Patagonia in Fall

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Tim Valentine

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May 24, 2015
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66
Visiting Patagonia Chile in late Autumn is not the best time of year for hiking or backpacking. Winter weather can show up on any day at any time. The days are getting short and most park facilities have closed for the season. I probably would never have chosen that time of year for any extended backcountry traveling, especially not my first trip to South America. However this trip was not originally about the hiking. My photographer friend, Max Waugh, had caught my interest in the area with his 2016 photo portfolio of wild puma photographs from Patagonia. When I learned he was leading a 2017 tour down to the same area with a team of skilled puma trackers, I signed up immediately. Mountain lions have long been at the top of my wildlife want list and I had never seen one in the wild. When my longtime hiking companion Mark, also signed up for the trip we knew we had to extend our stay and try to get in as much hiking as the weather would permit.

The trip did not start well. On the drive to the airport I scraped a piece of bumper off a parked car. On our second flying leg heading to South America we found out our checked luggage was a day behind us in Houston. Arriving in Punta Arenas Chile our car rental agency staff was nowhere to be found. We nervously spent a lot of the travel time trying to resolve these matters with car insurance agents and airline baggage personnel. The prospect of little or no future online or cell connectivity from our final Patagonia destination had us concerned. The negative Nancy inside of me kept suggesting, “what a selfish waste of money this week is going to be, flying thousands of miles into the start of winter looking for a reclusive species in the rain and snow”. But the positive Pedro in me knew that we just needed to adapt and keep moving and things would work out. Both Mark and I had traveled enough to know to carry on the clothes you need for your destination and Max had taught me to always carry on all of your camera gear. We would live out of our carry on luggage if necessary and still be able to hunt Pumas with our cameras. So we rented a better car from a different agency and headed north to the Torres del Paine area in a persistent and dreary rainstorm. Along the way we stopped at the last and only town to try to buy some replacement outdoor gear in Puerto Natales. There were many stores in that town but they were all closed. A Chilean May day holiday it turned out. Negative Nancy wanted to chime in:” this trip is cursed! “ Positive Pedro responded: “ Luggages! We don’t need no stinkin luggages! Lets hit the road and get to the park!”

I was beginning to tell myself that if I could just step out on the Puma tracking trail with my camera gear, everything would be fine. I would much rather deal with what the natural world was going to throw at us then with all of these stress inducing manmade issues that kept dogging our travels.

Eventually we reached our remote destination and caught up with the other photo tour members who were already a half day ahead of us. They had already seen a puma and it had walked within ten feet of the group! One of the members burst into tears out of shear wonderment and astonishment. Negative Nancy was there right on queue with “ that is the only Puma that is going to be seen all week because the weather is just getting worse and you missed your only chance!” Positive Pedro had a quick rejoinder however: “Our guides are one for one on puma finding and now they are dialed in with the pumas . They will probably find pumas every day we are here! I can’t wait for tomorrow!“

Sure enough, the next morning we were only on the dirt road for less than 15 minutes when a family of three pumas crossed in front of us! The sun was not even up all the way! We were able to observe them for many minutes and even get a few decent pictures. I did not hear from negative Nancy the rest of the trip.

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Every day the puma viewing just got better.

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We ended up seeing over 15 different pumas in all types of weather and environments. It was a Puma extravaganza.

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Our fellow tour members helped us with any replacement gear when we needed it. Our checked luggage arrived a few days later with all of our camping gear still intact.


The puma prey on the guanacos, which are a large llama like hoofed animal.
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The guanacos graze and congregate in the parts of Patagonia that is predominantly low shrubs. This makes both the pumas and the guanacos easier to spot. With plenty of available food and no natural predators, the pumas are the predominant species and quite tolerant of any human presence compared to what you would expect in North America.

They frequently could be found in the daytime napping in the low dense bushes. After observing us for a few minutes they would fall back to sleep uninterested. Mom playing with cub from far away.
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Here is a video clip of some first year cubs with mom.



There were a lot of other interesting animals to observe. When the pumas were sleeping I was still busy. Just about everything I saw was a new species for me.


This is the endangered Rhea, they are making a good comeback because we saw quite a few of them. Not always an easy species to spot.
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Fire Eyed Diukon
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Hog nosed Skunk
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The meadowlarks in Chile are much more colorful than in the north.
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The Pygmy owls with their false eyes in the back of their heads were frequently seen near the tops of the low shrubs.

The weather was pretty cloudy and dreary but we saw pumas everyday we went looking. Sometime in rain, others in hail. Sometimes posed over a cliff, one time down at a salt tufted beach.

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At the end of one day we had not seen any pumas. It was snowing and getting late. Suddenly one of the sharp eyed guides spotted the head of an adult puma poking out of the bushes within site of the car, in a great setting. Fall colors, blackened branches from an old fire and falling snow.
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Everyone filled up their memory cards in a digital frenzy and then……a lion cub appeared behind mom. The shooting frenzy reignited all over again. Then, minutes later……the 2nd cub appeared, leaving us in total awe at how perfectly posed this family was for us, in such an incredible setting.
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The mountain lion watching was going really well. One day the weather forecast improved a bit. A few of us decided we should sneak in a quick hike into non puma territory in case this was our last chance to hike in dry weather. Mark and I had planned to backpack the entire W at the end of the photo touring. The W is what they call the main hike that visits most of the scenic high points of the park. After getting a taste of Patagonian weather in fall we realized hoping for four days of decent hiking weather in the upcoming week was probably not going to happen. We decided to make a day hike out of the Torres del Paine portion of the W. It was a good call. It rained all the way on the drive to the trailhead then tapered off for the rest of the day as we started hiking up the trail.

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We ran into a seasonal ranger that reminded us that the season was over and everything was closed. She meant the Chileno refugio cabin that is a rest spot for most hikers in the warm season. We had to convince her that we knew what we were doing from a navigation and safety standpoint before she would let us continue without a guide. The trail is very popular for travelers from all over the world in the warm months. In the fading light of fall we hardly saw anyone at all. At the refugio, the volunteer rangers were boarding up the doors.
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The colors of the foliage reminded me of pictures I have seen of Acadia National Park in Maine. There were lots of great fall landscape views with every new turn in the trail. The sky started to actually get blue in some places, something we had not seen in a few days.
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As we approached the view of the Torres, a fox like animal appeared. They are known as culpeos and would approach us but then keep a safe distance.
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The tameness of the culpeos made for some good photo opportunities as the clouds would come and go
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Emerald water colors at the Torres lookout.

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The hike back out turned us around on the trail and gave us some great new vistas.
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We had another potential big set back when both of Marks hiking boot soles delaminated, basically falling apart. He did a MacGyver thing with the shoelaces to keep them together back to the trailhead.

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The next few days were devoted again to finding wildlife.

A Grey Hooded Sierra Finch posed for a portrait.
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The pygmy owls kept showing up in scenic spots.

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The largest land bird in the world, the Andean condor, sometimes flew low.
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This relative of the culpeo, a grey fox, was tearing at a carcass.

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We saw all this other wildlife while searching the park or the neighboring estancias for pumas. One day we were trying to drive east out of the park to see some other animal species when a call came in from the trackers in the field back in the park. A female puma was in estrus, calling out in her puma voice to any males who would listen.
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We knew her scent and catcalls would be a magnet for any male pumas in the area. We raced back towards the park and hiked in a couple of miles to witness some great lion drama. Young males were being draw to the area but then being spurned by the female. Eventually a large tough looking older dark male came over and dominated the scene.

Dark Male showing up on the scene.
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He followed the female up a hill as the only suitable suitor. The other males fell back into a meaningless second place position in the lion mating hierarchy.


No parting gifts for this unscarred younger male that came in tied for second place with the others.

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Our talented trackers refound the dark male and the female two days in a row.

Here she is making her cat call with him deep in the background bushes.



At the end of the wildlife touring we had experienced repeat encounters with pumas that were now familiar to us as individuals. Being allowed into the lives of these individual pumas, even for a short week, created a very special bond. They had allowed us into their presence to observe their daily lives. Not only tolerating us, but dismissing and ignoring us and returning to their wild ways. The pumas and the other wildlife of Patagonia are in a very special environment. It makes one wonder what north american mountain lions wound be like if not encircled by roads and ranchlands, chased up trees by dogs, and harassed and hunted by humans.

As the wildlife touring came to a close, the weather forecasts improved remarkably.
Moonlit sky from Lake Pehoe
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Mark and I geared up to spend the next three nights out on the trail somewhere. The failing boot problem was resolved when Nathan, a fellow photo tour member, graciously offered up his boots to Mark. Nathan was flying back to England and wanted new boots anyway. What a generous offer. The boots fit remarkably well and did not cause any big issues.
We still intended to hike the W, but could now skip the final leg of it since we had day hiked it earlier in the week.

Looking across the night sky to our destination, Los Cuernos and the French Valley.
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It was the end of the tourist season. The catamaran that ferries hikers across the Pehoe lake had stopped running. We would have to add as much as 5 hours of hiking to make up for it. There was also a lot of misinformation about off-season hiking and camping. We went to the main ranger station expecting only to sign a waiver allowing us to hike into the park off season. Instead, we wasted a half of a day while the rangers tried to find us a guide that they said was required as part of the change of seasons. When no guides were available, we left the main office to make a new plan. Evidently the rules had changed during the last week of our stay.

Eventually we got on the trail by driving to another part of the park where the rules were not yet being enforced. We adjusted our hiking plans accordingly. The rangers we ran into never asked us about a guide. They only wanted to inform us that we could not stay at the closed down camps or refugios. Another threat to our Bakentine boys trip had been averted. ;)

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We were fortunate the weather just kept getting better. What precipitation we had was only from localized low forming clouds that produced a wet frozen glaze on everything each night. The wet and muddy trails would be frozen over each day until mid morning. It was well below freezing each night but during the day, as we were hiking , we only needed one or two layers. There was also not much wind to bother us, not even on the high valley lookouts. The days were noticeable short however, so we had to keep moving to avoid hiking by headlamp.

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With the better weather we were getting good sunsets and sunrises.
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Los Cuernos at the entrance to French Valley.
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The French valley area was incredible in the fall. We started the hike early in a frozen mist then ascended above the thin cold cloud.
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Punta Negra in the French Valley
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We had a good sunset from near our camp.
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Early the next morning the low trajectory of the full moon finally hit the Cuernos for a long exposure photo .
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The morning hiking was always across frozen ponds and mud but melted later in the day.
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Caracara feeding on the ground as we hiked out.
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We made it back to the rental car in good weather. On our way out we still had to pick up our luggage at Hosteria Pehoe. We enjoyed passing thru the park one last time.
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We really enjoyed our stay. The Chileans were great folks. I can't wait to return and visit the Fitzroy portion of the park.

Thanks for watching.

Tim V.
 
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slc_dan

Desert Rat-Weekend Warrior
Joined
Jun 7, 2012
Messages
1,646
yeah, holy shit!!

What a visit. I will be there one day myself. The last shot with the rising Lenticular clouds is astounding.

Thanks for sharing!
 

Perry

Formerly Cuberant
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Aug 8, 2016
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What an incredible opportunity!


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
 

Artemus

I walk
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Joined
Jun 25, 2012
Messages
4,268
Fantastic photography Tim! And what a great trip. I am going there. First for wildlife, then for rock towers and then for wildlife. Thanks for sharing!
 

Mike K

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Jul 6, 2012
Messages
789
Amazing, wonderful, beautiful...so jealous! Patagonia has always been on my bucket list. Thanks!
 

Shirt357

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Joined
Jan 24, 2017
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225
Serious when I say your pics just made this a trip that is a must on my list now. Thanks for posting!
 
Joined
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WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!!!:frantic::twothumbs:This is just AMAZING!! Thank you so much for sharing these.
 

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Tim Valentine

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May 24, 2015
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Kullaberg63, I think a few weeks earlier would have been better since the park facilities like the catamaran, would have all been open and some of the other restrictions would not have been enforced. I also think the park is going thru a transition right now. They are enforcing a no off trail policy within the park borders. That means when we saw puma within the park we could not follow it beyond the edges of the road. That is where hiring our particular guides proved invaluable. Many of the pumas could also be seen on neighboring ranch lands where the guides had acquired permission for us to hike into. That is where we had our best encounters.

i plan on returning someday with my wife to hike the Fitzroy area. For that trip I will plan it during the warm season. I think I just got lucky with the good shoulder season weather this time. We could have easily had clouds the entire time with no views of the Torres or worse yet freezing rain.
 
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WasatchWill

Ready For More
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Jul 23, 2013
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1,368
Freaking amazing! Beautiful pictures, and beautiful animals. Thanks for sharing.
 

Vegan.Hiker

I'd hike that
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Jul 5, 2014
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This is surreal. Nat geo worthy photography imo. Thanks!
 

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