This week on Dispatches from the Field, we continue to explore the theme of remote and isolated fieldwork with a guest post by Carmen Lishman, who contributes a somewhat chilling tale of her adventures in the wilderness of Patagonia. To learn more about Carmen, make sure to read her bio at the end of the post.
I could not stop shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was the mounting fear or the relentless icy blast of the Patagonian wind that tumbled off the Andes far to the west of me and never stopped. It roared in my ears, burned my face, and tore at my every step. I was lost, utterly lost; the sun was gone and with it had gone the meager warmth of the Austral spring as the plunging temperature froze me to the core. I was lost with no camping gear, no water, no food.
It wasn’t the first time in recent memory I had been vibrating with fear. Two days previously, I was sitting in the living room of my tiny apartment in the small Argentinean city of Rio Gallegos. It was not cold, dark, or windy but I could hardly hold the phone as I worked up the courage to call the owner of the ranch where I was now so utterly lost. I was calling to ask him if I could search for Chorlitos on the lakes on his ‘estancia’, or ranch. Chorlito is Spanish for ‘plover,’ a shorebird that nests on the shores of inland lakes of southern Patagonia, in Argentina & Chile. I was shaking because I had never before requested landowner permission in Spanish over the phone and I was anxious about not understanding his response, or not being able to answer his questions in my new language.
The phone was ringing in my ear, and I heard him answer as I held my breath. Here it goes, I thought: “Hola, soy Carmen. Soy Bióloga Canadiense y estoy en Santa Cruz estudiando una ave que se llama Chorlito Ceniciento”. Translation: I’m Carmen, a Canadian biologist who is in this province studying a bird called the Magellanic Plover. He responded that he was willing to have me study his lakes, but didn’t feel comfortable giving me a key to the gates. He wanted to take me himself. I didn’t know what to say. I had not expected this conditional response. I normally would park on the side of the road, hop a fence and walk to the lakes. I tried to explain this to him, but he told me it was much too far. I had to be able to drive in, and he would take me. Ummm… OK. I couldn’t formulate a response, another idea or an alternative plan right there on the spot, so I agreed. “Great!” he said, “I’ll pick you up at 5:30 am on Tuesday.”
Thousands of scenarios raced through my mind. What if he was a bad guy?! What if he had plans to take me to his farm and chop me up and feed me to the Pumas?! But I re-grouped, and looked again at the satellite images of the area. The lakes were very far from the road, he was right about that. I had also been told by all my connections in the area that this Estancionero, or ranch-owner, was a very nice man. I told myself he was just genuinely interested in helping me get to those lakes as safely as possible. So I prepared for my 5:30 am pick-up on Tuesday and pushed the doubts from my mind.
Tuesday arrived. I got in his truck and thanked him for coming out of his way to get me. As we departed Rio Gallegos along the lonely highway that follows the river, I explained a bit about my project. “The Magellanic Plover is a rare bird endemic to the southernmost areas of Patagonia. Nobody knows much about the birds, especially about their breeding biology. I am doing a basic natural history study: finding nests, observing birds’ habits, taking measures of their habitat, following their reproductive season and documenting as much as I can.”
We entered the gate from the highway and approached the top of a hill looking down on the 3 beautiful lakes. He turned to me and said, “Here’s the plan: I’ll drop you off here. At 4:30 pm I am going to be driving on a road over there” – he signaled broadly with his hands towards the west. “When you are finished at the lakes,” he continued, “just walk west until you find the road. Make sure you’re there at 4:30.”
“Okay, sounds good” I said. In retrospect, it’s possible that a thought or two popped into my head about the feasibility of this plan – but I was so excited to get into the field and start my day, I didn’t really think it through.
My normal routine for searching new lakes was to use coordinates from satellite images. I would drive as close as I could on the highway, park, hop a fence to walk towards the lake using the GPS. I would always, always, take a waypoint where I had parked my car so I could find my way back to the car at the end of the day. That’s why this plan was different. I would not be returning to the same spot. However, I figured that if I walked in one direction for long enough, I’d bound to hit a linear feature like a road.
I headed down to the lakes and had a wonderful field day. Within a couple hours I had found six breeding pairs of plovers. A goldmine, really, as this species usually nests in such low densities.
I hunkered down at mid-day to observe a pair of birds. Getting comfortable between some rocks, I dozed off, then woke suddenly. Before I could realize where I was, I felt a pebble hit my head. I woke up and spun around to see a Gaucho (cowboy) mounted on his horse, staring at me in disbelief. I don’t know who was more surprised. I doubt he finds foreign white girls taking a nap on the gravel of his ranch very often. I quickly introduced myself and explained what I was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I found a nest this morning, from an ostrich.” I raised my eyebrows as he presented me with a very large egg, which he insisted on me keeping as a gift.
He asked how I was planning to get back. “I’m going to meet el señor on the road over there at 4:30,” I responded.
His jaw dropped. “Really?! It’s very far! Can I take you on my horse?”
I politely declined and explained that I have no problem walking long distances, that I would get there ok and that I had more work to do before I started in that direction, since it was only 1:30 pm. He encouraged me to start walking soon. (Sidenote: If a seasoned gaucho of the Patagonian Steppe ever tells you that something is far away, take it as gospel. They know what distance means, living in a giant ocean of grassland.) He was right. It was far. I later looked on Google Maps and, to my horror, the drop-off point and the closest point on the road were 22 km apart as the crow flies. Add my traipsing around the lakes, and the expectation was for me to walk over 35 km that day.
I finally finished up my field work at 3:30 and began walking west, as I had been instructed. I walked for a long time. I came across a number of little roads: some small two-tracks, and then a couple of dirt roads. I started to doubt myself. What size of road did he mean? Had I passed the road already? Or was it farther ahead? I tried to use my binoculars to see ahead. It was no use. I kept walking, but then I started to think…this is way too far… I must have passed the road. I back-tracked to a fair-sized road. Then I walked west again. I just kept walking.
4:30 went by, then 5, then 6, then 7pm. There was darkness on all fronts and I began to shiver. I climbed to the top of the highest point and used my spotting scope to try and find the rancher’s headlights. Nothing – nothing but utter lonely darkness. How stupidly unprepared I was. I had no water left, no food, and my clothing was way too light. I will definitely freeze out here overnight. My only plan- I would have to find a sheep and hug it all night. In the morning I would walk directly south until I got to the highway and hitchhike back into town. Okay…find a sheep, find a sheep. I took one more look in my spotting scope…and saw a speck of light on the horizon! I ran towards it with every bit of energy I had.
When I caught up to the truck, I was crying. But as it turned out, so was the estancionero! He snapped “WHERE WERE YOU?!” and then his face softened, as he said, “I was so scared I’d lost you!” I got in the truck and we both just vibrated in silence as we bumped our way back into the city.
Carmen Lishman (B.Sc., M.Sc. (Biology), M.Sc. (SLP-C)) is a Conservation Biologist, Speech-Language Pathologist and engaged global citizen. Raised in rural Ontario, Carmen studied biology at Dalhousie University, where her research interests in shorebirds blossomed and led to a Master’s thesis on a rare and enigmatic bird in Patagonia, Argentina. In 2008, Carmen became involved in efforts to protect sea turtles and scarlet macaws from illegal harvesting in Nicaragua. A deeper look at the socio-economic struggles facing the poachers forced her to shift the focus of her efforts to include wildlife and people. She co-founded Purple Hill Humanitarians, a grass roots group that seeks to improve conditions for rural families in Nicaragua. Carmen now divides her time between working as a Speech Therapist, working as an associate with the International Conservation Fund of Canada, and volunteering in the planning and implementation of projects related to conservation, education and health care in Nicaragua.