I am back!

Thanks to KS Wild’s Conservation Director George Sexton for taking over the Wild Side column while I made my great escape. After 18 years at KS Wild, I took a sabbatical from the day job that I love. I spent some quality time with my family over the holidays, then I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Patagonia region of South America. Believe it or not, I even stumbled across a crucial conservation need in this stunning part of the world.

The Patagonia region is a magnet for extreme wilderness explorers from all over the world. It has it all: rugged mountains, wild rivers and sheer beauty. I witnessed trekkers brought to tears by the beauty of the region. That is right — people were really crying over nature. It is that beautiful.

I was lucky enough to have an experienced guide for my trip, the owner and operator of Momentum River Expeditions, Pete Wallstrom. Momentum leads trips on the Futaleufu River in northern Patagonia and the company is interested in finding more options for their clients in the nearby outback.

Boy did we find the outback.

We visited the famous peaks of Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine. We came face-to-face with the Moreno glacier, deep blue lakes and blow-your-mind 500 foot waterfalls. But it was the trip into the heart of the Cochomo River Valley in far northern Patagonia that stuck with me the most, and where I discovered the all-too-familiar need for conservation of our planet’s natural gems.

The best description of the Cochomo is that it is the Yosemite of Chile. After a 10-mile hike up the river valley, crossing what felt like mile-high hanging bridges and miles upon miles (it’s actually kilometers in Patagonia and the rest of the world) of muddy, horse-rutted trail, hikers are finally rewarded with colossal vertical granite walls in all directions.

Chile and Argentina have done better than some countries to establish parks and protected areas. One reason is that protected areas are a boon for tourism in the region. But the Cochomo River Valley remains in private hands. Luckily, the handful of owners realize what a stunning place they have. They are able to make money by charging for parking, campsites, and cabin rentals. They have protected their treasure and it has worked out just fine. So far....

As I settled in to our campsite in the Cochomo, the rain really started to fall. The weather in Patagonia is extreme, to say the least. We experienced wind that literally blew us over, and remaining vertical was a daily challenge. Even though January through March is summer in the southern hemisphere, the rain and cloud cover only breaks occasionally. The right gear is utterly essential.

As I began chatting with the campsite host in the dry shelter, I learned that the area around the Cochomo is not as safe as I had believed. One of the large private landowners recently bought up land in hopes of building a dam or a mine in the area. He comes from a mining background and is friendly with the new right-wing president of Chile. (Sound eerily familiar to the political state of affairs in the United States?)

It was heartening, however, to see that all the other local landowners were resolved to save the Cochomo area from this threat. They are trying to get the developer to instead make his land a private park and to preserve what makes the area so special — a wild getaway for the soul to experience sublime beauty.

As I returned home to the Siskiyou Mountains, I was reminded of what an extraordinary place we live in as well. I thought about the interesting parallels between the Cochomo Valley and southern Oregon. They are almost exactly the same latitude (distance from the equator), have remarkably similar geology, and are threatened by similar business interests intent on extracting wealth from nature rather than preserving it for future generations.

Most importantly, southern Oregon and the Cochomo are both filled with people who love where they live and are determined to defend what they love.

— Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.