Thursday, April 8, 2010

Serrano Glacier - A Slow Motion Avalanche


Today is a day I’ve dreamt of for some time. We will travel south on the python coils of the Serrano River to a hanging glacier of the same name. In the limited vessel of my imagination, I struggle to visualize the titanic forces  of a slow motion avalanche flowing on a millennial timescale. 

We will be transported downriver in yet another zodiac, this one outfitted with cafeteria chairs bolted to the deck plate. 

We receive rescue-orange environment suits for the bone chilling two-hour journey. In our hooded jumpsuits, heads bowed in unison against a stinging rain, we resemble newly penitent souls being ferried across the River Styx. 

We alight at a pier for a quick portage to a waiting zodiac further down river. At the end of the second journey, we begin an hour-long hike to the foot of the Serrrano Glacier so named for the soldier who discovered it in 1950. 

Along the trail we sample Chauda berries. Pea-sized and white, they are slightly sweet and have the crunchy texture of a tiny radish. 

I trundle along behind my roommate Gary whose knee has begun to trouble him. He favors one leg, which results in a pronounced wobble. In his orange suit, grizzled grey beard and red ski cap, he reminds me of a garden gnome.  The image is misleading. A highly talented lawyer, I sense that in a courtroom Gary would be a troll to be reckoned with.

Like me, Gary is searching for meaning in the mythical places of nature. But as he will later admit, his search has more to do with staving off old age than the thrill of adventure. 

Suddenly, the glacier emerges from the forest and I am stunned at what appears to be a day-glo blue meringue of ice and rock spilling into the water below. I never expected a structure so unimaginably powerful to be so fragile as this. 

The glacier has retreated more than 100 meters in the past decade.  It is a disturbing reminder that change is constant, the only variable is its pace. 

Back on the river, we pause briefly to deliver supplies to a local hermit. He waits at the river’s edge where a member of our crew salutes him and scrambles up the bank with a burlap bag full of supplies. He seems to be in his early sixties, though age and appearance differ among inhabitants of harsh lands. This is a man for whom these people seem to care deeply. They know his existence is not easy. He has chosen to fill his days with privation and the company of his horses. He has the courage of his convictions and that matters among his fellow Patagonians. They worry openly about how well he will pass this winter when supplies come less frequently, if at all. 

We return to the river and our prayerful pose in the rain. For me there is an uneasy sense of gradual vanishing, a loss of the rare and wonderful.


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