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Very old trees


Vintage vegetation in South Chile

By Jostein Moen. Inspiration by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It was a miracle of rare appearance.
The famed Alerce stood before us.
And there another. And still more further behind. Behold! Behold! we cried.
Like mighty green cathedrals they rose amid the rain forest.
It was a savage place, as holy and enchanted As ever a weary wanderer has reached. Deep inside El Parque Nacional Alerce Andino we stood.
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
enfolding sunny spots of greenery.


The day before my nephew Christian and I had started on our quest. The Alerce once grew extensively in Southern Chile but are now only found sparsely in places of difficult access. It rivals the Californian Sequoia in terms of size and age. Its wood is extremely durable and highly priced for construction. Used as roofcover, it'll withstand rain and sun for ages, and it makes the best sleepers. During the railway construction period whole communities sprang up on the base of Alerce exploitation.

Some years ago I saw a big Alerce in the coastal mountain range south of Valdivia. In 3600 years it had grown to an impressive 11 meters in circumference. But it was destroyed by lightening and it was rather lonesome. This time we were out to see a forest of Fitzroya cupressoides, named after Capitan Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle.

Christian and I had a funny little Suzuki transporter at our disposal. We drove south for a couple of hours, then left the highway, passed through Puerto Varas and got on the old gravel road to Puerto Montt. Our first goal was the village of Alerce (sic). On the outskirts we finally spotted "The President's Chair", mentioned in our guidebook but lacking any signs or posters. It is the stump of what was supposed to have been the biggest Alerce ever. In 1912 it was newly cut and the stump formed a convenient resting-place for President Pedro Montt who came down from Santiago to inspect the construction of the trunk line south to Puerto Montt. The stump was now overgrown and hollow, but the thought of what the tree had been and the hope of seeing something close to that soon, excited both of us.

After buying supplies in Puerto Montt we headed east along the Bay of Reloncaví, then turned inland on a gravel road. The snow-capped Volcán Calbuco rose on our left for a while, but had slightly diminished when we reached the pueblo of Chamiza where CONAF, the national park guards, has a checkpoint. Outside their cabin two girls were sitting on a heap of backpacks, slowly waving small branches to keep the nasty tabaño insect at arms length. When we came out, another girl and a guy had joined them. We learned they were Argentineans with the same goal as us so we all crushed into the little Suzuki and set out for the last 10 kilometres up to the park's entrance.

Registration completed, we had to decide whether to continue by ourselves or accept an offer from the local concessionaire of a guided tour to a campsite. The tour would bring us comfortably across Lago Sargazo in canoes to their campsite which was the perfect starting-point for the hike to the millennium Alerces. The alternative was a horrendous 8 hours walk along the lake. We opted for canoeing, and three hours later we were putting up tents on some small cleared spots along the crystalline river which feeds the newly crossed lake, beautifully set among hills covered with temperate rain forest.

We got a logfire burning and spent the evening around it. Suddenly a strange wild cry echoed in the dark. A bird? A puma? A wild boar? Or the terrible chupacabra? One of the girls was of the tender, urban type so we decided it was a bird, but we were all glad for the fire and each other's company. I thought with some melancholy of the nice-looking bottle of whiskey I had left behind on a supermarket shelf in Puerto Montt. What a perfect occasion to pass some barley juice around. The next morning however, I was just as glad. It was raining, we had a minimum 7 hours walk before us and the canoe-people would come and pick us up early in the afternoon. The jungle seemed far from inviting. Yesterday we had got a touch of what we could expect, so it took some reciprocal motivation to get going. The delicate girl chose to stay in the tent, pining for her Buenos Aires boulevards. The rest of us dressed casually, knowing we would soon be soaking wet, and set off.

The road was the concessionaire's work. Path would be a too generous term. It was more like a muddy tunnel through the green thickness. They had started out making the bridges by felling huge trees across otherwise impassable parts. These were all very slippery and were mostly crossed in a humiliating ass-sliding manner. The last one was the worst, crossing high above the wild river. The ground had otherwise some semi-solid parts, I wouldn't deny that, but it consisted mostly of a patchwork of mudholes which could reveal amusing depths, if someone else found them, that was.

After a while, we passed some 1500 years old Alerces. They were bigger that any trees I have ever seen and where they stood, the forest was less thick thanks to the anti-decaying, poisenous chemicals these trunks contain. The track grew from bad to worse and at places we had to get into third degree contact with the surroundings and afterwards clean ourselves and each other of repulsive leeches. The rain poured down as we stubbornly trudged along. The Argentinean girls proved themselves the brave sort, not uttering one word of complaint.

Then we were there, and as a divine acknowledgement to our endurance, the rain stopped and the sky cleared up. We gazed in awe, we stood amazed, meditating the three and a half thousand years these lives' greatest manifestations had existed in this remote corner. They were like huge fingers pointing upward, as if to remind us of the origin of all life. They were already enormous when Josef the Carpenter toiled in his Nazarethan workshop. He could have built a whole new settlement out of just one Alerce, on the West Bank perhaps.

We returned with ease, relieved, with the sensation of having got a glimpse of eternity. The rest doesn't count for much, except one little adventure: That night Christian and I put up tent on a campsite down by the first CONAF checkpoint. We let the Suzuki run with the lights on while we tried to get some wet firewood burning. Suddenly Christian came from behind the car, I could sense more than see his paleness.
"Did you see that tremendous dog passing on the road behind"?
"No, I didn't see anything. A dog? How come? Are you sure? What did it look like?" "It was big, more long than tall, with a flat face, small ears, a sloppy back and a long tail. It stared right at me and then just moved on in a controlled, almost lazy way."
"A puma? A fucking puma!"
Christian had thought the same but he wanted me to say it first. We had talked about pumas on and off the last days, knowing that they were part of the national park's fauna. We had discussed facts and myths and compared their ferocity to our wolves in Scandinavia. But we hadn't dreamed of meeting one. With a small handlight we went cautiously to look for footprints on the road. Cars had made muddy tracks that should conserve paw prints well enough, but the light was to bad. "Tomorrow in daylight", we agreed and went to sleep. Next morning the campsite's caretaker woke us up with her jeep, thoroughly destroying all hope of spotting any big cat's tracks.

That day we headed north again, stopping one more time in Puerto Varas. There we enjoyed a speciality of the Chilean Lake District in summer: to lay on the beach and go for a comfortable swim while having the most beautiful view of a snow-capped volcano from across the lake.

©JM