26 January 2017 — The campsite doesn’t appear abandoned, its occupants have only taken off for a day or overnight. The blue gray pyramidal Megalight cook/gear tent is zipped and clipped shut, bombproof. Its outside is coated with the long narrow leaves of the colihue and the shorter, rounder ones of the beech trees. Through a soft palette of greens, rainbows flitter off the the ever present water droplets. The leaves above sparkle and glitter in the sporadic sunlight that peeks through the canopy, casting shade, showers and sun on all that lies below.
Inside the contents are neat and organized as one would expect on an eighteen day basecamp. Food duffles, half full and zipped are stacked while a pot, filled with water sits idly by on top of a Whisperlite, just waiting a prime and flame. In the back corner a series of “tiled” rocks keep a black, rolled up garbage bag off of the damp forest floor. Two large backpacks lay on the dark green ground, damp from days of rain and lying on the ground. From above, sun filters through the surrounding beech trees and colihue casting patterned shadows on the tent walls. The tent’s contents, not disturbed at first, offer no specific or visible signs of who or what or why.
Ten feet away a green tarp is stretched tight over a small yellowish two person tent. It too is buttoned up, neat and organized. Sleeping bags are in trash bags and pads arranged neatly. On the left side of the tent a notebook is tucked into a clear plastic bag while in the far corner a large buckled dry sack protects more belongings.
The campsite, tucked as it is back into the dense trees, even with its lovingly carved steps, small trails and machete hacked paths wouldn’t exactly have been easy to find on its own. With out this, the camp is easily bypassed.
They had arrived in Chaiten slowly, one by one, two by two, a random group of people, mostly Norte Americanos but some Chileans too. Some were friends, some were meeting for the first time, but all united by a common bond of circumstance and mutual friends/family. Some are native Spanish speakers, others can’t communicate with the locals at all. Nicolas and Patricio are tracked down. They offer the information and help they can. Those who are able, load light packs into Patricio’s small skiff and shuttle up river, finding the only the same useless clues Patricio had told them about the day prior: a green tent fly, pitched discreetly and low among the ulmos, colihue, and nalcas, with only a bottle of fuel and a few purple zip bags stacked neatly on some crisscrossed logs. Nothing else. Now, standing amidst the jungle, on the far side of the Rio Yelcho Patricio once again recounts in his broken English/Spanish how he had looked for them across the river as scheduled, but with no luck and how he had boated up to the drop off site only to find nothing obvious. He recounted how, after poking around he had found the well concealed green tent fly. Maybe high water was keeping them in the mountains, he had thought and vowed to keep an eye out for the grigos from the opposite shore’s fishing lodge as well as stopping in when passing by. It was only several days later when a group had shown up at his door, asking for information, asking for help.
The hacked out path up the Alerce was difficult to find at first and once found, not always easy to follow. Here and there they noted cairns leading in and out of the river and it takes almost a full day to make it to the camp. Despite its hidden nature, GPS coordinates, extracted from satellite text messages however led straight to it, the modern technology leading straight across the now low Rio Alerce and onto the rocky beach.
At the existing camp a new camp is set up on the rocky river bank, the newcomers not entirely aware of the speed and ferocity with which the waters could rise with the slightest rain. Later, after photos and notes are taken, these amateur sleuths quietly, hesitantly rummage through what is left, looking for clues, trying to piece things together, wondering what happened and where are their long overdue, unheard from friends, coworkers, significant others, siblings, and children.
These are the things I think about. The question I wonder is not when or how, but who in that group showed up for me?
Featured Image: Valle Alerce from Ruta 7. In good weather, this might be everyone’s first glimpse.