March 28, 2008

Last Stop Puerto Williams

The pilot swiveled around to say buckle up. The Twin Otter was traveling to Navarin Island and Puerto Williams, this hemisphere’s southernmost town, pop. 1,200. The scratchy upholstery was mustard yellow and undoubtedly older than me. An antiquated bell trilled from the cockpit.

“Cake’s ready!” announced a female passenger behind me. Good grief. Were we flying a plane or an Easy Bake oven?

The ride was rough, punctuated by loud pings—ice popping from the aircraft (or so the pilot said). Among the passengers, there was a woman cradling an orchid in her lap, and another recovering from a gallbladder operation she had a couple days before. The other gringo on board was a screenwriter from Scranton.

I couldn’t wait to get there. With its serrated peaks (known as Dientes de Navarino) this rugged island is a hiker’s dream: deep forest, craggy peak and peat bog. But if you grew up here (say, on the Chilean Navy post, which accounts for half the population), in a windy town pocked with cow patties, you might just think it dull.

Its history is anything but. Just north of Cape Horn, Navarin Island was named by sailors. It was the territory of Yaghans, seafarers whose women skin dived for mussels in near-freezing water. Their most famous member was Jimmy Button.

In the late 1820’s Jimmy was a teenager, one of four Yaghans who Captain Fitzroy plucked aboard the H.M.S. Beagle to “educate” in England. Upon their arrival, one died from smallpox. Jimmy would later return to Navarin Island with a missionary in tow but their stores were ransacked by other Yaghans and a few years later—to the dismay of Fitzroy—Jimmy had up and gone native with them.

It was the practical thing to do.

These days the full-blood Yaghan population has been whittled to one, one whose existence invites a sad circus of anthropologists and documentarians to this otherwise forgotten fishing port.

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