by Dana De Greff
Winter in Patagonia can be extreme. Temperatures drop to below zero degrees Celsius and the hustle and bustle of tourist season makes way for a quieter, more solitary time. For the people who live and work in Valle Chacabuco, home of the future Patagonia National Park, the winter months bring a different yet equally captivating Patagonia.
“I like to contemplate the silence,” says professor and director of the Valle Chacabuco school, Alejandra Bardavid. “How the landscape changes when it’s dressed in snow. It’s not just the color; it also produces a different set of acoustics. It feels totally distinct.”
And the snow isn’t just pretty to look at—it’s fun to play with. For the children of the workers of Conservacion Patagonica, winter means snowmen and snowball fights and the white hills are ideal for sledding. Some years ago, landscaper Jose Foitzick constructed wooden sleds for the children and the tradition has stuck ever since. Of course, it’s not always possible to be outside, especially in pitch blackness.
“There’s less light, less hours we can work,” says Jaime Ganga of wildlife control. “You have to do things inside, and one of the things I do is work with raw hide.” The fruits of his (and other employees’) labor can be seen in the spring; long winters produce beautiful accessories for horses such as reins, lassos, and stirrups, as well as artful details like braided clasps and buttons.
Another popular way to pass the time is knitting. Chef Maria Velazquez, an employee of the park’s restaurant, is known both for her authentic Chilean cuisine and her chombas (wool sweaters). “During the winter I knit,” says Velazquez. “I make chombas for children, mostly because they require less time to finish.” In the kitchen she adapts her menu for the colder days and nights, preparing hot soups and stews such as carbonada (meat and vegetable soup) and cazuela (soup with lamb, corn, squash and potatoes), and fried foods like the popular potato and bread sopaipillas (quick breads).
Surprisingly enough, the winter season is favorable for land restoration projects. “It’s a great time to transplant coirones because in August and September the earth is less dry,” says Ganga. “It’s the best time to restore the land that was exploited and overgrazed by animals [back when the estancia was a sheep ranch].”
Another project of CP’s that’s best done in winter is puma tracking (paw prints are easier to see in the snow). The process is oftentimes emotional, as described by machine operator Fernando Munoz Bonilla: “The first time you see a puma, it’s like being very cold. Your hair stands on end.” In August/September our puma team travels throughout the park, putting collars on the felines. “Above all else, the collar is to monitor their territory,” says Bonilla. “To see how many pumas there are in total, if they give birth, and the distances they cover.”
Once a puma has been tranquilized and a collar placed around its neck, observations and notes are taken. Bonilla was fortunate enough to see a puma up close in 2011, near Lago Cisne (Swan Lake). “When the puma woke up, I’ll never forget its eyes. That steady look. I took a picture of them.”
It’s moments like those that make living in a future park special. Seeing the changes in landscape, hearing the crunch of ice underneath rain boots, watching a puma leap away, back into the wild.