This follows on immediately from my previous blog, about my visit to see the forest of Araucaria trees (Araucaria araucana) at the Nasampulli Reserve in Chile, during the southern autumn in April this year. In the afternoon of my fourth day there, the snow had stopped (or so it appeared at least), and Esteban Arias (the researcher and park ranger based at the reserve) and I decided to go for a longer walk. This was along an old logging track, and it was easier going on that because it was more open, although the snow was still knee-deep in most places. As we walked I couldn’t stop wondering at how remarkable it was that just 24 hours previously, this entire area had still been in the middle of the rainstorm, but now it was a white wonderland.
The track led through an area of the forest where the evergreen coigüe trees were replaced by lenga trees (Nothofagus pumilio), which are deciduous. They were just coming into their autumn colours of various shades of yellow and orange, and it was spectacular to see the juxtaposition of these brilliant hues with the snow all around.
The Araucaria trees were holding more snow on them than the lengas, because of the dense concentration of rigid, scaly leaves on their branches, but they have evolved to cope with these high snow loads. The areas where their branches join a tree’s main trunk, which obviously take the most stress from the weight of snow further out on the branches, have a high concentration of resin in them. These parts of the tree are known locally as picoyos (there is no equivalent English name that I’m aware of), and the resin content gives them both great strength and extreme durability. After an Araucaria dies and the trunk falls to the ground, decomposition slowly takes place in the wood, and the picoyos persist for longer than any other part of the tree, because of their high resin content.
The track we were walking along led to a small clearing, which had been the site of a sawmill during the period when the forest was logged. Although many Araucaria trees must have been felled then, there were still a lot of beautiful old trees on the slopes surrounding the clearing.
They are a seed source for the natural regeneration of young Araucarias that have begun to grow after the logging ended and the area was protected. It was great to see these new trees growing healthily, and it almost seemed to me as though the old Araucarias were looking on with satisfaction and delight at their progeny.
Everywhere I looked there was stunning beauty, with the bright autumn colours of the lenga trees highlighted by, and contrasting with, the snow that accentuated the geometrical pattern formed by the branches of the Araucaria trees. My heart was full of joy and wonder at this unique combination of the seasons – brightly-coloured autumnal leaves and winter snow – and it seemed like a very special gift of the elements, the mountains and the forest to create this experience for us.
While we had been walking it had begun to snow again intermittently, and this provided an added magic to the scene, as the trees in the background were sometimes totally obscured by the falling snow, only to be revealed again in the crystal clear air when the snowfall stopped. Photography became a challenge because my fingers were getting extremely cold from touching the metal of my camera and the tripod, but at least the umbrella helped to keep my equipment free of the snow.
That protection only lasted for a little while though, as the snow flurries turned into a full-scale blizzard, with driving winds blowing large flakes of snow in all directions. It was a dramatic and spectacular wilderness experience being out in the forest in this weather, feeling the full force of the elements and with our visiblity of the landscape constantly changing as the snow swirled and danced around us. Photographs can’t really provide a full sense of what it was like, so I concentrated on shooting some more video footage:
By this time it was quite late in the afternoon, and we decided to head back to the cabin before the darkness descended. On our way, the snow stopped falling and we were rewarded with some larger-scale views of the forest all around us. While there was plenty of snow in our immediate vicinity, we could see that there was much more higher up on the mountainsides, where it was colder.
I would have loved to get to those areas, where everything was totally white, but the lateness of the day and the distance involved meant that wasn’t an option. I had to make do with savouring the view instead, and I hoped that the snowy conditions would continue on the next day, when we planned to visit another part of the reserve. As it was, we were happy to get back to the cabin, warm up again, and dry off our clothes, which inevitably had got wet from the snow, despite our ‘waterproof’ jackets.
The next day dawned cloudless, sunny and much warmer, and the snow quickly began to melt around the cabin. We were planning to do a longer hike that would take us up to a higher elevation, so I hoped that the snow would remain there, where the temperature would be lower. After having got wet repeatedly in the previous days, the sunshine was a very welcome change, but any thoughts I had about remaining dry were quickly dispelled when we started to walk.
The route we were following was another old logging track, which was now lined with young coigüe trees (Nothofagus dombeyi) and colihue or bamboo (Chusquea culeou) three metres or more in height. Because of their dense foliage and flexible branches, these had caught and held large quantities of snow, which had bent them double, down to the ground. There, they had become frozen in place overnight when the temperature had been well below freezing, and they now blocked the track completely in many places. We had to scramble over them where we could, and underneath them in other places. Inevitably we got showered in snow as we did so, and were soon soaking again, although it was a completely cloudless, warm sunny day!
It was very hard going because of the obstacles formed by the branches. Esteban had to use a machete in some places, as cutting the foliage was the only way that would allow us to proceed. We had to constantly watch out for branches springing back up as we moved past them – if we weren’t careful we got large quantities of snow dumped on us as they reverted to their normal, upright positions!
The difficulties of negotiating our way along the track were offset though by the occasional glimpses we’d get of the skyline, where the Araucaria trees were still completely covered in snow, which sparkled in the sunshine and contrasted beautifully with the bright blue sky above. At one stage a large bird flew high overhead. I hoped at first that it might be an Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), but Esteban identified it as a black vulture (Coragyps atratus).
Down at the level we were walking at, the temperature had warmed up more and the snow was rapidly melting on the branches of the trees, much to my dismay. I’d been hoping to get more photos of the Araucarias completely covered in white, but there was little chance of that, with the warmth and sunshine of the day.
What a change it was again from the weather of the previous days!
As we walked, we came upon a part of the forest which was shaded from the sun by the tall Araucaria trees all around. There, out of the sun, the temperature was still very cold and I found some beautiful patterns of snow crystals on the leaves of some young coigüe trees. The frozen snow stood out vividly from the deep green of the leaves, in some cases as scattered patches, and in others as a solid mass of crystalline architecture that covered the leaves entirely.
There had been a hard frost during the night, and in what must have been a particularly cold spot in the forest this had caused the partially melted snow to freeze into these beautiful geometric shapes. As I looked closely at them, I could see how the crystals must have grown slowly as the night progressed, joining up with each other to form these remarkable aggregations of jumbled miniature ice shapes.
They were another example of Nature’s endless, but highly ephemeral, creativity, and I spent a little while examining them in detail, marvelling at the uniqueness of the patterns and shapes on every leaf of this young coigüe tree. I knew I had to make the most of those moments, as the sun was moving around and soon the leaves would be fully exposed to its light and heat, and all this wonderful crystalline artistry would just melt away …
We continued walking along, back out in the sunshine again, and at a certain point when I turned to look back at the way we had come, I was astonished at what I saw. The trunk of one Araucaria tree was silhouetted against the blue sky, with the crown of another tree behind it, and the trunk was literally steaming! Because of the heat of the sun, the snow was sublimating straight into steam, and I just happened to be in the right place to see it, where the rising moisture was backlit against the tree behind. Some of the snow was melting more normally and falling as raindrops, creating the white streaks in the sky in the photograph here.
We came to a clearing in the forest, which Esteban told me had been the site of another small sawmill during the time when this forest had been logged. There was a vigorous growth of new young Araucarias in the open area now, which I found very encouraging, and we stopped to appreciate them while we had our lunch. Araucaria trees of this age graphically embody the repeating geometric branching pattern that characterises the species, and this was particularly noticeable here, against the backdrop of the blue sky.
It was surprisingly hot in the bright sunshine, and it seemed to me as though I was experiencing my third season in as many days. This one was warmer and sunnier than many summer days back home in Scotland, while the previous snowy day had been a blast of winter, and the rainy days that preceded it were typically autumnal in terms of the temperature and their greyness. For someone who relishes powerful experiences out in wild Nature I had certainly got more than I bargained for this time!
Because where I live in northern Scotland has a maritime climate, mediated by the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream, the weather there is generally mild and moderate in its variations. By contrast, the Andes of southern Chile are subject to a continental climate, with greater swings and extremes which I was experiencing some good examples of. I certainly wasn’t complaining about the sun though, as it was warming me up and drying off some of my wet clothes and footwear. However, it was still melting the snow very quickly, and we could almost see the change minute by minute as the branches of the trees were freed up from their white coverings.
When we set off again, the path led uphill and into an area of the forest that had escaped the logging. There, tall coigüe trees flourished amongst the Araucarias creating a deep shade, with the sun illuminating the leaves of the trees in the few gaps that existed. As we walked we were accompanied by the steady patter of water drops falling off the trees as the snow melted. The droplets caught the sunlight, creating momentary sparkles of luminous brilliance as they fell, bringing the forest to life in a new way.
Although the snow in the canopy overhead was melting rapidly, that on the ground was still as deep and undisturbed as when it had fallen. Walking through it continued to be tough, with the snow reaching up to the top of my thighs in places where it had drifted. We remained in the dense forest for the rest of the afternoon, and in fact we didn’t reach our intended destination, because our progress was slowed down so much by the difficult conditions.
At a certain point we had to head back towards the cabin, as it was getting late. Our return was via a different route, which involved a steeper descent of some of the snow-covered slopes, but at least it was shorter than the way we had slogged through for most of the day. The light was fading as we walked, and then it began to get dark, making the search for secure footing with each step in the deep snow more challenging. For the last 45 minutes or so we had to use our head torches as the darkness had descended fully. We were both very glad to get back to the cabin, to dry off again and to rest our muscles that had begun to ache after the rigours of walking through deep snow all day long.
Here’s some video footage from the day, including the steaming Araucaria tree and the constant rain of meltwater from the snow through the trees:
The next day was my last at Nasampulli, and I’d originally agreed with Esteban that we’d depart in the morning. However, it was another beautiful sunny day and because I’d missed out on seeing a lot of the reserve due to the wild weather we decided to walk up to the viewpoint again before leaving. It was the right thing to do too, as the views were stunning. In one direction, looking northwards, the Araucaria forest stretched into the distance, with the snow-covered cone of Llaima Volcano in Conguillio National Park towering dramatically on the skyline.
That park is one of my favourite places to visit the Araucaria forest, and I’ve written a couple of blogs about it recently, which can be found here and here. Llaima Volcano is the central feature of the park, and it was great to see it from this different location and angle. I was also planning to make another visit to Conguillio five days after leaving Nasampulli, and that would be the last Araucaria forest site I went to on this trip. It was therefore an exciting reminder of what I had planned for the finale of this journey.
The viewpoint also provided a good vista to the south, where a succession of ridges were covered in Araucaria forest, with Villarrica Volcano visible in the distance. That volcano gives its name to both the lake below it and the large national park that encompasses it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time there as well during the five trips I’ve made to Chile since January 2015 while I’ve been working on my Araucaria book project, and it’s another of my favourite sites to see the forest.
I hadn’t spent any significant time in the areas between Villarrica and Llaima Volcanoes before, so I was particularly grateful to get a sense of the extent and condition of the Araucaria forest at Nasampulli, and how the reserve there relates geographically to the much larger National Parks to the north and south of it. It was also slightly sobering to see what is close to the maximum range of where the Araucaria tree occurs in the Andes.
The most southerly Araucarias are those on the south side of Villarrica Volcano, while Llaima Volcano is close to the northern end of the tree’s range. It’s actually a relatively small section of the Andes where the tree grows, and the viewpoint at Nasampulli must be close to the centre of its range, given that I could see almost to the forests limits in both directions, north and south. There is of course another population of Araucaria trees in Chile’s Coastal Range Mountains, most of which is protected in Nahuelbuta National Park, but it’s much smaller in its extent than the main forest in the Andes.
All too soon, it was time to leave the viewpoint and return to the cabin, in preparation for leaving the reserve. As we walked back, I became aware of how the forest is constantly changing, as the fresh snow was already covered in many places by forest debris that had fallen on to it. There were lots of piñones – the large seeds of the Araucaria tree – in some places, where they must have been blown down by the wind.
Some twigs that had been blown off a coigue tree had bright red leaves on them. These contrasted dramatically with the white snow, as did the yellowish stems of some colihue or bamboo plants (Chusquea culeou), which are common in the understorey of the forest.
Somehow the overwhelming whiteness of the landscape seemed to help lead my attention to the few spots of bright colour that could be found in the forest. My eye was drawn in that way to one particular coigüe tree, where a large patch of moss (Leptostomum menziesii) had an abundance of spore capsules rising up from its leaves. It looked like a miniature forest, tilted on its side, and was lush and radiant in its colour, due to the abundant precipitation of the previous days, that must have kept the moss fully hydrated.
There was less snow under the dense canopy of the trees as we returned towards the cabin, and much of the understorey vegetation had now become visible again in places. One of the commoner shrub species there is chaura (Gaultheria phillyreifolia) and several of these seemed to have unusually dense concentrations of foliage on them. I wondered if this might be a galling process of some sort, but very little work has been done on the identification of galls in the Araucaria forest, apart from those that occur on the Nothofagus trees.
In the clearing where the cabin is located there was still some snow on the ground, but it was only a few cm. in depth now, as most of it had melted. The little that was left provided a natural backdrop for some Araucaria seedlings that had been tagged with three short sticks, as part of the monitoring process for the return of the forest in clearings like this. Some of these young Araucarias have been planted as seedlings that have been propagated at Nasampulli, while others have regenerated naturally by themselves.
Esteban was unable to say whether the one I photographed here had been planted, or if it had germinated in situ of its own accord, as he hadn’t been at the reserve when the tagging was done. In actuality, it doesn’t really matter how the young Araucaria came to be there. What’s important is that it is growing successfully, thereby forming part of a new generation of these ancient trees that is replacing those that were lost to the logging operations of the 20th century on this site.
It was very heartening to see this process of ecological restoration and recovery getting well underway, now that Nasampulli is protected and being cared for under the ownership of the UK-based conservation charity, Rainforest Concern. This return of new life to the forest was graphically symbolised for me when I spotted a green butterfly (Colias flaveola) resting on the snow just outside the cabin, as I was about to leave the reserve. It seemed like a little miracle that this butterfly had survived the wild weather of the previous few days, and was sitting there, apparently unaffected by the cold temperature of the snow. It was a powerful reminder of the resilience of Nature, and felt to me very much like a herald for the resurgence of life at Nasampulli. The ancient Araucaria forest there survived the ecological havoc of the logging in the previous century, just as this butterfly had survived the extremes of the storm I’d experienced, and life was renewing itself, in all its beauty, diversity and abundance.