At The Tail End Of Our Hemisphere
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A TRIP THROUGH SMYTH'S CHANNEL INTO THE STRAIT OF MAGELLAN-SAILING AMIDST THE CLOUDS AMONG ICEBERGS AND ANDEAN SNOWS-A LOOK AT CAPE FROWARD, THE LOWEST CONTINENTAL POINT IN THE WORLD-THE SAVAGES OF PATAGONIA-THE NAKED ALACALUFS, WHO LIVE IN CANOES -LASSOOING AN ICEBERG-A DESCRIPTION OF THE STRAIT AND ITS MAGNIFICENT SCENERY.
I AM at the tail end of our hemisphere; at the lowest continental point in the world; three thousand miles nearer the south pole than the foot of the Siamese peninsula at the end of Asia; more than a thousand miles farther south than the Cape of Good Hope, with a distance equal to the diameter of the earth between myself and the northern parts of the United States. I am on the steamer Itauri in the Strait of Magellan. Just opposite me, the black rocky walls of Cape Froward, the southernmost point of South America, rise almost straight upward to a height of 1,200 feet, and behind them, glistening in the moonlight, are the glacial snows of Mount Victoria, 2,000 feet higher. I am at the bottom of the great Andean chain, the elevations of which are the end of the mighty ridge which ties the continent together. Loaded with copper, silver, and gold, they stretch from here on their sinuous way toward the north pole. They span the equator, they drop their heads at the Isthmus of Panama, and end only at the Arctic Ocean, beyond the gold mines of Alaska and the Klondike. The hills to the southward are a part of Tierra del Fuego, above Cape Horn, and that great white frozen pyramidal cone is Mount Sarmiento, which pierces the southern sky almost 1,000 feet above the altitude of Mount Washington. Behind and in front of my ship, here as black as ink under the shadows of the hills, there turned to silver by the full moon's rays, flows the Strait of Magellan, that salt-water river, in which, moved by the tides, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans rush together and clasp their hands to bear up the commerce of the world.
The Strait of Magellan makes the passage between the oceans shorter by almost 1,000 miles. Cape Horn, part of an island almost 200 miles south of it, is surrounded by waters, always tossed about by terrible storms, and ships must go a long distance south to round it. To-night the strait is as smooth as a mill pond, and the Itauri is steaming through it as quietly as though it were the swan boat of Lohengrin. We are now almost midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific. We entered the strait by what is known as Smyth's channel, opposite Desolation Island, about 30 miles from Cape Pilar, which marks its western end. We could see the two massive rocks of the Cape as we turned to the eastward. They rise almost precipitously to a height of 1,500 feet, and when the air is clear they are in sight for many miles.
Beginning at Cape Pilar, the Strait of Magellan runs south-east to Cape Froward. It then turns to the northeast, widening here and there as it goes, until it ends at the Atlantic between Cape Virgens and Cape Holy Ghost. The channel is 365 miles long, with a width varying from 2 to 24 miles. At times our vessel is within a stone's throw of the shore, and again, in the misty air, where the channel widens, the waters seem almost to bound the horizon. This is so only in the eastern parts of the channel, on both sides of which the lands of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego are low. In the west there is little else than mountains, some of which are snow-capped and many are loaded with vast glaciers slowly sliding down them to the sea.
Below the Strait of Magellan there is a vast archipelago, the smaller islands of which are mountain peaks rising out of the waves, and the largest, the Island of Tierra del Fuego, which is larger than many of our American states; it has mountains and valleys, vast forests, and extensive plains upon which have lately been established some of the largest sheep farms in the world. North of the Strait, to the east, lies the end of southern Patagonia, and on the west is a continuation of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, the smaller islands of which, with almost all of Tierra del Fuego proper, belong to Chile. The republic has an area of land here which she calls the territory of the Magellans; it consists of 75,000 square miles, half again as large as the State of New York, and almost twice the area of Ohio.
Some of the Chilean naval vessels are here engaged in surveying the channels and harbours, but the greater part of the region is almost as unknown as it was in 1520, when Ferdinand Magellan, the Spanish navigator, discovered the Strait. The land and the people have been misrepresented by travellers from Darwin down to within recent years and it is only lately that opportunities have been afforded for careful investigation. Even now the savages I see here are less known than many tribes of Central Africa, and only the coasts of a few of the islands have been explored. The sheep farmer, the gold digger, and the government vessels, are, however, making headway, and within a few years this great archipelago will be a terra incognito no longer.
The generally accepted belief regarding southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is that they are something like Greenland or the islands of the arctic seas. The geographies represent them as wastes of ice and snow, desolate, forbidding, and terrible to the traveller. For the past four days I have been winding in and out of the channels along the western coast of lower Patagonia. Our sail has been through a series of scenic panoramas that can hardly be surpassed. We entered the archipelago by what is known as Smyth's channel route, about 400 miles above the Strait of Magellan, and coasted slowly along through one channel after another until we came into the Strait proper, at Desolation Island. Darwin compared the glaciers of Mount Sarmiento in Tierro del Fuego to a hundred frozen Niagaras. The waters along the lower end of western Patagonia present combinations which make one think of a hundred Lake Comos, Lake Genevas, and Lake Lucernes tied together in one ever-widening, ever-changing river. Here are the beauties of the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence, added to by snow-capped mountains kissed by the sun, and mighty glaciers sliding down into masses of dark green vegetation. Here are giant rocks, cathedral-shaped, covered with moss, rising straight upward from the water for a thousand feet ; mountains, their heads lost in the clouds, dropping almost precipitously into the sea; narrow gorges, in which the steamer must tack this way and that as it winds its way through islands of green and islands of rock resting in lakelets; fields of floating ice, through which the boat crashes; narrow fiords where the black water is 3,000 feet deep, and in fact such a variety of scenic wonders of cloud, mountain, and sea that I doubt whether their like can be found in the world. Suppose you could take the most picturesque parts of the Andes, the Himalayas, and the Alps, sink them up to their necks in dark blue water, pull the cloud masses down with them into the sea, and wrap their rugged sides far up from the water's edge with a wonderful mantle of green, which is now brilliant in the sunlight, anon frosted with snow, and at another time so loaded with ice that it lies in ter-races up their sides, and add to this the wonders of the south Pacific skies, and you may have a faint idea of Smyth's channel. Indeed, I despair of giving a picture of our sail through the archipelago. It lasted three days and afforded such a series of views that only a biograph of the gods, operated by their own hands, could depict them on the retina of one's imagination. All I shall attempt is to take the reader with me through some few places by a transcript of my notes made on the voyage.
Before we proceed let us look at the steamer. It lies near Concepcion in the bay of Coronel. It is the Itauri of the Kosmos line, bound for Hamburg; a German ship of 6, 200 tons, lighted by electricity and heated by steam. Captain Behrmann, her commander, is German, and so are the passengers, officers, and crew. We speak German at the table, and are, in fact, a small slice of Germany in one of the quietest harbours of the coast of Chile. I go to my room, which is as good as any of the first-class cabins of an Atlantic liner. We have our first meal here. The cooking is German. As I go down to dinner I hear the squawk of a chicken. Our meats are carried alive on board, so that we hear, later on, the baa-ing of sheep, the grunting of pigs, and the cackling of geese, mixed with the crunching of the ice fields as the steamer makes its way through them.
Before I pay the $70.00, which is my fare to Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, I ask if the ship will go via Smyth's channel. The reply is «Yes." The Kosmos is the only line that takes this route, the other steamers going through the Strait, preferring to stand the storms which sweep up along the west coast from Cape Horn to the narrow, dangerous, slow, but more quiet, land-locked waters of the Patagonian coast. We shall have to travel very slowly and must anchor at night.
But before we go let us look further at the ship. What is its cargo ? It consists of 3,000 tons of saltpeter for Germany, 2,000 barrels of Chilean honey for different parts of Europe, hundreds of rolls of Chilean sole leather for Russia, and wheat and wine for Punta Arenas and Montevideo. The steamer is now taking on 900 tons of coal. Brawny Chilean peasants are putting it into the ship; they stand in lighters and shovel the coal up to the platforms under the doors of the hold. Here other peasants shovel it in. They swear as they work, and we hear them still swearing and heaving as we go to bed.
We awake far out in the Pacific. The steamer is rolling, the white caps are dancing over the waves, and away off to the east-ward we can make out the faint blue outlines of southern Chile. A day later, in storm and rain, we steam past the long, narrow island of Chiloe, which the government is trying to colonize, and on the evening of the third day come into the Gulf of Penas and anchor at the entrance to the channel. The steamer moves slowly, though the water is like a mill-pond. We seem to be in a great river rather than on the ocean. We are sailing among the clouds through the water-filled ravines of some of the greatest of the world's mountains. On our right are grass-clad islands; on our left are rugged, jagged peaks, rising in all shapes out of the sea. There is one clothed in green, shaped like the Pyramid of Ghizeh, and there is another which is a fair likeness of the smashed-nose Sphinx. In front the green hills are climbing over one another like a troop of giants playing leap frog, and farther on they rise upward in fort-like walls of green a thousand feet high, losing themselves in a misty white cloud which rests above them.
As we proceed, the channel narrows and widens. Now we are in lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains, now in cañons, now we sail by a break in the mountains, a deep fiord with moss-green walls, snow dusted, a thousand feet high, and filled with black water a thousand feet deep. As we look, the sun breaks its way into the gorge and turns the water to silver — it paints diamonds in the snow of its moss-green hills. Over there is a glacier, a great green mass, shining out upon the ragged sides of a snowy mountain. As we look the sun has struck it, and it is now a bed of emeralds in a setting of frosted silver.
The weather and the sky change every moment. We have an ever-varying panorama of sky and sea and land. We sail out of the sunlight into a snow storm, and, by and by, steam right out of the snow into the sun. Now the sky is almost blue overhead, with fleecy white clouds scattered here and there through it. Cloud masses here nestle in the velvety laps of the hills, there they wrap themselves about the snowy peaks as though to warm them, and beyond they stoop down and press warm, tantalizing kisses upon their icy lips. Upon the snow-dusted hills and dark waters are dashes of silver where the sun has poked its way through the clouds. The varying light makes the channel on one side black; on the other side it is of a beautiful, yellowish green; and behind, where the sun strikes it, the ship has left a path of molten silver.
The hills change even as the water under the sun. Now they are dark, anon the sun washes them with its rays, and the ferns, moss, and trees brighten. The ragged volcanic background of the rocks shows out, and through the green and black, falling hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet, almost straight down, are silvery cascades, some as tiny streamlets, others in larger volume. These are to be seen all along these inland channels. They come from the glaciers and the mountain snows.
One of the strangest of the atmospheric effects happened on our third day in the channel. The mountain-walled river had widened and we were again coming to narrows, when over our pathway in front of us a rainbow sprang from the snowy summits of a low mountain in the south to that of another mountain almost opposite on the north of the channel, making a great rainbow span over the dark water. It was a splendid, many-coloured arch of the gods seemingly resting upon pedestals of frosted silver. As we approached the rainbow faded and the sky became blue overhead, but a great wall of fleecy white clouds had dropped down upon, or rather risen up from, the water. When I first saw it I thought it was a field of icebergs. It was as white as snow and it extended upward to a height of several hundred feet, stretching across the channel from mountain to mountain. Above this wall the sky was clear and the only other clouds to be seen were those hovering over the mountain peaks. We sailed out of the brightness right into this cloud wall, out of the dry air into a mist so dense that we could almost wash our hands in it. Half an hour later we were again under a clear sky. At times the masts of the steamer were in the clouds and the deck was clear and dry; anon the clouds would form a roof over the channel, and again the lower walls of the hills would be hidden and we could look over the clouds at the green and snow above.
It is strange to think of green moss, green trees, and a mass of dense green vegetation amid snows and glaciers. That, how-ever, is what we have here. The glaciers slide down into the green, and the snow falls and melts upon it all winter long. In many places the green is clear, in others it is snow dusted, and in others still loaded with snow masses. Only upon the highest peaks is it all snow and ice. Even in the jungles of India I have not seen so dense a growth of trees and plants as along the west coast of Patagonia. We had a chance to go on shore every afternoon when we anchored for the night. Pushing our way into the country was, however, impossible. The trees are evergreens, generally small, but so dense that we could walk on their tops on snow shoes. A bed of moss as deep as one's waist covers the ground about them, and great ferns with leaves as long as one's arm extend out in every bare and rocky spot. The ground is saturated with moisture. The mould and rotting wood of centuries covers it, and you sink in and stumble about more than you would in an Irish bog.
It is only on the higher parts of the mountains that vegetation ceases, and only there that the climate is such as to produce glaciers and perpetual snow. The icebergs which we saw in the channel come from these glaciers, which are among the finest in the world, many of them surpassing, it is said, the largest glaciers of the Alps. In Tierra del Fuego they line the channels in places with walls of ice a thousand feet high, and ships must sail carefully not to be struck by the icebergs which, in blocks of a thousand tons and upward, break off from them with a noise like thunder and fall into the sea. Icebergs often fill Smyth's channel so that it is impossible to get through. This was the case last year, when one of the steamers was forced to go back, and just where we are now passing, the ship upon which I now am had its bows crushed in by an iceberg. This glacial ice is not like that of our rivers and lakes; it is as hard as a rock and of a crystalline green.
During our second day in the archipelago the captain stopped the steamer, lassoed an iceberg and towed it close up to the ship. It was a little berg, no larger than a Washington city lot, but it was of a beautiful opalescent green, with a top of frosted silver and many angles and projections. With crowbars the steward and a boat load of sailors attacked it and broke off enough ice to last us the remainder of the voyage. One of the great log chains used for hoisting heavy cargo was first coupled about the corner of one of the ice masses, then a lever in the engine room was pulled and a section of an iceberg was raised to the deck of the vessel. Some of these blocks were very large ; altogether we must have taken on board a hundred tons of ice.
During our voyage through these strange islands we saw but little animal life. Now and then we passed a small school of seals that popped their heads out of the water and took a peep at the steamer as it went by. We saw half a dozen whales during the trip and occasionally an albatross and a gull.
We had a number of visits from the wild savages of the Magellans, the naked Indians of the Patagonian channels, who are perhaps the least known of all wild men. As far as I could learn, no ethnologist has ever lived with or made a study of them. They are different from the Onas and Yaghans of Tierra del Fuego, among whom missionaries have laboured, and several of whom were carried years ago to England. The Indians of Smyth's channel are known as the Alacalufs: there are, all told, only about 500 of them. They have no chiefs or tribal relations, each family taking care of itself, and living in its own canoe.
The Alacalufs are strictly canoe Indians; they live almost entirely upon the sea, and they are found only in these straits off the coast of southern Patagonia. They sleep sometimes on land, in little wigwams three feet high, made by bending over the branches of trees and tying them together. They build a fire in front of the wigwam and crawl into it for the night. Their canoes are well constructed: they are about fifteen feet long, about three or four feet wide, and, perhaps, two feet deep. They are made of strips of bark sewn together with sinews; they are cross ribbed, and so made that they can be easily paddled. In the centre of each boat is a fire, built on some earth, and about this sit those of the family who are not paddling or steering the boat. They are curious-looking people, wearing no clothes and apparently comfortable even amid the snows of winter, with only a coating of fish oil to protect them. Since they have seen white men, however, they are glad to get such clothing as they can beg, and they come about the ships and ask for cast-off garments, food, and tobacco. Some of those we saw were as naked as Adam and Eve before the Fall; others wore pieces of old clothes.
One man, I remember, who was apparently the head of the almost naked family in his canoe, had on a short vest, open at the front, and a rag apron as small as a lady's handkerchief tied to a string about his waist. His favourite wife, lightly clad in a string of beads, sat in a boat near the fire, with a naked boy of two who sucked his fingers as he leaned against her; his other wife, a buxom girl in her teens, held a naked baby to her breast with one hand, while she paddled the boat with the other. I was meantime shivering in my overcoat, but as I looked I could not see that the savages were either cold or miserable. The young mother at the end of the boat had on only a cast-off sack coat, which she had thrown over her shoulders to partially cover her-self and her baby. As she paddled, this kept falling off, and her person and that of the baby were exposed. Both were plump, as were all the children.
The men and women were rather under- than over-sized. Their faces were somewhat like those of our Indians. The men were especially dirty, evidently from the use of paint. The naked brave in the vest had a thin black moustache. All had black hair; the women wearing it long and the men cut off, so that it just covered the ears and fell down in a thick black fringe over the eyes. Their skins were of a brown coffee colour, and all had very white teeth, which they showed again and again as they laughed. Their voices were not unpleasant, and they mimicked us as we called out to them.
The man in the vest had two or three otter skins, which one of the officers of the ship endeavoured to buy. The Indian would not come on board, however, and the officer had to crawl down the side of the ship and hold on there over the boat by a rope, while he sought to make the trade. He had a big butcher knife in one hand, while he held on to the rope by the other. He wanted the savage to give him two skins for the knife, but the savage thought that one was enough. The naked man would not give up the skin until he had the knife in his hand, and in the trade he displayed no little shrewdness and ability to bargain. Neither party could understand the other, and neither would trust the other. In the end, the savage, however, got the best of the bargain. The only things that can be used in trading with these people are bright cloths, beads, tobacco, and knives. They do not know the use of money, and would rather have a jack-knife or hatchet than a gold nugget. They were evidently afraid to come on board, for they are by no means friendly to strangers, and will kill them if they can attack them with safety. They use bows and arrows for defence and in warfare.
The food for the family is usually got by the women of the tribe, of whom each man has one or more. The food consists of fish, mussels, and now and then a fox, seal, or otter. The women fish with lines, but without hooks. They tie a small piece of meat to the end of a line, and when the fish has swallowed this it is jerked into the canoe. The Alacalufs are fond of whale meat, and a dead whale, it is said, is cut in pieces and buried, to be eaten in its various stages of decomposition as long as it lasts. They understand what tobacco is, and those we met were quite as anxious to get tobacco as food. They had but a few foreign words, one of which was " Frau Lehman," the term by which they designate all foreigners; the two other words in use by them were «galleta," the Spanish word for sweet cakes, and " tabac," the German equivalent for tobacco.