Captain’s Log # 8: Farewell

Murder in the Andes. What many thought was a cute little birdy turned out to be a vicious killer. Credit: XenoQuest Media

The camp is very quiet. Only nine of us are still here and most of the individual tents and a couple of domes are already down. I cannot believe how fast both Cristians, helped by David and Hernan, have started to stow away the scientific equipment as well. There is a mountain of bins lined up outside the dinning dome. They are waiting for…the mules (!) – maybe today or tomorrow.

I had another short night…Hard to sleep when a little someone I know who is sleeping on the cot next to mine continues to stubbornly wear his down-jacket in his sleeping bag and tosses and turns all night long. It sounds like scrubbing sand paper on dry paper. That ends up in some colorful dialogues in French between me and Edmond around 2:00 in the morning. I am not sure he heard half of what I said because his sleeping bag completely covers him and he is half-asleep anyway. Guess what? He simply turns around…and starts snoring! This is too much, this time, I can’t help and I start giggling.

I am tired, I am cold, and sleepless for another hour. As I finally start to doze off, an owl shows up next to our tent. She is probably right outside on that granite block and now she starts: Hoo-Hoo-Hoo, and then she derails. She might have a sore throat or something. That goes on for a good hour-and-a-half. She is lucky that I am too cold to get out, otherwise we would have owl’s ragout for breakfast. I am pretty sure that our cook David still has a few mushrooms left. If not, a bed of algae will do just fine. She finally goes quiet or leaves. A peaceful silence falls over the camp for a good…five minutes. Now, that’s the 5:00 am seagull. She has come every single morning, and every evening at 9:00 pm, on the clock. She is sometimes accompanied by geese and ducks, which normally I would love to hear, but right now, I just want to sleep. At least, this morning the seagull is alone. It seems that she is coming from El Yeso, the lake on the other side of the ridge, and her racket does not stop. Does she even breathe? I don’t know, but by 6:00 am, I have had it. I am getting out of the tent. Well, all is not lost. The sunrise is as spectacular as usual over Meson Alto and its glacier. I am in awe.

As the sun starts to warm up the air, the birds are also getting more active. By now, I have fully surrendered to the idea that my hope for sleep is over, and I fully enjoy watching and listening to them. Those are not much bigger than American robins. They are very colorful too. One of them has a bright yellow belly and an equally bright blue collar. Everything is more colorful here with the altitude. The flowers are amazing. I have never seen anything like them before. They look almost like miniature orchids but their stems and leaves are very different. They go from purple and yellow, to orange and yellow, blue, and white, and they beam across the white granite in ways that are unseen at lower elevation. For the small birds, while they look cute, we learned that they have a “dark” side. Gavin caught one of them killing a lizard a week or so ago. The lizard was not small at all. As luck had it, Gavin had his camera rolling at the time. That was the first time I saw this type of behavior. The bird actually held the lizard in his beak and, with repeated and swift motions, kept banging the head of the lizard against the granite block until it was dead. Then it swallowed the entire lizard in one gulp.

But this morning, I had the Mel Brooks version of the same…I went to the dinning dome and sat there for a while. I just had poured myself a coffee when one of these birds showed up and started hopping in the open space between the dome and the kitchen. It obviously had found something interesting on the ground that it had grabbed in its beak. That turned out to be a cooked spaghetti noodle that had fallen from one of the plates last night. For the next five minutes, I watched that bird kill the spaghetti, lizard-style. That changed my mood for the day!

I also have something else in mind that is lighting up my mood. Cristian is getting up early as well and has now joined me. The two of us have prepared a little surprise for Edmond. He knows nothing about it yet. He only knows that he needs to be up early following some unimaginative lie that we could come up with (e.g., we must take the tent down early). He has worked so hard to prepare his experiment in the past months…Unfortunately, the location of Station Lake on the Echaurren Valley and the dangerous access by Devil Slide has made it impossible for him to deploy it in person. He is 91 going on 92 strong, and climbs Mount Lassen without too much trouble. However, Devil’s Slide requires the kind of mobility and attention that is sometimes difficult to achieve even for people half his age. So, Chris had to deploy his experiment for him. Edmond is a trooper, and a very reasonable man. He understood the challenge and kept smiling all along, helping around the camp whenever needed, and also taking in full this landscape he told me reminded him so much of Switzerland where he was born and lived for a while.

The waters of Victoria’s Cascade, named by a team of Chileans who explored the Laguna Negra area 150 years ago, tumble into the northwest finger of the lake. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

So, this morning, since pretty much everybody is gone and all objectives have been met and then some, Cristian and I have decided to take him on a tour of the lake, to show him in particular the Cave of the Amazons, Victoria’s Cascade. We will also take advantage of being on the northwest shore to take one last look at Planetary Lake Lander and its twin sonde, to make sure that everything is alright before we leave.

Edmond shows up at 7:00 am as planned. We still say nothing. The three of us have breakfast and then Cristian disappears for a while to take a couple of batteries to the Zodiac. Edmond and I follow a few minutes later and meet him at the beach, a.k.a. Base Camp Landing.Then we finally reveal the goal of this early morning outing. Someone has a huge smile pasted on his face as he dons the Mustang suit. We want to go early not only because we still have lots of work to do to break camp, but also because good conditions on the lake might not last more than a few hours.

Off we go. The lake and the air are still. Everything is perfect. We look at the transparent water, and the algae and blocks lurking from the depths. Ducks are giving us the right of way but they don’t seem to be that concerned by our presence. I have to say that considering our speed, they really have nothing to fear. If I had the ability to walk on water, I probably would have already made it to the other side, but that’s not the case and this is certainly not the right time for a metaphysical experiment just to prove a point. Beside, for once, I simply enjoy the slow pace.

We are at the Cave of the Amazons. Cristian proceeds even more slowly (…) to avoid some large blocks only partially submerged and also to give us time to observe carefully the richness of the environment. Only two days ago I was diving here. Hopefully, the movie will turn out to be good. We look up at the various springs shooting off the basalt cliff about 100 m higher up. The grass is definitely yellow around some of them. Those would be good candidates for testing water temperature next year. Hydrothermal systems could bring warmer and more acidic waters. That could explain the stains. Whether or not that’s the case here is a question to be answered by the next field campaign.

We continue on to the cascade. We are all amazed by its size and the roar of the water falling down from up high, especially Edmond who sees it for the first time. On our way, we just passed Lake Lander, now anchored about 100 m away. Everything checks out fine. Its twin sonde is a lot closer to the cascade. We are trying to see how different the waters from the lake and the runoff are. We will log data at least for the next three months with PLL. After that, the engineers will take it back home in the US to work on its “brain”. Meanwhile, its twin sonde will continue to log in.

We take our time touring the northwest shore. Now Edmond can see Devil’s Slide for himself. He seems impressed and has a connoisseur look on his face. Since the lake is still calm, we decide to take advantage of the good conditions to do a bit of a reconnaissance and hopefully find another way to access the perched Echaurren Valley. We go slowly with the Zodiac, which allows me to see more caves to be explored. We now pass near the promontory. The access is poor and dangerous everywhere. We even venture a bit into the northeast branch of the lake for the first time, not too far though, as it is soon time to turn around.

We enjoy the way back on a very still lake. By 9:30 am we are back at camp and the three of us are happy. Edmond has a smirk on his face, we all do. Time for a more serious breakfast. We go to the lake again this time for some morning bathing. Then, Edmond goes to the tent and starts his packing. I’ll wait until he is done to start mine. Meanwhile, I am giving a hand here and there, and when I am not, I spend some time discussing with Robert and Jeff about this, and other projects. This leads into lunch. My early afternoon is busy packing, taking the tent down, folding cots. By 2:30 am, we are all on our way to the trailhead, some on foot, and some by boat…Apparently Edmond had too much fun this morning and does not want to let go. He goes with Cristian. They are in Mariner 1 and they are towing Margaritaville, which is completely filled with bins. Actually, observing the scene from up high on the trail, it seems that someone let go of Margaritaville’s rope a bit too soon. A good thing that conditions are not too windy today. Still, Cristian and Edmond have to make a substantial swing away from the shore to get the escapee back.

Edmond Grin’s stream gauge experiment, placed at the outlet to Station Lake, will measure changes in the rate of outflow from the lake. Credit: Chris Haberle.

Once I see Margaritaville secured and towed by Mariner 1, I proceed up the trail. I stop a few times to look back at Meson Alto and Echaurren. What an incredible landscape. For the sheer beauty of it, if for nothing else, it pains me to think that the next generation will never know what these glaciers looked like, or maybe only on photographs. Our planet is experiencing incredible changes at a pace that we, humans, have never experienced before. Is this the price to pay for our civilization to enter its adulthood? This seems to be a very dear price, especially for the rest of the biosphere, which should not be held accountable for our own trials and errors. Yet, we are all in this together, as currently the climate is altered and biodiversity stressed by a process whose rapidity and impact on the ecosystem are being compared to major extinctions. This will not go away just because some prefer to ignore it. Within 50 years, this planet will be very different, even warmer. There will be more pressure on water resources than before: glaciers are not replenishing, aquifers are polluted in many countries, and the human population continues to expand without control.

We just cannot simply continue to look the other way, and act like scared children who cover their eyes hoping that what scares them will magically disappear. We are confronted with an issue on a global scale that will alter our way of life soon, definitely by the next generation. Not acting now would be a crime against our own kind. We might not have the keys or the answers yet, but some have started on the path of looking at the situation right in the eyes. The last two decades of efforts are starting to pay off. Clues are appearing here and there that may help us not only to find a solution one day, but also put us in the position of asking the right questions and prevent future damage. That will require from us to reassess our needs, our place, and our responsibility with respect to the biosphere. This will take a scientific process, and simply some good sense. Hopefully, the data we collect here will make a modest contribution to this process.

The drive back to Santiago can only be a reminder of where some of the issue lies. Our descent through the old glacial valley filled with moraines and blocks rounded by torrents seems already to be a distant memory. Santiago, like many active capitals of the world, is plagued with insane traffic. We left the peace of Laguna Negra at 2:30 pm. We reach our hotel four hours later when only less than 100 km separate the lake from the capital. As usual when coming back from an extended stay in the mountain, I have a difficult time adjusting with the noise and the crowd. The warm shower is good, though. We will stay only one night. No tourism this time around. Our plane takes off at 9:15 pm the following evening, and we are back in the US and home by 11:00 am on December 17. The morning air is clean and brisk, not unlike that of the lake, where for now, PLL is a reminder that we were there. It is logging data every hour and calling “home” (at NASA Ames) every evening, sharing more knowledge about melting glaciers and climate change. In a few months, it will be proactively monitoring the environment at Echaurren, as a precursor to what, maybe some day, another Lake Lander will do on Titan.

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