Exploring the Bajo Pascua

The Rio Pascua is located in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia and although it is a relatively short river, it has the seventh largest drainage basin in Chile. For 10 days in February, my RRCS (Round River Conservation Studies) team had the opportunity to conduct field research in the Bajo (lower) Pascua area. To access the area, we drove south from Cochrane, where our basecamp is located, stopping in Tortel, a small town by the fjords, to pick up Fabio, our local guide. Fabio’s family had owned a campo in Bajo Pascua and he grew up exploring the land, getting to know its flora and fauna, as well as navigating the remote area. Continuing further south, we took a small ferry through the fjords and then a pulley-operated two-car ferry used to cross the Pascua and its rapid waters. One the other side, we continued down the dirt road until we reached a driveway, too overgrown to drive down. We shuttled our bags the short distance and set up camp in the yard of Fabio’s abandoned campo. His family had sold the land a few years prior to a large dam company called HydroAysén, with plans to build three large dams along the Pascua, flooding huge swaths of land. The dams weren’t approved and the land now sits quietly undisturbed, unsure of its future

We spent our first few days using the campo as a basecamp, heading out during the day to conduct rapid biodiversity inventories of the area. To do these, we split into teams, each focused on a different category: plants, birds, amphibians, Humuels (stocky deer, endemic in Patagonia and endangered), and a human disturbance team. Ever 250 meters, we would all stop and record all the data we had collected before continuing on. These transects were all off-trail and we went through thick forests, over many bogs and crossed several streams, thoroughly soaking our hiking boots. All day we would snack on Calafate, Chaura and Murtila berries and anything else we could find to try. 

Each night we would return to the campo, usually having a class in the evening followed by dinner. After dinner and chores were done, everyone would sit around the fire and read the articles for the next class or journal about our days. The campo is situated on the banks of the Pascua and the area is surrounded by mountains, reflecting on the water which acts as a mirror on calmer days. It was beautiful. After longer, hotter days of transecting, we would swim in the cold water, quickly running in before bundling up against the cooler night air. 

After several days of basecampjng, we packed up our bags and headed out for a four-day backpacking trip, father away from the access road. Following Fabio through the forests and bogs, we made our way into what seemed like a very remote area, only accessed by gauchos (Chilean cowboys) on horseback. For the two nights, we set up camp on the shores of a glacier lake with icebergs floating freely about. We continued conducting rapid biodiversity inventories during the days, spotting two Humuels which was very exciting as it was unknown whether or not they were present in the area. We also conducted a bird point count, waking up early to record all birds we saw in a specific location for 20 minutes. 

On our last day, we moved campsites, hiking a few kilometers towards the road and camping on a bog. The next morning, a subset of our group woke up early, leaving camp at 5:30 am to bushwhack up a nearby peak, in hopes of getting a better view of the Southern Ice fields of Patagonia. At 6 am we were knee-deep in a bog, pushing our way through tall grasses and then starting up the steeper slopes of the peak. We reached our stopping point around 10 am and sat back to enjoy the view, sipping Luke-warm instant coffee. In one direction, we could look out over the valley we had spent the last week surveying and in the other we had a spectacular view of the ice fields, towering above the mountains to the South. It was pretty amazing and definitely worth the early wake-up. We headed back down and broke down camp before transecting our way back to where the vans were parked. 

Our last day in Bajo Pascua, we again went out to transect. This time, we hiked right along the river continuing until we reached where the river met the fjords. The fjords were surrounded by mountains and the water was a beautiful green-blue. It was a warm day and everyone decided to celebrate the end to our trip with a swim in the fjords. Back at the campo, the celebration continued with an Asado (the Chilean version of a barbecue) and we roasted a freshly killed lamb over the open fire. That night, everyone went to bed content and happy to have spent time in the beautiful Bajo Pascua.