A Night in Hornopiren

March 26

This story will be much better told if I don’t relate the outcome at the beginning.

It began with a campsite.

And what campsite it was! A rolling field of green tumbled with mottled stones stretched a long way down to the mud-slicked rocks at the water’s edge. Gently lapping waves washed over the edge where the land met the sea. All around us stretched the waters of the fjords, encircled by towering hills that rose up into the clouds. From time to time the clouds would stretch eager fingers of mist down into the trees, changing the shapes of the hillsides. In the distance across the bay, the stove pipes of Hornopiren sent plumes of smoke up into the air.

We turned onto the dirt lane and drove down onto the wide peninsula just after 5 in the afternoon. The sun loosened from the clouds and the mossy groundcover shone a brilliant green. The ground was soft, slightly moist, with several glittering pools of crystal-clear water interspersed among the rocks. We each found spots perfectly suited to our tents – the hitchhiker, Kaleb, and his small orange four-season, and ourselves, backing our overland trailer up alongside the gravel road and finding the level sweetspot.

We, each of us, stood admiring the vista, in awe at the beauty that the South of Chile seemed to offer at every turn. After securing our tents with poles and stakes, I opened the back of our trailer and pulled out the kitchen compartment, a long drawer with sink inset, folding counter, and cabinet which held our camp stove. I set up my instruments and began to put together a warming Cazuela de Ave, or chicken soup.

Being a youthful hitchhiker, tight on cash, Kaleb had yet to try the many delights of Chilean food. The Cazuela, a simple thing in construction, is NOT to be missed, and so we made it just for him, having gathered the ingredients we lacked in our trailer, back at the only open store in Hornopiren before setting out in search of a campsite. But this story is not about the Cazuela, which will have to be described at a later time. Suffice it to say that the soup was warm, delicious, and everything it ought to be for a person newly introduced to it.

Not long after cleaning up our bowls, the sky was dark and the first stars twinkled around the edges of the swiftly encroaching clouds. We bade each other goodnight and crawled inside our tents. After a short chapter of our book, Olivia was quick to fall asleep. Mark and I were soon to follow.

Now, as it happens, whether I am camping or not, I often find myself rousing from a deep sleep to heed the call of nature. This was such a night. I tried my best to hold it off, tried to slip back into my dream, but my bladder would not listen. It insisted that I must get up and get up immediately. As I came to consciousness, slowly and spitefully, I began to hear voices.

After sitting up and forcing my brain into the “on” configuration, I realized it was only Kaleb, cursing and moaning in English. Well, the kid has strange dreams, I decided, sliding off our bunk and down onto the ladder. The ladder was angled strangely and I kicked at it to right it so I could descend. Three steps down and my foot landed rather strangely.

Through the cold tarp, I felt mud-slick ground beneath my foot, but up around my ankles, the tarp plumed and rose. I stepped fully off the ladder and felt my other foot sucked down into the buoyant tent floor, which now bobbed and floated around me like a water bed.

It took only a moment, I’m sure, but felt like much longer, before I realized what was happening.

The pieces fell into place – the brilliant green mossy ground cover, the mud-slicked rocks, the crystal pools. I clicked on my flashlight at much the same time as the light bulb went off angrily in my head. The tide had risen! And what fools we were!

I called up to Mark, who asked groggily and mostly still asleep, if I could handle it. At first, I was at a loss for words. How in the world does someone handle the rising of the ocean? What could I possibly do?

I glanced frantically around the tent, swishing the light from my hand left and right, until I was able to assure myself that no water had gotten in. From the depth at which my feet were sunk into the tarp floor of the tent, I guessed that the water had risen roughly two hundred feet from the water’s edge.

Rolling up my leggings, I unzipped the door of the tent to get a better look at our situation. In the light of my flashlight only the tips of the larger rocks around our campsite showed above the endless stretch of water. To my right, our wash bucket and sponges, which we had tucked under our trailer the night before, were floating out to sea. To my left, I could see Kaleb by the light of his headlamp, scurrying to and from his orange tent, arms full of his belongings as he sought higher ground. I called out to him, half laughing in madness. He called back, his voice despairing and incredulous, “Everything I own is wet. Soaking. Everything.” He moaned and continued with his task.

Bracing myself, I extended a foot through the door and slipped on my flip-flop. Plunging my foot into the water sent an involuntary squeal from my lips. I repeated with the other foot and squealed again. The water was icy, a mix of chill Pacific waters and glacial mountain run-off from hundreds of mountain waterfalls. Gasping and stiffening, I limped around our tent to assess our trailer and car. The water reached midway up my calves.

I sloshed across the watery peninsula towards Kaleb to have a look. He was making good time and most of his things were now stored in a beached fishing boat not far away. “I woke up swimming,” he said. I explained our situation, somewhat guiltily. We had suffered no real water damage.

Still unsure what to do, if anything, I made my way back towards my tent. At the door to my tent, I was alarmed to see the water had risen to just beneath my kneecap. Surely the water could rise no further?

I pulled off my flip-flops and stepped inside. The sound of rushing water alongside the first hesitant patter of raindrops on the tent roof met my ears. Turning my flashlight towards the right, I saw the water pouring in through a lower zipper. Our hands were forced. We had to find a way to move our tent and quickly.

While Mark pulled on his clothes, I scrambled around the tent, tossing our stuff onto the cot we had set out for Olivia the night before. Preferring to sleep between us hours before, the cot now served as a useful raft with which to keep everything dry. Working quickly, we managed to clear the tent of our belongings, tossing everything onto the grass much higher up on the peninsula, and carrying a sleepy and crying Olivia to the warmth and safety of the car.

But, as the water continued to rise, just lapping beneath the trailer bottom and rising to mid-thigh, I began to wonder how safe the car really was. The back tires were half-way eclipsed and the opening of the exhaust pipe was not long for open air.

Thankfully, we had not unhitched the trailer. If we had, those four or so minutes required to reattach it would surely have meant leaving it behind. Mark stepped out of the tent with the same squealing reaction as I had, and waded around to the front of the car. After a few breathless, throat-constricting moments when I was sure the car would be unable to pull the trailer out of the ocean, the car lurched forward, the tires spinning mud and seawater up into the air, and at last pulled the trailer free.

Kaleb and I walked alongside the trailer, holding the tent up as best we could as we found an elevated spot to re-pitch. With our tails between our legs, we retreated to our half-dry tent, choosing to ignore the puddles in the corner until morning.

The remainder of the night, we shivered under damp sheets, rolled together as tightly as we could manage. Olivia was sandwiched between us, giving off her usual furnace heat, and oblivious to the cold and damp around her. Kaleb spent a cold and weary night on the cot in our tent, using what two blankets we could spare. It began to rain and although I was wired from the experience, the adrenaline eventually faded and I fell into a tossing, shivering sleep.

We awoke exhausted and damp, but in good spirits. The tide had receded and the sun was doing its best to break a way through the clouds. And although we would no longer make it to the 10:30 am ferry, we were once again overcome with awe at the beauty of our surroundings.

Spreading our things around us on the hillside, we began to access the damage. All of Kaleb’s things were wet but he had lost nothing. Our clothes from the night before were wet and our wash tub and portable water tank were on their way to Antartica. Neither our tents nor our vehicle were the worse for wear. Thankful for our luck, we reheated the remaining cazuela from the night before and warmed our hands around cups of coffee.

Throughout our morning repast, we berated ourselves continually. All the signs had been there. We all knew better. Why on earth had we not thought of the tide? Shrugging off a collective idiocy that we had no way to explain, we resolved to simply agree that although we were aware of the tide, we all thought it could never rise so high. (We later learned from a local that this time of year always brought unusually high tides to the region.)

While packing up, the campsite continued to astound. Dolphins played and splashed in the waters. Large birds of prey swooped overheard. And not long before we departed Olivia ran up to me excitedly saying she had seen a baby sea otter. I followed her across a rocked promontory and around the bend of the peninsula to follow where her little finger pointed. Sure enough, something small dark and wet had crawled out of the water at the rock’s edge.

We moved closer for a better look. The little thing righted itself and I saw its shape was all wrong for an otter. It wasn’t slender and narrow, rather it had a compact bulky body with a small head and four short legs. After a stunned moment, I realized what we were seeing. A pudu!

Ever since learning of these strange creatures, I had dreamed of seeing one!

I left Olivia at the top of the peninsula and ran back to camp for my camera. Returning, I saw that the creature had not moved. We moved closer, carefully picking out sound spots to place our feet as we crept down the rocky shore towards the animal. I snapped a photo with every step and with every step, I thought it would take flight, either jumping back into the water or running off along the shore. But it did not move from where it stood, surrounded by at least three large and evil-looking vultures.

Soon we were close enough to make out its details and my heart was singing with excitement. Imagine, the form of a North American deer, although much much smaller. It was about the size of a small dog, with short legs tapering to small black hooves. Its head resembled a rodent’s or even a kangaroo’s, with large black eyes and round little ears. To either side of its snout and just below each eye was a white scent gland. Its fur was reddish and thick, looking to be oiled slightly and coarse like a beaver’s. No horns meant it was a small female.

The vultures flew off a little ways and the little pudu simply watched us as we approached. I noticed it was shivering and imagined from the look of it and how it behaved that it was extremely exhausted, having swum here from who knows where. It looked forlorn and out of place.

We approached and it looked at us, even took a step or two in our direction. Amazed at what was transpiring, I reached out a hand to touch its fur. The pudu started a little but did not retreat. I reached out again and it allowed me to pet it. Holy cheese sandwich, I had just pet a pudu!

We left the pudu where it stood and returned not long after, with Mark and Kaleb. The plan was to make sure it was ok, to either move it inland or scare off the vultures that waited nearby. We stayed with the little animal, each of us taking a turn to pet it, until we saw it was shivering no longer and moved a little more assuredly among the rocks. When the vultures at last took off and disappeared, we considered it safe to depart. We said our farewells to the adorable little creature and left.

For those unaware, Pudus are solitary animals that inhabit this part of Chile and parts of western Aregentina. They are rarely seen and keep to the thick foliage of the temperate rainforests of the region. They are classified as a vulnerable species due to loss of habitat, poaching, and unfortunate meetings with domestic dogs. They are also one of the world’s smallest species of deer. The one we encountered on the beach was most likely a young female, at least six months but probably no more than a year old.

As we loaded up our things and secured the tent back under its awning above the trailer, we took one last look at our campsite. Sure, we had been dumb. Sure, we were all wet and tired. Sure, we looked like a batch of asshat gringos. But, but we could not see the incident as a bad thing.

We had laughed and sworn in equal measure the night before, while toiling in the frosty air and icy water. We rolled our eyes and slapped our foreheads the next morning as we once again saw the clearly delineated lines marking the tide in the mud and rocks below. But, we were also in a place of great beauty and nothing of true value had been lost. Plus, we had been gifted with an amazing experience – the meeting, up close and personal, with one of nature’s rare and quite adorable creatures. This would not be something we soon forgot.




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