“I will always look at these precious weeks as those that allowed us to see why the name Patagonia so powerfully sings the call of wild in the hearts of even the most sedentary persons.” -Max Krieger, Round River Patagonia student, March 2012
On April 11th, the first crew of students from Round River Conservation Studies’ new Patagonia program finished their three-month semester program at the Patagonia National Park project. Camping out the whole time, the students gained university credit for their field ecology studies, conducted in the heart of Chilean Patagonia. According to their mission statement, Round River is dedicated to conservation strategies that preserve and restore wild places – and what better location to put these into practice than Valle Chacabuco, heart of the future Patagonia National Park?
The primary research goal of this semester was to conduct an inventory of the grassland vegetation present in the valley. By splitting the valley into ten different zones, the students carried out a rigorous survey of the grassland vegetation and observed changes in species composition across Valle Chacabuco. Along the way they inevitably experienced an assortment of unforeseen challenges, or what they like to call “fortuitous encounters with adventure.” Fording rivers, fuel shortages, and braving the fierce Patagonian winds were just some of the obstacles that the students faced to provide this valuable research.
Given the ambitious scale of their project and tedious nature of the work, sometimes it was easy to forget about the majestic beauty of the surrounding landscape. But, according to student Kelly Davis, “the riverbed provides a safe chance to look up. With swift force, I am reminded of the vastness of this place, mountains beyond mountains indeed. I wade into the icy current. The water here is fresh enough to drink, dripping from glaciers and snow-capped peaks high above. North of the river we find what we have been looking for: Grassland.” Well grassland they did find, and by mid-March, the group had distinguished over eighty different species!
In the constant act of balancing school work with field work and play, the Round River crew made various side trips to further explore the wonders of Valle Chacabuco. Highlights of their time in the park include backpacking up the Aviles Valley, huemul tracking with Daniel, and hiking to Lago Gutierrez. Towards the end of their stay, perhaps in return for months of hard work, they got the ultimate reward – a brief but coveted sighting of the elusive puma!
In addition to field work and academic studies, the students also kept a comprehensive blog of their experience in Valle Chacabuco. Here, their attention to detail in the landscape is impressive, and their words are at once both descriptive and inquisitive. Writing of their journey up the Aviles Valley, Eli Fox recalls the grandeur of one prominent mountain peak, Cerro Pintura. “It instills curiosity and wonder at how every shade of red and orange are wrapped around its cliffs like a cascading scarf.” During another day hike, Tom Murphy stops to consider the previous inhabitants of the valley. “Sitting in the shade of the overhang, I wonder what that landscape may have looked like through their eyes and whether they would even recognize the landscape as it appears today. We sat in silence for a long time, letting this scene embed itself in our minds where it will surely remain for many years to come.”
Involving the younger generations in conservation is perhaps one of the most vital tasks in the uphill battle of land restoration and preservation. The passion that these Round River students share for the environment and the Patagonian landscape is contagious, and it is precisely this passion and enthusiasm that gives us hope for the generations to come. These are the people who represent the future of conservation, and we eagerly look forward to working with them again this upcoming September.
To learn more about Round River’s first semester in Valle Chacabuco, follow the link below: http://www.roundriver.org/index.php/rr-blog/categories/listings/student-program-patagonia-spring-2012