Kent’s half-baked plan when he departed New York in June 1922 was to travel to Punta Arenas and there somehow—he was not yet famous and had no money—procure a boat and sail it westward through the Strait of Magellan, around Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, and then back to Punta Arenas. Upon arrival he managed to get hold of a lifeboat from one of the many abandoned hulks rotting in the harbor at Punta Arenas. One of the vessels there at that time, dismasted and forgotten, was the South Street Seaport Museum’s own ship Wavertree. She had been towed to Punta Arenas in 1911 after being dismasted in a storm off Cape Horn. Alas, it was from another vessel that Kent swiped the lifeboat.
Just three years after her launch, Sara caught fire and sank. Her cargo? Wool. She went down without loss of life in February 1922, the same year Rockwell Kent found himself stranded in the little mill town of her birth. The emotions in Port Harris were still raw over the loss of their pride and joy so the offer, by a real artist, to preserve her memory on canvas was gladly accepted. “Dawson lived upon the memory of Sara,” wrote Kent. “And that time might never dim for them the recollection of her glory I would paint her portrait.” While the shipwrights worked on Kathleen, Kent worked on Sara. He worked from photographs and plans and from the vivid, loving recollections of the men who had built her.
At the top of the second range of mountains the lake finally came into view, an inverted triangle of pale blue twinkling amidst the green and white and grays of the forested mountains outlining its edges. “There it is,” I said to myself. “Fagnano.” I depressed the brake pedal and the wheels of my rental car skidded a bit on the gravel. I didn’t pull over. No need. I hadn’t seen another vehicle in over an hour, and no more than half a dozen all day. Besides, the road, bounded by rock on one side and a steep drop on the other, was too narrow for pulling over.
Now, nearing noon, after five hours of driving, I was finally in sight of Lago Fagnano. The lake is long and narrow, hemmed in by mountains perpetually topped with snow. It stretches east to west for 70 miles, more than half the width of Tierra del Fuego. Four-fifths of the lake is in Argentina, the remainder lies in Chile. The lake is pristine. It is fed by glaciers on its western side and these give much of the lake a milky, turquoise color. Only at the very eastern end of the lake do the surrounding mountains diminish. There they finally sink into rolling hills that foretell the endless brown grasslands of the pampas just beyond.To the native Selk’nam (also called Ona) the lake was sacred. They called it Kami which, according to one source, means great waters. But the holy lake had neither the power to hold its original name nor protect the people who worshiped it; the Selk’nam were wiped out by the ranchers who coveted their lands and by the missionaries who coveted their souls. But there must have been some sorcery in the lake. How else could a body of water this large have remained hidden from the whites as long as it did? The town of Ushuaia, settled in 1871, lies just over the mountains to the south, not 15 miles as the crow flies. The first permanent settlement in the region, Punta Arenas, dates back to 1848 and just ten miles or so to the west of the lake is Admiralty Sound, an arm of the Strait of Magellan that had been visited by mariners for centuries. And yet the lake was not seen by whites until 1890.In that year a joint Chilean/Argentine hydrographic team – in a rare display of amity between those countries -- finally discovered the lake. They named it Fagnano, in honor of Monsignor
Jose Fagnano, one of the pioneering missionaries of the Salesian Order, recently arrived to evangelize among the natives of Tierra del Fuego.The Salesian Order was founded in Italy by Don Bosco, later Saint Giovanni Bosco (right). Don Bosco (1815-1888) was a man prone to dreams. In one of his earliest a voice provided the inspiration for the order’s pedagogy: "Not with blows, but with charity and gentleness must you draw these friends to the path of virtue." With those words his order grew, and grew
rapidly, but nowhere would it have more impact than in Patagonia. Even today it is difficult to overestimate the role of the Salesian Order in the region.
A much later dream, around 1876, would provide the impetus for the Salesian move into Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. In recounting this dream, Don Bosco describes having seen “an immense plain” confined by “abrupt mountains.” On that plain he saw natives fighting against Europeans. “I trembled before such a spectacle,” he claimed. Then his dream foretold the role his order would play in that far off land:
"How to convert such barbarous peoples?...I saw our missionaries movingforward across those savage hordes; they taught them and the savages heard,pleased; they taught them and the savages learnt, diligently"
The Salesians, with Jose Fagnano at their head, heeded Don Bosco's call and traveled to the far reaches of South America. There, they quickly fanned out across Tierra del Fuego, establishing
missions and schools (see right, the mission at Dawson Island) to bring the Selk'nam "with charity and gentleness" to the path of virtue. Within a few short decades the last of the Selk'nam would be dead.
Few people live on the shores of Lago Fagnano today. At the very eastern end of the lake, on the Argentine side there is a small town of about a thousand people. On the Chilean side of the lake, however, there lives only one man. I was on my way to meet that man.
If you can live more or less by yourself for more than twenty years in one of the most remote places on earth; and if during that time you can build three houses by hand, transporting ALL the materials on horse-back three days over two mountain ranges -- except for the lumber, of course, which mill yourself; if you can wrestle sheep, and cattle, and horses to the ground; if, at age 65, you can scamper up a mountain trail without a huff or a puff, leaving much younger men scrambling to keep up, you just may be tough enough for the job currently being held by the amazing German Genskowski.
German is the first true pioneer I have ever met. He will, in all likelihood be the only one. Along with his nephew, Rodrigo, and one hired hand, German (pronounced "herr-MAN") runs a 3,500 hectare ranch on a more or less flat piece of land between the mountains and the shore of Fagnano. German´s wife spends the summers with him but she says she is too old and too much of a city person to manage the winters in that harsh, snowy place so she decamps to the regional capital of Punta Arenas for much of the year. Children and grandchildren visit occasionally.
“You must talk to Genskowski,” people in Punta Arenas kept telling me. “Genskowski will know where those mountains are.” I was showing pictures of landscapes painted by Rockwell Kent in Tierra del Fuego in 1922, asking if anyone knew where I could find the places he captured. Tierra del Fuego is indescribably vast and dozens of mountain ranges crease its western half so, naturally, everyone gave me conflicting conjectures as to the locations of the scenes Kent had painted. But all were certain that if anyone would be able to identify the places it would be German Genskoweski. Finally, after hearing “Genskowski’s your man” one too many times I decided to go meet him.
Getting to him would not be easy. While Lago Fagnano lies only about 120 miles from Punta Arenas as the crow flies, it takes more than eight hours by car; two hours along a paved highway to reach the ferry across the Strait of Magellan and then six hours on a miserably narrow, dusty dirt road to the lake. German’s land, called Estancia Fagnano (estancia means ranch), is well beyond the reach of power and telephone lines, so I could not call him to warn him of my intentions. I would have to hope he would agree to talk to me.
To make matters worse, the last stretch of road leading to the lake--despite being clearly marked on my map--is still under construction and off-limits without special permission from the Chilean army corps of engineers building it. This being Chile, I was advised to go first and ask permission later. Sure enough, after nearly six hours choking down dust, I finally reached a barricade with signs indicating I was entering a restricted area. “Danger” read one, “Blasting Ahead.” But I had already glimpsed the lake and nothing was going to turn me back now from that promised land. Fortunately, the barricade was up so I was able to escape the censure of actually raising it.
I drove forward cautiously, not so much because I was in defiance of the Chilean Army but because the road -- clearly under construction -- was even more terrifying than before, narrow and unstable. After about a mile, I came across some soldiers operating heavy road-building machinery. They looked at me suspiciously as I approached. But when I told him who I was going to see they smiled and gave me directions. German, apparently, is a legend not just to the city-dwellers of Punta Arenas.Two miles further along I came across a clearing in the woods by the road where a group of people were gathered around a corral, appraising the horses within. I parked the car, took a deep breath for courage, and started walking towards them. An older man, wearing a floppy-brimmed leather hat broke away from the group and sauntered over to meet me. He was
of medium height but slim and wiry, and he walked with the slight, bow-legged saunter of a man who spends a lot of time in the saddle. I told him, in my stumbling Spanish, who I was and the purpose of my visit, and that I was looking for German Genskowski, who I was told might be able to help me. He looked at me a moment and then glanced at his boots. Looking up again, with only a slight approximation of a smile, he replied that
he was German Genskowski and he would help me. But then he added, with a wave of his arm towards the group clustered around the corral, "I'm busy at the moment. Go to the house and wait for me there," he instructed. "I will be there in a couple of hours."At the house -- a tidy, two-story yellow plank structure with a red tin roof and a Chilean flag flying proudly in front -- I met his wife. She was making lunch but she stopped to offer me a cup of coffee. We tried to converse but my limited Spanish and the constant chatter of her young grandson made anything beyond a few pleasantries impossible. Finally, leaving her to her work, I told her I would take a walk around the grounds. Through the kitchen window she pointed out
a trail that would lead me to the lake.I walked through deep woods of tall deciduous beech (nothofagus pumilio), called lenga in Spanish. The limbs and trunks of these trees were covered in a spindly, hanging moss that reminded me of the Spanish moss of the American deep south, but the heavy, hot air I associate with that was absent. Instead, I was bundled against the cold and damp of the Fuegian summer, where even in the warmest months the thermometer seldom goes much above sixty degrees and everyone goes about carrying a raincoat and hat.
The bark of the lenga trees and the pale moss gave the forest a soft, grey-green, almost bluish
tinge. A deep quiet prevailed under the cathedral of those trees and the soft, spongy ground
muffled my steps. This was my first walk in a lenga forest and that hushed sense of calm would never cease to amaze and charm me throughout my stay in Tierra del Fuego.Even in the woods it was clear this was a working ranch. Here and there I came across sheep lying in a clearing, and the paths were littered with their droppings. In several places I passed racks of sheep and cattle hide stretched out to dry, sheets of hair and skin, stiff with dried blood. I even saw occasional piles of bones, testament to on-the-spot slaughtering or an impromptu asado (barbecue), green mold betraying the decomposition to which all organic matter in that damp land quickly succumbs.
I marveled at the energy that had built this ranch, and built it entirely by hand, without any heavy machinery of any kind. Until three years ago, before the road, this place was entirely isolated. All material needed to be brought in on horseback from the road head at Vicuna, three days ride to the north. Before the road, German would drive his cattle once a year over the mountains to the road head -- with cattle, the trip takes four days – where a truck would be waiting to take the stock to Punta Arenas.
German is a shy man and he didn’t open up to me until late the first day. At lunch, he hardly spoke a word to me. He was preoccupied with the two municipal veterinarians who had come that day to the ranch to take blood samples from the livestock. German later told me this was the first time in his twenty-five years on the ranch that a veterinarian had visited. “It’s because of the road,” he said, shaking his head. It was the first of many denunciations I would hear from him about this road that was so disrupting to his long-established way of life. He sighed. “Without the road they would never have come here.”At lunch I struggled, in Spanish, to tell the group around the table the story of why I had come to Chile and what had brought me to the shores of far away Fagnano. "I am following the route," I explained, "of a fellow 'Norte Americano,' a painter, who had traveled in this land back in 1922." I went on, trying to make it clear that I believe he had even stayed at the site of this very ranch, then called Estancia Isabel.As were getting up from the table, German’s nephew, Rodrigo, who had been quiet throughout lunch, came over to me and said, in flawless English, "My uncle has Mr. Kent's book but he can not read it because it is in English; but I have read it twice. I will go get it." And then he ran upstairs to fetch his uncle’s copy of the book. I stood there
flabbergasted wondering why he had let me struggle for half an hour in my pidgin Spanish.Rodrigo is in his mid twenties. He is tall and handsome, with a broad smile and a luxurious sweep of jet-black hair that he usually keeps covered under a crocheted tam-o-
shanter. He grew up in Punta Arenas and studied English translation in school. Then, a few years ago, he decided he preferred life on the shores of Fagnano so he packed his bags and moved in with his uncle, learning all he can in the hopes he can take over the lonely ranch one day. He is an eager student of the ranching life. When I was there he was engaged in taming a wild horse they had recently captured. I saw the horse on my walks, a magnificent grey mare with a dark mane and tail. She was tied up in a small clearing in the woods, bounded on three sides by a river that flows into the lake. The horse would start whenever she saw me and pull frantically at her rope, nostrils flaring. Not sure the rope would withstand the exertions, I always gave her a wide berth.
In the afternoon, I watched spellbound for over an hour as the veterinarians took blood samples from German's herd of sheep. One by one, German, Rodrigo, and the ranch hand would capture a ewe, bleating in terror, and flip it
on its haunches. This, surprisingly, would immediately calm the animals; in some cases they actually appeared to drop off to sleep in that position. The vet would then put a slender rubber hose around the animal’s neck to reveal the jugular vein and quickly take a sample. After that, a numbered yellow tag would be affixed to the sheep’s ear.
Throughout this operation the sheep would be entirely quite but once released, they would scamper off bleating out of the corral. I watched the process, fascinated.The next morning I awoke early to take photographs. It had rained during the night and the ground was soggy but the morning dawned partially clear and the summer sun caused the bogs and pastures to steam as it burned off the moisture. Still, within minutes wetness had seeped through my new hiking boots as I worked my way through damp meadows and along the muddy trails that meandered among the lenga forest. I wondered why the waterproofing I had applied to the boots in New York was not working. Later, I would come to realize the only way to keep one’s feet dry in Tierra del Fuego is not to travel there in the first place.I worked my way along the shore line to a point I hoped would allow me to find the spot where Kent had sketched Mount Hope. "Mountain at the Foot of Fognano" he called it in his book, misspelling the cleric's name. The wind had picked up. Whitecaps danced along the surface of the lake. I cursed the flimsy light-weight tripod I had purchased just for this trip.
Despite wet feet, despite winds and an inferior tripod, despite clouds that continued to obscure the peaks on the southern side of the lake -- the same peaks German assured me were depicted in a one of Kent’s paintings -- despite all this I was supremely happy. Here I was, 6,000 miles from home, tracing the path of one of my boyhood heroes, standing in perhaps the very same spot where he had stood, brush in hand, eighty-six years earlier. I was finally on the shores of this magnificent lake which, in Kent’s words, “scarcely a hundred men can ever have beheld…” Of course, in the manner of the day, Kent was not including native men in his calculation, only whites. But his point was clear and what made it all the more amazing to me as I stood there was the realization that even today there can hardly be many more who have seen the lake from where I stood. That will all change, of course, once the road is finally opened, but, for now, I could take pride in my efforts to have gotten to this spot.Later that morning, German and Rodrigo decided to take me for a walk to see Admiralty Sound. It was a steep climb. We followed a gully, at points needing to use our hands to pull ourselves forward. German was fast. We two younger men had to struggle to keep up with him. He told us this trail – a generous word, I thought – was what he sometimes used when he had first moved to the lake. It led, eventually, to Jackson Bay, on Admiralty Sound, where there was a dock where he would unload supplies, put them on horses, and slog along the trail back to the lake.
German stooped from time to time to pick Magellan strawberries (rubus geoides). This is a curious plant, actually a type of rasperry, whose fruit appears to grow downwards, into the
moss. The berry is delicious, sweet and juicy, but it takes will power at first to get over the thought that you are about to put into your mouth this thing you've just pryed out from the moss and mud of the damp earth. But you quickly get used to blowing off the dirt as best you can and popping the succulent berries into your mouth.After about 30 minutes of climbing, we came to a level spot, at the top of a rise strewn with boulders and a few wind-stunted trees. German pointed towards the west. I turned my face into the wind and there I could make out the steel-grey explanse of Admiralty Sound, that rough body of water where I would soon, with luck, be sailing in my quest to follow Rockwell Kent. Then I looked back and saw, sheltered from the west wind by mountain peaks, the placid, pale blue waters of Lago Fagnano. The sun was trying to push through clouds that melded with the snow-capped mountains all around. Where it did, the sunlight turned the lake into the most beautiful shade of turquoise, of an almost Caribbean hue. This, my
companions told me, was caused by the milky, mineral-rich waters of the surrounding glaciers.
After dinner on my first day, after German had looked through my images and told me where I would find the scenes of most of Kent's paintings, and after Rodrigo had gone off to work on his horse-taming, I sat in the living room of German's cozy house and we talked. The summer twilight is long in the far south and as the light slowly faded and the objects in the room became less distinct, German became more voluble. He speaks a bit of English that he picked it up in the 1970s, in the days before he became a rancher. Apparently, this amazing man once worked for an American oil company, first in Tierra del Fuego and then, later, on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. With German's bits of English and my
broken Spanish we were able to communicate.He told me how difficult it is to run a small estancia. At 3,500 hectares, Estancia Fagnano is considered very small and he can not keep the huge herds you find on the vast grasslands to the north and east. I would learn later that a ranch of fewer than 20,000 hectares is considered barely viable in Patagonia. German told me that while most estancia owners were gentlemen ranchers, he could not afford such luxury. "I must work," he said. "Every day. And I must do tourism, too. Without that I could not survive here."
German told me how his father had struggled to make the land profitable but had failed and ultimately lost the land. He told me of the difficulties he himself had had convincing the government that he could run it profitably, could succeed where his father had failed. He was finally granted title to the land twenty-five years ago and, though hard, back-breaking work, he has made a small success of it.Then he spoke of the road and how it has changed everything about his life.
The government of Chile plans to continue the road past Lago Fagnano all the way across the Darwin Range to Yendegaia Bay on the Beagle Channel, far to the south. Based on the rugged terrain and the limited progress so far, some estimate it will be a decade before the road reaches the sea. Others doubt it will ever be finished. Sceptics point out that the road makes no sense. Other than German, no one lives on the vast tracts of land between Vicuna and the proposed terminus at Yendegaia. And even at Yendegaia there is nothing but a Carabinero outpost with seven lonely policemen; another two people live across Yendegaia Bay at a defunct ranch, but that's it. "Why build a road to nowhere," the sceptics ask? "Who will use it?"
I see it differently. This land is spectacularly beautiful, especially Fagnano, but it is indescribably difficult to reach. With the road will come tourists. Argentines will be able to drive their RVs to Fagnano and they will pay a lot of money for the priviledge to have an asado under the tall lenga trees of German's ranch and to fish in Fagnano and enjoy the sight of snow-capped mountains reflected in the sparkling blue water. I believe that with the road the tourists will come and this will put more money into German’s pockets and perhaps ease his retirement a bit. That is a good thing but, at the same time, German knows that with the road something very special will have gone from this part of the world and that knowledge concerns him, and it makes him wistful.
At first, German opposed the road. Now, he has come to terms with it. He has seen how much easier it is to get his cattle to market and he knows that without the road he would seldom see his wife as she no longer able to make the three-day ride out on horseback. And even German himself admits that at age sixty-five his horse-riding days are limited. "So, the road will allow me to stay on this land a little bit longer," he says.
I think about all he has done to build this ranch by the lake he loves and I think about him being able to enjoy it just a bit longer and I find that I, too, am glad for the road.