When I first drove into the Chacabuco estancia six years ago, the foreman greeted me when I knocked at his door. My wife and three kids watched from our vehicle. We were one week into a one-month tour of Patagonia, and we hoped for permission to car camp on what by reputation was the most beautiful ranch in the region.
“Anywhere you want,” the foreman said. I turned to the vehicle with a thumbs-up.
“You German?” he asked.
“No, North American. California.”
“California?” he said, his face souring “Pure bad. But here?” he continued, his face sweetening, “Here is the best place in the world.”
It was Christmas Day, one of the longest days in the austral summer, and at 7 p.m. we had three more hours of daylight. We stopped to admire five black-necked swans, then a herd of guanaco. I balanced my still camera on a fence post while Carissa, our oldest daughter (then aged 17), shot video. National Geographic Traveler was interested in an article and they needed video for the Web site; that seemed like a good opportunity for Carissa. My wife, Jennifer, and I knew the trip was also a good opportunity for Cameron, 15, and Connor, 12, to experience a wild part of the planet that over decades had meant so much to me. Now, with other friends, I was involved in its conservation, including the possibility of safeguarding this Chacabuco Valley.
Next to a small river we found a grassy flat and set up the tent. Connor and I built the fire while Jennifer peeled bubble wrap off our bottle of champagne. The cork popped into the air, and everyone cheered. I filled five cups, and we toasted to a perfect Christmas that had started that morning with a rafting trip on the nearby Rio Baker. The kids were aghast to learn that a study to dam one of Chile’s largest rivers, flowing that day at about 35,000-cubic-feet-per-second, had just been approved. “How much does a gallon of milk weigh?” our raft guide had asked. “About eight pounds?” I offered. “How many gallons of milk have you carried at once?” he asked Connor. “I guess two.” “Well, there are 250,000 gallons of milk flowing down this river every second.”
That seemed to have an impact, as did my explanation that Chacabuco Valley might be part of a future national park, and if that were to happen it could help catalyze opposition to the dam. At the start of this journey, it was our hope that the kids would be exposed as much to the threats to Patagonia as to the grandeur, and so far so good. We had camped on the shores of azure lakes with flocks of parrots winging past backdrop glaciers; the kids had also seen mile after mile of slopes littered with the charred remains of old-growth beech burned to open fields for livestock.
In the weeks ahead we would stay at an inn on the outskirts of the tourist town of Chalten, where my own education to the threats facing Patagonia-the-place started in 1986. Then, I had been hiking with Yvon Chouinard, owner of Patagonia-the-company, toward the base of Fitz Roy peak, when we crossed a field festooned with survey stakes and signposts with names of future streets. Fifteen years later I would return with my kids to find an expanding town with hotels, restaurants, Internet cafes and a microbrewery.
Most threats harbor opportunities. In the ’80s, Yvon and I would have been heartened to foresee how today, Patagonia’s employees from around the world are working to prevent much of South America’s Wild South from experiencing the same history that tamed much of North America’s Wild West. Now I am looking forward to returning to Chacabuco Valley with my kids. They will be young adults – maybe they’ll even have their own kids – and we can camp in the same place we once spent Christmas day, this time in the heart of a new national park.