sustainable way for generations, what they should do.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side:  one which we preach but do not practice and another which we practice but seldom preach. “  Bertrand Russell

The Future of the Arctic

Welcome to the Extreme & Polar Islands Conservation (E.P.I.C.) blog. Weekly posts will explore conservation issues that pertain mainly to the Polar regions: their oceans and their remote islands.

The Future of the Arctic

For anyone involved in oil, mining, gas or conservation, it is no secret by now that the North is where most of the attention will be locked for the next decade. It is extremely ironic that the consequences of our lifestyle on the planet’s ecosystem have opened a once-inaccessible and pristine region for development, giving our industrial world a much needed life line. The timing could have not been more perfect for some, and the worst for others. The pressures on the planet’s resources have never been so high, ever. Living off nature is nothing new, at the end we are an earth species living in a complex web of dependencies. What is different today is the scale of our consumption and the role human has taken in the food chain as both the predator and the grazer.

A predator is a constructive element in the food chain. Its goal is to keep in check the numbers of more invasive species. These species, if not controlled have the power to eradicate the resources. The grazers in return help keeping a balance in the plant wold. Nature is this amazing relationship-based system, where each living organism plays its part for the planet’s equilibrium. In fact, without these dynamic “boundaries”, each would have the potential to destroy its own environment.

The problem today is that we hunt like predators and consume and reproduce like grazers. In other words, we consume the resources from both ends, without a care in the world, thinking that this candle will just keep burning forever. While at the same time populating the earth at a rate that any virus would envy.

What will happen to the Arctic? We have just passed the 7 billion mark in population. We have eaten our way through the Pacific and the Atlantic. We have used most of the oil from the fields so far discovered. And we have cut down pretty much everything. The Arctic is offering new waters to fish, new minerals to extract, new oil fields to drill, new forests to cut and new land to built cities. Worse, our past record in managing new resources is nothing to be proud of. We decimate before we care. The pressure to deliver “cheap” material and “cheap” food for this ever increasing world does not help any conservation matters. So what to do?

The complexity of the situation is not to be taken lightly. At one extreme, you have the people who simply want the entire north to stay off-limit: no development, nothing. At the other end, you have the people for whom this new territory is just another dot on the map with precious and extremely valuable resources. You also have the native communities, who for many years, have been kept quiet by subsidies. They now find themselves at the frontline of a new gold rush and they want to be included. Some countries are drooling over the rewards the Arctic could reap, while others, already exhausted over interior issues and financial realities can’t seem to know what foot to dance on. Finally you have everything in between. In this “open internet sensationalized media world” everyone has a right for its opinion and a platform to share it.

Politicians, independently of what they will do or decide, will be screamed at and vilified. If it is not the fishermen angry for not being able to make a living, it will the conservationists, the public, the corporations, the native communities – there won’t be anywhere where governments can hide. Still, they have to make decisions. And their decisions are most of the time based on what will bring them reelected next year. If that was not enough, we live in a world where no one pays the real price for its lifestyle. And no one wants to pay more. We want cheap food, cheap electronics and cheap energy.

The development of the Arctic will go on, whether we want it or not. The question is: How will it go? In 1996 the Arctic Council was formed precisely to look over the process. Formed by the delimiting countries: Canada, USA, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, it mission is to:

To provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Also at the Council table are France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Although their role, is to observe and suggest but not to participate in the decision making. In recents years, other countries, such as China, Brazil, India, Japan and the EU have clearly lobbied for a right to be involved. In their views, what happens in the North, happens everywhere. The world is so global, that no one has the luxury to ride without the others. In the extreme scenario where much of the Arctic disappears, these waters will be international and free for all to navigate.

The challenge will be to manage on a sustainable level this eager group of developers. Playing the NO card is not a wise strategy. In fact, it would absolutely be counter productive. The corporations have the funds and the political will (lets not forget also the reality that the world demands their products!) to exploit as much as they can first and deal with the consequences later. So to simply oppose to their power and fight fire with fire, would accomplish nothing. It would be a waste of people’s money, but more importantly it would erase any chance of working with these companies at guiding them in their developing process. Everyone involved will need to be pragmatic. Conservation groups need to understand the economical realities we face and the corporations need to accept their responsibilities towards the environment.

Instead of pretending that nothing will happen, that no accidents will occur, or that no one will ever drill in the Arctic, what must be achieved is a constructive discussion where everyone is enticed at working to avoid and prepare for the worst. Like a teen coming of age of driving, there is no point to prohibit the inevitable. What you can do is guide, instruct and prepare so that when something bad happens (and it will!) it doesn’t come as a surprise and the mechanisms to repair are already in place.

Human’s Relationship with Nature

In the 1700’s, a famous astronomer from France, named Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, started to name his discoveries, new constellations, with man made objects. He would look into his telescope, point it up towards the stars, see a pattern then give it a name. He named one constellation Horologium Oscillitorium, honoring Christiaan Huygens and his invention, the pendulum. He named another one Microscopium, after the microscope. In fact, from the 70 constellations known at that time, Lacaille added over 14 new ones, all named after instruments. Little did he know that his decision to imprint the sky with Man’s creation not only broke thousands of years of astronomy tradition, but reaffirmed a behavior that had been working its way into the core of our society for the past several thousands of years – Nature was no more, and Man ruled every element and realm.

Allow me to illustrate how we have become so disconnected from Nature, the effects that it has created on our society, the gains it gave us, the damages it inflicted, and why, despite obvious future complications, we find ourselves challenged over what to do. We have made an habit to over analyze, saturate our theories with numbers, and spit out new solutions to only realize that their application was impossible and their success unattainable. In fact, the explanation lies in our history, how we are as a species, and why, what seems like a simple change, will demand from us, a drastic change in our values and in the way we live. Do not worry, I am not here to tell you that the world is doomed, that we have five years to fix it, otherwise life will cease to exist. Quite the contrary, we are masters at adapting and surviving and hopefully, by the end of the evening, you will have a better understanding of our current situation and what can be done to remedy this unhealthy modern paradigm.

On a small note, I would like to point out that I have just used the word “remedy” to introduce my rhetoric. The definition of “remedy” is the following: a medicine or a treatment for a disease or an injury. It is a means of counteracting or eliminating something undesirable. It comes from Latin remedium: “RE” meaning ‘back’, also expressing intensive force, and “MEDERI” which means ‘heal.’ Humans are not a bad species. We do not need to condemn ourselves with guilt, despair over how we have been so irresponsible. Who we are today, what we are doing and what we have been doing is quite logical and predictable. Just like a child who was told not to play with fire, and did, then got burned, now we need to tend the wound so that it can heal properly.

One of the first places we need to look into, is mythology, and more precisely, the history of our mythology. Now bare with me, we will not delve into a study of myths, gods and religions. I am simply going to outline certain key elements that pertain to our relationship with nature. Now, according to Mercia Eliade, in his book Myth and Reality, one of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models of behavior. Joseph Campbell, in his book “The Power of Myth” described them as having four basic functions: the Mystical Function–experiencing the awe of the universe; the Cosmological Function–explaining the shape of the universe; the Sociological Function–supporting and validating a certain social order; and finally, the Pedagogical Function– explaining how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. In other words, whether be religious or folkloric, these stories passed over time helped us shape our system of beliefs and values.

The place of Nature in mythology is extremely interesting. At the beginning, humans were afraid of it. The early civilizations revered the elements – fire, wind, water, earth, and thought than certain animals were their elected representatives. We refer to this practice as animism, where plants, animals, inanimate objects and natural phenomena possessed a soul. The divine was illustrated in the world around them and humans saw themselves at the mercy of it. Nature was bigger than them. In the Mapuche mythology, a group of indians in the region of Patagonia in South America, the Ngen were spirits that managed, and governed nature. The Ngen were created by the Pu-am, the representation of the universal soul, who wanted the Ngen to assure the order and the laws of admapu , the rules of the Mapuche tradition. If a Mapuche needed to obtain something from nature, he was to first respect the spirit then give an offering.

Then came the gods. The earliest ones were still depicted in nature. Per instance, in the Aztec mythology, Tepeyollotli, the “heart of the mountains”, was the god of earthquakes, echoes and jaguars. He was portrayed as a jaguar leaping towards the sun. In the Egyptian mythology, Aker, one of the earliest gods worshipped, was the deification of the horizon. He was originally illustrated as a narrow strip of land, representing the horizon, with heads on either side, facing away from one another, a symbol of borders. Since the sun reaches its peak in the zodiac of Leo, these heads were usually those of lions.

As humans moved away from believing in the power of the elements, and seeing the divine in nature, a most fascinating event happened. They started to created entities, gods and goddesses, with human forms. These deities, with arms, legs and faces like ours, were now in control of the elements, of the universe, of life, and of the earth – no more was Nature master of her own domain. Poseidon, a god from the Greek mythology, ruled the realm of the sea. A human form with a beard, riding a chariot carried by horses or hippocampus. Nature was now tamed by the human god, at the mercy of his whip, reduced to a simple means of transportation. In this picture, Egyptians have evidently moved away from symbolism. It shows Shu, the air god, a human form, supporting Nut, the sky goddess, another human form. Geb, the god of earth, at the bottom, showed in earlier records with a snake head, has now moved into a full human form. Two characters, with human bodies and animal heads are helping Shu. In this attempt to explain how the world works, humans are the divine, and animals, or nature, are reduced to mere helpers. Even in Hinduism, Prajapti, “lord of creatures”, a deity presiding over procreation and the protector of life is shown looking like a human.

Now some will tell me that these images are not to be taken literately. Everyone knowns that they are only figments of our imagination and not a true representation. But saying that would be diminishing the power that images have and the impact it has on the subconscious when repeated millions of times over hundreds and hundreds of years. Studies in communication and marketing have proven over and over the impact of repetition, whether being true or not.

There is one character, present in several mythologies who differs in its representation: Faunus, Roman god of the forests, plains and fields and Pan, Greek god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. There is also Cernunnos from the Celtic mythology. Although we known little of his significance, his depiction leaves no doubt on the point being made. Each is a variation of the Horned god. A entity half human, half animal. With horns or antlers, a beard, and often baring legs of a goat.The meaning of such mixture is left for debate, perhaps it was an attempt to unite the old divine, Nature, with the new one, humans. Nevertheless, one thing for sure, this creature, the gross character, this half human, half beast, became with time, the flagship for Man’s savageness, witchcraft and the image of the devil.

So, at the beginning, we had the divine in Nature, now the divinity is in humans, and Nature is under its control. What was to come was even worse – a total loss of respect and a quest to destroy it.

The last two thousand years have been dominated by the rise of monotheism, the belief in only one god. Today the three predominant monotheistic religions are judaism, christianity and islam. As you can see on this map, together they cover most of the world. Different in the their form and beliefs, their attitude towards Nature is the same. The planet is to serve Mankind, and humans are to serve God. Mankind’s goal is to rise from this imperfect world and join with God who lives above, in the heavens. Nature is either savage, evil, or in great need to be corrected. Its resources are like a giant bottomless bag in which we can serve ourselves indefinitely. By putting humans as the perfect creation, mankind was no longer limited by Nature. Quite the opposite. Being divine masters and immune of any consequences, we were free to do what we wanted and manipulated the planet to our wishes. This narrative has unfortunately been the driving force in our relationship with the planet for centuries.

By having dominion over nature, humans came to believe that they were also its protector, even its savior, if needed. It is no surprise when looking into the Old Testament and reading the story of Noa and his arch, saving every animal on the planet, that we find ourselves today believing that it is still our responsibility, once again, to save the earth. Although the rescue boat has changed into our total trust in technology, the thought is the same: we are separate from Nature, we know better than Nature, and only WE have the power to save it. If life is to subsist, it will only be because of us.

And the question arises, why should we save Nature when for thousands of years, everything about it has been looked upon with aversion, annoyance, as a symbol our own limitation, as the enemy. Our industrial era has excelled in claiming that the growth of mankind had to be made to the detriment of Nature. Still today, we believe we have to choose one over the other. Why should we start to re-consider the sacred in the elements and in the animals, when the idea of pervading life in the “un-human world”, has been considered “childish”, and typical of “cognitive underdevelopment”, by our most distinguished philosophers and men of sciences. Why should we regress and act like “primitives”, as some suggest? Why is it that living in the country, rather than in the cities, a place glamorized by the feats of human incredible ingenuity, is culturally seen as simplistic and filled with a lack of vision. Let me ask you a question. Would any of you give up the comfort of your modern day convenient life – with your computers, your cars, your access to any kinds of food anytime, and your gadgets, to save a forest or a fish, or a mammal that you most likely will never see in your life.

The answer lies in our choice of values. And here is where the topic becomes tricky. It has nothing to do with numbers, statistics or any graphs. Technically, we are absolutely capable of living in a world empty of any wilderness. Technically, we could have every crop, every chicken, every fruit, every vegetable, every tree grown inside in artificial indoor places. We can engineer pretty much anything. And what we can’t, we are working on it. In fact, we have become so good at it, that we now know we can act like gods. What before was only an assumption, or a wish, is now a fact and a reality. And consequently reinforces our belief that our technology is the only thing that can save the earth.

We love our numbers. We love our capacity to create equations. We brag about how we are able to explain everything in the world, in the universe with numbers. Between 354-430 AD, St. Augustine wrote “Numbers are the Universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth.” Today, we continue and say that the underlying element that connects everything are numbers – it is the universal language we claim. We fantasize about meeting other people from far away galaxies and communicating with them through numbers. In the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, Professor Karl Barnhardt, a nobel prize physicist, entertains a meaningful conversation with Klaatu, an alien, through formulas and statistics. On Tv, there is a show where a young genius mathematician helps the FBI solve cases that normally would be too hard for humans to figure out. And how does he do it? With equations. We throw numbers at everything and all the time. Our DNA has been reduced to a simple equation of letters. Our food has been dissected into numbers – the perfect diet consists of X calories, Y carbs, Z proteins, and well 0 sugar of course. We look at life and everything around us in a simple way: input and output. It is what separates us from the animals, it is what makes us so special, our ability to manipulate numbers. Therefore, it is only logical, that we look at Nature in the same way. And for the past 20 years, the scientific community, the environmental community and the politicians have been raging a war of numbers. Each side claim to have the right statistics. My numbers are better than yours. And yet nothing changes. Why, because of the place of Nature in our values.

On a side note, to illustrate how far our obsession of quantifying everything has gone, it seems that the planets in our system have now a dollar value. An astrophysicist of the University of California in Santa Cruz has been appraising the planets. With a complicated and special formula, he came to establish that the value of Venus was a penny – of Mars, $16,000, and of course of the Earth, 5 quadrillion! Talking to the Daily Mail in London, the scientist declared that: “The formula makes you realize just how precious Earth is and I hope it will help us as a society safeguard what we have”. Indeed, how obsessed we have become.

The idea that technology will save everything is a dear one to all of us. In our modern society, technology has moved to a god-like status with the power of total redemption – if only we could invent or come up with a solution that will fix all our problems, nullify all our undesirable deeds, and allow our consumption based culture to keep growing without much interference, this is our idea of heavens.

Let me ask you another question. Do you care about child labor in a place, half way across the world, where you will never set foot? Do you care about domestic violence in a house, somewhere on another continent, in a city you probably never knew existed? Do you care about a 10 year old virgin being sold for human trafficking. Why? If we look at the numbers, there are absolutely no incentives to care. And even more, there are no reasons why there should be any laws to prevent it. The reason there are laws, the reason we care, it is because of our values. It is because of what we believe to be good, and what we believe to be bad. And those values are the foundation of our system. Sadly, in our modern world, Nature has never been a concern or a priority. It has never been part of our values.

Now, why is it so hard to change? Because despite the fact that we love to believe we are a logical and smart species, that our brain is in charge of every decision, unfortunately, we are still governed by our physical needs and our emotions. Do you remember when I talked about the child who was told not to play with fire and still did? Well, we are physical beings. We need to experiment, we need to feel to understand. How do you think we have achieved so much. It was certainly not because we listened to all the people who said it was impossible. The trait in our behavior that pushes us to new limits is the same trait that makes us ignore all the warnings. We know that cigarettes will kill you. It is even written on the package. But each of us also know someone who has smoked two packs a day for the last fifty years and is in better shape than most of us. We know that we have overfished the oceans, but living in our convenient and global economy, it is hard to know what it means. My point is that as much as we want to sensitize the public and ourselves about the impact of our lifestyle on the environment and the decline of wild animals, we will need to acknowledge the dynamic of how we behave, how we think, and most importantly, how we get to change. As human beings, we need to physically feel to understand, we need to experience the consequences of our actions. That is why we have laws. Because we need limits. And for the last 50 years, we have become masters at breaking any limit encountered. We have transformed deserts into blooming plains. We have engineered crops to yield five times more. We have manipulated our cattle to grow faster. We are experts at making things bigger and faster. So how can we care or value something which we have had as our mission to defy? Why should we care for something we have believed to be an obstacle to our survival?

Some people in this world have never set foot in a forest. Some have never seen a night sky saturated with stars. Some have never seen the ocean rolling on a white sandy beach. With ecology classes gone from schools and sciences classes slowly disappearing, how can children be even taught about the dynamics of life? How can a child be aware, or even have a sense of what nature is if he has never even experienced it.

We have a choice to make. And let me say that, whether you choose one over the other, is not better or worse. Each has its pros and cons. Each has its advantages and consequences. Each is either good or bad, it just depends on where you stand. If we, as a society, choose to have a world dominated by technology and engineering, constantly improving at making things bigger and faster, at the detriment of Nature, than we just need to keep doing what we are doing. I am sure we will be able to find technological solutions to pretty much everything. But If we choose to have a world where the wilderness can still be experienced, where a father can take his son fish in the outdoors. Where a child can snorkel the bay and marvel at thousands of flickering moving colors, then we will have to change. Not because of numbers, not because we need to save the earth, not because climate is changing, but because we value Nature. Because we want Nature to be part of our world. Because we believe that our responsibility is to be humble, respectful and caring citizens of this planet, of this universe. Not to destroy it or act like its savior.

Patagonia 2011

This land has been many things to many people. For Magellan and Drake, it was the land of giants. For FitzRoy, it was the beginning of the end. For Darwin, it was a trip that would change his life. ForJeremy Button, it was his home, then his curse. For St-Exupery, Patagonia was his muse. And forChatwin and Theroux, it became their salvation. For me, this vast land, this million kilometer square of mountains, rivers, canyons, steppes, ocean coasts, and unbelievable skies, Patagonia is where my story began.

For more than 10 years, I tried to follow a path that was unfortunately, doomed from the beginning. You see, back in my childhood days, I would either spend my days on the shore of the St-Lawrence River, meticulously examining each and every tide pool or roaming the forest in search of small and bizarre critters. I was always down on my knees, my head in the water, or digging under a tree or a rock. On my 16th birthday, I received two of my most cherished childhood gifts, two photos, framed, from the famous photographer Talbot – “Flight”, the iconic photo of two dolphins jumping in front of a cargo ship, and “Megaptera”, the amazing tail of  a humpback whale. Back then, if you would have asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up, my answer was, and had been the same for a very long time: “I want to sail around the world and study whales”! In fact, the first time I applied for university was in Marine Biology at the University of British Columbia. On a funny note, I used to watch “Miami Vice” in the late 80’s and envy Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) because he lived in a marina, on his Endeavor sailboat.

Then, like so many young dreamers, I was told to “Wise Up” and get serious with my life. Listening to the senior council, I put aside those “infantile” ideas of traveling the world’s oceans looking for swimming mammals and enrolled in business and marketing! I still regard that day as the day that I sold my soul. I spent the next 15 years pushing my way into a world that never seemed quite right for me. Every time I felt the weight of the system bringing me down, I would leave everything behind and escape for months on end, disappearing somewhere, closer to nature. Closer to what deep down I was longing for. One time, I spent a summer at Isla Guadalupe in Mexican waters, diving with white sharks.

The last and final straw happened in New York in 2008. After a disastrous short-lived marriage, I finally did what I should have done a long time ago. I was 34 years old and had wasted enough of my precious life. It was time to set the clock back, rewind the tape and press play again. I sold everything, geared up with camping equipment and picked a destination – a far one, far far away! Although initially I wanted to land in the Falklands, with my budget, Patagonia was more of a realistic choice. So on January 2009, I arrived at the Valdes Peninsula, in the Chubut Province, located in northern Patagonia. There, for the first time in over 20 years, I felt alive. And then the most bizarre thing happened. I remember standing on the beach, facing out, it was a particular windy day and no one could be seen anywhere. I started to feel chocked and out of air. So I took a real deep breath, like none I had ever taken before. I felt the air travelling down to my lungs as if it was the first time I was breathing. I felt my lungs opening up, as if it was for the first time. And this sudden feeling of awareness, as if I was unexpectedly waking up after decades of hibernation.

Since then, I have been back every year to this “lugar salvaje”. And as it turns out, precisely every 14 months!! Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, it is only a coincidence…. I think so!  Anyhow, this year, I went back with my partner, photographer Jasmine Rossi. Her own story with Patagonia is also quite something. Working in the financial world of London, she developed a chronic tendinitis and reluctantly took a year off. Fluent in spanish, she decided to visit South America. As she says: “I wanted to get as far away as possible from the intrusions of what we call “civilization”, so I canoed through jungle rivers and rode along Andean trails from Venezuela to Chile…”  Two years later, Jasmine published the first ever in-depth book on the wildlife of the Valdes Peninsula, “The Wild Shores of Patagonia”.

Jasmine needed to photograph certain winter landscapes for the re-edition of her book “The Spirit of Patagonia”. So after persuading Volkswagen to lend us their new Amarok, we drove south for another 6 weeks of adventure. Overall the trip was a success. We got the shots we were after. But the disappointing part was, and it is always the case on most of my trips, to see Man’s impact on Nature.  Read “Land of Savages” and “Polyethylene Sculpture

W.H. Hudson

“I had become incapable of reflection; my mind had suddenly transformed itself from  a thinking machine  into a machine for some unknown purpose. To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something there which bade me still, and I was forced to obey. My state was one of suspense and watchfulness: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure, and felt as free from apprehension as I feel now when sitting in a room in London… I was powerless to wonder at or speculate about it; the state seemed familiar rather than strange, and although accompanied by a strong feeling of elation, I did not know it – did not know that something had come between me and my intellect – until I lost it and returned to my former self – to thinking, and the old insipid existence.”  W.H. Hudson, famous naturalist

I have always loved the life on a ranch. I have always felt connected to Life, and its cycle. You wake up in the morning and from the moment you open you eyes, you follow Nature’s rhythm, until you retire at night, having participated once again in a ritual several thousands of years old. You learn to understand the value of what the Earth gives you. The relationship between you, the animals, the plants, the insects, and the land could not be stronger – everyone and everything is interconnected, intertwined in a deep network of independencies. You need the land and the land needs you. You need the animals and the animals need you. It is a symphony orchestrated by nature, and I, am only one of the participants. Everything I need is given to me through a complex yet simple and delicate ecosystem. The bees, the cattle, the horses, the pigs, the chickens, the flies, the trees, the sheep, the wind, the sun, the frost, the pond, the fish, the river, the frogs, the birds, the rabbits, the wolves, the ducks, and me, we all play a role and our survival is tied to one another. It is a ritual that I have always felt honored and proud of taking part in.

Unfortunately, in our industrialized society, ranching and farming have become anything but“connected to the Land”. Independently if you are a gaucho (cowboy), a rancher, or an owner, the fact that one spends his or her days working the land has no indication whatsoever of his or her relationship to Nature. A fact that even surprised me when meeting several wildlife photographers, filmmakers, scientists, and biologists – it is not because one works in or with nature that necessarily he or she is close or connected to it. The last week has only reinforced this reality.

What we used to see as a privilege – believing it was a gift from the universe to allow us to harvest the earth, we now see as a given and a due. The land is a resource to be exploited and so are the animals.  And if one species is an obstacle, or a burden to our means, then we eliminate it. The more you can yield out of an acre, the better. No matter the consequences, we bully ourselves through life, thinking that it is our destiny to plow the Earth as if it was our personal galley.

Not only have we transformed our fertile lands into monoculture deserts, but we also have turned our society into a monoculture landscape. We live in a world where individuals are asked to grow up specializing in one particular thing and forget about general knowledge. As early as thirteen years old, a teen is asked what he or she wants to focus on, undermining the idea to acquire a broad foundation before deciding what to become. Every time I think of this issue, I think back of Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps one of the finest politicians in the world, in the last 200 years. A naturalist, a hunter, a rancher, a military man, a scientist, a writer, an explorer and a politician, he was solid in geography and well-read in history, strong in biology, French, and German, but interestingly enough, deficient in mathematics, Latin and Greek. What can be said of today’s political or business elite, bred to excel in one thing only.

I have never been afraid of death or killing. I have always understood the dynamics of life and the ramifications of its complexity. The idea that death is bad is only a modern invention. Nature not only does not value one over the other, but each is a necessity to the universal equilibrium. The death or destruction of one, is the birth and proliferation of another. When working on a farm, or a ranch, death is just part of life.  In fact, the farmed animals have evolved into trading the assurance of their survival for the price of their death. For me, to respect and honor the food on my plate, I need to understand and fully participate in what it takes to get there. I completely understand when hunters and fishermen claim to be more in touch with nature that the city dwellers. I have had on my hands the blood of fish, game and farm animals, and each time I have felt more connected to Earth than going to the supermarket. Every time I have honored the moment, the animal and thanked the universe for its grace. It was obviously with great enthusiasm that I agreed to tag along to lasso a cow that had a broken leg and needed to be put down. It was my understanding that I was going to participate in a dignified ritual. Here I was, in an estancia (ranch) surrounded by mountains and lakes, where cattle still roam free and horses are the main means of transportation. I wanted to respect what the cow had lived for. I wanted to be there and honor her death and the legacy she would leave behind. Instead, what I witnessed, was a brutal and perverted act of barbary. From the kill to the skinning, everything was done with disdain. I found myself sad, not for her death, but for us, humans and how, even in the most remote places imaginable, where one would expect the deepest communion with nature, we have become disconnected.

And then I was reminded of the passage on W.H.Hudson in Chris Moss’s “Patagonia: A Cultural History”, when he went to London, leaving Patagonia behind, “He was outraged at the way industry and its processes had usurped nature in his ancestral homeland, and would later describe his adopted England a glorified poultry farm … Somehow, while swatting away troublesome thoughts, the idler had reached a firm conclusion, that the biblically sanctioned notion of a natural world created for man to conquer and dispose of at will was simply unsustainable. To Hudson, the natural world, the environment, was sacred and not there solely be exploited. He contrasted nature’s richness with the artificial pleasures that most men valued – newspapers, finances, current affairs, city life – and which he despised. He viewed nature as a way  out of the tiresome, very English town-and-country dichotomy, and as a means to finding health as well as moral well-being.”

The Sun Will Keep Rising

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.“  Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States of America

Call me an eternal optimist. I have always looked at life with a glass half full mentality. I have always believed that the world is what you make out of it. Even in the worst of times, we see what we want to see. I abide by those three little words: “Everything is Relative”.

But being an optimist nowadays is no small feat! Not one day goes by without having the gloom of the world plastered in front of our eyes, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Sometimes, it seems that the only way to escape this behemoth of negatively charged matter is to disappear, disconnect from the grid. Something not so easy according to recent studies. For many, especially for the young generation, to do so is as hard as kicking a drug or smoke addiction!

An intrusive network of satellite TVs, combined with limitless access to the internet and an economy that knows no boundaries, have reduced what was once a vast planet of great distances into a small village where everything is only a click away. Whether you are on the train, in a cab, waiting for the bus, on the plane, walking down the street, or even on a beach in the Caribbean, at school, at work, in a meeting, or in bed. Fast Food information (information that is devoid of any meaning, fat on drama, sweet on bias opinions, saturated with voyeurism and presented in large portions without any context) is constantly pushed down our subconscious. Independently if one wants it or not, it is getting harder and harder not to be “connected”.

Is there a correlation with food? There was a time when it was limited to the kitchen and restaurants. Now, Fast Food (devoid of any real benefits, full of processed fat, sweet on corn derivatives, saturated with attractive colors and presented in unnecessarily large portions) is found anywhere from the gas station to the pharmacy. Consequently, and obviously combined with other factors, our health has degraded tremendously. Is our intelligence awaiting the same fate?

We live in an era where every second, we are reminded that Armageddon is upon us. Today it is Climate Change. Yesterday it was Gas Stocks. Tomorrow will be the Economy, and next month it will be time for Fish Stocks. Next year is 2012 – The End of the World. An Asteroid is coming soon, within the next 2,500 years and the Rise of Sea Levels will drown most of the big cities in the world, sometime within the next 100 years. TV thrives with shows that fantasize on computer simulations that illustrate what will happen when the End is at our door. Hollywood has an orgy every time a Doomsday prediction comes out.

We must ask ourselves, are we actually wired to process all this information? Is it making our lives better? Is it necessary and trivial to know everything that happens everywhere? Or is all this information instead making us more anxious, depressed and giving us a false interpretation of the world? Is the world really worse now than before?  And if it is, relative to what?

I am not saying that the world is beautiful and that we should’t worry. Not at all! Believe me, I am going through my share of craziness down here in Argentina, a country where making sense has been extinct for a very long time. (Don’t get me started!) I do believe that indeed the world is coming to an end, the end of a “cycle”!

This morning, while running, I witnessed a beautiful sunrise and it made me think. Independently of all our tragedies, our wars, our losses, and our threats, the planet keeps going and the sun keeps rising. And the beauty of the sunrise will have nothing to do with the state of the world. Isn’t it refreshing! Isn’t it amazing to realize that at the end, all of our daily worries, all of our anxiety, our stress, our doubts, our complaints, have no place in the scheme of the Universe. The world could come to an end tomorrow, yet, the sun will rise again, reminding us that life goes one, as it has since billions of years and will do for billion of years to come.

When hypocrisy hits the fan

It used to be quite simple. Throughout much of human’s history, the people were separated in two camps. On one side, there were the country people, and on the other, the city people. The ones who lived in the country were generally more in touch with nature. They worked the land, raised farm animals, hunted and fished. The ones who lived in the city didn’t see much of themselves in nature. They believed in progress and industrialization. Although both sides looked at each other with a bit a disdain, everyone knew pretty much where they stood. More or less, it was always Man vs. Nature. City vs. The Country. The Rabbit vs. The Turtle.

Since the 90s, the difference between the two groups has never been so blurry. In fact, a new group has been created–the people who live in cities and defend nature. Even though they may rarely get out of their cement environment, a walk in a nearby fenced park, a weekend at the country house (country being in a little suburb not far from the city), or a holiday on a cruise ship or Club Med may be enough for them to claim that they feel connected with Mother Earth. For some, it could be said that nature is a beautiful vase you put on a shelf and admire. It is something of a fairy tale, where even the crush of a fly is deemed cruel. Many have stopped eating meat, bragging high that it is “against nature.” They may have even declared war against anything that is derived from animals, claiming that it is “against nature.” They even may point the finger at the people who DO live in nature, and lecture them that they are in fact, against it! According to them, their urban green lifestyle is an example upon which everyone should follow.

The latest from this world of hypocrisy and nonsense shows up in the design world. A man who in March 2008 declared: “ I was a producer of materiality and I am ashamed of this fact. Everything I designed was unnecessary. I will definitely give up in two years’ time. I want to do something else, but I don’t know what yet. I want to find a new way of expressing myself … design is a dreadful form of expression.” Yet, according to his bio on his website, he is said to have “believed in the power of green long before ecology became fashionable, out of respect for the planet’s future.”

Philippe Starck’s latest meretricious masterpiece comes exactly two years and two months after his “mea culpa.” “A” is a megayatcht of 560 feet, which costs $20 million a year to maintain and burns a small 335 liters of gas per knot. Of the design, Starck states that, “While most megayatchs are a vulgar statement of wealth and power, ‘A’ was designed to be in harmony with the sea and nature. The boat has elegance and intelligence, it is not trying to show the money.”

The fact is, “A” could not be more vulgar to nature than pigeon shit on a million dollar Bugatti. With bright white interiors, chairs made from alligator hides and Kudo horns, walls covered with white sting ray hides and hand-stitched calf’s leather, $40,000 bath knobs, Baccarat crystal table, and a $60,000 banister, his claim feels more like a total insult than a mere annoyance. If there was a Hall of Fame for the Stupidest Things Said by Man, his would definitely be in the top three. “The use of the mirrors through this designed superyacht ‘A’, brings the wonderful views and horizons inside the vessel, thus creating the feeling of oneness with nature.” ( Excuse me while I control my gag reflex!

Stephen Bayley at the Observer summarizes quite perfectly the absurdity of Starck; “Through Napoleonic ego, Starck has achieved great celebrity and congruent wealth, but his work does not stand severe analysis. He has given us over-packaged pasta, groovy motorbikes that do not work, chairs that get scratched, sculpted shoes no one wants and the most famous lemon squeezer in the history of man’s emergence from the primeval gloop. Score 10 on Crap-O-Meter for that one. He tickles the ego of desire, without gratifying the more profound demands of id’s lasting needs. Far from tidying up the world, he has contributed to excess. As Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis, Starck’s work is a symptom of what it purports to cure.”

The world of outdoor adventure has unfortunately also been affected. With teens spending over 75 hours a week consuming media (in front of the computer, television, mobile phone or playing video games) for many, the concept of exploring is a trip on Google Earth. In the eventuality that they do manage to step outside and smell the fresh air, they may rarely be disconnected from their cell phone or mp3 device. Their idea of nature could be defined by over the top dramatic-worst-case-scenario media channels. And they collect nature groups on Facebook like baseball cards. They Tweet about what the birds they saw in the backyard, the rain falling on the window. Even more disturbing, they exercise with the Wii. The outdoors, nature, exploring, traveling, all those words are becoming disconnected concepts. Words seen on screens. Options to be clicked when choosing a profile. What happened to the real nature?

Nature is raw. It is everything from the force of a tornado, to the kill of a baby gazelle by a group of lions; from the birth of a gorilla to a magical sunset; from the chicken laying eggs to a fox snatching them. Nature is pretty and cruel at the same time. It is hard and uncontrollable. It is the warmth of the sun, the freezing air of winter or a night sky filled with countless amount of stars. It is a scratch on the knee or a bite from a mosquito. Nature is definitely NOT a sanitized white environment filled with chrome and air conditioning. It is definitely not a fairy tale. Living in harmony with nature actually makes you humble, not pretentious and arrogant. It teaches you that the world is not perfect. That life and death are a necessary. Like ying and yang. I wish we could go back to a time of decency, where people knew the real meaning of being connected with nature. Instead we live in a world where the absurd is acclaimed, stupidity is rewarded and killing bacteria gel is the first thing to welcome you when entering your supermarket.

Nature (noun)
1 the beauty of nature: the natural world, Mother Nature, Mother Earth, the environment; wildlife, flora and fauna, the countryside; the universe, the cosmos.
Meretricious (adjective)
1 apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity : meretricious souvenirs for the tourist trade.
2 archaic of, relating to, or characteristic of a prostitute.
Thesaurus: the meretricious glitter of the whole charade: worthless, valueless, cheap, tawdry, trashy, Brummagem, tasteless, kitsch, kitschy; false, artificial, fake, imitation; informal tacky, chintzy.

Shot for a fish

“If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, or enemies, for the same reasons. “ C.S. Lewis

It was hard not to remember those words as I kneeled next to the dead female sea lion, beached only minutes before. The evidence was flagrant. There were no signs of trauma, no decomposition, no bloating. Blood was still trickling from her snout. Besides the missing eye, probably taken by a seagull, there were no other plucking wounds. This animal must have been alive only a few hours ago. On her back was the explanation for such an unexpected turn of events – a clear round opening, with soft curled red edges. A theory became quite obvious but I still had to do one more test before confirming my suspicion. I walked towards the sand dunes, picked a small branch and with it came back to the victim. Sliding the stick into the wound, it went in as expected and determined what was now a fact. The sea lion had been shot, and hit probably just before diving, explaining the low angle of the bullet’s trajectory inside the animal.

Looking over the horizon and trying to figure out how this poor creature had ended here, I noticed another floating object not too far off. As it got closer, I was able to clearly identify it. Sadly, it was another dead sea lion, but this time, it was a pup. As it rose up with the rolling waves, just before being rumbled back down, the animal would find itself in a transparent crest, illuminated from behind, crystalized and motionless, as if it had been delicately displayed in a glass of formalin. This one never made it to the beach. Trapped in the tumble of the rollers, it slowly kept drifting down the coast. I didn’t get the chance to examine the body but my conclusion seemed quite solid. With a fishing village at about 4 kilometers up the coast, coincidentally the direction from which the sea lions had drifted, and the reputation these animals have for “stealing” the fisherman’s catch, it was fair to assume that the mother and her baby had crossed the path of a person who believed that the world was too small for them to feed on the same “commodity” that he was making a living of.

Filled with a sudden lack of hope, I found myself questioning humans’ ability to make peace with Nature. Just the day before, I had finished reading Sylvia Earle’s book: The World is Blue: How our Fate and the Ocean’s are oneand had started reading A Passion for the Earth, a book of essays, inspired by David Suzuki. Sylvia’s last words were: “Throughout the history of our species, the mostly blue planet has kept us alive. It’s time for us to return the favor.” Closing in on 8 billion of a hungry world population, how many wild animals, how many jungles, how many oceans, will be killed, cut, and polluted so that we may carry on the uncontrolled and unaccounted destruction of our host?

Mate Expedition

There is a toasty aroma in the air. A strong yet delicate fragrance with a hint of fresh grass, tinged with roasted nuts. This smell, unknown to my olfactory receptors for most of my life, was now a familiar one. The wind is carrying it from the giant rolling ovens that are drying the fresh yerba leaves, brought in from the fields only minutes ago. The process, rudimentary, is still the same one as 50 years, ago. The only difference is the science of time. Branches with the leaves still attached, are carried on a moving mat and dropped in a rolling  cylinder where the open mouth of a scorching furnace tumbles them across to safety. The secret lies in the timing. Years of minute observations, trials and errors, has led to the perfect equation, genius of physics and math, a precise number of seconds, spent under a precise temperature, to give the perfect roast. The result is a partially dried leave, full of flavors and healthy benefits, ready to be crushed and packed.

I was back at Las Marias, wrapping up a 3-month assignment. Sitting on the front porch of La Majoria (main house) I was doing a ritual that had now become daily routine: pour loose yerba into a gourd, cover the top with my hand, turn the gourd upside down and shake it several times. The goal is to bring to the surface the “Polvo” (powder). Then pour water on one side, not too much, just enough to soak the leaves and keep the other side dry. As an old man said to me once: “You are not simply pouring water, you are feeding the yerba so that it can breathe”. After a couple of minutes, sip the water through the Bombilla (straw). Refill and sip. Repeat.

Mate is more than a drink. Comparing it to tea or coffee would be more than an understatement, it would be an insult. It is more like wine. It is a lifestyle statement. One that says that time and relationships matter. One that says that speed and singularity are not a priority. It is a ritual that invites for sharing and trust. A reminder from the Native Indians passing the pipe around, as a sign of welcome and humility. It is a ceremony that invites strangers and solidifies friendships.  In Argentina, it is almost a religion and when offered to you, it is impossible to refuse.

Together with renown photographer Jasmine Rossi, based in Buenos Aires, our assignment was to travel to the birthplace of Mate, where it is grown, more precisely to the northern provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, and find out more about this cultural phenomenon. We decided to call our trip, the Mate Expedition!

The result is now available online20 interviews, 4 diaries and hundreds of photos. Sit back, relax and let the people from Argentina tell you a story, their story. In our ever faster society, Mate is an antidote. It is a reminder that life is more than running after our next achievement. It is an effortless social meditation that emphasizes on our need for interaction. It is a pause, a long one, that forces you to absorb the beauty that surrounds you. One that forces you to listen and to watch. Mate is not only a celebration of time and friendship, but it is a tribute to Life. Enjoy!

Wildlife of Argentina in New York

The Consulate General of Argentina

requests the pleasure of your company for the opening of

Wildlife of Argentina” by Daniel Fox

Opening Reception October 7th at 6pm (really important)
12 West 56th street, New York

Presented by Taragui, Planet Explore, Wend Magazine, Plywerk, Kokatat, TesacomAlpineAire Foods & Periscope Creative

A Story to Tell

“One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.” Joseph Campbell

Ever since I was a young boy, I found my inspiration and comfort in nature. It thought me about life, and death, about change and evolution, about challenges and perseverance. It thought me about perspective and balance.  Most importantly, it thought me about being humble and spiritual.

I started the Wild Image Project so that I could tell a story. A story about our relationship with nature, about our journey in this universe, a story about being human. Humans love to see the world within a limited frame, within a world that they can explain, control and manipulate. We forget that who we are today is the result of a process that has lasted several millions of years. We are also, just a chapter in the story of evolution. It is fair to say that if we had the ability to look into the future, most likely, we would discover that our appearance has evolved, changed, just like we have changed physically and mentally since the time we came down from the trees.

As our world is changing, so are we. Change is always hard. Change is by nature an unwelcome force. But change is the reason why we know so much and why we are so good at surviving – it forces us to adapt and thrive. Our unsustainable lifestyle has led us to re-question our values, the way we consume and the way we live. It is not just the last 50 years that have been damaging our planet, but the last 3,000, ever since we started to put Man as the perfect creation and saw nature as an imperfect reality: cruel, inhuman, obsolete…Since then, we have consumed our planet earth and manipulated her with no respect, believing that this land was only for our benefit. Just like a teen, who decides to egotistically deny his heritage and sees himself as the source of truth, we have strayed away from our roots bragging about our superiority.

In this period of change, it is important to remember that as we consume and destroy our planet, the people we hurt the most are ourselves. The planet will take a couple of thousands of years to recuperate, but we won’t. In fact, it has been proven, that the moment Man disappears, nature will flourish again. If we want the world to participate in this journey of growth, we have to change our line of thought. We have to stop seeing ourselves as saviors of the planet. The only thing we will save is us, our survival. This change of lifestyle must be embraced, not because it will save the planet, but because it will assure our survival and will provide a promising future for our children.

The story I want to tell is a story of hope and of unity. We are part of Nature, and it is part of Us. As someone said about my work: “Going beyond the rubric of “wildlife photography”, Daniel Fox’s images invite the viewer to act as celebrants/participants in a visual communion with Nature. Portrayed with a fresh directness that captures the immediacy of their natural environment, the subjects are offered not as “specimens” but as noble protagonists. Fox captures nature at its rawest and most challenging of states. He conveys its beauty and imbues it with exquisite poetry. Through this unique perspective, the natural world in its resplendence is both honored and transformed.”

It is my way to foster the flowering of our humanity, it is my own way of making the world a better place.


I love the wilderness. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner who preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – the usual solution. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their fate took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.  With hunger for progress and gain, our modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures.

I am in Misiones, a province in the northeastern part of Argentina. It is a little narrow strip of land, squeezed between Brazil and Paraguay. While the neighboring countries have been leveling down the forest and replacing it with agriculture and cattle, Misiones has been more or less successful at understanding the economic value of the almost extinct Atlantic Jungle* and its inhabitants and the province has done what it can to preserve it. From the air, the area almost looks like a small peninsula of trees, threatened by a raging sea of deforestation. Its dark green color much in contrast to the surrounding plain landscape. In the 1990’s, Argentina put a lot in effort into establishing parks and natural reserves. In fact, the momentum for conservation was so strong that a total of 800,000 hectares, about ⅓ of the province, ended up protected, off-limit to logging companies and agricultural plantations. But at the turn of the century, things changed drastically. For the past 15 years, economic realities and a change in government, have shifted the efforts in conservation and now the forest is being cut down from the inside out. Logging companies are given more to cut, protected areas are being opened up to build new highways. To make matters worse, illegal immigrants from Brazil are squatting in the forest, slashing and burning the last remaining remnants of pristine wilderness, while local politicians are granting them asylum as long as they vote for them. In other words, the forest is the new currency for votes and the exchange for corrupted hands. Every year, countless new patches of jungle are being turned into tobacco and yerba mate fields or as silent barren land surrounding the immigrant’s makeshift shacks amongst piles of garbage. Even when so-called sustainable “Selective Logging” is performed, the damage inflicted to retrieve the trees is enormous. Parks and Reserves are still officially there when looking at a map, but on the ground the reality is far from what it should be.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been traveling through the area. I am here to photograph the country’s wildlife for a show that the government is giving me at the Consulate in New York. But honestly, I have been barely able to snap one single image. After staying at the Marcio Ayres Research Center located in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Yaboti, at the ranger station of the Provincial Reserve Urugua-i and at the science research center of National Park of Iguazu, I am drained of any inspiration. Ever since my arrival, my days have been filled with horror stories. I feel more like a therapist, listening and taking in each person’s account of how the jungle is being cut, how the animals are being killed, how the local authorities are corrupted and how powerless they feel.

There are so many stories to tell. A report done by the rangers, on road kills on the new international road that cuts right thought the Uruagua-i reserve, counts 3 to 5 casualties a day, every day of the year, including jaguars and tapirs. When they presented their result to the government, they were told to do nothing and most importantly not to contact the media, if they wanted to keep their job.

A new super highway is being built right through the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Yaboti to accelerate the logging traffic between Brazil and Paraguay.

Rangers that are so underpaid they have to pay for their own uniforms, hats, radios, and even for the badge that says “ranger” on their shirt. Rangers with no support whatsoever. Their job is to patrol the jungle, but they aren’t given enough diesel to do it. They have to chase down illegal hunters that are armed to the teeth, but don’t have the right to carry a firearm. An amazing research station, with brand new accommodations, a satellite, a computer station, running water and solar panels, sponsored by European organizations, left to decay with no one to care of it. Local conservationists who tell me how their work of over 30 years is now being trashed as if no laws existed and as if past agreements stood for nothing.

The list goes on and on. But the one I want to tell you is the one about a particular jaguar, the other one in the cage, lying next to the animal that I am photographing. It is the story of a male jaguar, in his prime years, one that should be roaming the dense forests like a stealth warrior, tracking peccaries, but instead is confined behind those bars. It is the story of how this mighty predator of South America got to loose all his teeth. Jaguars have the most powerful bite of the “big cats”. Their huge canines are used to crush skulls, break necks or pierce through the tapir’s one inch thick skin. So a jaguar with no teeth would be like a cheetah with no legs!

Even if protected, locals see them as a threat. When an animal is seen in a populated area, or near a farm, procedures are taken to capture it. At the same time, unfortunately but most likely, a team of illegal poachers is hired to hunt it down. Even if the traffic of jaguar’s pelt is not what it used to be, 18,000 a year back in the 1970’s, it is still extremely valuable on the black market.

When one was spotted near a school some years ago, authorities were called to secure the area. With children around, it didn’t take long before a trap was set up. Jaguars are by nature curious creatures, and often, to their misfortune, their curiosity spells disaster. In this case, a simple steel cage, with bait inside, was enough to lure the animal in and capture it. The problem was that the event happened on a friday, when the director, in charge of supervising the transport and logistic, was having dinner. When he learned of the capture, instead of excusing himself to attend the more urgent business, he decided that the big cat would be fine, in the cage, until the weekend was over! The rangers inI love the wild. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner whom preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – a solution most of the time taken. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their faith took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.

With hunger for progress and gain, the modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures. The province of Misiones in Argentina is by far a pioneer in preserving its fauna and flora capital. It has one of the highest ratio of parks in the world. Its 79 parks total 800,000 hectares, almost a ⅓ of the province. It is also the only province in Argentina with a Minister of Ecology and their amount of rangers is one of the highest in the world.

“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures. The fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot. I am not interested to know whether it is profitable to the human race or not. The pain it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis and sufficient justification of my enmity towards it without looking further. In studying the traits and dispositions of the so-called lower animals, and contrasting them with man’s, I find the result humiliating to me.” Mark Twain

Listen to the Land

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” — Masanobu Fukuoka, One-Straw Revolution

The day is coming to an end. The sun is slowly disappearing on the horizon, over the tall Eucalyptus trees. Soon, another cycle will start when the moon awakens and takes her place in the sky. I am sitting on the fence at the Las Marias ranch, in my hand, a gourd filled with Mate. I feel connected. I hear the Land talking to me. I hear the birds in the trees. I hear the bulls bellowing. I hear the horses, the geese. I hear the grunting of the pigs. I hear laughter. I hear kids playing. I even hear the monkeys howling in the forest not far away. Nothing could be more different than standing at the edge of a monoculture farm we have grown so accustomed to in the “Civilized World”. How many times have I stood in endless fields of wheat and heard nothing more than the sound of the wind frisking the golden grass. Our modern farms are lands of desolation and loneliness. But here, right in front of me, Life reigns. Everybody is free to roam. And everyone does. Even the cattle whom so many believe can’t run, are galloping. And the soil, this red dirt that everybody wears with pride. Their boots are covered by it, their trucks are encrusted with it. It is their way to honor what the Land has given them. They owe everything to it. This red dirt is more than soil, it is the heart, the foundation of their culture. No wonder why they drink Mate with such loyalty and honor, a tree that only grows here and from which Yerba is harvested.

Las Marias is a company that has made its mission to be in harmony with nature and its people.  Everything and everyone is connected. From the very beginning, Victor Navajas never saw himself as a simple farmer, but believed in enriching human lives. As his company grew, so did his desire to spread happiness. Today, Las Marias is more than just a Mate producer. Here, quality is king. Beside being vertically integrated, employees are offered a broad range of benefits. Free school is provided to the children. Housing is available on the plantation or in the “pueblo” nearby. Gauchos rule the ranch in the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Fields are rotated to allow the natural cycle. Tall grass is left alone until it is cut and becomes fertilizer. Lady bugs and rheas are used for pest control. There is no irrigation – the fields are managed to maximize rainfall. At the ranch, horses have no shoes, trusting the hoof of an animal that has survived for millions of years. Birds of prey glide over the land. Even the dangerous viper, mortal if bitten by, is kept alive to control pests. Everywhere you look, harmony exists between nature and the necessities of production.

Sipping the bombilla, I close my eyes and there, in my mouth, I taste it. I taste the land, the soil, the nature, I taste it in its purest form. Much like the French and their wine, Mate is the deepest and most honest gesture of hospitality when receiving someone, it means – “I welcome you my friend and I want to share my land with you.”  Now let me tell you about the beauty of  my country!

Patagonia 2010 part 2

After two weeks in Esquel, working the details of the coming expedition, I was ready to head back to Buenos Aires. The plan was to drive through the Los Alerces National Park by the Ruta 71. Then get on the Ruta 258 until Bariloche and spend two nights at Estancia Arroyo Verde. From there head north to Copahue then east through the Wine Road of Neuquen, the Rio Negro Valley and La Pampa. I needed to be back in B.A. no later than Monday, as I was meeting the director of Fundacion Vida Silvestre and the director of Parques Nacionales on Tuesday. With the kayak strapped tight on the roof, provisions in the cooler and a full tank of gas, the buildings of Esquel gradually shrank in my rear-view mirror while the mountains in front of me, caped with fresh snow, became a bit more giant every minute.

The park was beautiful with a lush green forest of Alerces. Those trees, often called the Redwoods of the South, are one of the longest living trees in the world. From the Cupressaceae family, some trees are even 3,000 years old. A network of green emerald crystal clear rivers bordered by Arrayan trees connects several lakes. The sight was pure beauty, and passing by all this water, I couldn’t stop wishing I had more time to kayak it all. But with a deadline hanging over my shoulder, I watched the rivers come and go.

By lunchtime I was in El Bolson, just outside of Chubut Province, now in the province of Rio Negro. It is known for its fruits, as the place is a pure contrast to the industrialized fruit farms of the valley of Rio Negro. The inhabitants, mostly from a series of European immigrations, still practice a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Aside from finding exquisite jam, the town is a jewel of craftsmanship and food delicacy. Smoked trout, home-brewed beer, chocolate and ice cream are only a sample of the local specialties.

The day was coming to an end as I drove through the Enchanted Valley past Bariloche. Volcanic rock carved by millions of years of Patagonian rain and wind have transformed the slopes into architectural marvels. Unfortunately, with the sun going down, I watched them disappear rapidly–first becoming silhouettes and then totally vanishing in their surrounding shadows. Engulfed between giant black walls, I watched the sky above illuminated with a carousel of blues and oranges. The dark blanket from the valley soon extended its reach and before I could finish absorbing the beauty of it all, the night was now reigning. Shortly after, I was arriving at Estancia Arroyo Verde.

Nestled between the Andes and the famous Traful river in  Nahuel Huapi National Park,Estancia Arroyo Verde is pure wild fly-fishing and horseback riding country. I am here because the world is really small (in Argentina) and once you know a person or two, you start to be invited everywhere. The land has been owned by the Lariviere family for more than 70 years. Although the place was originally a summer retreat (which over the years saw the likes of President Eisenhower, King Leopold of Belgium, the Infanta Cristina of Spain), in 1987, Meme Lariviere opened it to the public, making it the first official destination Estancia in Patagonia, and only the third in all of Argentina. Today, the lodge is known worldwide for its top-notch fly fishing.  With over 10 miles of fresh water river, rainbow and brown trouts coexist with the legendary wild Land-Locked salmon. The place is such prime real estate that the owner across the river is no other than CNN tycoon and fly-fishing fanatic, Ted Turner.

The morning after my arrival, with the sun still hiding behind the mountains, I took a stroll to the pond. While the water was perfectly still, mirroring every tiny detail to such a degree that it was easy to forget which way was up, a kingfisher perched on a branch, looked with a fierce eye for any slight movement, a minuscule ripple or a small moving shadow. Winter was showing signs of arrival, the golden grass in the field was covered in crystallized dew. The minutes passed. And passed.

The sun was now warming up the entire valley when I suddenly heard a giant rumble. It didn’t take me long to know what it was. I sprang up and started to run toward the source and there they were, coming in full force… horses. The gauchos had gone to get them in the morning from roaming the land so they would be ready for tomorrow’s big event–rounding up all the cattle for winter. Since I was leaving on that day, the best I could do was ride them in the afternoon. That evening, I sat in the living room and wandered through family photos, fishing trophies and shelves filled with history. I had been blessed by Meme’s hospitality and it was such a privilege to be welcomed in her house. The next morning, sitting at the breakfast table, enjoying the Larivieres for one last time before I departed, they handed me the big day log and told me to write my name in it. I was only a guest of a friend, yet they were asking me to be part of a long legacy that featured some of the most influential people on the planet. I profoundly thanked them, took the pen and on the fifth page after Ted Turner’s visit on April Fourth, I wrote my goodbyes. On the way out, Meme took my arm and told me that on May fourth, she was having her birthday in Buenos Aires. If I could come, she would introduce me to the Senator of the province of Corrientes–where the Ibera Esteros are located, and she knew it would be beneficial for me. I told her it would be an honor.

The Nahuel Huapi National Park is another amazing park with a mixture of razor-edged mountains, evergreen rain forest and vast land of deciduous trees, which at this time of the year turned the park into an endless sea of red, yellow and orange patches. It was with no hesitation that I decided to take the road less frequented, the one that would take me through the prettiest part of the park. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Sinuously wending through the park on the dirt road, leaving behind a cloud of red dust, abrupt walls leading to a series of high peaks on my left and daggered rock formations to my right. Taking sharp turns, driving up the hill over another, then down again, huge pebbles spat out from underneath the tires, I have to admit I didn’t really feel confident in my small Ford EcoSport, with an 18-foot loaded kayak on my head. My mind sat on the edge of anxiousness, torn between the magical scenery and the potential hazards of back country driving with a rental car. I crossed all my fingers that I would make it without a scratch, a flat tire, a broken strap or a cracked windshield. Being able to count all the cars seen in one day on one hand, this was not the place for emergency stops. It was such a relief when the wheels hit the paved road at San Martin de los Andes!

The next stop was Caviahue, near the Copahue volcano. Another friend of a friend was waiting for my visit, the last one before my return to the big city. The landscape around the Andes is so drastic that by going just 10 miles east, you’ll go from rainforest to steppes. This was direction in which I was driving. Miles and miles of flat land, cut with stratified hills and deep canyons. Over the horizon, to my left, the Lanin volcano, with its 12,300 feet, stood tall and alone, its peak poking at the blue sky. The schedule for the next two days was to have a look at the natural hot springs, photograph the Salto del Agrio and scout for locations for a potential winter photoshoot, when everything would be covered in snow except for the Monkey Puzzle trees. The area has been visited by the natives as a therapeutic destination for centuries. The name Copahue means sulfur in Mapuche. In 1865, an argentinean doctor reached an agreement with the local chief and started bringing his patients. He brought international recognition to the springs and himself after curing a patient with tuberculosis. According to local information, the springs are one of just three hydrothermal centers in the world.

The Agrio river finds its origin in the volcano and flows across the Province of Neuquen before it merges into the Rio Negro. With its milky water, due to high concentration of sulfuric acid, the river cuts through a steamy snowy plateau before cascading down through a series of seven falls (Cascada del Rio Agrio) and into the lake. From there, it journeys down onto an intense red bedrock and between the prehistoric Araucarias–living fossil trees with scale-like leaves. Falling 200 feet down at the Salto del Agrio, the river continues to flow in an impressive valley 1,000 feet wide and at a least 3,000 feet high. But after a mud bath in the wild, and an algae wrap at the village, it was time to hit the road once again.

With not much time left, I decided to drive straight to Buenos Aires. In all honesty, there were two things I wanted to avoid; driving through the Pampa during the day, and arriving in the city during traffic hours (the place is mad!). Driving non-stop would take me to B.A. around 4 a.m. The perfect time! The only problem was that I was empty on gas and learned that there were no gas stations in the village. The closest one was Loncopue, 40 miles away. I barely had enough. Thank God the road was going down all the way! Arriving at Loncopue, I pulled in the station, relieved. A young man standing by the pump started to wave his finger in the air as if to insinuate that I had no right to be there. Beside another man who was standing next to him and a school bus in the other lane, I didn’t know what he meant. I pulled my window down and asked him what the problem was. “No gas,” he answered!!

WHAT??? How could this be? I mean, this was a fairly big village, with a modern gas station, how could there be no gas? The main tank was empty and the next re-fueling truck would not show up before Tuesday! Great! And apparently this happens every single week! I started to explain my situation but nothing I would do would change this seemingly unrealistic fact. After explaining over and over again that I needed to find gas (modern world dependency!), the gentlemen who was standing by, and who happened to be the village school bus driver, offered to sell me 10 liters, which he told me would be enough to get Las Lajas, where gas would be available. I followed him to his house. There, he opened his parked car trunk and pulled out a long hose. With one end in the car tank, he drained two big jars, which he poured back in my car. After thanking and paying him, I drove away hoping that the next village would finally have gas. Another 40 miles later, I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I stepped out of the car, took the pump handle and filled the tank with super!

I drove the next 1300 kilometers non-stop and was happy to arrive in Buenos Aires at precisely 4:30 a.m. The city was quiet, with no one in the streets. I could have not asked for more. Unloading everything and managing to put the kayak in the hall, nose down, I headed straight to bed. After a quick nap, I stepped out to do some errands. The car was parked right in front of the building and I had enough coins in the meters to last the afternoon… so I thought. When I came back, the car was gone. No way! Asking around, I found out that it had been towed because the meter ran out during the last 30 minutes. Beautiful! Here, since no one pays their tickets, there is no warning, no ticket at all. The minute the meter expires and you are not there, towing trucks are waiting, counting the seconds, and as soon the red marker appears, your wheels are gone. I will spare you the details of the adventure, only to say that the week was one I wish could be erased. Aside from the car being towed, I eventually returned it with not a single scratch. Except that while driving on the dirt roads, a rock shot through the rear bumper (if we can call that a bumper… Nowadays, they are just big pieces of plastic that break from anything) and made a hole. The rental company had no choice but to change the entire thing:damage $700US!

Patagonia 2010 Part 1

Once again, almost a year to the day, I am back in Argentina. This time, under the special invitation of the Consulate General of Argentina in New York. The plan is to kayak the Ibera Marshes (the equivalent of the Florida Everglades) and hike the jungle of Pinialito and Iguazu (known for the famous huge falls) in the hopes of photographing Argentina’s endangered and threatened wildlife. But before all of that, I needed to travel south, back to the Valdes Peninsula, where I had left my equipment in storage. Although it would have been quicker to simply drive down, load the car and head straight back up, the temptation of exploring was a bit too much and I decided to take a month and wander my way around Patagonia, taking the long way back.

Estancia San Miguel

Nestled between Bahia Camarones and Bahia Bustamante, San Miguel is your typical Patagonian Estancia (ranch). Bordered by 35 kilometers of ocean front, thousands of hectares of pure steppe house a little bit over 3,500 sheep. Ricardo is the gaucho (cowboy) who takes care of everything. On the day of my arrival, shortly after settling down, he invited me to join him and some guests for an asado (Argentinean barbecue). With a huge smile, I gladly accepted. Little did I know that a big surprise was in store for me. In the Quincho (barbecue shed), fresh made pasta was hanging in the corner on a broom stick, and the fireplace was warmed to perfection. Thick bricks of charcoal had been lit hours ago and were now producing a nice bed of hot ashes, slowly cooking the lamb. The world is incredibly small, and as it turns out, the other guests were in fact friends of mine from Puerto Piramides. Gerardo, Vicky and Santiago, owners of the ACA (where I had stayed last year) were also friends with the owner of the Estancia. They had taken a week off and were on their way back when they decided to stop by for the night. As if this was not enough, also sitting at the table was renowned photographer Jasmine Rossi. Rossi and I had been communicating for some time but our schedules had always been impossible to coordinate. Rossi also knew the owner of the Estancia and was on her way to Valdez to photograph the Commerson Dolphins. Unfortunately, the dolphins were no where to be seen, so she decided to swing by for a couple of nights. My ACA friends knew Rossi by reputation from her time at the Peninsula, but as we found out during dinner, they were all from two blocks away in Buenos Aires. Small world indeed!!

The next day, Ricardo set our horses and off we went. During last night’s dinner, Ricardo had mentioned two whale carcasses on the beach and we wanted to find out more. At just about one kilometer from each other, a small minke whale and an old male orca laid on the rocks, their skin leathered by the sun. Ricardo told us that they appeared last September. It is quite common to find stranded whales, but the orca was something else. This was a huge and powerful male orca, at over 25 feet in length. There was no evident sign of trauma or wounds, and we figured the orca must have died of old age. We later learned that close to 50 pilot whales had been found, also in September, stranded in the nearby bay at Bahia Bustamante. After talking to locals, we realized that those three events coincidentally happened at the same time Pan American Oil was conducting seismic surveys in the area. If this was the case, it would not be the first time oil companies’ activities would be responsible for massive whale strandings. This could also be the cause for the massive stranding of 400 whales in the same area back in 1991.


The next day, we were invited over to Estancia La Ernesta where the owner, Gonzalo, was in the process of inseminating a 1,000 sheep. Sheep farming in Argentina is big business and Gonzalo took the time to explain every detail of it. Argentina is one of the best producers of merino wool in the world, the top one being Australia. And Australia makes huge money by selling the sperm of its champions. So every year, Australian frozen sheep sperm is sent all around the world! Now female sheep are inseminated as to assure they only give birth to the best offspring. Gonzalo uses both the sperm from his own champions (one came second in “Best Wool” and the other has been a number one in genetics for several years!) and sperm from Australia for insemination. When ready, estrogen is given to the female so that they are all ready at the same time. Vasectomized rams are brought in with little harnesses. The vasectomy is really important here. You don’t want to castrate the male. You want those hormones still alive, you simply don’t want them to reproduce. Those males have a specific and important mission, to identified which female is ready to be inseminated. The harness on the rams is fitted with a red chalk so that when they mount the females, they leave a big red patch on the female’s back. All females with red on their buttocks are then lined up and inseminated. It is not only in the “reproductive” realm that science is applied to sheep farming. The correct exact amount of sheep a size of land is capable to handle is also a matter of mathematics. Australia has one of the best ratios, with eight sheep per hectare. (Now please DON’T quote me on this, the information might be wrong and there are many other realities that may affect the numbers!) Argentina has anywhere between 0.1 to 3 sheep per hectare. Meaning that in Patagonia, if you have dry land, you might need as much as 1,000 hectares for 100 sheep. This data is carefully tracked and managed by the farmer. They rotate their sheep according to the weather and amount of food available. Gonzalo has definitely been doing good work because his wool is one of the best in the world and is sold to Ermenegildo Zegna.

Bahia Bustamante

My next stop was Bahia Bustamante, where I had briefly stopped by a year ago, while kayaking my way down to Comodoro Rivadavia. The place is an amazing little piece of paradise surrounded by 25,000 acres of pure Patagonian nature. With one of the greatest biodiversity of seabirds in Patagonia, Bustamante is home to sea lions, 60,000 penguins and orcas. In December 2008, the area, consisting of 100 kilometers of coast and totaling 600 kilometers square, was declared Marine Park.

The Bay became prime real estate in 1953, when Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Back then, up to 500 people populated the little village. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-grandson, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination.

On my first morning, I witnessed the sunrise turning the sky and clouds into a hot burning furnace. It was as if the sun had decided to explode and Armageddon was upon us. Deep hues of orange and yellow with dark purple edges, the ocean looked like a big piece of hot charcoal. Gradually, the intensity went away, and the sky filled itself with watercolor strokes. By 9 a.m., all clouds had disappeared and the blue sky reigned once again. Matias then suggested that we visit the petrified forest nearby. Dating from the Paleocene era, 60 millions years ago, those mineralized trunks are a visual reminder of a period when Patagonia was ruled by dinosaurs and was surrounded with active volcanoes. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Bahia Bustamante, click here.)

To Esquel

With little time left and much work to do, I needed to find a place where I could work — meaning have access to internet. I had several invitations to go spend some time in various Estancias, but none of them had cell phone coverage or internet. Fortunately, a connection came through from a friend, and Esquel would be my next stop. There, was a house waiting for me.

Welsh people have played an important part in Patagonia’s colonization. In 1862, coming aboard the ship named Mimosa, 1,500 of them founded the town Puerto Madryn. In 1865, Rawson was officially founded. The settlement was named after Dr.Guillermo Rawson, an Argentine Minister who supported the Welsh establishment. In 1885, a group known as Los Rifleros ventured west, following the Rio Chubut and establishing a new colony called “Colonia 16 de Octubre,” which later became the town of Trelevin and Esquel. Every year, their 700 kilometer horseback riding journey, from Rawson to the Andes, is reenacted with dozens of original descendants. Their itinerary was also going to be my way to Esquel.

The Rio Chubut is followed by Ruta 25 up to Paso de Indios. There, it turns north where Ruta 12 sidelines her all the way up past Piedra Parada. On one side of the dirt road, the river banks host green lush flora, while on the other side, steep cliffs and tall canyons block any attempts of escaping. The weather was perfect all day with just a tiny bit of clouds. As I got closer to the mountains a stormy system started to invade the sky. Wind began to blow from all directions. Around 6 p.m., I reached Piedra Parada (Standing Stone). This huge monolith stands tall and imposing. At 100 meters wide and 240 meters high, the piece of rock was at the center of a volcano extinct for thousands of years. It has since become a landmark and inspired thousands of photographs and paintings. That evening, this giant looked ever more impressive under a canopy of never-seen before, black and blue clouds. The sky looked like a giant battlefield where unknown forces fought for their dominion.

Whale Encounter

There is not much to compare the whale shark to on land. I don’t believe there is much to compare it to in the water either. This creature stands on alone. Thor Heyerdahl from his epic trip across the pacific on a raft, described it in his book Kon -Tiki, as the most hideous “thing” he had ever encountered.  As I float in the water, barely a foot away from a whale shark, my mind is still trying to figure out what to make out of this 25-foot long fish. I have been in water with great white sharks, dolphins, sea lions and whales, and every time I looked into their eyes I saw something, I felt a presence.  This whale shark feels like a cartoon character. His size, needless to say, is impressive. His shape, the one of shark, however, is threatening. His army of pilot fish is definitely a testimonial of his status in the world of oceans. Yet, with his mouth opening wide, gulping planktons by the gallons and his eyes at least 4 feet away from each other, this is by far the most bizarre encounter I have ever had. His eye is glassy and lacks any depth. It barely moves, even when there is a human swimming right next to him.

Besides the voice, which vocalizes thoughts and desires, the eyes are the most communicative part of our body. And we humans constantly communicate with them. Our subconscious gathers more information by looking into the eyes of another person than from any other part of the body. It is by no accident that we say eyes are windows to the soul.  When there are no eyes to look into, we switch our focus and look at the shape, or other parts from which we can gather information and interpret what we are seeing. The eyes of the whale shark next to me are each about 5 inches wide. This species has roughly the same eye size to length ratio as humans do. Yet, I can’t connect. I can’t seem to feel it. My mind is perplexed by the failure to connect the dots. As if there were simply no dots to connect. This shark could be a giant jellyfish and there would be no difference.

Once I have accepted this new fact of life, I am no more this analytic species, but rather a big kid swimming with a giant fish. I dive below him and pretend to be a new member to his float of escorts. I tuck by his pectoral fin and pretend to be one of the remoras. I suddenly feel like a kid playing in the sand with a giant Tonka truck. I count the white dots on his back. I swim next to his head and open my mouth wide, imitating him. I dive again and again looking up, mesmerized at the huge silhouette, defined by a high sparkling noon sun. After a while, I feel it is time to give this apologetic creature his quietness back and watch as his tail, about my size, pushes forward and slowly disappears in the blue.

Punta Chivato

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get!” That scene from Forrest Gump plays in my head as I sit at the point, watching the sunrise over the Sea of Cortez, spouts of blue whales out in the open leaving me with a small feeling of jealousy, wishing I had a way to reach them. Still, I could not ask for more. During a stay at Angel Azul B&B in La Paz, during the kayaking trip with AMG (Alaska Mountain Guides), I met one of the owners of a development in Punta Chivato, a point just north of Bahia Concepcion in the Sea of Cortez. After looking at my book, the gentlemen asked if I would be interested to visit the location and photograph it. They were opening a small hotel and were in need of a bank of images. I was just about to leave sailing with Hayden and had not bought my flight for Argentina. I told the man that I could do it upon my return from the sea. That evening, we shook hands and agreed on the terms. My friend Hayden was about to grace me with his hospitality for the next ten days, I didn’t hesitate one second and invited him to tag along.

The east coast of Baja California is majestic and dramatic. Squeezed between the Sierra de los Gigantes and the Sea, the land is a mix of desert and oasis. The sea brings moisture and the red mountains act like a giant heating system. There is more green in this landscape than you would expect; a forest of thousands of cactuses. Dried riverbeds lined with palm trees, orange trees and mango trees. Somehow, the flora has evolved and succeeded in surviving this extreme environment. It is almost deceptive and for a moment you forget how harsh this arid place can become when the wind dies and the sun toasts the soil like a giant oven.

The hotel faces south, looking into the mouth of the Concepcion bay. About two miles offshore, three small islands hold refuge to a broad range of life forms. One hosts a colony of sea lions, another hosts a colony of terns, and the last one, the biggest of the three, is the domain to an osprey. To the west is a point, made of black twisted striated rock and has an almost lunar aspect. Around the point are a series of beaches offering amazing snorkeling. All around are hordes of brown pelicans and Heermann’s gulls. Several ospreys patrol the waters. On land, finches and orioles fill the air with their melodies. The bushes are homes to lizards and black-tailed jackrabbits with their tall big ears. Elephant trees, Cordon cactuses and numerous others complete the scenery.

The first days were spent driving around to neighboring towns. The wind was blowing strong from the north and the sea was too agitated to go kayaking. We drove to Santa Rosalia, an old French mining town, with the original 100 year-old refinery open as a museum. The hill populated with plantation-like houses, much like the ones found in New Orleans, was a reminder of the origin of the early settlers. Mountains of slag, byproduct of melting copper, still dominate the view. Later in the afternoon, we drove all the way up a mountain on a tiny cobblestone paved road. Both Hayden and I were perplexed by how such labor had been invested for such an unfrequented road. We got the answer much later when we were told that these kinds of roads needed the least maintenance, the water during the hurricane season simply rolling down and leaving the road fairly intact. It was during that drive that we saw a couple of roadrunners. Although I looked for him, the coyote was nowhere to be found!!

The next day we drove to Loreto, down south, and headed for the mountains, our destination was the Mission of San Javier. This mission is one of the most important in Baja and is still visited by thousands of people during the pilgrimages. The backcountry had amazingly several dried up rivers with hundreds of ponds filled with still water. Little forests of palm trees were scattered around, contrasting the red cliffs. Small creeks seemed to flow from nowhere, producing lush greenery along their banks.  Paintings from early natives decorated the walls, their meanings left to our own interpretation, were proof that this place had been a hub of life for centuries.

The rest of our stay was spent kayaking around, snorkeling or exploring the land. We would wake up at sunrise and watch the dolphins play in the bay. Some mornings, they would simply pass by without making much wake. On others, they would be more playful and jump around. Every time we felt so privileged, able to watch this big ball of fire rise above the sea, while the dolphins graced us with their acrobatics.

Pelicans were another subject of our fascination. Masters of gliding, these birds are simply amazing. Barely inches above the water, their wings fully extended, they float on that thin layer of warm air. They form squadrons, sometimes with up to 50 individuals, all lined up. No one will start flapping its wings before the leader does. And when he does, it creates this chain reaction, a mini wave of perfect aerodynamic engineering.

There was a Great Blue Heron stationed in front of the hotel. There was an osprey couple nesting at the top of a navigating tower, up the beach. There was another one down by the boat ramp, their nest up an electricity pole. More than once, on our way to breakfast, one of them would be perched on a big wooden structure, holding a big fish, obviously proving the mastery of his realm. It was stunning to see him one day flying with a yellowtail, about his length in size, tightly gripped between those huge black claws. For this bird to catch such a fast and big fish was just another confirmation of his apex predator status. From time to time, exploring the cliffs, either from above or below, a kingfisher would be quick to fly away, always eluding our sight… and my camera. A group of four ravens, one afternoon, gave us an amazing show. Whether they were courting in the air, or simply playing, they would fly after each other, turn upside down, plunge a hundred feet at full speed and come right back up just a couple of feet off the ground. They would glide their way back up and proceed to do it again, and again. Their prowess leaving us in awe. We would spend hours with our heads down studying the tide-pools, scanning for critters. Those miniature ponds, sheltered from the sea, dug in the rock, hold a surprising wide range of life: tiny transparent shrimps, anemones, soft corals, countless hermit crabs, long zebra worms, tube worms, sea slugs of stunning colors and many kinds of tiny fish animated those mini waterholes.

On our last morning, we witnessed another incredible phenomenon. The day had started like it had the day before; quiet waters and pink sky. But out in the open, a wall of clouds was stretching for miles and was coming toward us fast. It didn’t look like a typical storm. In fact, that line of clouds was perhaps only a hundred yards high, and above it, the sky seemed undisturbed. It was only when our faces were almost in it that we realized what it was. A huge fog system rapidly trapped everything in its way. The world became white and the visibility plummeted down to barely 20 feet. It is fascinating how a world of long distances can be reduced to the size of closet, with no point of references, all within minutes.

Our stay was coming to an end and we felt we had only scratched the surface of all the secrets Punta Chivato has. But like anything in life, the best never reveals itself at once. So it was with happy hearts and smiling faces that Hayden and I drove south, by the sea, through the mountains and back to La Paz where the next day we were flying away.

My time in Baja California has been absolutely incredible. I came down here originally for ten days and now, after a little over a month, I leave with dozens of new friends, amazing photographs and unforgettable new encounters. This part of the world is filled with so much wildlife and stunning geography. No wonder why Cousteau loved it so much and compared the Sea of Cortez to the World’s aquarium. As for me, now sitting in the plane, looking through the window, the land that I have been kayaking, sailing, hiking and driving, now looking more like a map, I smirk and think at life, and how, when you let it guide you, it will take you to places filled with treasures and loving people. Don’t force it, be like the water and go with the flow.

Sailing Matilda

Sailing earth’s waters has always captivated and fascinated man. The vikings sailed to America way before the Europeans. Peruvians explored and helped colonized the Polynesian islands. Darwin discovered the Galapagos and the Falkands onboard the Beagle. There is something about setting out on this vast blue liquid and only navigate with what nature has to offer – wind. My friend Hayden had sailed down from Los Angeles and I was to meet up with him in LaPaz. His sailing boat is a 1967 29ft Columbia MK II named Matilda. And she certainly bears her name correctly. “Matilda” has its origin in Old German and means “mighty in battle”. She was indeed mighty. Built like a tank, she may have been short, but she was heavy and steady. The plan for the next 10 days was to sail to Isla San Jose and spend time at Isla Espiritu Santo. I was certainly not sad thinking of spending time going back to the “Sacred Island”.

I love being in a marina. To be honest, I love living on a sailboat. It is my dream. There is a sense of freedom that reigns. There is sense of connectivity with nature’s biggest element: water. There is a sense of efficiency where everything, every little square inch, is maximized. There is a sense of community where no matter what your boat’s size is, almost everyone around you is here for the same reasons. Finally, sailing is humbling. It is not up to you. The weather and the winds are your master and you must be flexible. You must be like water and go with the flow. As much as the mountains speak to some people, for me, it is the water, and to live on it, there is simply nothing better.

The winds were pounding on our departure date so we decided to postpone it until the weather was more permitting. Coincidentally, one of Hayden’s sailing friends had fallen in the water while coming back from the island and was lost at sea. The Sea of Cortez is actually known to be one of the toughest. It is often unpredictable and the frequency of the swell can be so short that even a 30-foot boat will have her stern cresting one wave while her bow is smashing another one. That was the case that day. Waves of 20 feet and huge winds called for all marinas in La Paz to close and not allow any boats to leave. It was not long that the community gathered and organized the rescue. It was with great relief that five hours later, at 5pm, the channel 16 on the vhf announced that the man had been picked up by the Mexican Navy. He was safe and was on his way back to La Paz. That night, I was onboard the man’s boat, cheering his rescue.

The days were filled with encounters with dolphins, jumping rays, dinners of fresh fish, amazing sunsets, snorkeling, and music. It was also filled with some memorable bumpy nights, jellyfish stings, and windless days.

It is not until I came here that I learned about flying rays. During my first kayaking trip, what I thought were dolphins jumping, turned out to be modula rays. Sometimes reaching 20 feet in height, it is not rare to see them back flip several times in the air before landing back in the water with a big splash. No one knows for sure why they do it, but hardly any day goes by without the sight of one or several rays winking their big white bellies.

One afternoon, while snorkeling, Hayden was deep below, around 20 feet, when I was busy catching my breath on the surface. He came rushing up and spitting the snorkel out like a mad man, told me that the whales were singing. Blowing up my lungs, I tipped forward and kicked my fins. At about 15 feet, I took hold of a rock and held steady. And there it was. This time, it was much different. It was not the long melody, but rather a complex mix of rolls, high squeaks, loud bumps, and even sometime what sounded like scary scream. Needless to say, we spent a while going back and forth, up and down, listening as much as we could before we got too cold.

Towards the end of our trip, while sailing back from Isla San Jose, we noticed a large group of black fins ahead of us. Those were definitely not dolphins. As we got closer, the mystery just kept growing. We could actually recognize some dolphins swimming amongst them, but we had no idea who the others were. Their fins were bigger and rounder. Our questions were answered when one sky-hopped. A round shiny head rose from the surface and sent us a series of clicks, echo-locating us outside the water like I had never seen before. They were a group of pilot whales. I told Hayden that I was jumping in the water. As soon as I was in, I started to regret my decision. The visibility was barely 5 feet and the water was full of tiny, stinging jellyfish. I hadn’t taken the time to put my top on, so here I was, bare chested, in shorts, getting stung mercilessly. Hayden was not sure what to make of me waiving at him telling him I was coming back on board just when the whales were all around! Since the visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see anything! Back at the boat, Hayden told me to hang in the water a bit more because the whales were coming. He threw me a line to tow me. The wake from the boat acted like a shield and protected me from the jellyfish. Still I couldn’t see anything. I suddenly received a tap on my head and looking up, Hayden told me that one was right behind me.  I turned around frantically and for a mere three seconds this long massive black silhouette was barely 5 feet away from me. To be honest, it was a bit spooky! I could not see the eye or anything else, but only the shape, enveloped in a dark green liquid. And then it disappeared. Breathing heavily, I was looking everywhere. I was filled with excitement, curiosity, joy …. and fear. The whole lack of visibility was getting to me! I decided to get back up in the boat and photograph and film them from the dry. We spent the next 30 minutes with them. They would come by and swim really close to the boat. One male in particular was huge, at least 17 feet. Many of them slapped the water with the tails, over and over. At one point, both dolphins and whales together were sky-hopping and slapping the water.

Dinners were either spent on the Matilda, or on another boat, invited by new or old sailing friends. It is quite common among the boating community that misfortune creates new friendships – a floating sleeping bag or a lost dinghy will turn unknown neighbors into the best drinking buddies. Our meals consisted of fresh fish caught during the afternoon. One night, onboard NordicV, we dined with the crew of Misty Moonlight on snapper and lobster, saturated in butter and garlic. Delicioso!! As if food was not enough to bring happiness, most of the time, after dinner, one would bring the guitar out and there began hours of singing and laughing!

All was not always paradise. Winds turn on a dime and transform a perfect sailing day into a stand still. A perfect sunny afternoon anchored in the most beautiful bay will turn into the bumpiest night where you sleep your toes stuck in cracks, hands on the wall, bracing yourself every minute. Not a day goes by without a bump on the head or on your toes. Spills are daily and bathroom times are no place to ponder. Sitting on the toilet is as comfortable as sitting on tin can in a two square foot closet. Lastly but surely: seasickness. Although I have no trouble on the water, it was not the case for a fellow canine we had onboard. On a particularly afternoon, after a sleepless roller coasting night, the furry four-legged creature threw up twice, a substance that goes way beyond what is permissible to write. Ironically, those moments became the funniest stories!!

On the last stretch back from Espiritu to La Paz, a group of bottlenose dolphins escorted us for a good twenty minutes. Sitting at the bow with those majestic animals two feet, sometime only a foot away, it is hard not to be moved. It is hard not to feel connected. Here you are, looking into the eye of another mammal, living in a different world. The other mammal is also looking into your own eyes. There is no doubt. You scream of joy but they don’t understand. They click at you but you don’t understand them. Yet, in this infinite world, you both share the same place, the same moment, you are connected.

Bahia Magdalena

It is said that their migration is the longest one amongst all mammals. Each year gray whales leave the cold nutritious waters of the Chukchi Sea, above Alaska, and head south to Mexico for breeding. Once called the Devil Fish, because of their resistance when harpooned, the gray whale is a 36 ton baleen mammal, recognizable by a unique set of white scars left by parasites and also by a series of knuckles on their midline, instead of a dorsal fin. One of their favorite destinations is Magdalena Bay, located on the Pacific Coast of Baja California Sur. It was also our rendezvous point with them.

After an amazing time around Isla Espiritu Santo, we loaded the van with our kayaks and gear and drove across the peninsula to Puerto Santo Carlos, one of the major fishing villages on the Bay. After unloading our equipment from the van and loading it again onto the panga, we crossed the channel and set up our first camp on a spectacular sand bar. The bar is part of Isla Magdalena and is what protects the bay from the Pacific. We pitched our tents, walked across the dunes and went for a swim.

The next day, we pushed our kayaks on the mirror like waters of the bay and proceeded towards our first point of interest, the mangroves. Once again, these tress offer amazing protection to a broad range of critters. Several species of herons and egrets were perched on the branches amongst the pelicans, while godwits and whimbrels combed the receding waters for food. We saw dolphins passing by in the channel and on a couple of occasions, whales would spout and disappear, teasing our constantly growing curiosity. In the water, stingrays were a common sight. We set up our second camp site past a Mexican fishing camp and that night, as the sun went down, we sat on the beach with our binoculars and watched dozens of whales spouting and breaching out in the main channel.

The morning held an even more amazing surprise. As the sun rose, a group of at least forty whales were still spouting and breaching. The light was magnificent, reflecting through all these water droplets pushed up in the air through the whales’ blowholes. From our location, it almost looked like the fountain show at the Bellagio in Vegas. The day was certainly going to be a great one!

It didn’t take long to reach our next campsite, tucked in the little rocky bay, just before the Pacific. We were now at the main entrance of the bay, where whales hang out. After setting up our tents and eating lunch, we paddled out around the point and ventured along the high cliffs battered by the Pacific and played in the rock gardens. The force of the Pacific waters was so impressive. On the rocks, the water line would rise up and drop 20 feet, exposing seaweed of amazing colors. The swell would hit the daggered wall and rolled onto itself with great big white breakers. After getting our share of excitement, we decided to paddle back and head towards the middle of the channel and see if we could meet the whales. This short trip would have been impossible if the weather was only slightly bumpy, but for now, it was perfect. Midway through, I looked down in the water and was amazed at what I saw. Thousands and thousands of pelagic red crabs were drifting in the current. Those little shrimp like creatures, are known to be a food source of the blue whale. They congregate in such vast swarms, thick enough that they color the ocean surface red. They also wash ashore and litter the beach by the thousands. Besides tunas, dolphins, rays and pinnipeds feeding on them, birds have been observed to gorge themselves so much that they can’t fly.

Shortly after, a couple of whales were coming on port side. Their blows announcing their presence, they swam towards us and right before our bow, dove and disappeared. They started to play Hide & Seek with us. Showing up in one place long enough for us to try to reach them only to once again disappear. After zigzagging for 20 minutes, we were satisfied and started our way back to camp. The change of tide was coming and we didn’t want to be in the channel when the weather turned.

On the way back, we stopped by a fishing panga and asked if we could buy some fresh calamari. They declined our offer to pay them and handed over a 15-pound piece. Another panga nearby saw the transaction and came over to see if we were interested in buying two fresh yellowtail. Their request for exchange was a pack of oreo cookies! We gladly accepted and kayaked back to camp, gave them the cookies and proceeded to prepare the fish sushi and ceviche style. With only lime juice and cilantro, the ceviche was pure gastronomy.

The next day, we were picked up by panga and spent a couple of hours with the whales. As it turns out, the whales here are less afraid of boats then kayaks. I guess kayaks are too quiet and the whales are not sure what to make of them. Or maybe kayaks are simply not big enough for them to care. Anyhow, it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by at least four whales. Gently bringing their noses within arm’s reach, they floated up like quiet submarines and spouted in our faces. They bumped the boat, waved hello with their flukes and swung their tales on the surface with great force. At some point, the entire boat starting to laugh, looking at me, although I was not sure why. They all pointed their fingers behind me and as I turned around, a giant head slowly sunk back in the water. The whale had sky-hopped right behind me, close enough that if I had turned around, my nose would have touched her, they say! Apparently, her eye was at the same level as mine. It became quite evident that they were having as much fun as we were.

Isla Espiritu Santo

The Mexicans call it the Holy Spirit. Sitting on the beach, my eyes fixed a few miles offshore on a group of humpbacks jumping, their tails and flukes slapping the water, much like a baby would do in a bath, I start to understand the sacred spirit of this location. Cliffs made of thick layers of black lava and volcanic ash surround a series of protected bays with crystal blue water and sandy beaches. Its waters are rich with nutrients and host year round pelagic species – gray whales, humpbacks, whale sharks, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and many more.

I am here with Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG), an adventure guide service that provides kayaking trips around the world. Our group has just been dropped on Coralito Bay. The plan for the next 5 days is to paddle north, on the east coast of the island, go up and around Isla Partida and back. We will then spend a night in LaPaz, drive across to the Pacific, to Bahia Magdalena and paddle for 2 days to the mouth of the bay, where gray whales are found by the dozen at this time of the year.

As soon as we are settled into our camp, we get our snorkeling gear on and swim to a nearby little coral reef. I am amazed! For someone who scuba dives, I am used to see damaged snorkeling spots, either fished out, or trashed, big fish and big mollusks gone, an unhealthy and unbalanced ecosystem left behind. But this one has a strong coral growth, lots of nudibranchs, big snappers, clams, oysters, many little fish and millions of juveniles. That afternoon, I see three eels and two scorpion fish. Every where I look, I see life thriving, in all shapes and forms. So refreshing! But the most amazing moment of that afternoon was still to come. And it was not something that I saw, but something that I heard. As I took a deep breath and swam down, I heard a long whining sound. A sort of music. It is the humpbacks, singing, miles away in the channel. The sound was exactly what I had seen on Planet Earth when the whales are floating motionless fifty feet deep, their heads down, and producing this long whine. I picture them, perfectly still in the water, as I hold onto a rock to listen to their song. Simply magical!

Back on the beach, changing clothes, we put our hiking boots on and go for an afternoon hike. The place is spectacular. Red volcanic rock all around us, which millions of years ago trapped countless of air bubbles, now exposed by time make the landscape look like the inside of an Aero chocolate bar. A little bit of rain two weeks ago was enough to transform this arid terrain into a green miracle. A few drops of water suffice to bring the plants and trees out of their hibernating mode and sprout bright new leaves. Reaching the top, we are welcomed with another surprise. Down below, in the bay next to ours, a full bird feeding freezing is happening.  Hundreds of birds are going crazy on a shoal of bait fish. Although the scene is happening a few miles from us, the sight is still incredible; countless black silhouettes flying and diving in the water, turning the surface into boiling water. Watching the sunset at the top of a high cliff was nothing short of everything else that day. Sitting just a few feet from cliff, two hundred feet above the sea, we watched a big orange sun disappear behind the mountains. If this day was any indicator for the coming 10 days, we were in for one amazing trip!

Our first destination the following day is the hidden lagoon in the bay south of us. Only accessible at high tide, the place is a little piece of bird paradise. A sense of stillness reigns. Brown pelicans, frigates, black crown heron, great egrets, little blue herons, all are holding refuge in the mangroves – the perfect spot!

As we exit through the shallow narrow passage and start paddling north, a small pod of bottlenose dolphins crosses our path and heads out. Later that day, we come to our second camping site, a secluded alcove, guarded by a group of brown pelicans, keeping a tight watch on the water, looking for their next target. After a nice lunch and putting our tents up, we get back in our kayaks and head across to Isla Ballenas for a quick paddle. Blue foot boobies are flying around, topped way above by a group of magnificent frigates, gliding the warm air.

That evening, after another incredible hike, which revealed, out on the water, a group of rays jumping so high it was hard to believe, I sat on the beach and photographed the brown pelicans in action. The light blue sky behind them was the perfect background. As they flew in circle before twisting and falling like an arrow in the water, their bodies created the most amazing abstract shapes. It was as if a calligraphy master had just decided to write in the sky. Later, during dinner, a ring tailed cat is seen sneaking around our camp, looking for any opportunity.

I wake up at dawn and notice a group of bats still flying around catching the last remnants of nocturnal insects. After breakfast, we pack our gear and paddle out once more. A single male sea lion passes as an eagle ray leaps out of the water, ten feet high before landing with a big splash. During lunch, on a beach, I see something purple floating nearby. I walk in the water, up to my knees and inspect it closely. It is a Portuguese Man O War with two weird little fish swimming in its tentacles, immune to its venom. I approach carefully, keeping an eye on those long blue strings, famous for their painful sting. What I didn’t see was another colorless jelly fish, that manages to hit me right on the knee. I let out a big scream and rushe to the shore. Damn this is painful! Within minutes, my skin turns red and swells. Isis, one of the guide, gives me some white vinegar and tells me to apply it on the wound. The vinegar destroys the proteins from the venom. Needless, to say, even after an hour, the pain is still sharp. As I write these lines, 8 days later, the sting is still visible, a red mark across my knee.

The stingingly jellyfish print on my skin was no concern by the next morning, as we set out for the sea lion colony.  This was surely going to be one of the biggest highlights! Just barely out of the kayak and into the water, I had three pups pulling my fins and playing with me. Two females swam around, passing extremely fast, opening their mouths and releasing a big stream of bubbles while never letting me out of sight, those big giant inquiring black eyes following my every move. It felt like I was playing in the grass with a bunch of dogs. From time to time, a huge male would come by and insure that everything was under control. His massive and intimidating presence was a reminder to all, us and the sea lions pups, that we still needed to behave. It was so amazing! At some point, one leaped and landed on my back, grabbing my shoulder. I turned around, holding his flippers and the two of us proceeded in a series of rolls and twists. I was just a happy kid playing in the water with them. And like any kid, I was called back to reality when after twenty minutes, it was time to climb back into the kayaks and continue our paddle.

I navigated for the rest of the day with a big grin on my face. We went around to the west side of Isla Partida and through the channel. After having lunch in the pass, we paddled a little bit more to our last camping site, just a few hundred yards away from our pick up location for our ride back to LaPaz the next day. That afternoon, we did one last big hike, up through a fantastic Arroyo filled with big boulders. The sight must be absolutely incredible when the entire valley flash floods in this creek. On a rock, bathing under the sun was an eastern collared lizard and flying high, screeching, a red-tail hawk patrolled his domain. As I scroll down back to the camp, I could only marvel at the last 5 days. This place was really sacred and the trip was only halfway done. Tomorrow was the beginning of our second half, this time, on the Pacific side, with the gray whales.

Holiday Snowshoeing

It is said that they earliest record of snowshoes goes back to several thousands years ago. For me, growing up in Quebec, they were simply part of the winter package. The snowshoes I had back then were not the fancy, technical ones found today, but instead the classic Native American model, made of wood and rawhide. My grandparents had a cabin that was easily accessible by car during the summer, but during the snowy season, we had no choice but to leave the vehicle behind and snowshoe our way in. One of my most memorable moments from those years was a night when we arrived way past sunset and found ourselves carrying our luggage, ankle deep in white powder with the Northern Lights filling up the sky. Liquid blues, greens, and reds were dancing in a magical way.

The winter holidays were just around the corner, and with no snow coming, or on the ground, I was getting the jitters and felt it was perhaps time to organize a trip to the mountains. If the snow wasn’t coming, might as well go seek it out!! A couple calls and a couple days of preparations and we were on our way to Mt. Rainier, Washington. More precisely to Ashford, were we would hike the snowshoe/cross country ski trails maintained by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association.

The MTTA is a great initiative. Roads and trails used by the Forest Service in the summer are open to the general public for exploration in the winter. It is a win-win situation. The Forest Service makes use of its land year-round, and the outdoor community has access to places that would otherwise be too complicated to get to. Over the years, with the amazing collaboration of countless individuals, an extended and incredibly well maintained network of huts and trails came to be.

Our itinerary for our 4-day trip was to hike to the furthest hut, the Yurt, spend a couple nights there, then hike back by way of a different trail, to the High Hut for one night. With some luck we would see Mt.Rainier. After taking the train from Portland, we drove from Tacoma to Ashford. The weather was not particularly promising. Even though it was raining on the coast, which it always does, by the time we arrived to the village, at the foot of the mountain, unfortunately, it was still raining. With the cloud ceiling hiding the peaks, we were not able to see if it was snowing higher up. We had to believe the clerk at the gear store who tried to reassure us that there was indeed snow up there. After getting the map and information on how to get to the snow park, we watched the rain falling on the windshield hoping for the best.

Due to the rain, the road had cleared up and allowed us to drive up to Sno-Park A, @3,400ft. The scene was not the one we wanted. It was pouring down. Needless to say, we were not here to turn back. So we geared up and started our hike. Good thing there was at least 5 feet of snow at the top. Even with the rain, we should be able to get the white scenery. But for now, there was no need for snowshoes. About a mile up, we came across a couple who was coming back from the High Hut. Bad news – it was even raining there!!! Well, not much to do, but cover up and continue. Shortly after, the snow became too deep to continue by foot, so we put our snowshoes on. Wet and heavy, we trudged along, our next three hours quite dreary. Our sight aiming down, the landscape became a messy mix of snow, mud, pine needles and branches. Even though we were dressed for the weather, rain managed to find its way in. It wasn’t long before we were all soaked. It took us four hours to reach the Yurt. I can’t imagine pulling out a small tent after such conditions. The hut looked like paradise. Nestled in a small valley, surrounded by pines, and shadowed by Mt.Griffin, we rushed the last few hundred yards.

To call this camping is a major understatement. The hut was pure back-country luxury: propane fireplace, propane oven, lanterns, mattresses, and a kitchen ready for the biggest of feasts! Not that it wasn’t welcomed, but we could not put away the thought that it was way more than we had anticipated. We dropped our gear, got out of our wet clothes and got the fireplace running. With the rain still drilling the Yurt’s canopy, we warmed ourselves with dry clothes and hot tea.

It rained all night. In the morning, it was still raining. By noon, the temperature dropped slightly and the rain turned into slush. With some luck, the temperature would continue dropping and we would have real fresh snow by the end of the day. We attempted to venture our way up Mt.Griffin, but the conditions were simply not pleasant. So we stayed inside. We found a cranking radio that we had to power up every 15 minutes. I have to say, shame aside, that it was really funny being in the middle of the wood, and listening to NPR. Snow really started by the end of the afternoon. That night, we went to sleep dreaming of a white morning.

And so it was! The timing was perfect. On the ground was 5 inches of fresh snow. Our hike to High Hut was going to be magical! And it was! There is something incredible about being the first one to lay tracks on fresh snow, whether it be skiing down, cross country skiing, or snowshoeing. But the most amazing thing is to realize that you are not alone. What seemed like a quiet forest with only a few souls is transformed into a frenzy of tracks. Rabbits, mice, deer, birds, and many more, each leaving hundreds of prints. You realize that all this time, this place, that at times seems almost too quiet place, is filled with life. One of the biggest surprises of the day came from a particular set of tracks. For almost an hour and half, we followed a set of prints left behind by a couple of bobcats. Active at dawn and at dusk, bobcats will cover many miles every day, investigating their territory. This couple, which had recently paired up, would be mating in spring and later, would each go their separate ways. The female, would give birth sometime in April and raise her cubs alone. Mostly following the groomed trail, their tracks cut in the forest only to reemerge higher up. More than once, we came across urine marks and one time the bobcats had left their feces. It was like a glimpse into the life of a rarely encountered wild creature. You could see where they played, where they laid, where they rested. Most of the time they would follow each other almost too perfectly. Other times, one would wander out slightly and come back while the other kept a perfect line.

The landscape was beautiful. This was finally what we had come for. The sky cleared up and the contrast between the blue from above and green and white from below suddenly erased the last 30 more or less miserable hours. We stopped once for a quick lunch – hot chocolate, salami, brie cheese and apples. We certainly needed the energy since then we would go up 600ft in one mile.

Around the 4,500ft mark, the snow changed. Even the trees looked different. The snow was more … frosty. When we arrived at the High Hut, the scene was definitely not the same it had been at the Yurt. This was a cabin at the top of the mountain, exposed to the wind. Although much colder and buried in a whiteout, the rewards would come to be well worth it. Once again, the hut was pure luxury. Solar power supplied a battery, which generated the power necessary for LED bulbs inside. Propane oven and fireplace as we had found them at the Yurt. The face of the hut was made of 3 huge windows, which, on a bright day, would give full panoramic view of Mt.Rainier. We settled ourselves, made some tea and proceeded reading some left behind magazines from January 2009 and 2006. The sun went down without giving hope of unveiling Mt.Rainier. But late at night, magically, its peak pierced through and under a blanket of stars I was only allowed enough time to take one quick photo.

The next morning, we woke up to a total whiteout but within minutes, everything cleared up and out of nowhere, the most amazing sunrise rose. As if on cue, the fog lifted, and Mt.Rainier emerged triumphant. The sky filled itself with hues of pinks, oranges and blues. Rainier took an almost romantic pause, looking suddenly less threatening. For no more than five minutes, the world opened up and shined heaven. On the sixth minute, the fog took over and everything became nothing more than a vast white curtain. We looked at ourselves, feeling blessed, allowed to see the unseen.

As the morning proceeded, the fog came and went. Creating some really interesting play of light. Close trees were lit from one light, while the ones below received another kind of light. Looking at the photos now, it almost seems as if the two were manipulated through photoshop, but I can assure you they were not.

After breakfast, we geared up once again and headed down the mountain for our last hike. On the way down, we came across a couple in their 60’s, on their way for a quick snack at the High Hut. Three more ladies, this time in their 70’s, were also on their way up to spend the night at the hut. (You have to admire when people keep fit!!) Down at the snow park, the car was covered in snow, proof we had been gone for some time. We carefully drove down to Ashford and stopped at the Copper Creek Inn for a well-deserved juicy hamburger. Soooo good!

We Love Clean Rivers

This past Sunday, I went to meet the folks of WeLoveCleanRivers for a “Down the River Clean Up”. The weather was perfect! And unfortunately, there was plenty of trash to pick up. From a truck top, to a disabled parking sign, over 380 people joined to clean the river from what did not belong there. Everything that was collected will be showed at an event on October 24th, through art installations. Read yesterday’s event recap on Wend Blog 

Century Paddle

On August 31st, Rivers in Demand explorer and fellow Wend ambassador Andy Maser and I led a group of kayakers for a week long paddling trip on the Columbia River, from the Willamette Falls to the Pacific. The aim was to scout and investigate what would be needed in preparation for next year’s big event: bringing a large group of Disabled American Veterans on an unforgettable paddling experience. The event would be done in collaboration with Team River Runner, an organization that “gives military veterans and their family members an opportunity to find health, healing, and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports. The benefits of TRR have as much to do with social support, finding emotional strength and re-creating personal identity as they do with athletic activity.”

The other goal Andy and I had, was to see how we could maximize the use of social media tools to promote the importance of such event. It is one thing to do so at an event, on land. But when you are on the water, in a kayak, it is slightly different. It is common knowledge that connectedness nowadays happens everywhere – political and news events have seen their dynamic turned upside down with social tools such as Twitter. Would it be possible to do the same with an outdoor event and spread social awareness? We wanted to find out!

Real time reportage is coming of age, and to bring this new reality into this short expedition was for us an exercise on how to raise the interactivity both Andy and I seek with our followers and viewers. It is important for us to communicate this sense of adventure that drives us. For this to succeed, we brought with us the necessary communication devices. Andy was carrying a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, an amazing GPS tracking system with a great online structure that allows people to follow in real time ground progress. Our iPhones, protected by Aquapac waterproof cases, would allow us to post content on Twitter and upload realtime photos, while sitting in our kayaks. Our GPS coordinates were also trackable through iPhone’s Google Maps and my Suunto watch. Granted, for all these devices to work, you need to have cell phone or satellite coverage. But in a world where GSM coverage reaches 3 billion people in more than 212 countries, these new technologies bring a brand new dimension into content consumption. I wonder how Cousteau and Attenborough would have used them in their nature journalism?

The itinerary itself was a testimony to the nature vs. urban reality that our world faces. In our ever expanding number, nature’s necessity is constantly requestioned. To kayak from Portland’s industrial waters (Portland’s port is the largest in Oregon and the number one auto import gateway in the Western U.S) to the Pacific, on the the fourth-largest river in the U.S., the Columbia River, was for us an occasion to see first hand how the two worlds cope with each other. Was the river clean? It was important for us to see how bird and fish wildlife was adapting and living, or struggling in a natural world highly influenced by the industrial landscape.

On our first day, from Willamette Falls, we paddled 27 miles and established camp on Hayden Island. From the massive expensive houses on the river in Milwaukie, under the bridges of downtown Portland, to Swan Island industrial terminals, to under a long dock supported by hundreds and hundreds of cement pillars, our first stretch was straight through human’s industrialized achievement. Yet, in the midst of this urban world, we saw sturgeon breaching, salmon jumping, cormorants, Canadian geese, Pilgrim geese, Great Blue herons, ospreys and several species of ducks. We saw countless people enjoying the river banks and of course we saw a great number of motorized boats – but also many, many non-motorized ones. The Fire Department, in their red jetskis and red speed boats kept zipping up and down the river, keeping a vigilant eye, always ready to rescue, assist, or reprimand misuse of our precious river. Our campsite could have not been more anachronistic. Behind us was a wall of trees, with birds singings. In front of us, across the river, were eight giant cranes, at least 300 feet high, surrounded by a sea of lights, containers and cars. The site, which was lit up all through the night, was a constant reminder of the urban industrialized presence.

On our second day, we encountered a phenomenon that neither Andy nor I had ever seen before. Just before lunch, we came across a group of floating bees. Some of them were dead, but most of them looked like they had just fallen in the water. What started like one bee here and there rapidly turned into a massive number of stranded bees. Hundreds of them, scattered all over the water surface. It felt like we were going through a city that had just been bombarded and devastated. Not sure what to make out of all this, Andy and I started to scoop them out of the water, dropping them on our sprayskirts. At one point, I had more than 20 of them buzzing their wings around my torso, trying to dry themselves. I have been following the strange disappearance bees are going through right now (Colony Collapse Disorder) and honestly, I could not witness this scene without doing something. I am not sure if those 40 something bees we rescued that day from the water survived or will make a difference, but at least we tried. That evening, prior to joining the others at our next campsite on Sandy Island, Andy and I went to Kalama to do some work. After securing our kayaks at the marina, we walked to the little town, dressed in our paddling gear, and our laptops under our arms. Going down the main street – occasionally getting the double look from passerby, not too sure what to make out of us, we stopped at the Public Library, the only place with free wifi in town.

On the third day, Andy went along with another kayaker to see a man on Puget Island, who lives directly across from Bradwood, where a Liquid Gas Terminal has been proposed. The issue has been extremely controversial. Beside the obvious problem of turning wild lands into industrialized ones, the project is filled with red flags. This plan is to facilitate the import of natural gas from around the world and to deliver it to the State of California. Previous attempts in Long Beach and Mexico have been refused and now Oregon would like to give it a go. If such project would go ahead, every house in the neighborhood would lose any value. Waters around the site would rise up considerably, disrupting the local fish life. The ships used to transport the gas are enormous and would require dredging the river even deeper; once again disrupting the fish life; today the majority of the new ships are around 120,000 m³ to 140,000 m³, but there are orders for ships with capacity up to 260,000 m³. Imagine a 1,120 foot long floating leviathan carrying gas, going up and down the Columbia River. Once in place, the plant, being a high risk location for attack, would necessitate high security both on land and on the water, disrupting all local activity. The topic is so controversial that Long Beach and Mexico have refused to have them in their backyard. A similar project is currently in the works in New York, but faces major opposition from the likes of Hillary Clinton and other New York Senators.

But back to the kayak. In the meantime, I had decided to paddle ahead and search for our next campsite. Along with another kayaker, we reached Eagle Cliff and to make sure the rest of the group would know exactly where to find us, I texted Andy our GPS coordinates taken from my watch. With them he was able to locate our position on his iPhone with Google Maps.

The next morning, we woke up at 5am. The full moon was in total display and the idea of paddling under the moon light was too good to resist. The river was like a giant mirror, with not even a ripple. Our kayaks slid on the surface like diamonds cutting glass. As the moon lowered over the horizon, the sun arose behind us. At one point, both sky and water turned into a metallic blue and suddenly, the horizon line disappeared; looking ahead of us, there was no demarcation whatsoever between what was above and what was below the horizon. The current and tide were pushing us downstream and in only three hours, we reached Astoria. We paddled a little bit more to Warrenton and after securing our kayaks at the marina, we walked over to the Serendipity Cafe for a well deserved American breakfast! Coincidentally, on the very same day, the local newspaper, The Daily Astorian, was running a story on myself, Andy and our paddling trip.

Driving back, Andy and I reflected on our original task – to see how we could use social media tools to benefit an outdoor event carrying a social cause. Not only did we feel that we succeeded – Century Paddle was featured on several blogs and in local news sources, and its Facebook page and Twitter hashtag both saw huge traffic – but we also felt that we had discovered a new way of sharing our expeditions. To get people to follow our adventures in the wild in real-time is for us one of the most intimate and efficient ways to spread our message. Someone that sees our videos, our photos, or reads about us, will have a desire for and connection to nature for a limited amount of time. With tools such as Twitter and Facebook, the same person is constantly reminded of the power and treasures of the outdoors. Therefore their desire is sustained. This will certainly become extremely interesting as both of us are preparing to leave in November for Argentina and Brazil.

Accompanying us on this little journey was Don Smith, Executive Director, Disabled American Veterans, Chapter #1 Portland, Sam Drevo, owner and operator of Northwest River Guides and founder of We Love Clean Rivers, Hayden Peters and Ralph Bloemers. You can find more about information online by visiting the Century Paddle Facebook page.


I have been lying on the sand for 30 minutes, my eyes glued to the camera. My bones ache. My skin itches. My fingers are numb. I am starting to get cold. I am waiting. I am waiting for my subject to move. I am waiting for my shot. Most of the time, the shot never happens and those 30 minutes are added to the previous hours of waiting. The subject will not move  in the way I want to. Not with the right background, or right light. I will wait for 30 minutes without a pause, and the second I break my stare, it is when it happens. And then I wait some more.

In our modern era, a person through the course of their lifetime, will spend approximately 3 to 5 years waiting – 35000 hours motionless, expecting for a desired outcome. We wait for the perfect moment. For the right woman, for the right man. We wait for the right conditions.  We wait for the rain to stop, for the sun to come out. We wait for the bus, for the train, for the subway. We wait in traffic, at the bank, at the grocery store. We wait on the phone. We wait for a phone call. We wait for people. People wait for us. We wait for salvation, for forgiveness. We wait for the show to begin, for the commercials to end. We wait for dinner to be ready. We wait for a package to be delivered. We wait for inspiration to come. We wait behind the camera for the perfect shot.

Francois Rabelais said: “ Everything comes in time to those who can wait.” While Abraham Lincoln believed that “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustles.” Lenny Kravtiz has always waited for inspiration to write his music. Sean Lennon instead writes everyday convinced that inspiration comes with practice. Alexandre Dumas wrote that “All human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope.”  At the opposite, W.M. Lewis said that “The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.”

Nothing would ever be accomplished if we just waited for things to happen. But again, nothing would ever be accomplished if we were not able to wait until completion. Some don’t wait to start, but have trouble finishing. Others can’t seem to find the will to start, but once they do, they will finish what they have started even if they have to wait a lifetime to see the results. You can’t wait for the right conditions. You can’t wait for things comes to you. But you must be able to wait for the unique to manifest. And when it does, all those minutes, all those hours, all those years waiting, suddenly are worth the wait.

Nomades del Mar

To explore, to investigate, to wander – from the latin explorare, which means “search out”. The subject has been captivating science for decades, with researchers trying to seek its motivations. Why do we explore? Why do we surmount our fears and wander beyond the boundaries of safety? Do we explore by curiosity? By necessity? Is it driven by boredom?  What motivates all of us Explorers to seek adventure in chartered and unchartered territories?  It was discovered that mice with damaged cerebellums exhibit low levels of interest in exploring their surrounding, suggesting that the brain plays an important part in our motivation to explore. Is it then biological? Since 1990, we have come to agree that it is part of our inherent ability to survive. Exploration is now viewed in evolutionary terms, as a combination of motivations, leading to a strategy of survival – locating food, avoiding predators and stimulating learning.

Ever since I was a young boy, I have always been drawn to the unknown. I have always looked at the fence in the backyard as an invitation to seek new experiences. When I was 17, I left home and hitchhiked across Canada. I threw my compass away, and never looked back. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ”A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” After 17 years of traveling, I still live by his words and my desire for exploration is stronger than ever.  As Humans, as Individuals, as Explorers, are we defined by the places we have been, or by the places we are going?

We had been driving for almost 3 hours when we left Ruta 3, the National Road, and took the Provincial Road 30, direction east. Driving south from Puerto Madryn, the landscape was borderline hypnotic. Endless flat plains, or as Darwin described it in 1833: “…the view is generally bounded by the escarpment of another plain, rather higher, but equally level and desolate; and in every direction the horizon is indistinct from the trembling mirage which seems to rise from the heated surface.” The change of scenery was much welcomed, and for the next 70 km, the road sinuously took us closer to our departure point. From the pebble beach in Camarones and for the next 12 days, we were to kayak to Comodoro, a 300 km journey.

Camarones is a village by the ocean rich in history. In 1545, Don Simon de Alcazaba y Sotomayor, a Portuguese sailor under the command of Charles I of Spain, was the first to anchor in the bay. Following the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain had sent Alcazaba to access the new territory. Camarones, which is a word for shrimp in Spanish, was declared part of Provincia de Nueva León. During the heyday of the wool industry, the village was known for the quality of its wool and soon became an important port. Don Mario Tomás Perón, who owned two nearby estancias (ranch), Porvenir and Maciega, would also bring the small location international visibility. His son, Juan, became President of Argentina in 1946. His second wife was Eva, also known as Evita. The estancia Maciega is now restored and is a museum.

Along with Pablo and Sofia from Patagonia Explorers, Sandro and Eloise were joining the expedition. Together, the four of them form the group called Nomades del Mar. Since 2004, they have been paddling with the objective to explore the entire coast of the Chubut Province. This trip will complete their first mission and will set the stage for their next goal – continue to Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. Nomades del Mar is more than a simple name. It stands for a set of values that all four members carry in their paddling and lives. Nomades are known in human history to have the most sustainable lifestyle: following the seasons and being in harmony with Nature. Kayak is for the group, the best way to learn and respect the environment, wildlife and history and to share them with friends. As Pablo said to me: “Nomades del  Mar perfectly sums up our feelings and emotions about Nature and describes best our way of living.”

By 2h45pm, we had finished loading our kayaks with food and equipment. Each of us were carrying 20 liters of water. I had all the dinners onboard my kayak, Pablo and Sandro would carry the lunches plus cooking gear, and Sofia and Eloise had the breakfasts and lunches. We would only need to replenish our water supply once in Bahia Bustamante. The weather forecast was generally good for the next 4 days. After that, we would use the satellite phone to call and get updates. After a quick lunch and a final check, we pushed ourselves on the water and headed to Isla Blanca, our first point of interest. The sky was clear, not one cloud, a light breeze, this was a great way to start our adventure.

In 1880, a steamship called Villarino was commissioned by the Government of Argentina. Her inaugural trip was to bring the remains of General San Martin, liberator of Argentina, whom had taken residence in France, back to be interred in Buenos Aires. After her delivery, she began a career in transporting goods along the coast of Patagonia. On March 16 th 1899, after 19 years of service and 101 trips to the south, Villarino sunk on the reefs of Isla Blanca during a stormy night, it was her 202 nd visit to Camarones. While her wreck lies at the bottom, (though her prop is on display by the beach in Puerto Madryn) the rocky island thrives with life. As we got closer to the reef, Antarctic Skuas began to fly over our heads. Skuas are known for being pretty territorial, flying extremely close to anyone venturing on their turf. With one just a couple of feet over my shoulder, I suddenly remembered the images of Sir David Attenborough, reporting on penguins, Skuas harassing him – although those ones were just investigating. Isla Blanca is populated with various marine bird colonies and Sea Lion colonies. On the rocks, groups of Dolphin Gulls, Rock and Imperial Cormorants, and Oyster-catchers:  Magellanic, Common and Blackish, each owning its little piece of rocky real estate.  In the water, inquisitive eyes with long whiskers popping up and disappearing keeping tab on our whereabouts. After rounding the island, we paddled away, heading to our first night stop. We settled in a little bay, not too far south from Camarones. After dinner, although some of us wanted to sleep outside, we had to forfeit our wish and raise the tents. With 92% humidity and 13 degree celsius, it was going to be a wet night.

I woke up as the light started to fill the sky. Out of my sleeping bag and into my warm jacket, I got out of the tent and marveled at the beauty of how this day was starting. On the horizon, a thick pink line was stretching from north to south. In the bay, on the water, a large group of Crested Ducks looked like japanese Kage-e (shadow pictures from the Edo period) floating on a dark blue metallic liquid. In the sky, the absence of clouds created a giant blue gradient, starting with a hint of red and ending with a deep black. While the others woke up, Pablo put the kettle on the stove, it was time for breakfast with mate.

Mate is for Argentina, what coffee is for France or Italy and tea for England – beside being the national beverage, it is a sacred ritual. You drink it in the morning and in the afternoon. The leaves of Yerba, a species of holly, native to South America, are poured loose in a calabash gourd. Once the leaves have steeped in warm water (it is important that the water is not boiling), the tea is drank with a Bombilla, a metallic straw. According to the Guarani legend, when the Goddesses of the Moon and of Clouds came to Earth, an old man saved them from the attack of a Yaguarete (jaguar). To reward the brave soul, the Goddesses gave the man a new plant from which could be prepared a drink of friendship. Mate was born.

Our second night stop – a little pebble beach nestled between small cliffs, protected from the wind, finally allowed us to enjoy the warmth of the sun and within minutes, everything felt like a hot summer day. We braved the cold water of the Atlantic and all went for a swim. While some could only manage a quick dip, others, myself included, stayed in and took the occasion to gather mussels and lapas. Fresh from the sea, with garlic and butter, followed by Argentinean beef grilled over fire, dinner was exquisite. That night, I stayed late and sat by the fire and watched the flames dance against the rock. For a moment, it all felt like a scene from a John Wayne western. With some imagination, I could hear the coyotes over the hills and the harmonica playing “”Rio Bravo”.

Isla Leones (Lions) was our next destination. Originally named Isla Barela, after its discovery by Don Diego Barela sometime between 1745 and 1746, the island was renamed Leones. Captain Tafor, from the ship “San Sebastian” decided that the name was better suited due to the constant barking from the high number of sea lions found on the island. After the sinking of “Villarino”, it was decided to build lighthouses along the coast to ensure safe navigation. In 1916, the crew of the ARA Mackinlay began construction of the lighthouse. Its light lit for the first time one year later. In 1968, the “faro” was shut down and replaced by the San Gregorio Lighthouse. Located on the main land, consequently much easier to maintain, its light still guides navigators today.

As our kayaks landed on the beach of Caleta (inlet) John Woddal, on the north side of Leones, an armadillo was seen walking through the remains of old machinery used when the island was occupied. On the water, a curious event was taking place. A large group of cormorants was swimming in a tight circle while another large group of Kelp Gulls, surrounding them, was squeaking. It seems that the birds were in a territorial dispute – one wanting to intimidate the other. It almost looked like a choreographed ballet. In fact, I started to laugh at the resemblance to Michael Jackson’s video “Beat It”.

After visiting the “faro”, we got back in our kayaks and paddled around the point, to Bay of the French, located on the south side of the island. The place was simply an eden filled with marine birds and sea lions. In front of me, a giant petrel was preening herself, spreading her huge wings wide open and looking at me with a mean look.  A crested duck closely swam by and puffed his feathers, sending an arch of water droplets over him. In the water two male sea lions in my wake, playing hide and seek. On the shore, snowy sheath-bills, egrets, and gulls and oyster-catchers cracking mussels open.  A colony of penguins going up the beach, their little bodies, in tuxedo costumes, lumbering side to side in unison. Every thirty meters, a steamer duck couple swimming, their heads low, giving them a stealthy look. Chubut Steamer ducks, native to the area and are known for their unique and entertaining way of escaping. This flightless species of waterfowl uses its wings like propellers, producing a lot of noise and making them look like old steamboats. That evening, shortly after going out for a swim, a group of Peal’s dolphins passed in front of our campsite chasing bait fish, trailing a flock of birds hoping to get any leftovers.

Our next stop, and campsite for the day was Isla Valdez. The small island is famous for its rabbits, brought by early European settlers. With the absence of predators, the rabbits now rule the land. The terrain is fairly similar to the one found in Provence, France, home to the culinary delicacy “Lapin de Garrigue”, a rabbit with a particular strong herby taste. We didn’t have anything to go hunting with, but we decided to try our luck anyhow.  Hunter-gatherer was a way of living for millions of years, prior to the practice of agriculture. There is actually a deeper level of connection, understanding, and respect of Nature when you harvest from the wild. You take part in an act that has been practiced daily, by all living creatures on Earth since the dawn of Life.  You understand the value of food. You understand what it takes to get it – lots of patience and great skills. It is not done for sport or fun, but to feed yourself. Rabbits are no easy catch. When facing danger, they will react in two ways. They will run as soon as they see you, in which case a little furry ball with long ears and a white fluffy tail will be seen darting behind rocks. Or they will stay still and hope to be missed. Their fur blends incredibly well with the landscape, and on more than one occasion, I almost stepped on one, before it sprinted with a giant leap inches from my feet and scaring the heck out of me. Our hunt was a big failure. Not only did we not come back with any rabbit, but we did not even got close. Our lack of technique was by far outmatched by their capacity to escape.

Isla Valdez was fascinating in another way. Beside the rabbits, it was the Land of the Small Creatures. At all the other locations we had been, the usual bird of prey was the Caracara, but here, it was the much smaller American Kestrel. Close to our base camp was an ant nest of a size I had never seen in my life. The anthill was at least 50 cm high. While walking the hills, I stumbled on the legendary Tarantula Hawk (black wasp with red wings, up to 5 cm long) carrying a small numbed tarantula into its burrow.  I had seen them on several occasions on the Peninsula Valdez, but witnessing one after successfully catching a spider was a first.  Finally, the next morning, I discovered that a small scorpion had taken refuge under my tent. It was another first for me. I had never seen a live scorpion in the wild.

On the morning of day 8 th, we arrived at Bahia Bustamante. In 1953, Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-son, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination. The place has an amazing bio-diversity and is surrounded by 25 000 acres of pure Patagonian nature.  You can visit the Petrified Forest, where old tree trunks have transformed into glowing opal rock. Or horseback ride to the nearest estancia and become a rancher for one day, where you will tend to the famous Patagonia Cordero (lamb), known for its great wool, lean meat and unforgettable taste. If you are an avid bird watcher, then the Peninsula Gravina is your destination where you will find 21 breeding colonies of several marine and coastal birds. If you are lucky, you might enjoy the dolphins and orcas that often swim the bay.

The landscape, up until Peninsula Gravignia, was a combination of cliffs, beaches, hills and rocky islands. But passing Cabo Aristizabal, into Bahia Solano in Golfo San Jorge, was like stepping into a new world. It felt different. It looked different. It sounded different. We were now paddling in a big swell, uninterrupted, from the Atlantic, bringing along cold air from the Antarctic. On the shore, endless steep beaches, the waves rolling on the pebbles with loud roars. It felt strange. It felt like another planet. Even the sheep were different. They were black. With a large colony of sea gulls every 200 meters, it was like the same piece of scenery was repeated over and over, for miles and miles. We went from spending our time exploring, to paddling as long as we could to cover as much distance as we could. Constant 20 knots headwind forced me to raised the hood of my Kokatat jacket and put my Tropo mitts on. Stopping for break or lunch, became an adventure in its own. The shore had a 45 degree angle, and to get on, one had to combine speed, timing, and agility. You had to ride the highest wave to land as high as possible, then get out as quick possible and pull your kayak up to safe ground before the crush of the following wave. A situation that would flood the cockpit and send you rolling. To add to the difficulty, the pebbles acted like rollers, and every time a step was made, your feet would slide down one pace before stopping. Getting back in the water was a total different experience. This time, it was play time. You simply sat in your kayak and slid down onto the water. The trick here again, was timing. You had to make sure to land just before the wave retreated. If not, then the nose of your kayak would enter at the bottom of the crest and you would get the full weight of the wave on your torso. And a mouthful of salt water!

Places to stop were few and far in between. For the first time since the beginning of our trip, that evening everyone was tired – physically and mentally. Our campsite was exposed and the wind kept blowing strong from the land, bringing with it shovels of sand. Everything was crunchy, our food, our drinks. Sand was getting everywhere. That night, I buried myself in my sleeping bag, only a tiny hole over my mouth to breathe. The tent was being hammered by the wind. The sand blasting the fabric. I felt like George Clooney on the set of the Perfect Storm. A huge fan set to maximum, a prop guy next to it with a shovel, pouring sand at the Director’s cue – “More sand! More sand!” In the morning, we woke up covered in sand. Each of our tents had failed to stop the invasion of those tiny particles. We looked like dust covered mummies just awoken from an ancient sleep.

The forecast for the day was not good. It would be long and tiring, with not much ground covered, but is was manageable. We had 30 km left to do before arriving at our final destination. Considering the weather, it would take us 2 days. With wind still blowing strong from the land, I pushed my kayak and dug my Lendal paddle in the water. I took the lead, Sofia and Eloise where in the middle, and Pablo and Sandro closed the convoy.  My Kokatat hood up and jacket zipped all the way, only my sunglasses exposed, I was deep in my paddling. After 20 minutes, I looked over my shoulder and saw that Sofia and Eloise had landed their kayak on the beach. I looked ahead and accessed my position. The shore was made of cliffs with small canyons every 200 meters. In each canyon, the wind coming from the mountains was being funneled and unleashed over the water with great force. I had already begun crossing the mouth of one canyon and decided to finish it. I would stop after and wait for the others. I paddled another 15 minutes, and realized that the conditions were worsening quickly and escalating to a dangerous level. I had only covered 500 meters and the wind had pushed me offshore another 300. I would not be able to cross the mouth and decided to head to the beach right away. Gusts of wind were fierce and now I was far enough from the coast that the waves were getting bigger. I tried for about 15 minutes to turn the nose of my kayak into the wind. Every time I got close, a massive gust would bring me back to square one. And every second, every minute, the wind was taking me further away from the shore. I had to act quickly. I had to act before it would be too late. The thought of capsizing was far at the back of my mind. I could not allow myself such an event. Capsizing would mean my failure in handling the conditions and would seriously diminish my chances of coming out of this in one piece. I turned my Tiderace leeward and proceeded to turn. I crunched down, my full body leaning forward and to the left, putting my entire weight against the incoming waves and the constant push of the wind. I kept a firm grip on my paddle as the wind continuously tried to blow it away. Once the turn completed, I dug each stroke deep in the water and battled my way back. I could barely see where I was going. My glasses were crusted in salt. The thing I knew for sure was that I had to keep paddling, at any cost. I could not stop, not even for one second. Now turned, the wind would bring me back to shore. It would take a long time and I would certainly be far from the others, but I would make it. The night before we had passed some fisherman and I knew that if needed, I could ask them to bring me back. I landed 300 meters before where we had started that morning. Pablo was on the beach, jumping, his hands in the air. He was beyond happy. I, honestly, felt a sense of pride. I knew I had come close to something extremely dangerous, but I had mastered it. I had kept my senses and handled my way out safely. Pablo told me that they had called the Coast Guard. That is how bad it was. That afternoon, I walked up the hill and clocked the wind speed with my Brunton, at 95 km/h. I watched the ocean in fury. Gusts were flying over the water with such wrath, they look like white ghosts going to war. The only ones who were enjoying this moment, were the gulls, terns and petrels, who contrary to us, flew the air with such ease – it was amazing watching them.

We didn’t get to reach Comodoro. The weather forecast for the next 2 days was going to be the same and there was no point in risking our safety. And that is fine. Exploring is not only about reaching a destination, but also about experiencing a journey. Some destinations are not meant to be reached on the first time. They command respect by not giving themselves easily. Limits are meant to be pushed. Barriers exist to be broken and new worlds are waiting to be discovered. But an Explorer must know when to stop and humble himself in front of Nature. Exploring challenges our own human nature – it reminds us that nothing is static and nothing is finite. The world is in constant movement. Life is an endless source of exploration.  In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldin flew to the moon carrying the Explorers Club Flag. As they landed on the lunar soil, Armstrong was able to sum up in one small sentence the essence of exploration – “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Rio Chubut

We had been driving for a while when we left the main road behind. From the fairly flat landscape our eyes had become accustomed, we found ourselves slowly going down a twisted dirt road – high walls on each side, perhaps 50 meters high. The road was cutting its way through red rock. The sun lighting up the mineral, the walls seemed to be alive. Thousands of shadow spots changing shape as we progressed down. It almost felt like we were in a kaleidoscope. Suddenly, the light disappeared. A long tunnel, a gateway to another place.  There were no more walls, only a dim light spot ahead of us. The light at the end of the tunnel – sign of a new world awaiting.

As our eyes adjusted to the brightness, we found ourselves at the top of a dam. To our right, a large reservoir. The red mountains trapped between the blue sky and the blue water. To our left, a river and trees. Their green in total contrast with the surrounding. Down there, passed the buildings from the electrical company, was our departing point. For the next 3 days, we were to kayak the waters of Rio Chubut, a river famous for its fly fishing, that starts in Carreras in the Andes and ends 800km further down in Rawson. Its name is derived from the Tehuelche word “chupat”, meaning “transparent”.

As we unloaded the kayaks and prepared our gear, memories of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It flowed back in my mind. I remembered the scene where the old man, tying up a knot on his line to attach a fly, reflects on his life, narrating the important lessons the River had given him.

“When I am alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and my memories, and the sounds of the big Blackfoot River, and the four count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I remembered the importance of the River in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. Its significance in the story, symbolizing the key to Freedom. There is no better imagery to epitomize our life journey, than the River. It starts from a point, and ends at another. No matter how wild the river is, no matter how unruly it wants to be, it still has a direction, a purpose, to reach the ocean. It flows blindingly to a place where it will cease to exist. It will merge with something bigger, it will become one with the others.

Young rivers are straight – giving more importance in the destination rather than the journey, often missing much of the world they flow in. Their banks offering no protection, the water rushes down, in a hurry. Old rivers meander, understanding that the journey is more important. They turn right and left, sometimes go back up, they explore and wander. There curves offer refuge to others and soon their banks and waters find themselves bursting with life.

Our first day was marked by massive walls, the River flowing at their feet, unimpressed, simply moving along. Flocks of Black-neck and Coscoroba Swans painfully flying away every time they see us. Graceful in the air and on the water, swans need a lot of energy to lift themselves off to fly. Their webbed feet pushing and keeping their heavy body above the water as their wings flap against the wind.  Red-gartered Coot quickly darting in all directions. Awful flyers, Nature gave them large feet that they use to run on the surface, and they do so with great speed and loud noise – rapid sequences of Flap, flop, flap, flop. On the river banks, horses, sheep, and cattle. If you are lucky and have good eyes, you might spot a hare, his ears up listening to any danger coming his way. In the air, Turkey Vultures scanning the vast land for any careless creatures.

Doing photography on a river is quite different than on the ocean. Everything passes by fairly quickly. Animals leave a soon they see you. The ones who don’t, hide themselves, and if you do find them, it is already too late, the current is taking you away. On the ocean, you usually only need one lens, a long one. No need to change since your main objective is to capture animals. On a river, you constantly keep switching between a short and long lens, wanting to capture both the landscape and the animals.  If you don’t make the right decision at the right time, it is too late.

Around mid day, we stop for a break and decide to go fishing. Rio Chubut is home for Brown and Rainbow trouts, and if you have the right gear, the right spot, the right technique, and the right spirit, you might find yourself with a nice big fish fighting you. I tie a silver spoon with a green stripe and cast my line close to a rock big enough that it creates a nice backwash, a perfect spot. Nothing. But something tells me that there is a big one there, so I keep casting in the same spot. My senses acute, I stare at the water, at the rock, precisely right next to it, where I know one must be. My spoon hits the water right pass the spot and I start to reel. The sun flickers on the spoon and in an instant, a big Brown trout goes for it. I dig my heels in the ground and steady myself. She goes upstream, her powerful body pulling my line with it like a fly on its back. We fight for a while until I sense it is safe enough to bring her to shore. But this is where the trout masters in strategy. She faints her defeat and while I joyfully bring her back, she gathers her strength and prepare herself for the big finally. With no net, I can’t simply whisk her off the water,  I have to hold my rode in one hand, give enough line so that the trout does not get out of the water, and reach with the other hand to grab her. Simpler said than done. I finally see my opponent – oh my! That is a big fish! I go to grab her and she darts up out of the water, twist, and as she touches back the surface, she uses the current and goes down stream. With no resistance, her power is doubled. She jumps again, twist again, and again and again. For a moment, I am afraid I will loose her. Her ferociousness is working. I am getting nervous, and careless. But I got her well hooked. I get my senses back and steady myself again. The fight goes on for a while. I finally manage to grab her. With a solid grip, I walk to the safety of the shore, sit down, and look at my catch. I tell her that I am honored by the fight she gave me. I get up, look at the river and bow. I thank her for her gift. That night, in addition to our dinner of Argentinean beef, we cooked my trout much like how our ancestors, and their ancestors did it – over fire.

Our second day camp is nestled amongst red rock hills. As we pull our kayaks to higher ground, a white horse is standing not far, looking at us. He stands tall and looks magical. Lifting his nose in the air, he turns his head sideways and walks away. Before dinner, we hike to the top of the highest hill and wonder at the sight. The river flows through a landscape of green trees and red hills.  The water reflects the sky and look like a long curvy endless mirror. There is no cloud and the blue sky completes this highly contrasted scenery.

On our third day, we come to a small damn. The bad news is that we have to portage our kayaks. The good news is that right after the small fall are little rapids, perfect for a little play time. While the others try their luck fishing one last time, I paddle my kayak to the bubbly waters. The rapids are not big, but it still offers me a moment of fun and excitement. Shortly before our final destination, we come to a big rock, perfect for a swim.  After tightening the kayaks together, we climb up on a small edge. Pablo is the first one to brave the frigid cold water. After filming the others jumping, it is time for me to go. I hold my waterproof Olympus in front of me, wanting to have footage of the actual splash and leap in the air. My body enters the water and goes in shock. The water is so cold.  Unconsciously I cling my fingers, pressing the stop button on the camera. The lanyard slips away from my hand and the camera goes free. My brain is fighting what to panic about – the cold or the fact that I just lost my camera. My hands frantically wave everywhere. Last I heard, camera sinks and current takes things away. I have perhaps 5 seconds before I loose any hope of catching it. My fingers feel the hard case, but I fail to grab it. I feel the seconds passing by. I feel my chances disappearing. By now, the camera is somewhere around my waist line, sinking rapidly. The current is making things worst. With one last attempt, I go for it. I feel the lanyard between two of my fingers. I squeeze them and pray it will be enough. I bring my hand to my chest and grab the camera for dear life. With the camera secure, I reach for the surface. I swim to the rock, my body still in shock. The look on my face must say a lot, cause everyone is looking at me with fear – What happened?

After warming up, we get back in our kayaks and glide the last hour. At our picking rendez-vous, Sofia has  a nice surprise for us, a cooler with some nice cold beers. I take mine and walk one last time to the river. I sit on my kayak, take a sip and repeat the words of Maclean’s:

“I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”



”For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh

It is dark. Absence of colors. Black and white tones. Various shades of grey.  Daylight illuminates the world around us, but the night transforms everything into a monotone landscape. For a moment, I wonder, if actually this seemingly boring reality has a purpose. My eyes pan from left to right trying to find a destination. With no where to go, they are left with one choice – go up. And right there, I understand. We spend our days looking in front of us. Always trying to see what is coming. But the night belongs to dreams and there is only place you can find them – in the Stars. I am curious if this is why in Asia they write from top to bottom, as if to insinuate that everything in life starts with a Dream. My eyes are fixed on this black tapestry made of an incalculable amount of white pinholes. My pupils dilate trying to capture the gargantuesque size of the Universe.  Millions of specks of light, so distant from our planet than their location is measured by the number of years light takes to travel from them to us. Their sight reminds me of the infinite amount of possibilities our world holds. That we still know so little about Life. My thoughts of boredom are long gone now as I lay down on the sand, gazing at a world that is only reachable through my imagination, through my dreams.

Man has been looking at the stars for thousands of years. It has been a source of inspiration, a source of mystery, a source of faith, and a tool for orientation. It also has been a way for us to understand our relationship with Nature, and with Life. Ever since the dawn of humanity, the night sky and Nature have walked hand in hand. Through the ages, from all cultures, every time we raised our eyes to the night sky, we saw animals and mythical creatures. The Zodiac, invented more than 10 000 years ago, depicts our symbiosis with the Universe through images of animals. For centuries, constellations were named after Nature.  It is only in the 1700’s, at the early age of the Industrial Revolution, that we changed our relationship with the Stars. Frenchman Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, famous astronomer, broke all the rules and named all of his discoveries with man-made objects.

In a world where more than half of the population lives in cities, we tend to forget there is even a night sky. Our eyes barely rise above the horizon. Our sense of vertical is developed mainly around tall buildings. And if we do one day find our way to look passed the top of those skyscrapers, we find an almost white canvas with a few sparse bright dots. 

A night sky is a limitless source of creativity and fascination. Like painting by numbers, you trace imaginary lines from star to star, giving life to worlds that know no boundaries. Shooting stars and northern lights, props for magical stories. As much as we learn about the Universe in museum or on television, there is nothing like experiencing the sight of a night sky saturated with stars, the Milky Way casting shadows on the ground – it is overwhelming, it is humbly.

We need never to forget to look up. We need never to forget to dream.

A day with the dolphins

We were all sitting at the table, sharing food and stories. Fried anchovies, calamari and clams, all fresh from the morning. Each of us telling his Nature stories. Glasses of cold beer, sunset over the gulf, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables. I was having dinner with a production team filming for the next Life series on BBC. Tomorrow, we would spend the day on the water, filming the dusky dolphins. The team had been here for almost 3 weeks now and was leaving soon. One of their crew had left a couple of days ago. One man short, they were looking for an extra pair of eyes. When I offered mine, they gladly accepted.

It was 7am when they engines started and propelled us away from the beach. Under a magnificent sky, the morning air tighten up our faces, our collars zipped up, we drank our coffee and shared a bag of croissants. Although it might sound glamourous, documentaries like this one take years of patience and filming. Certain sequences captured after months and months of waiting, chasing, and hoping. Some, simply never happen when the cameras are rolling. Jonathan Smith and Tom Fritz had been filming the duskies for weeks now, hoping to catch the scene they had come to capture. They had filmed them feeding on small bait ball, filmed them with sea lions, filmed them jumping around, but they had not filmed them feeding on a big ball of anchovies. One day, they found a huge ball, twice the size of the boat, but no dolphins around, no dolphins feeding.

Each day is the same, no matter the weather. By sunrise, you are on the water, and you are not coming back before darkness. One member of the team in on land or in the air, on the look out. You spend so much time looking through binoculars, you start to see things. You spend so much time putting your wet suit on and off, it starts to look more like a fashion rehearsal. As days go by, you invent more and more lucky charms. Perhaps we need to do the dolphin dance tomorrow, with Hawaiian skirts this time! Jokingly, my arrival is seen as a possible sign of good luck, giving me now the responsibility of turning faith around, before I become a sign of bad luck!  The day is superb. The conditions are perfect. If only, just for one moment, this could be “The Day”.

The water had been zipping by for an hour when we spotted a group of dolphins. We were not the only one who had. Flocks of storm-petrels and seagulls were rushing toward them.  Like bees on honey, birds will find dolphins feeding, and in minutes, any flying creatures within miles will be seen flying in the same direction, hoping to take advantage of a free easy meal. I admit it is quite a scene. On each side of the boat, hordes of birds, flying at the same speed as we do. Their squeaking echoing all around. The adrenaline kicks in. The engines are roaring. Thoughts of this being the big one crosses all our mind. Cameras are prepared. Wet suits are put on. Every one is on the stand by. Already, hundreds of birds are at the scene. The frenzy is everywhere. Just as we arrive, as if on cue, the anchovies have all been eaten, and the whole bonanza starts all over again at another location. We put the cameras away, take off the wet suits, and follow the birds to the next spot. This dance goes on all day long, over and over, until the sun sets, 12 hours after our departure.

At one point, I ask if the event has actually been seen or captured on film. I start to have doubts, that perhaps we are chasing something that will never happen. Jonathan laughs. He tells me that it has once for an Imax movie – it took 52 days to finally get it. He also tells me that when it happens, when the big bait ball happens and the dolphins are feeding on it, it lasts for an hour.

I ask Jonathan and Tom some questions. I am curious to know about their background and their motivation. Why they do what they do. Why they spend 3 weeks, 12 hours a day, on the water, waiting for something and still find the energy to laugh and smile as if this was the first day on the job. Are they making a good living? Or working for Nature documentaries means living on bread and butter. Some of their answers surprise me, others don’t.

“You feel that you are part of something bigger. It is a rush. The unexpected, the surprise, the discovery. When the magic happens, there is nothing in the world that matches it, except perhaps the birth of your child.  This is life in its pure form. There is a sense of connection that is hard to explain. As if for one moment, before your eyes, all life, all Universes were connected to this one point in time and space. Including you.” Tom talks about the time he filmed the Bowhead Whales in the Arctic, to be in the presence of such giants, perhaps older than 100 years. He can’t find the words to express what it was like. His eyes are locked somewhere on the horizon. His memories stay secret, unable to find a worthy way to convey them. Jonathan tells me the story  when he filmed the leopard seals in Antarctica. Those apex predators, perfect hunting creatures, would bring penguins to them, like children wanting to share their toys. They would open their mouth, 160 degrees wide at the camera, showing their teeth one inch long.

Although their motivation is beyond financial, surprisingly enough, the nature documentary industry pays well today. A lot more than in the past and a lot more than other similar industries. Success like the Blue Planet series have proved their value. Planet Earth became the most watched show on Discovery channel.

We talked about today’s documentaries versus the early days of Cousteau and Attenborough. About Institutions like BBC that has succeeded over the years to commission and publish educational material of great quality. Jonathan mentions how important the mission statement is. Per instance, BBC’s mission is to “Inform, Educate and Entertain. It aims at sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”. Notice that entertain is last, not first. Which is actually the opposite of most others in the industry.

As with everybody I meet who works with Nature, family plays an important role. They support financially or simply nurture the passion seen in their child, telling him or her, that what is important, is to do something they love, whatever it is – music, painting, art, traveling or working with animal . Children don’t have the wisdom, the foresight to see the bigger picture and it is to the parents to recognize what that passion is and guide it, support it.

One day, Tom rented a boat and took his family out for a little expedition on the waters of Florida. At some point, his son pulled his father’s shirt and innocently asked him if they were in the Wild. Amused by the question, Tom looked around, then look at his child and said yes. His answer could have been that little green creatures did live on Mars, the result was the same. The little boy had just stepped into a fantasy world. The mangroves, the water, the birds, the fish, all suddenly became subjects of fascination. In his head, the little boy was seeing for the first time what his father saw every time he went to work. Tom was mesmerized at the joy on his son’s face, simply by being in the Wild. Beside connecting with Nature, moments like these are priceless. There are no bigger rewards than to see your child’s happiness from sharing what you do for living.

We didn’t capture the golden sequence that day. As we ride back, I don’t feel any frustration, or disappointment from anyone on the boat. Of course Jonathan and Tom anxiously dream about it, but at the end of the day, to be in the water with the dolphins, to have them swim around, to have them look at you and squeak, it is hard not to be content.

That evening, as we are all sitting at the table, sharing an exquisite asado, glasses of cold beer, fresh timber burning in the fireplace, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables, no one would trade this moment. Jonathan announces that he will be going to Tobago after, to film flying fish spawning, something he has been waiting for 2 years. We can’t help but feel a bit jealous, but we still raise our glass to him and for a moment, as we look at each other, we feel bonded, united by our love for Nature.

The Almighty

I have always loved thunderstorms. I remember spending many hours, sitting on the front porch, my eyes staring at those giants passing by, unleashing armies of droplets, like millions of tiny soldiers. Canons firing lightnings, opening safe passage for the cavalry. Winds knocking down any who dared to resist. The sound of the thunder spreading over miles and miles. I would always count the seconds the moment I would see a flash, strategically, in my mind, following the progress of the battalion. One, two, three, four, five, bang! The storm is one mile away to the north! Send the troops! Nature has always been a companion in my imaginary world, never failing to deliver countless days of play.

The day had been calm and sunny. But the evening was to be another story. The blue sky was being invaded by a front of dark grey clouds. They looked like fire spreading over a ceiling. Magically engulfing every blue particle until there was no more. Visible curtains of rain, forming high, almost impenetrable walls, advancing over land. Their lighter shade of grey in contrast with the thick black sky. Lightnings splitting the air, cracking the earth, the loud noise tumbling across all over.  Flashes from beyond, illuminating every edges of this monster. No General could ever match the power and effectiveness of the invasion.  People running from the beach, taking cover. Doors and windows shut. Dogs barking. Within minutes, the entire town was taken prisoner and was showed no mercy. Power was cut.  Streets were flooded. We retreated waiving the white flag in hope of salvation from our defiance.

Slowly, the gloom passed, leaving behind trails of destruction. We were safe.

I smiled. From behind my lens, I was having too much fun, my script was perfect.

Early Wild Encounters

The air was fresh and clean. The forest was beautiful – different shades of red, orange, and yellow – on the ground as well as up in the trees. Fall in the Northeast is always spectacular. The leaves transform the wood into a magical mosaic of colors. Even as they fall, they retain their vivid pigments and create a thick colorful carpet that crisps under every footstep. We had been walking for a couple of hours, our eyes and ears, carefully tuned to the sounds of Nature, hoping to perhaps see deer, or partridge. My uncle had decided to stop. As we sat on a log, he whispered to me that animals are always there, we might not see them, but they see us. Curiosity is something that animals also posses. If you stop, stay still for moment, not making a noise, your reverse the dynamic and become the one looked for.

Shortly after his words, two partridges peeked from behind a tree, staring at us. Their curiosity gaining strength, they slowly walked out from their previously perfect camouflaged spot, their heads moving up and down, right to left, trying to size us and wonder who we were. I was amazed and fascinated. I was only a little boy.

I don’t know why I can remember this story has if it had happened yesterday, a simple walk in the forest, 25 years ago. But I do, and I have applied the lesson learned that day every time I am in Nature, whether scuba diving, mountain biking, or simply walking – Stop and they will come to you.

We never know what children will remember as they grow up. It is always fascinating to hear someone talk about a smell, an image, a feeling, a word, they remember when they were young and transformed the way they see the world.

That is why it is so important for parents to create opportunities for children to experience, live, and feel Nature. There is nothing more beautiful than to witness the eyes of a child experiencing the Wild for the first time. There is nothing more rewarding than to see adults become children again as they experience their first Wild Encounter.

Yesterday, two parents took their children out on the water. Neither them, or the children, had experience, and although it would have been easier to get on one of those tourist motor boat, they decided to go kayaking. After a little crash course, off we went. I was only tagging along to take some pictures but soon was reminded of the importance of what was happening. It doesn’t take much to create a sense of adventure. Simply do something you normally don’t and you will soon feel like Captain Kirk saying: “To boldly go where no one has gone before!”

We had just left the beach and already every splash, every shadow was a source of excitement. When that first sea lion appeared, it is as if the world had stopped and a door to a new one had opened. A world where there was no television, no video games, no cell phones, but filled with wonders and richness, where Man is part of Nature, connected to it, born from it.

Back at the shop, everyone was still talking about that moment when a sea lion passed under the kayak, when another poked his head out of the water, when a cormorant flew by, or when a penguin appeared. Those moments are the ones that will be remembered forever. Each will have their own version of what happened that day, and together, their memories will spread through friends and family, making this little adventure eternal.

The goal is not to make every child become a Jacques Cousteau or a David Attenborough, but simply to plant that seed of awareness, to create a connection.  Once a child has been touched, he or she will never see the world in the same way.


I was reading Jon Bowermaster’s entry from his blog “Notes from Antarctica” writing about garbage resolution and witnessing the sad impact our lifestyle has at some of the most remote places in the world. While out shooting at Punta Norte the other day, I noticed this female sea lion that had a wire around her neck. She must have swam through a while ago. The wire already cutting deep her throat. How much did she have left to live? What would happen to her cub, just born a few weeks ago? Did this male knew her faith as he watched over her?

Now looking at the picture, I can’t help but notice the drama of the image. Her devotion to him, even as her fate is sealed.

It is in those moments that you really understand how our lives really intertwine with theirs. I was not just a few miles from a busy port, where chances of running into garbage is frequent. I was in a National Park, a Unesco World Heritage. A place supposedly protected.

Beyond the Sunset

The unexpected. The surprise. Time and space coming together to create a moment of bliss.

I had spent the entire day working in front of the computer – editing, uploading, writing. The night before our plans to go watch the sunset on the water had been spoiled by the wind, and by the end of the afternoon, the thought of a late outing seemed dim. I walked back to the office, and there, Pablo announced that a couple wanted to go kayaking and asked if I wanted to come. I was tired and hungry, but the idea of being on the water, to feel the rocking of the waves, to let Nature rejuvenate my depleted energy, my eyes lit up and my head nodded up and down.

I slipped in my kayak and pushed myself off the beach. The sun would set soon and the sky was already turning into a deep shade of blue. The water had this mystic look, a black shiny liquid. Thousands of shadows and reflections on the surface creating a metallic mosaic. A thick orange line on the horizon, separating two worlds – a contrast of realities.  We paddled out, almost with a feeling of never coming back. Each stroke pulling us closer to the unknown. The world around us was alive, changing every second. Cliffs and rocks ahead of us black by the absence of reflective light. Cliffs and rocks behind us burning from the Sun. Deep dark shades enhancing every edges. From the distance, I saw several pointy noses popping out, flippers splashing the water – a group of sea lions. Unable to see under the surface, there whereabouts remained secret. Only revealed to us every time their shiny fur came out, or their heads magically bursting up, like a periscope from a submarine. As we got closer to the colony, their number grew. On the shore, legions of little cubs, intrigued by us, not old enough yet to venture to waters, their curiosity evident with their whiskers up in the air, sniffing at us.

We stayed there. Cradled by the waves. I tried to film underwater, blindly, not knowing whether there was enough light, or even if I was filming anything. We were surrounded and we surrendered. Basking in this magical eden, not a word was said. Almost with regrets, we decided to go back. Looking behind us every few minutes, wondering if that door would ever close. I was in my head, contemplative. My arms moving the paddle without me being aware of it. Nothing could ever be more perfect than this moment. How fortunate was I. How grateful I was. The sea lions stayed with us, swimming along side my kayak for what seemed like eternity. Companions sharing this moment, escorting me out, after being their guest, privileged by their hospitality.

After passing the last bay, I turned once more. I was not prepared for such beauty. Up at the top of the cliff, behind the lighthouse, incandescent clouds, vibrant shades of colors, perfectly cutting the contour of the old building. I tell the others. We turn our kayaks around and face this unbelievable sight. None of us find the will to interrupt this moment.

Against the Wind

We were suppose to leave that evening. The plan was to kayak a couple of hours, pass Puerto Pardelas, and camp before Punta Alt. There, a small cave, up in the mountain, would provide us with a good campsite, and a beautiful scenery. From there, we would paddle for 3 days, hopefully cross the entrance of Golfo Nuevo and make it to Punta Cracker. Perhaps see some dolphins on the way. Although it was a good plan, Lady Nature had something else in her mind.

I am always a bit worried whenever I set out. Will I have something to write about.  Will the pictures be good? Will the videos be ok for editing? Will I have interesting material, or will I come back with nothing? Will I find my theme for the day? For the trip? As it turns out, with some faith and patience, Nature always delivers. It may not be what was expected. It might be something totally different. But there is always a story line, you just have to let it come to you.

Along with Pablo, Diego and myself, Sandro was joining us on this trip. He is Pablo’s long time kayak partner. Together, they have been paddling the waters of the Peninsula for years. Sandro, as I discovered, is the type of paddler that makes kayaking look effortless. Steady, with great technique and years of experience, he cuts through the wind and through the waves like a steamship, never hinting any signs of fatigue or forcing a stroke. One rhythm, tic tac, tic tac, like a metronome. Whether the wind is blowing at 30 miles an hour, or the surface is like a mirror, you won’t notice any difference. Pablo was telling me that he had once paddled for 11 hours straight, never stopping even once for the normal human needs.

The kayaks were packed and ready. We all stood on the beach staring at the sky, then staring at the weather forecast Pablo was holding. The wind was blowing from the north pretty hard and it would do all night long. Out in the middle of the gulf, huge cumulus clouds rose up like a gigantic towers. Although the wind would push us in the right direction, our campsite would be exposed to the fury of what was looking inevitable – a stormy night. The rest of the forecast didn’t look promising either. The wind would change direction the day after, heading south, increasing in the afternoon, reaching 25 miles per hour. This meant that we would paddle pretty much the 3 days with head wind. The chances of crossing to the other side now were close to nothing.  We decided to hold off our departure and leave the next morning. That night, we dined listening to the wind howling and blowing sand from the dunes, hitting the windows like a swarm of bees from a Hitchcock movie. Out on the open, flashes from the lightnings illuminating the clouds giving us a glimpse of what hell could look like.

The morning showed no signs at all of what had taken place the night before. The sky was cloudless and the water smooth like leather. As the tide was rising, we carried our kayaks to the water, pushed ourselves off the beach and paddled out. We knew those conditions were just temporary, but we couldn’t stop ourselves believing perhaps that the forecast was wrong and that the next 3 days would be an easy ride.

When the tide changed, along with it came a new set of rules. The promised wind was delivered. Like adding coal to a train, it gained speed. Soon enough, we were battling 8 foot waves and gusts of 30 knots. Our sunglasses became crusted with salt – all those droplets blown in our face every time our bow hit a wave. Right after Punta Alt, we pulled on the beach and reassessed. We decided to head back. We would camp at that cave and spend the rest of the day hiking. For the next hour, we paddled, gusts of wind pushing us like a stampede. Sometimes, I felt like I was being rushed out by a group of mad security.  With our kayaks secured, and our gear at the cave, we all stared at a sea of white caps and headed for a hike.

Trails of Guanacos, hares and foxes crossing our own, we walked through canyons where walls were made of fossilized shells. Our eyes scanning for historical treasures – a fossil of petrified wood, chipped stones reminiscent of when the natives lived those lands. I felt like walking the corridors of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Behind a dune, hidden by a tall sand bush, the wind had blown away the sand covering the remains of a dead Tehuelche, perhaps 300 or 400 years old. The place was filled with history. Back at our cave, we contemplated the valley in front of us as the sun set and a dimmed rainbow briefly came to life. With our imagination fresh from our discoveries, we were soon looking back in time and saw a tribe a natives crossing the land.

There was no relief the next day. The wind was still blowing strong. Not as hard though. We armed ourselves with patience and paddled our way.

The beach after Punta Alt is long and is a place where many juvenile whale carcasses are found. Bones taken by people, the skin is what is left, even after 6 months. Of all the baby whales born in the golf, ten percent don’t make it. Most of time, they end up here, on this beach, blown by the winds and currents. In the water, a couple of penguins, schools of fish surfing the water and from time to time, a curious wandering sea lion poking his head out would remind us that life still exist.  After a couple of hours, we found this place with some good little surf. There is always time for surf and for sure we took it. For a moment, there was no more wind, no more current, there were just nice little waves to ride.

We stopped at Punta Cormorans. Although we could go for more, there was no good camping site within reaching distance. We settled once more to stop early and go for a hike. But before, with the tide going down, the same fish that we had seen surfing earlier, get often caught trapped in little ponds. Stories go that some people are even able to catch them with their bare hands. With little strategy, we posted ourselves between the open sea – freedom, and the pond – the cage. We looked like bears, sitting atop a fall, waiting for the salmons to jump right into their mouths. Except, in this case, it was more a bunch of tired kayakers with barely any patience left. After unsuccessfully chasing 10 of them and seeing them sprint their way to freedom, we gave up.

The hike this time, had a total different feeling. On the beach, amongst the usual suspects – crab shells, bones of dead birds, fish left overs – hundreds and hundreds of garbage – fish bins used by boats, nets, sandals, plastic bottles, glass bottles, tubes, hats, and the number one garbage found in Nature, the eternal white plastic bag. For a moment, I felt like we were the only survivors on a desolate planet. Those … things, on the beach were what was left from a once flourishing population. Our hike became a search for the most unusual artifact – a boomerang, a plastic red toy truck, glue sticks. On our way back to the camp, we headed for the cliffs, leaving the desolation behind. Away from the reach of water, a sense of wilderness came back, tracks of animals, fresh and old. We found an old Tehuelche settlement, chipped stones, a piece from an old plate used to grind herbs and cereals. Not far, the polished rock used as a crusher.

That evening, as the sun set in an intense gold curtain, a fox passed on the beach, stopping once to look at us. Meeting of strangers in a strange land. At night, tucked in my sleeping back, the sky was impressively beautiful. There were more stars than usual.  It seems like they were everywhere. The Milky Way was bright, a clear white streak crossing a sea of millions and millions of white shining dots. How amazing, that in the course of one day, some many opposites come in conflict with each other – life and death, ugly and beauty, easy and difficult.

Magically, the next morning, the wind changed direction once more. This time, it was blowing from the north, coincidentally the same direction as our way back home. We took a deep breath and went for it.

As if Lady Nature was playing with us, two hours before our arrival, the wind dropped and the surface became smooth again. Exactly the same conditions we had on our departure 3 days earlier. It was hard not to laugh about it as we glided back to shore.

Golfo San Jose

We were at the end of the road. But our journey was only beginning. We got out of the jeep and proceeded to unload the kayaks from the trailer. We were all anxious – like children, the night before christmas, about to open their gifts. The plan for the next 2 days was to kayak west, along the coast of Golfo San Jose.

There is something about setting a campsite. It is like building a house – a little one. You look for the best spot, with the best view, yet protected from the wind. You look to place the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room. With a little bit of work, you are able to transform what was an inhospitable environment into a warm and cozy place.

Our first dinner was a delight. Sofia cooked ‘bife a la criolla”, a recipe muy kaya-quistica!. We all toasted this moment with wine and shared our most memorable Nature memories. As the sun went down, the stars started to fill the sky. You forget about what a night sky is suppose to look like. Living in cities, blinded by the lights all around you, the night sky is simply a blank black cover. Away for urbanization, the night is alive, millions of stars shining, some more than others. A shooting star prompting a wish. You see the infinity. You are reminded of the “grandeur” of the Universe.

After breakfast and mate (Argentinean tea), we got ourselves ready and paddled out. We passed in front of the place where the Spanish Explorers landed more than 300 years ago. With no wind, the current had drifted them inside the golf. It is only after walking across the land that they realized that this was a peninsula and named the other golf “Golfo Nuevo”. Their faith would be another story. Almost all killed by the natives, only a few survived and walked to the nearest town, able to tell their story.

Our first stop was a place where old whale bones can be found. At the same location, a special kind of green grass that only grows where there is salt water. With no other grass around, you wonder if the death of the whale is responsible for this fertile place where life abounds. After a quick snack, we were back on the water.

After a couple of hours, we passed a point and beyond it was a small sea lion colony. A group of females and juveniles jumped in the water and suddenly we were surrounded by inquisitive big brown eyes. One in particular, distinctive by a patch on his back, surprised us all with his curiosity and friendliness, poking his nose at our paddles and equipment. I am not sure who enjoyed this moment the most, either them or us. That night, we camped and dined remembering this amazing moment.

The next day, we paddled to the Bird Island where penguin, cormoran and heron colonies breed. The place is protected and no one is allowed on the island, giving the birds plenty of safety. It is booming with life. A group of penguins was in the water cleaning their plumage. Others were coming down from the hill. Cormorans, moving their neck, stretched up, to the right, then to the left, all in unison. Seagulls flying high adding their shriek to the cacophony. Our kayaks were followed closely by thousands of small eyes as we drifted just a few feet from the shore.

Leaving a sky filled white and black wings, we paddled toward our pick up location. It was important that we arrive to during high tide. On a low tide, we would have to walk 1km due to the incredibly slow rising beach – certainly not something neither of us wanted!

In the jeep, we were all silent – a bit tired, but also, absorbing those last 48 hours of raw Nature and close wilderness encounters.