Visiting Patagonia and its Pumas: Told by Jim Williams, a Puma Expert from Montana

Jim Tracking Pumas on Horseback Photo: Jim Williams

Jim Tracking Pumas on Horseback
Photo: Jim Williams

In December, Conservacion Patagonica and Conservation Director Cristian Saucedo hosted Jim Williams, wildlife program manager for Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, for an educational exchange.  The visit culminated in a highly productive workshop on puma and huemul conservation in Coyhaique, sponsored by SAG (Chile’s wildlife and agricultural authority) and attended by dozens of regional officials.

Montana is very similar to Patagonia in geography and natural history; both places are renown for native large carnivores and rural mountainous, agricultural communities. Jim joined CP as a volunteer conservation ambassador for Patagonia Inc. in Ventura, California.  Patagonia’s VP of Environmental Affairs (and Conservacion Patagonica Board member) Rick Ridgeway had visited Jim in Montana, trapping grizzly bears and wolves.  Rick immediately noticed the similarities between the two opposite ends of the world and brought Cristian up to Montana on a scientific exchange and job sharing experience.  In December, Cristian got the chance to show Jim the new Patagonia Park project and discuss parallels, lessons, and opportunities.

Jim’s visit included adventures in the field and “indoor work.”  As a program manager back in Montana, Jim has spent the better part of his career working with both the private and public sector on major conservation projects.  Cristian and Jim both gave multiple scientific presentations at the workshop in Coyhaique to a host of government agencies, ranchers, ranching cooperatives and environmental advocates.   Even the Governor of the Aysen Region and her staff participated.  The presentations ranged from endangered huemul deer conservation, puma conflicts and management, active wildlife population management and wildlife aerial survey and inventory.  They were productive meetings and workshops, with many new ideas discussed.

Cristian brought Jim along to help out with a wide array of Park conservation projects.  Jim participated in the puma monitoring program, classified guanacos, assisted with Andean condor rehabilitation and education, radio tracked the Park’s endangered huemul deer, spent time with other Park professional staff, and met with local community members.  Jim even had time to bag Cerro Tamanguito, a prominent local peak.

Cristian and Jim
Photo: Jim Williams

To top things off, Cristian was able to have Jim work with the talented Park rangers that were former gauchos on the ranch, years ago.  It didn’t take long for Jim to realize the value of the local knowledge that these Park rangers had and how valuable they will be to the Park when it opens.  After several days of tracking pumas in the mountains on horseback with the former gauchos Jim could barely walk, much less sit down but he, along with Cristian were able to cover immense areas surveying wildlife and locating pumas.  These Patagonia mountain rangers are unique and have an intimate knowledge of the local landscape

Here are some notes from Jim’s trip journal, long but well worth the read!

Day 1: To the End of the World

We made it.  Scott [current PNP volunteer, also from Montana] and I boarded the jet in Kalispell in an ice fog. The jet was late to Minnesota so we had to sprint to catch our flight to Atlanta.  From Atlanta we soared over the Americas; it began to get bumpy over Panama and stayed bumpy over the tropics.   When morning arrived, the light was shining on the earth again and all of the landscape below looked arid and warm.  We were at the end of northern Chile’s Atacama region.  In Santiago, Scott and I just high-fived, as we made it most of the way.

Once we were air born airborne again, the landscape began to change. It became green and we observed large river systems draining towards the Pacific Ocean.  Eventually, just before landing in Puerto Montt, the view below looked like the Flathead Valley in Montana, small agricultural
farms in a lush green, pastoral valley. What we were not prepared for, however, was the last
flight to Balmaceda.

Immediately upon lifting off from Puerto Montt, massive snow-covered volcanoes began to appear.  My imagination took over and I wondered if dinosaurs were walking below these primeval looking cones.   As we flew even further south, over the oceanic bay near the island of Chiloe, the roads began to disappear below us.  Then we saw it: Pumalin Park and Corcovado, the volcanic peak featured in the movie 180 Degrees South. Now we could not stray from the plane’s windows.

Every minute now provided new, wilder looking landforms and wild rivers.  Patagonia! It’s really a place in your soul, just like Montana on the other end of the world.  The mountains then began showing their glaciers.  Some of the country reminded us of Glacier back home, while other high Andean mountains made Glacier look like foothills.

As we made the final descent into the valley that cradles the town of Coyhaique, we could see Patagonia steppe habitats that leaked over from Argentina to our left and immense glaciated peaks to the south, and the Pacific waters fading away to our right.  The wind hit as we were landing, as it always does in Patagonia, and we jostled our way down to the remote outpost of Balmaceda.  We scooped up our luggage, totally shocked that it had made it all the way given our short
connections in the states, and walked in the crowd.  There, Cristian Saucedo stood, still smiling.  What a good feeling it is to have friend meet you when you are this far from home.

The drive from Balmaceda to Cristian’s home in Coyhaique was just as beautiful as the last hour on the plane.  We had flown from winter in the north to the austral summer in Chile.  Snowfields were still visible on the green slopes up high and a warm wind was blowing and the sun was shining.  We were still running on adrenalin.  Cristian briefed us on the plan.  We would go to his house tonight, eat, rest and then journey south to Patagonia Park in the morning on the Carretera
Austral. As I was falling asleep I could not get the landscape out of my mind.  I have always defined my own being with landscapes.  Like Montana, I felt comfortable here.

Lito, Jim and Douglas
Photo: Jim Williams

Day 2: Journey to Patagonia Park and Dinner with Doug and Kris

Good sleep.  We woke up to eggs, bread, jam and good coffee para Cristian.  We met Veronica, the social scientist working with CP; she showed us her cool new Andean condor brochure.   We then picked up Yumi, a Japanese journalist who was to interview Kris Tompkins the next day.  All 5 of us then headed south from Coyhaique on the Carretera Austral (“Southern Highway”).  We saw ibis, chimango, austral dove, austral harrier, and cara caras.  We also saw patos and ganchos (geese).

The road was rough, like all of Patagonia, but the scenery made up for it. First, we drove over a divide through a huemul sanctuary called Cerro Castillo (castle peaks).   We even had some snow
flakes but not many.  We dropped into a small town and drove from lake to lake and valley to valley on the small gravel highway.  I felt truly back in Patagonia when we began to share mate’.  We had bread for lunch as all of the empanada stands were closed. Eventually we were at Lago General Carrera, a huge Patagonia lake that is the source of the Rio Baker.  We then followed the endangered Rio Baker all the way to Valle Chacabuco and the new Park.  We immediately
began seeing wild guanacos.

Cristian drove straight to the Butler House, the park’s guesthouse, perched on a hill of nineo bushes above the main headquarters.  There I met Doug and Kris.  I had been a bit nervous, as these two are some of my conservation heroes, having protected over 2 million acres of habitat in Chile and Argentina.  They were super friendly.   The home was warm, yet impressive and the best part is that is decorated with photos and artwork of pumas.   I was in puma heaven in Patagonia with two legendary conservation heroes.

Doug and Kris were amazing.  We sat down to puma speak and this led immediately to photos on Doug’s MacBook.  I was captivated all night by Doug’s stories and photos.  Since he is a pilot, he has the most spectacular landscape photos in all of Patagonia.   Doug began sharing photos that he took from his own airplane while flying.

Day 3: Breakfast with Doug and Condor Project

It was hard to sleep last night.  The stars, right out the window, visible from bed, were illuminating the austral nighttime sky.  Orion was upside down.  We rose early—Kris had to leave to be
interviewed by Yumi for a Japanese periodical.

Soon the smell of peppered eggs wafted our way, as Doug was preparing breakfast.  We jumped right back into Doug’s MacBook and began a tour of Pumalin Park.  Doug said that he and Yvon [Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, Inc.] had met at a local climbing area in upstate New York in the late 1950’s.  They have been friends ever since.  Doug told me that he created the North Face Company and that he made packs, tents etc. and at the same time Yvonne was making climbing hardware.  Doug also sold Yvon’s climbing goods at trade shows.

After breakfast Cristian picked us up to visit the Andean Condor project.  We drove in a white SUV east towards Argentina.  It was literally a tour de guanacos.  They were on every hill and around every bend.  There were also brand new chulengos.  There were larger herds than I observed in Argentina.  Cristian was very proud.  Of course, I made him stop many times to photograph them and I even tried my go-pro.

We stopped at a large rockslide and got out to climb up the talus, nineo and large boulders.  When we were about half way up Cristian said, “there they are!”  Vizcacha!  They were the cutest little animals, rivaling pikas for looks.  They were the size of a rabbit, with ears not as long, and they have a long bushy tail.  They were reddish cream colored and quite inquisitive.  The females had their single young with them on the rocks, soaking up the morning sun in the windy Patagonia spring.  We were all mesmerized for a while.  We clamored around the rocks and took photos, soaked in the view and then climbed back down to our car.

Driving further east in the Park, the landscape began to get more dramatic in scale.  The Jeinimeni Range to the south was now showing its snowfields and glaciers in amongst the fast moving clouds.  Then we stopped and Cristian got out and pointed to the sky, proclaiming “condor Andino!” The condors were circling directly above us, up high.  The males can have a wingspan of up to 10 feet. We then made a turn to the right and drove a bumpy, steep old jeep trail.  We rounded a corner and stopped.  We began to hike to a temporary shed perched on the hillside.  We then met the condor ranger and all sneaked up to the east facing, covered wall. You barely could see large black shapes spreading wings from far away in the enclosure.

There was a hole about 3 inches in diameter cut into the plywood for viewing.  We all spied on the young birds.  They were busy hopping up on to a long wooden rod, spreading their wings, catching the western winds, and then landing back on the wooden rod.  They were practicing.  What was amazing was that wild condors were circling far above, eyeing these new condors in their neighborhood, clearly interested.  Cristian said that is important as they will have to accept them into their social group (known as a scarcity of condors).  These mammoth birds were scheduled to be released back into the wild in a couple of weeks, fitted with GPS transmitters to see if they join the local condors and to track their seasonal migrations and movements.  Andean condors can fly to Argentina and back in a matter of minutes.  They were originally found on the side of the road as young birds and brought to a rehabilitation facility in Santiago.  Now, working with the local wildlife agency (SAG), Conservacion Patagonica is releasing them back into the windy Patagonia wild.  The public will also participate, as will local students from Cochrane.

We all ate dinner in the cafeteria that would soon be converted to a restaurant.  All of the Park employees and staff ate as a group as they had time.  Rice and beans, chicken, salsa and carrot cake.   Washed down with lemon teas this capped off a wonderful day.  Once full, we all made our way over to the lodge to listen to Cristian’s presentation.  The new crop of volunteers arrived and they were gathered to listen to Cristian introduce them to the Park’s ecosystems and wildlife.   He was like a college professor and had everyone in a trance immediately.  It was a fantastic display of taking complex information and making it interesting to all.

Jim Photo: Jim Williams

Jim
Photo: Jim Williams

Day 4 Camp Hike and Volunteer Trip

I began my day eating a breakfast of granola with Doug and Kris. From there I checked in; Cristian had a beautiful trail map waiting for me.  I walked back to the end of the compound and found a greenhouse.  The girls inside were super friendly and one of them, Rachel, lived in Whitefish, MT.  It’s a small world.  After a brief chat, I began my walk back to the new campground.  The sendero began in a lush riparian, area composed of calafate bushes and lenga trees.  As soon as I took a few breaths, I heard the tero’s scream in the air.  They were alerting everyone around to my presence.  I rounded a bend in the stream, all the while walking below large break land bluffs to my right, and here came a group of guanacos.  They all ambled by right in front of me as if I was not there.  I love guanacos, truly Patagonia’s iconic species.  They are what mountain goats are to Glacier Park.   The trail meandered for about a mile and a half and then began to climb up the bluff, go back down and eventually cross the stream into a large new Park campground.  What a place to camp.  I made my way back to the office to meet up with Paula and the volunteers to ride with them through the Valle Chacabuco, all the way through the Park to the Argentina border.

Scott and the other volunteers were all fired up to see the long, now protected, valley.  As we rounded the bend, we observed vizcachas, then rolled slowly over a hill down to a lagoon surrounded by guanacos.  Brand new chulengitos, relinchos and females were everywhere.  We passed where the condors are being prepared for release, and drove upriver to another new campground at the confluence of Rio Aviles and the Chacabuco River.  Thousands of acres of unexplored Andean Mountain country unfolded before our eyes.   After we all tried this yellow and gold mushroom that attached to riparian trees, we loaded up and kept moving towards Argentina.

My favorite was the aptly named Valley of Guanacos.  I could not get enough of those bizarre social camels.  Then Cerro Lucas and Cerro Principio came in to view with a halo of windy clouds circling between them.  Eventually we ended up at the Chilean Police Camp and checked in.  Once the gate was opened we began to look, to no avail, for ñandus or Darwin’s Rheas.   We did, however, locate a zorillo, or Austral Patagonia Skunk.  They hop up and down on their front legs instead of spraying you with tail up.  Behind the zorillo there was a lagoon with flamingos feeding on the shoreline.

As we got to the border, the skyline became a series of giant open linear ridges to the north and views of San Lorenzo to the south.  We all set a foot into Argentina.  Once done, we returned to the Chilean military sheep compound, where the volunteers were treated to a shearing complete with military gauchos.  Most of Patagonia still smells like sheep.  I could distinctly smell the animals as hundreds surrounded us.  I was cold, however, and we soon began the long drive home.  Dinner was an amazing Brazilian shrimp dish made by Paula, Cristian’s wife and the manager of the park’s volunteer program. Veronica, Paula, Cristian and I all laughed, ate and had Chilean Carmenere wine from Paula’s hometown, Talca.

Delmira's Puesto Photo: Jim Williams

Delmira’s Puesto
Photo: Jim Williams

Day 5 Meeting the Puma Gaucho Arcilio

I met Arcilio today.   I have travelled a long way to the end of the earth to meet this world-famous puma tracker.  Toward the end of the day, Cristian and I drove about an hour to the remote puesto along the Chacabuco River.  From here, you can look towards the Pacific and see the Northern Patagonian Ice Cap clearly.  It is breathtaking.  The glaciers are immense.  Not much lives on the ice cap.  It’s a bit of the Pleistocene and Antarctica still surviving in Patagonia.  The weather in Patagonia comes from Antarctica and this ice cap.  Wind and water comes from the Pacific, rise over and add to the mammoth glaciers, and then blow down to the Chacabuco Valley.

Arcilio lives in this modest field camp, as most gauchos do: simply, and alone.  He greeted us immediately.  He is about 5 foot 6 but tough in stature and weathered, as you would expect.  He had the stoic look of a stern mountain wise woodsman and horseman.  Arcilio learned to hunt pumas from his father, who was born in the shadows of the lofty Andean Peak of San Lorenzo, which is now part of Perito Moreno National Park on the Argentina side of the border, thanks to Doug and Kris.

The dramatic east face Cerro San Lorenzo appears unclimbable, but somebody will try and succeed, eventually.  It is a dangerous mountain.  It is loaded with huge ice seracs that collapse every day and even through the night.  Cristian, Paula, Kris and Doug once camped below the peak and were serenaded by icefalls all night long.  Arcilio’s father once tracked and killed a puma below Cerro San Lorenzo with a friend.  The two leoneros camp had the puma on a stick, above the fire, gaucho style.  They ate and survived on the puma for days.  Arcilio says pumas taste like chancho, or pork.  The ribs are the best.  Arcilio learned to hunt and track pumas from his father.  As a child, Arcilio and his father once tracked a puma deep into the Andes Mountains; once they caught up with their quarry, a fierce blizzard hit.  They were forced into survival mode, eating the puma for several days.  Arcilio was 14 years old then.  That was his introduction to puma tracking and hunting.

These days Arcilio hunts for conservation and science.  Cristian immediately recognized his talents and former stature, locally, as the leonero for the property before it became a park.  The Chacabuco leonero.  He also knew his way around these grand valleys and mountains.  “Mate,” Arcilio nodded and gestured firmly as he handed me the gourd.  I savored very sip as I sat there sharing mate with one of Patagonia’s most famous puma trackers and my good friend Cristian in a remote field camp. Four walls, a wooden stove, a small living room, a small bedroom and a bano.  It reminded me of a sheepherders cabin in Montana.  I filmed Arcilio as he told me about a female puma, or leona, who once kept fighting and biting the perros leoneros.  Paula even had to stitch the ears back on to the dogs following one encounter with this fierce female puma.

Arcilio also shared a story about cornering a very large puma in a cave up high.  After many tries to take the puma, he gave up and closed the cave with rocks leaving only a small opening in which he set a snare.  After 3 days the puma finally left the cave and Arcilio had his puma. I was in a trance.  The magic of the place has just continued to grip me.  As we drove back through the flats, looking for hairy armadillos, the sun began to paint Patagonia’s sky again.   Sunset illuminates the Jenimeni Mountains to the north and east beyond description.  Herds of grazing guanacos and a wandering red and gray culpeo fox topped off this wonderful day.  It transitioned from the blue hour to darkness.

Day 6: Patagonia Puma Tracking

I am sore.  In the knees and elsewhere, after over 20 mile of horseback in the mountains, tracking pumas, Patagonia style.  Early this morning Cristian and I drove to the Chacabuco River, about 10 miles towards Argentina.  It was here that we met Delmiro and Arcilio. They had the horses ready to saddle right by the large braided river.  The saddles were Patagonia gaucho-style, quite comfortable.

We all climbed out of the river bottom and gained elevation steadily for about 3 miles. It was right out of a Patagonia scene that has probably been played out over a thousand years.  We rode through chortling and whinnying herds of guanacos. Snow-capped peaks with prancing and jumping guanacos in the steppe can really stir ones imagination.  It was simply breathtaking.

We then encountered some real steep, but still, open hillsides.  The ranger/gauchos led us straight up the mountain.  These horses really saved calories and I could see immediately why they were so important.  You have to cover a lot of country to find pumas here. Every few minutes I was twisting my head around to take in the mountain views.  The sun was coming from Argentina and shining right on the northern Patagonia Ice Cap to the west.  I could not take my eyes off the glaciers.

We kept ascending, one basin at a time.  We rode by an old puesto up high and climbed some really steep forested slopes to the highest point so we could check for radio collar signals.  Austral parakeets, austral oystercatchers and best of all, a redheaded Magellanic woodpecker serenaded us.  As we crested the last high rocky point, an even grander view presented itself.  We were now looking south, into a giant canyon and valley, and directly at the imposing snow covered Cerro San Lorenzo.  Arcilio smiled as he pointed the massif out to me from the mountaintop.  The radioed male puma in this area is aptly named Lorenzo.  Once we go the gear out and scanning the channels, we heard a puma but it was not Lorenzo.  It was a female that Cristian wanted to switch collars on, but it was a long way to the southwest, towards Cerro Tamango and Cerro Tamanguito.  We all shared some chocolates and snapped photos of the view and then mounted up again.

The trek to the female puma would take all afternoon and early evening.  We went up and down canyons and through old growth beech forests.  When we reached a shaded canyon of lenga, the gauchos began to unsaddle.  It was break time, or siesta.  We all laid around in the shade and shared bread, tortas fritas, salami, tuna and nuts. Daniel used a machete to cut the bread.  We rested for about 30 minutes before we remounted to proceed on towards Tamanguito.  These park ranger horses were well trained and invaluable in this wild country.

Down, down and down we went, slipping to the front of our saddles.  When we were on a lower ridge, we heard a bay and looked back to see Arcilio’s hound in hot pursuit of 2 guanacos.  The guanacos probably jumped out of the brush right in front of the hound, and he could not resist. Arcilio was livid.  He called and called, but the wind carried his voice away.  After about 15 minutes, we could all see the dog running back down the mountain where he disappeared from view.  He made it all the way back. Arcilio was waiting for him, scolding him like a child.

Once we reached the base of Tamanguito, we located the signal of the female puma.  It was too late, however, to begin the 2- hour climb to Tamanguito.  Cristian made the call to disband and start again in the morning, now that we located the puma.  Daniel waved to us all and took off to his puesto.  We then turned north and made the long trip to the Park Headquarters.  When we finally reached the barn, I could barely dismount.  I was sore and tired but very satisfied.  What an experience.  Tomorrow we begin again, if I can sit in a saddle again.

Patagonia Puma Photo: Jim Williams

Patagonia Puma
Photo: Jim Williams

Day 6 – Puma Capture

Today was the most incredible puma capture that I taken part in.  It all began with Arcilio, Delmiro and Cristian.  The horses were ready early today, tied up to the headquarters trees at the corrals. Little did I know how steep the terrain would be today and how crucial it was for the horse to find sure footing in these Patagonian Andes.  We knew the female was near Tamanguito, so we headed east and then south up the trails to the east-facing slope of Tamanguito.  Then Arcilio got the signal.  She was not up high, but rather down in the valley bottom on a swampy mix of calafate, lenga and nirre in an impenetrable, thorny tangle.  As we were riding down the old road, Arcilio stopped his horse, turned around and gestured at the ground.  Puma he said pointing at a barely visible pugmark in the sand. It was a puma track.  We decided to circle around the forested thicket/wetland and relocate the signal and see if the puma was within the wetland complex.

We eased the horses around the bottom and climbed a rise just opposite from where we began.   Daniel was getting a strong signal from just below us.  She indeed was in the wet bottom, probably on a fresh guanaco kill.  Arcilio released the dogs once both of them were lined out.  At first, we heard only the wind.  Then—puma music.  The dogs lit up—we could hear them baying and moving further away, far down below in the brushlands.  As Cristian and I sat on our horses, I noticed movement on the open hillside and yelled “puma!”    A puma was darting up the mountain, stopped briefly, turned around and looked back towards the dogs below, then took off uphill.

Cristian and I watched as the puma scampered up the open mountain and into a higher canyon of lenga trees.  Then we saw the hounds trailing behind, noses on the ground.   This made the rangers take off on their horses, deftly led by Arcilio.  He rode at a fast trot, eyeing the terrain and dogs ahead.  We followed.  Soon we were climbing straight up the mountainside.  The horses picked up and moved faster at the sound of the baying hounds.  They were well trained—in fact, they do this most in winter, with crampons specially designed here for the horseshoes to gain traction on mountain snow.  Crampons on horses to chase pumas, only in Patagonia.

We stopped at a canyon ridge and pulled out the antenna.  Sure enough, we could hear the puma’s collar up-canyon.  The dogs lit up again.  The chase was on this time for good.  In about 5 minutes, Daniel was waving his arms from his horse and pointing to the condor cliffs above.  Up we went.  When we reached some really steep, cliff country, we dismounted and began to lead the horses up.  A fall would have been dangerous.  We had been ducking branches, riding under trees, and through brush.  I just hung on for life.  Pretty soon we caught up to the baying dogs.  Then, there she was, in a cave like crack in the condor cliffs, spitting and growling at the hounds.  A Patagonia puma in the flesh.  I have waited a lifetime to see one.   She was beautiful, tawny gray and full of fire in her eyes.

It did not take long for Cristian to load the dart gun and fire a perfect shot to the front shoulder.  The puma immediately jumped up the rock crevasse, came back down and then jumped towards Cristian.  Cristian hit the dirt as she jumped off his side with her front paws and came straight at me.  I waved my arms and she veered to the cliffs and ambled by quickly.  We were all full of adrenalin.  Then she went down, tranquilized.  Scenes like this have played out for years on the puma-monitoring program at the new Park.  The value of Cristian’s and CP’s puma monitoring program would reveal itself later in the week at a puma workshop in Coyhaique.  Knowledge is power: Cristian definitely had the data and information about local pumas, and his techniques are state of the art.  This is so critical for local information and education efforts.  Pumas will definitely be a charismatic, keystone species for the new Park.  Visitors will treasure the fact that pumas will call the Park home again.

On the Summit of Tamanguito Photo: Jim Williams

On the Summit of Tamanguito
Photo: Jim Williams

Day 7 – Cerro Tamanguito

I began the day with a short meeting with Nadine, the executive director of Conservacion Patagonica.   Nadine is a Harvard graduate and travels back and forth between San Francisco and Valle Chacabuco while helping Kris Tompkins run the land trust.  She is high energy, beautiful and speaks perfect Spanish.  CP is in good hands.  I then loaded my pack up and headed out for an ascent of Mount Tamanguito by foot.

The ascent was reminiscent of many Glacier climbs.  4,000 feet straight up in 5 miles.  The final summit pitch was a mild class 3 scramble.  The difference is that here is no search and rescue here in Patagonia, only yourself. Cristian told me to really pay attention the weather over the ice cap to the west.  If it gets dark get down fast as Patagonia storms rip in from the Pacific fast and you do not want to be on a cumbre (summit) when they hit.   I was quite winded at the last pitch but negotiated the rocky ledges safely, and soon I was amongst 2 cairns.  The views were amazing in all directions.  I could see Cerro San Valentine, the highest summit in Patagonia on the northern edge of the ice cap, making its own weather.   I spent along time in the freezing cold wind and temperatures soaking in the summit.  The clouds became dark over the ice cap so I heeded Cristian’s advice and scrambled down to the lagoons quickly.  I ate lunch overlooking a green colored alpine lake.  The whole trip took all day but I was tired in a satisfied manner upon my return to the headquarters compound on tired feet.  I had climbed a named Patagonia peak.

Day 8 – Huemul Deer and Daniel the Gaucho

Cristian picked me up early and we headed towards Daniel’s puesto in the wet, cold, beech forests that are home to the rare huemul deer.  The road was quite rough—two-track, rutted and muddy.  When we arrived at Daniel’s puesto, I could hear Spanish music flowing out of the windows.  It was like traveling back in time in Patagonia. The gaucho culture is still celebrated here. Daniel was busy making us a lunch of vegetable tortillas, fried eggs and peas.  We dined to Spanish guitar music in this small, tidy cabin.

Daniel stepped outside to check on a radio frequency from a resident huemul deer female; his grin became evident as he looked our way.  She is just above the puesto on the side of the mountain.  I could here the radio signal beeping from my seat at the table.  We all finished lunch and followed Daniel up the mountain.  The huemuls know Daniel: his mannerisms, his smell and what he looks like.  He has literally been living with them for over 7 years.  He knows their trails, their day beds and their antler structure.  For females and fawns, he memorizes their individual faces and colorization.  Amazing.

We climbed higher and higher.  It felt like a cool, moist temperate rain forest to me.  We struggled our way through thorny Calafate bushes and downed lenga trees within the old growth. Then the signal became very strong and Daniel said stop, huemul deer as he smiled and pointed. We were now watching a living ghost.  They are similar to a mule deer in Montana, kind of.  They are very wary but do not run.  They are stocky with shorter legs.  They are brown with long ears.  As I approach her ears left and she raises her head but instead of running she just stands.  I feel very fortunate to have observed this national deer species of Chile.

We return to back to Park headquarters with Daniel. To my delight, I have two new roommates in the Butler House.  Lito Tejada-Flores and his wife Linde Waidhofer.   Lito filmed Doug and Yvon on the legendary trip to Mt. Fitzroy in 1968.  I have his movie, Mountain of Storms.  I am in the company of climbing royalty.  Linde is an expert landscape photographer, working on a book about Valle Chacabuco for Doug and Kris.

I fell asleep thinking about austral parakeets that we watched.  Large green parrots with brilliant red tails.  They are quite vocal and chatter as a social flock.  We also watched flamingos and Cristian told me about shrimp being carried from wetland to wetland on their legs.  They augment their own food supply accidentally.  Who would have thought that flamingos could play a role in invertebrate shrimp population connectivity?

Day 9 – Headquarters and Carretera Austral

Today we worked on our presentations for the government workshop back north in Coyhaique and made the drive north—full of ice falls, high Andean Peaks, cold rain forests, immense rivers, lakes of all colors and lots of gravel, 7 hours of it.  We ate a late evening dinner in the village of Villa Cerro Castillo at the base of the sharp spires and high mountain pass.  I had steak and fries.  Tomorrow we present and some government staffers and program directors are even flying down from Santiago, Chile’s capitol, to attend and participate.

Jim presents on Pumas Photo: Jim Williams

Jim presents on Pumas
Photo: Jim Williams

Day 10 – Chilean Government Puma Workshop

We woke early and scrambled to get to the workshop.  We arrived to find quite a large crowd already milling around.  There was a lit podium with the Chilean government agency blue and red emblem glowing in front.  There was a video loop of Chile playing on the screen.  It was impressive but this began to make me a bit nervous.  It was a little more formal and attended than I expected!

Then as we were sitting down everyone got up and in walked the Governor of the Aysen Province. Everyone greeted her and her guards and then she was introduced to me.  I extended my hand, she stood there just looking at me, then Fernando, leaned quickly over to me and whispered “it is proper to give her a kiss on the cheek”.  Oh, so I leaned her way and she bowed and I kissed her on the cheek.  She then smiled and sat down.  I still do not realize all of the cultural/political norms.

I gave four presentations in all.  Cristian delivered the best scientific and data filled presentation. Knowledge is power and it was clear that everyone respected Cristian.  Fernando is Cristian’s good friend.  He comes from the Huilo Huilo preserve near Valdivia.  He is a large, fit and gregarious man who once was a fighter pilot and then flew for LAN airlines.  He definitely had the personality.   He decided he wanted to spend more time at home so he retired and began working for the private reserve.  He also speaks very good English.

What was amazing is that he (Fernando) has personally dedicated his own time and money to raise captive kodkods (huina’s), pudu, Darwin’s foxes and even ñandu.  Nobody anywhere has ever raised kodkods.  He said it took seven years to get a pair to mate and breed.  He was quite frustrated and he eventually noticed that they always climbed in the water dish.  They got the drinking water dirty so he would take it out and clean it but they would get back in again.  Then his daughter was taking a bath and he handed her the kodkod and splash, the cat jumped in and began to swim and play.  The light bulb came on and he then installed a small water pool in the pair’s enclosure.  They had kittens soon after.  They are cats that enjoy and need water.  They inhabit very wet, dark forests of Patagonia.  It makes sense.  He discovered that they only have one kitten.  The literature previously said 5 was the norm.  He made a significant contribution to kodkod science.

Overall, the workshop was a tremendous success.  Cristian left very enthusiastic about the conversations that had begun, and I am excited to play a role in the story of the Patagonia pumas!

2 thoughts on “Visiting Patagonia and its Pumas: Told by Jim Williams, a Puma Expert from Montana

  1. Dan Vermillion
    Monday March 17th, 2014 at 03:39 PM

    Jim, great travel diary. Really made me smile. Both the Department and the Chilotes are lucky to have someone like you working on behalf of cultural and puma understandign.

    Congratulations.

  2. Jake Williams
    Sunday March 30th, 2014 at 02:07 AM

    I am proud to call you my father! Congratulations on your wonderful work down in South America. They should feel lucky to have someone as sharp and talented as you working on their behalf!

Leave a Reply to Dan Vermillion Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *