The Last River

Note: I believe this will be the final post – a funeral dirge for the long slow death Snapshots has seen over the last few months.

But it is not the end of this blog! I hope to come up with a new scheme soon enough. And if you’re just joining at this late hour, please scroll down to explore past posts. Thank you for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed this experience as much as I have.


Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina, January, 2013

I’d walked three days, chasing glaciers. Hanging ones draped the crags above my path, showing their ice-blue underbellies as I passed beneath. I crossed one, watching its surface for cracks as I angled up towards a mountain pass where the snow fell away to gravel and scree. At the top I had my first view over the ice field. Whipped by the wind that always seeks the same passes as me, I had to come down a little ways before I could really take it in. When I did it looked like the end of the world.

Below me for a little ways was the barren rock and scrub of high mountain country, but there was soil still, and plant life. The land made a brief shelf, then dropped off, down to the ice. The field itself was a giant off-white mass with no end in site and a geography all its own. There were small white mountains and big black swirls of dirt – soil blown in from the living world.

On a map the ice field weaves behind the backside of El Chalten and splits the Argentinean and Chilean sides of this transnational park – a glacial inland sea. I came down from the pass and sat where I could spend a long time staring down at the field’s surface. Snow swept across in the sweeping winds.

All this ice, which I suppose is technically one giant glacier, ends in a large dramatic wall over Lago Viedma, a lake which keeps the glacier’s width as it moves out from its calving front. If you wait long enough you can watch a chunk break off and drop into the water, this is the calving. I wasn’t so lucky, but I did hear one – a sharp crack followed by a splash as I lay in my tent that night, high above where the ice hit the water.

The next day, as I dropped down out of the mountains and onto the long plain I would follow back to town, it was with the awareness that it was my last day walking. Tomorrow I’d start a series of bus trips, and in a few days fly to Costa Rica and a new job. It was sunny and the cold disappeared with the altitude. Rain pants and coat were packed away, and I carried along in shorts and a fleece, savoring every stride through the waving brown grass, with the bluest of blue Patagonian skies above.

All day I crossed this plain, my head on a swivel and my feet struggling to keep the path, which appeared and disappeared amongst the tall grasses and softly rolling ridges. Soon enough it was evening, and were it not for being able to judge my position against the lake, little would have told me that I’d progressed at all. The strides became less pleasant as my legs took on the burn from the day before, and I knew that I still had a long ways to go. Though I knew I would soon miss it, I didn’t want to spend another night in Patagonia’s backcountry. Today I had town on my mind. There had after all been tell of an authentic czech pilsner on offer, my favorite type of beer.

Lost in this pleasant vision I came over a last rise, and before me was the river. I’d been warned; “don’t try to cross it close to the hills,” a park ranger told me, “do it farther down, where it starts to break up.” So I walked along besides it for a while, until it split. I reached a point where I could cross one stretch, then a rocky bar, and then another stretch. It looked shallow enough, so I decided to try.

I’d crossed other rivers on this trip, and they’d been damn cold. One strategy I’d used was to get naked, pack my clothes in my bag and hold my boots above my head. There was a cold bite when you reached the other side, but you had dry clothes to put on and no one was around to witness the cold’s unmanning effects. But I was so close to the end, and convinced only my legs and feet would get wet. I left my clothes on, but unbuckled the waist and chest strap of my backpack, so I could shake it off if necessary.

This river was as cold as the others, but I kept my eyes on that rocky bar as I waded in. I was halfway across that first stretch when I knew it was too deep, and too fast. But I kept trying, until my feet went out from under me.

Downstream I went. Panic didn’t strike until I tried to bring my feet beneath me and found no purchase. I bounced a knee off one rock, my pack off another. Soon the pack was on top of me, pushing my face into the cold water. I couldn’t shake it off. Instead I tried to dig in with my hands, desperate to get a grip on something but failing. I rolled onto my back, and finally got my feet under me. I rose panting, shocked with cold and adrenaline, in the middle of the river and on a rocky bar. But not the one I’d been aiming for.

I don’t know how far downstream I’d been swept. On the bar I rested a moment, trying to regain control of my pounding heart, before I waded into the other side. When I did I again got halfway, before the river took my legs away. Again panic, and scrambling, and finally finding a purchase. But not on the right side of the river.

Standing on a different bar, farther down still, I don’t know how long I looked at the cold rushing water. I didn’t want to get back in. Yet the channel behind me seemed deeper than the one in front, and crossing back the way I’d come to take the ranger’s advice more seriously seemed out of the question. I waded in again and again got swept away, slamming off rocks on the stream bed, gasping in the frigid water, but getting my feet under me on the right side of the river.

It had been crossed.

I stood there for a long time, shaking with cold and adrenaline, amazed at my own mistakes.  Patagonia had been good to me, but I’d let my guard down, and it had let me have it one last time.

My water bottles were gone from the outside pockets of my pack, as was my map. I’d been washed so far down that now I could see a ranch house by the lakeshore, and for a moment I considered showing up and asking for warmth and help. It was getting late. But town couldn’t be far, and I decided to keep moving, faster now to stay warm and beat the impending dark. Faster now because I had no water and because my gear was surely soaked through. Staying another night was a possibility I was now desperate to avoid.

There are many memories from this trip, but I will never forget those last long hours, trudging towards El Chalten. The dark came down and still I walked, abandoning hope of the trail and guiding myself by the faint and distant glow of town. It would be almost five more hours before I reached it. The stars came back out, and rare headlights would show me where the highway was. They never seemed to get closer.

Yet the leftover fear from the river dissipated, and as I felt my clothes drying off against my body my strides turned long again. The exhaustion didn’t go away, but something else seemed to rise up in front of it, blunting the tiredness in my legs and pushing me to live this moment. The stars were back out above me, and the night was cold and clear. I’d been handed a beating on that river – my knee gave a sharp pain every few steps, and both arms had deep scrapes from elbow to mid forearm. But I was grateful.

Even the headlights stopped after a time. It was midnight when I reached the hostel, and what a beautiful sense of relief when they told me that while the bunks were full, there was a space to pitch my tent amongst the climbers camped around the yard. And more relief still when I realized that my pack lining had held up, and my tent and sleeping bag were only somewhat damp.

I felt a drive to share; to convey my exhaustion, my relief, and my elation to someone, anyone. Yet not the denizens of a hostel, where bragging about your latest adventure was a cliche. And I am of the digital age, so when a raw experience grabs me out in the wild I make the mistake of getting on the hostel computer, before crashing into a deep sleep, to try and convey it through a Facebook status.

It’s a little bit shameful to republish what I wrote, but I came up with the following:

“Scratched, scraped, soaked, shaken… satisfied.”

When I checked on it the next day two college friends had commented. One wrote:

“Looks like your sexual horizons have really broadened over there, Graham.”

And the other:

“Did they put you up for adoption?”

Before leaving I drank that pilsner, and it was damn good. Then I began the long series of bus trips out. I stayed a night in the tourist stopover town of El Calafate, where I watched the Ravens win the super bowl. And I remember being very lonely, and one of only two people in the bar paying any attention. The other was a 49ers fan.