I have little time right now to add much detail to this post about the people who once inhabited the now desolate and uninhabited islands I will soon explore.
I plan to come back to this post over the next few days to add in more detail about the people of southern Tierra del Fuego. Their story is fascinating, poignant and perhaps holds a lesson for all of us. For now I will just post images and hope you enjoy them.
I had a wide variety of experiences the last time I voyaged a small boat alone through and south of the Beagle Channel and it left an indelible mark on my psyche. There were times after being alone for weeks in such a beautiful place yet a place so devoid of human touch that I felt a sort of spiritual kinship with those who had come before me in small open canoes. My wood canvas sailing canoe seemed appropriate to the moment and to the place.
The photos below are a mix of the Yaghan and Ona. The area I plan to travel was once traveled by the Yaghan.
Alone With Ghosts
The Yaghan people traveled Tierra del Fuego as hunter gatherers in hand hewn open canoe type boats often barely clothed and some with open fires aboard for warmth. While I voyaged in my 15 foot wood canvas sailing canoe there were several times (as odd as it sounds) that I felt as though I was being watched. I am not the kind of person who is prone to believing such things. I have to admit it was a bit disquieting but at the same time the feeling fascinated me because I knew I was not being watched because there was no one there, I was utterly alone.
Perhaps the ghostly spirits of these southern most people on earth still inhabited the wind swept islands. Perhaps I suffered from an over active mind from simply being alone for so long I am not sure. I did believe it to be true at the time. My coming voyage will take me deeper into the remotest islands once visited by the Yaghan, places few modern people have seen. I am interested in what I will find there and what I will find in my mind and heart. When I look at the images posted here I am fortunate that I am not afraid of the dark. Still I look at these photos and think of the spirits of a beautiful people who vanished for the most part with an unrecorded history and wonder who I might meet aside from my own conjured visions as I spend time in their former campsites and anchorages.
These campsites and anchorages are the places I discovered I will end up using because they are the natural places to seek refuge from the wind.
A Life Abroad Lived Amongst the People
Much time has passed since my last sojourn Below 40 degrees south. Long before and since that time I have made a life abroad living amongst indigenous people ranging from the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, Central America to the far Pacific.
The most profound impact on how I think of the world today has come from simple giving people living ever so real lives around the world. Many of us in the United States and in a broader sense the western world think we must be the measure of how everyone else lives but this is not really true.
Open Eyes/Open Heart
If you travel with open eyes and an open heart you cannot help but see that we have but one type of wealth based on material goods and a striving to always get more. It may be the case that so many of us live a terribly complicated and in a sense empty existence out of touch with nature, out of touch with real. Perhaps the wealthiest people I have met in my life have been amongst the very poorest and many of these cultures teeter on the edge of existence. What I mean by this is some of the cultures I have lived in are so small as to be highly vulnerable to extinction and certainly many suffer from language loss at alarming rates.
Before I traveled by small boat in Tierra del Fuego I had already had many small boat experiences around the world. I find sailing small opens the right doors as coming in to a place in the tiniest of boats is neither threatening nor does in it build a wall of pretentiousness. I may seem approachable and this has lead to a wealth of experiences in tiny villages, small thatched homes, around cooking fires, in the jungle, at the seas edge and in the mountains. My voyage through southern Chile those many years ago allowed me to meet so many fine Fuegean Chileans and these simple, beautiful people changed my life and thinking and this change has been further impacted by the years I have spent on the tiny speck of an island Pohnpei, Micronesia. So for a moment enjoy a few photos from home in the islands. My friend and fellow small boat sailor Hugh Horton spent a little time in Pohnpei. Many years ago he spent three months on Chuuk and Pohnpei, small world.
Simple people, simple life in Micronesia
Sakau for a king. Here I am with Keiko and our family (they adopted us as dear friends) the Eperiams of Enepein Pah. The brothers and Poppa Eperiam had harvested this giant sakau plant for my Kapasmwar ceremony. I presented the Sakau plant to the king (Nanmwarki of U) during a ceremony at which I was bestowed a traditional title, Kiroun Dolon U.
Main street, Kapamarangi island
As fresh as a coconut can be. This was one of my staple foods in Pohnpei. There were days when I would drink eight or more. Island life where a simple coconut fresh from the tree is often more than enough!
Would best sum up my interest in Tierra del Fuego and one of the most intriguing aspects of exploring there is the people who once lived and traveled amongst the islands. There were several groups or tribes of people who at one time inhabited parts of Tierra del Fuego. Primarily the Selk'nam (Ona), the Alacufe and the Yaghan. Considered the southern most inhabitants on earth their stories are both beautiful and so very tragic.
All of the tribes were nomadic hunter gatherers and some traveled by open boat (the Yaghan), some by foot and all were incredibly strong until they encountered Europeans. The men hunted sea lions and the women dove for shell fish, predominately mussels. Over time the Yaghan developed high metabolic rates, which a study showed helped them generate a one degree higher internal body temperature. Darwin wrote of watching snow melt on the skin of naked savages in open canoes. Their stories are as sad as astounding ranging from the hunting down of the Ona (the Ona or Selk'nam genocide) to kidnappings and the extinction of other tribes due to the introduction of the common cold by early European explorers.
On my last small boat voyage through the eastern Beagle Channel and south into the Southern Ocean (the Wollaston islands and Cape Horn) I was always on the look out for suitable places to make landfalls. There were so few. Sailors think of such places as dangerous due to what is termed exposure. Exposure means in simple terms "should foul weather happen and it does just about daily there then being exposed near shore means there is no place to land, this is bad.
Voyagers and explorers to the region encountered the Yaghan, Alacufe and Ona- Weddell, Magellan, Darwin, Drake, Cook and even Slocum.
As I traveled I would look for places to land and invariably when I found one and went ashore I noted the long gone indigenous people had used the same places for temporary settlements or camp sites. These places were marked by fire rings and rock formations used to make shelters.
I felt privileged to be there and at times some of these places seemed simply spooky for it is estimated that the southernmost inhabitants on earth had been canoeing and walking since some 10,000 years ago.,
When John Welsford and I crossed the Strait of Magellan to Porvenir we were able to see the skeletal remains of a Yaghan woman, for me a poignant moment.
There are Yaghan blood line Chileans living today, some 1,500 in number. I was told by the Chilean Navy that the last two full blood Yaghan women were in Puerto Williams Chile in 1990 and were at the time under protection of the navy. I departed for Antarctica aboard the MV Hereclitis before I had the chance to meet them. As fate would have it I was able to depart the ship and travel by sailing canoe and on my return to Puerto Williams I met both women, well I say met but in actuality they were on the beach looking over my canoe and I approached them. It was not a meeting of words but a meeting of smiles and hand gestures. They seemed to appreciate the canvas deck and wood frame, perhaps something resonated genetically in them. Since then Acuna has passed away and Cristina Calderon may still be alive living near Puerto Williams.
On my coming voyage I intend to film and photograph the remains of shelters and camps of the Yaghan for the public record. So few people have seen he southwest islands and I am quite certain there are ancient signs of habitation there unseen, quiet and welcoming as refuge to the solo small boat sailor.