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Microplastics in a Macroworld: Water Sampling in Patagonia

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventure Scientists bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, Dylan Jones describe his experience backpacking through the spectacular landscape of the future Patagonia National Park and collecting microplastic samples for Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative

By: Dylan Jones

I feel as if we’ve stumbled into the center of the universe. We emerge from the thick forest canopy that has been obscuring our view for miles. The landscape is vast; the sky even bigger. Milky water from a braided stream weaves across a wide riverbed. Majestic spires crown craggy peaks as waterfalls tumble thousands of feet from snow fields in shaded couloirs.

Valle_Hermoso_Patagonia
Snowy couloirs and craggy spires adorn the dramatic mountains of Valle Hermoso in Chile’s Jeinimeni National Reserve. This landscape will join Parque Patagonia to form the 640,000-acre future Patagonia National Park. PC: Dylan Jones

We’ve finally reached Valle Hermoso, one of the more pristine places in Chilean Patagonia. Our team is documenting Parque Patagonia, a 200,000-acre tract currently owned by eco-philanthropy organization Conservacion Patagonica that will join Chile’s Jeinimeni and Tamango national reserves to form the future 640,000-acre Patagonia National Park.

It’s day two of our three-day trek of Sendero Avilés, a 31-mile point-to-point hike that connects Parque Patagonia to the Jeinimeni National Reserve. It’s a hike that Nadine Lehner, our guide and owner of Chulengo Expeditions, says “will probably become the classic backpacking trip of the park.”

Although we’re here to document the pristine park, I’m on a personal mission to gather water samples for the Adventure Scientists Global Microplastics Initiative, an ambitious project seeking to identify sources, composition, and distribution of microplastics pollution.

Final Frontier

On our previous day’s trek along Rio Avilés, Nadine informed us that this remote part of the Aysén Region, Chile’s least populous, was one of the final places in South America to be settled by Westerners. I think about that as a brilliant shaft of sunlight pierces the evening clouds and illuminates the stream at the terminus of Valle Hermoso’s glacier. I scoop the ice-cold water in my hands and take a drink. Little human and animal activity means the Giardia lamblia parasite is currently nonexistent, turning most streams and lakes into potable water sources.

It suddenly strikes me that we are in one of the final frontiers on the planet; perhaps only a few thousand people have ever set foot in this valley. It also strikes me that this should be the site of my first water sample. I fill my plastic bottle and can’t see through it. The water in this stream is quite opaque from rock flour—pulverized stone particles suspended in solution that give glacial runoff its unmistakable hue.

Lago Verde_Patagonia
Valle Hermoso’s glacial waters drain into Lago Verde. The water in the braided streams is laden with rock flour sediment, making it too difficult to analyze for microplastics in the lab. PC: Dylan Jones

Although spectacular in beauty, I decide this sampling site is not ideal for the analytical requirements of the microplastics project—too much sediment can make analysis impossible under strict lab protocols. I learn that tomorrow, we’ll ascend a pass and drop into an adjacent valley where a crystal-clear stream should offer prime sampling conditions.

Finding Clarity

We stomp through the ephemeral braids of the stream under the morning sky. By now, we’ve accepted wet boots as the norm on Sendero Avilés, and I get a childish sense of joy with each splash into the ice-cold water.

crossing stream_patagonia
Expedition photographer Gabe DeWitt embraces numb feet to shoot as guide Nadine Lehner (right) and writer Samantha Larson (left) cross the braided streams near Lago Verde. PC: Dylan Jones

The riverbed of the neighboring valley appears to be older. Crystal-clear water flows in calm riffles through rounded river stones in a single channel, just as Nadine promised. I dig the plastic bottle out of my pack and take my first sample in South America. Euphoria accompanies my wide smile as I record the data on my smartphone. Although I’ve added over two pounds of weight to my pack, it’s an even trade for the weight that suddenly lifts from my mind.

Patagonia Sin Represas

Lago General Carrera cabin
Cabin on Lago General Carrera, PC: Dylan Jones

I wake at 6:00 a.m., comfortable in my sleeping bag despite the stiff bed. I take a deep breath, smell the coffee, and stumble out into the living room. The incredible scene comes into focus through floor-to-ceiling windows: Frothy waves lap at a pebble beach several meters from the porch. Undulating turquoise waters influenced by dynamic winds extend for tens of miles, walled in by the imposing peaks of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.

We are fortunate to be eating breakfast in a lovely cabin on Lago General Carrera. With a surface area of 714 square miles, the glacial lake is Chile’s largest. It drains west to the Pacific via Rio Baker, one of the world’s premier class V whitewater runs. Originally scheduled to be tamed by two controversial mega-dams, the Baker was saved in 2015 following a successful campaign by grassroots river advocacy group Patagonia Sin Represas.

patagonia sin represas billboard
Patagonia Sin Represas/Patagonia without dams, PC: Gabe DeWitt

Patagonia Sin Represas was featured in 180 Degrees South, the 2010 adventure film that retraces the footsteps of Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard during their legendary 1968 journey through Patagonia to climb Mount Fitz Roy. On our trip into Parque Patagonia, we passed an anti-dam billboard outside the lakeside town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo that was erected during the height of the campaign. After learning the details from Nadine, who had participated in several protests, it was uplifting to see the message in the wake of the major environmental victory.

Big Land, Small World

Although Patagonia covers over 400,000 square miles, its ardent supporters live in a small world. Nadine was the former executive director of Conservacion Patagonica, the organization donating Parque Patagonia to Chile. Conservacion Patagonica was founded in 2000 by Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins. Our cabin on Lago General Carrera belongs to Lito Tejada-Flores, one of the mountaineers who accompanied Tompkins and Chouinard on the ‘68 Fitz Roy climb. Like the water cycle, the Patagonian connections came full circle.

Life is also cyclical. Doug Tompkins’s life came to a sudden close on December 8, 2015 in a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera, when he died from hypothermia after his kayak capsized in a large swell. Doug’s tragic passing sent shockwaves through the adventure and conservation communities. Intimately close with the Tompkins, Nadine’s standard tone of optimism turned solemn when discussing Doug’s death.

A Drop in the Bucket

At its southern end, Lago General Carrera flows into Lago Bertrand; the Rio Baker originates from Betrand’s southern tip. The bottleneck at the confluence of the two glacial lakes is spanned by Puente General Carrera, a bright orange suspension bridge that contrasts the brilliant blue hue of the water beneath its grated deck.

collecting a microplastic water sample
Dylan Jones collects a microplastic water sample in the Rio Baker, PC: Gabe DeWitt

I decide this should be my second sample site. On the gravel shore, a fire ring filled with charcoal and tin cans serves as evidence of past travelers. Fishing line is strewn about, wrapped around various twigs and bridge components, the free ends floating in the incessant surface winds.

My ankles go numb as I rinse my sample bottle a third time. I take a deep breath as my hands follow suit when I submerge the bottle for the sample. Bubbles rise as the air from the Jeinimeni Mountains is replaced with water that will journey to Maine. Numb extremities are a small price to pay for science.

Into the Horizon

As we rumble back to the airport in Balmaceda, I catch my final glimpse of Lago General Carrera. Its vastness makes it seem as if you’ll be able to see it forever, but even the grandest landscapes eventually fade into the horizon. As the last glimmer of turquoise dips behind the verdant hills, I think about Doug Tompkins.

His legacy lives on through the millions of pristine acres he and Kristine have preserved through Conservacion Patagonia. We were fortunate to cross paths with Kristine and her family while hiking Circuito Lago Chico, one of Kristine’s favorite hikes in Parque Patagonia. The euphoria I felt in her presence was accompanied by sorrow—I couldn’t shake the feeling that Doug should have been standing there beside her. But after spending a week becoming intimate with one of Kristine’s favorite landscapes, I feel as though I met Doug Tompkins that day.

 

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Dylan Jones, PC: Gabe DeWitt

Dylan Jones is a writer and photographer based in the mountains of West Virginia. He has collected data for Adventure Scientists in the American West, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Chile. He is managing editor of Highland Outdoors and a regular contributor to RootsRated. Dylan holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public administration, both from West Virginia University.

 

Find out more about the Global Microplastics Initiative  and other Adventure Scientists projects by visiting their website, and by following them on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.