In this distant and extreme terrain, the fundamental story of our time is being told afresh. Here it is possible to see, with a clarifying starkness, how tightly woven our new world really is. As isolated as Chilean Patagonia is, it is also on the brink of abrupt transformation. On land the few homesteads look as though they were carved out of the 19th century. But there are plans to dam the wild rivers north of Bernardo O'Higgins. And clinging to the water's edge, there is the steady southward movement of salmon farms, a source of economic opportunity and an environmental plague.
At the urging of conservationists, Chile has considered designating its ice fields and most of the protected areas along its southern coast as an enormous new UNESCO World Heritage site—millions of acres in all. But as of late 2009, the government was backing away from the ambitious plan in favor of a more modest proposal. Yet in its wild south, Chile still has the chance to preserve great tracts of a natural world that has barely begun to be explored, even as it is threatened by potentially devastating change.
On a map the seemingly endless archipelagoes in the Chilean fjords look like rubble that has spilled from the Andes. The main channels were charted early on—part of the search for a tolerable route around Cape Horn. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa worked his way into these waters as early as 1579. British navigator John Byron came to grief in 1741 on an island now named for his ship, the Wager—an epic tale of treacherous sailing and debilitating conditions. Darwin came here on the Beagle and noted that the sound of calving bergs "reverberates like the broadside of a man-of-war through the lonely channels."
Still, it's surprising just how recently even the most fundamental kinds of exploration were done. The English names that lie scattered across the map here were bestowed by a British surveying expedition in 1830. But Pío XI was named in honor of Pope Pius XI by Father Alberto de Agostini, an Italian missionary and explorer who in 1931 was the first person to cross the Southern Ice Field. The town of Cochrane—just on the edge of the proposed United Nations reserve and now a center of controversial hydropower development—was founded in 1954 but was reached by road (a rough gravel track) only in 1988. When the first charts based on aerial surveys of Chilean Patagonia were published in 1954, one scientist called them "the biggest map revision in the Earth's geography to be made in modern times."