Island Footprints

by Suzanne Adam

The purring launch carries us across the teal waters of Lake Puyehue in Chile’s Patagonia. We are returning to the island of Fresia, after a lapse of many years. There will be changes, but I hope the essence of the place remains as I remembered….


We follow the steep path leading to the peak, a traditional island hike. In places overgrown with grass and wild bamboo, we lose our way, making our own trail, bending the tall stalks with our feet. Thick forests of laurel, arrayan and wild fuchsia alternate with open meadows, alive with small orange butterflies. The loud cry of a flicker stops us in our tracks. Binoculars lifted, we spot his speckled shape on an overhead branch. Rivulets of spring water trickle into shady depressions on the trail. Behind us, we leave footprints, that marking of our passing in the soil which is denied to us city dwellers. I think of Wallace Stegner’s affirmation: “Wearing any such path in the earth’s rind is an intimate act, an act like love…. an opportunity that few any longer can have….”

We stop to take in the vast panorama of the lake set against the backdrop of craggy Andean peaks, a landscape molded and carved by restless tectonic plates, glaciers, and rumbling volcanoes. In the distance rises the cinder cone of the Caulle volcano that has wreaked havoc all summer. Fine white ash covers every surface inside and out of the island house, while a massive patch of floating pumice spreads over the lake’s surface. We venture out in the old launch, swerving to avoid floating logs, opening a path through the thick pumice carpet that tap-taps the sides of our vessel. The small beach used for swimming and sunbathing wears a mantle of the featherweight stones, deposited by the lake waters.


Returning to the unpainted, clapboard house, I feel I could drink a barrelful of the island water. Surging from the ground, it tastes of spring breath, crystalline, silken as it slides down my throat. I can’t get enough.
Alone on the porch, rimmed by bright blue hydrangeas, I notice an unrelenting sound, the lapping of tongues of water at the shore below, like a heartbeat. I try to imagine the monolithic glacier that sculpted this vessel, this valley, causing the cerulean waters to pause in their flow from mountain to sea.

Rain is always lurking beyond the horizon here. The abundant precipitation is the greening force of this landscape, nourishing the lush vegetation, ferns and mosses, feeding hillside springs and puddles where birds can quench their thirst. It flows in the veins of the island, lending freshness to all, bluing the skies and cleansing the air.


Here I drink from a well of silence. Yet, the air is never completely still. Leaves murmur. A hummingbird’s wings whir nearby. I miss the goose-like honk of the native ibis, no longer an island inhabitant, due to the introduction of minks with their predilection for birds’ eggs. Nor do we hear the teasing cry of the chucao, the emblematic bird of Chile’s southern rainforests.

From the kitchen window drifts the aroma of freshly baked, hearty brown bread, irresistible, the perfect morning companion to homemade raspberry jam and a mug of coffee. I remember I have a similar recipe at home and vow to make it in the upcoming cooler days of fall. It’s worth the effort just to fill my house with that scent.

Billowing, flat-bottomed clouds sail across the sky, but the day is warm and we take the path to the horseshoe-shaped beach, with a swim on our minds. Yesterday I walked to the beach alone and spotted a perky kingfisher flitting from rock to branch, eyes intent on the calm waters. Here he is again and I call to the others. Posing on a bare branch, he seems to enjoy the attention, his feathers ruffling in the wind. We talk of the utter peace of this place and watch the changing water and sky. The wind is gaining force now, piling up blackening clouds, turning the lake waters into a palette of greys. Draped in our towels, we scurry back to the house, anxious for a warming fire.


In the living room, we kneel before the tall wood burning stove. My friend and I poke at the branches and logs, feeding them with shreds of paper. “We need more tinder wood,” I say. I am not about to concede that I’ve lost my Girl Scout fire-starting skills. Soon the logs ignite, and we watch with pleasure the flicker of the flames through the glass window.

The wood burning stoves in these damp southern climes can be friend or foe. Earlier this morning I walked through the overgrown remains of the house where we’d stayed on our first visit. Several years ago, it burned to the ground when someone had failed to close the stove door tightly. I remember how the house’s owner, Senora Liese had showed us to our room which held two beds covered with white, hand-sewn goose down quilts. Wood was the protagonist throughout–floors, walls, beds, chairs, tables, book shelves, even the shower stalls–all hand-crafted. On a windowsill stood a small vase of wild flowers. I felt transported back to the pioneer days of the 1930’s when European immigrants, like Liese, settled in southern Chile. Now I lamented the loss–the craftsmanship, the history the house held–as I tried to determine where that bedroom once stood.

In the evening we warm up slices of bread on racks in an upper oven, enclosed by two iron doors. Gathered around the table, we create our own sandwiches with cheese, cold-cuts, avocado and tomatoes. Except for the bread and a lemon pie, all this food was ferried from the local market, unlike our previous visit when the island families were largely self-sufficient.

Solar panels now provide electricity during the day, but at dusk, we light candles while waiting for the generator to be turned on. Outside, all is not darkness. From a break in the sweeping clouds, a brilliant full moon spills a silvery path across the water.

Midnight. I crawl under the eiderdown and reach for my book, Stegner’s Wolf Willow, about his homesteader boyhood on the plains of Saskatchewan, an environment starkly opposed to my present verdant surroundings. Yet, this pioneer-built home on Fresia most likely began as a shack like Stegner’s, built by men’s hard labor in an inclement climate.

The lights flicker and die. They’ve turned off the generator. I switch on my headlamp and read until my eyelids grow heavy. The wood floors creak as others ready for bed. A sense of well-being envelops me.


Now, this early crisp morning, already hinting at fall, I step out into my city garden and breathe in deeply. Closing my eyes, I recall the translucent island air and, for a few moments, I am there.


Bio: A native Californian, after graduating from UC Berkeley and serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia, I moved to Chile 41 years ago, where I married and had two sons. My essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Sasee, California Magazine and others. Chile’s natural world is the muse for my personal narratives, guiding me in this expatriate journey.

Suzanne’s blog is TarweedSpirit: exploring my sense of place at the bottom of the world