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This podcast is brought to you in part by Geico, proud sponsor of National Geographic Geico Fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance. A lot of the people who work at National Geographic or are part cool, you know, Craig Welch is a writer for NATO. I mean, they're big time adventurers and they're kind of swashbuckling and I'm anything but that. I'm like, you know, I'm afraid of everything experienced and very little. And I feel like I'm a pretty good representation of a normal human being.
Trust me, Craig is pretty cool, too. He covers the environment and his job has taken him to all seven continents. But last year, one assignment pushed him to the limit. Craig set off for one of the most remote places on Earth, Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.
It has some of the roughest winds in the world. The seas are swirling all the time. You know, there on Cape Horn, there is a monument to the thousands of sailors who have died trying to get around Cape Horn. And we were about to go there on a small wooden boat captain by a guy who'd never been there before.
And, you know, I try to trust people because, you know, this is their world and I'm entering into it. But I'm also in my head screaming, really? Do I really think this is a good idea?
He wasn't entirely sure and he knew that boat ride was just the beginning.
Once he arrived, he'd face hurricane force winds with only what he could carry on his back. It'd be brutal. But Craig was following a group of scientists determined to find this one particular thing. What we were looking for was something that nobody had seen before. Nobody ever identified. And then if we could find it, we would be able to say we are staring at the world's southernmost tree, the world's southernmost tree. Not an easy thing to find.
I'm Amy Briggs and this is overheard at National Geographic, Shaarawy eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at NATIO and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week, braving treacherous seas, brutal weather and extreme camping for the sake of one single tree. That's all in a day's work for a natural explorer. But what happens when a self-proclaimed normal human being tagged along? We'll have more after the break.
Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it? Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo to see how much you could save. That's Geico Dotcom BINAGGIO. Great rates, great service and a whole lot more. Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo. If you want to get Craggs attention, say you have an assignment that's going to hurt, I knew based on where we were heading that this would be a somewhat miserable trip.
And it's always been one of my mottos that misery makes for great copy. So the more pain and anguish I'm in, the better the story is likely to be.
If that's how we're judging it, then this was going to be a pretty great story to find a place he was headed open a map of South America, trace your finger all the way down to the bottom. There are a bunch of little islands and on the island farthest south is Cape Horn.
First of all, you don't just get to go to Cape Horn. You have to figure out how to get anywhere near Cape Horn. And that itself is tricky.
First, he had to get to southern Chile. That's the easy part. Then Craig had to earn his sea legs on a 32 hour ferry ride. It brought him to a tiny town called Puerto Williams. He was almost there, sort of one more liked to go.
And that was going to be another 10 or 12 hours by boat. But those that trip from Puerto Williams to Cape Horn was going to take us on some of the roughest seas in the world on a small wooden boat by a captain who had never actually been in those waters before.
The waters around Cape Horn are notoriously savage, their sailors nightmare. But Craig says it wasn't all doom and gloom. I mean, we're going by rocky outcrops and there's there's glaciers everywhere sort of dumping into the sea from the mountains. And along the way, we're seeing dolphins sort of coming up and sort of leading the boats ahead where we're going by a bunch of Rockhopper penguins. Craig says it was beautiful. We got to a point where we could see Cape Horn through the mist.
And, you know, it just it comes out of nowhere and it's just it's just an amazing place. And you see this giant black, dark, rocky headwall and it's starting to rain and the wind is picking up. And, you know, it's it's very it's very exciting and intimidating and nerve wracking all at the same time. But, you know, now now the real adventure has begun.
Craig was about to find out that Cape Horn is full of surprises. Luckily, a real pro was leading the way.
I've always been most comfortable in the woods off trail in the middle of nowhere.
Brian Buma is an ecologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, who studies how forests change. He's also a Nat Geo explorer and the ringleader behind this expedition. Brian says it started with a simple question. As you go toward the South Pole, there's a point where trees stop growing, but where, you know, you dive in and you're like, well, we don't even know where the southern most forests are, really.
I mean, no one no one even knows where these things necessarily are. And so that became the nexus of the idea. Like it's 2019 and we don't know where the southernmost trees in the world are like, why? How is that possible? So let's go find it.
Brian pored over scientific journals and accounts from other expeditions, even back to Francis Drake and Charles Darwin, until he could confidently narrow it down to one place, Cape Horn. But to actually confirm that's where the southernmost tree is, he'd have to go there. Natchios Craig Welch says that worked fine for Brian.
Brian is a he's a bit of an adventure hound. He's he's one of those people who just can't stand being strapped to a desk. And so he's managed to carve out a life for himself where he spends a lot of time in the woods and in the wilderness.
So for for Brian or maybe more broadly for science, why is it important to find out where the southernmost tree is?
Well, I mean, to be honest, it is not that it's important. You know, it's that it's part of who we are as humans. You know, we're always looking for, you know, where's the deepest spot in the ocean, what's the tallest mountain?
And there actually is scientific value in knowing where the southernmost tree is.
It's a marker for us so that we can track how things are changing because the natural world is changing all the time. And it's changing especially quickly now because of climate change. And it's changing especially quickly at the poles and it's changing really quickly at the edge of ecosystems. Bryan, being Bryan, he wanted to go find the actual single Southern most tree, not just the forest, but the single southernmost specimen. And so to him, that had the roots of just a great adventure.
And at the same time, it offered a chance to educate people about these edges and how the globe is changing. Ecologist. Brian Biema wanted to bring along as many brains with him as possible because there's a lot to explore on Caporn besides trees. So we rounded up a crew.
It was a really solid team of Chilean scientists and there was botanists. We had an archaeologist, we had some camp managers extraordinaire, bird ecologists. We basically had a lot of people with a lot of experience doing research in remote areas.
It sounds almost like, you know, like Oceans 11, like a heist movie. You know, you got a team together.
You got to that. Thankfully, Ocean's Eleven and not Gilligan's Island.
Well, maybe there was some Gilligan's Island, too. As the boat pulled up to Cape Horn, the sky got darker. That goes Craig Walton, the rest of the team hauled supplies for a 10 day camping trip up a set of rickety wooden steps leading to a lighthouse.
We're carrying the gear up the steps. It's starting to rain. And the wind is picking up and we get all the stuff to the top and then we realize that we now have to hike up and over a ridge about four miles to get to the place where we're going to basically set up a base camp.
And our team, of course, is there are a bunch of adventurers. So this was seemed like it would not be that big a deal.
But once we start moving, we realize that hiking and traveling on Cape Horn is not going to be like any place any of us have ever been.
So I was going to ask you if, you know, once you got off the boat, if things sort of got easier, but it doesn't sound like it did. Nothing got easier.
Yeah, not even walking. Craig in a photographer named Ian stuck close together just in case. Imagine a world where instead of grass, you're hiking on the tops of trees. And they're not trees. They're just shrubs. But the shrubs are so thick that you can't tell their shrubs. And so you're walking across these things and literally every third step you plunge through to to your thigh. I actually step through so fully. I went all the way to my shoulders and I'm carrying this heavy pack and I'm sort of laying flat on my back, looking up at the sky.
And I'm on this sort of spongy shrubby thing and I can't get up. I mean, I feel like I feel like I was a turtle and somebody had flipped me over and then set me on top of a bush. And eventually I just started screaming. And eventually Ian heard me and came back around and pulled me out. I feel ridiculous saying that I got trapped on a bush, but I got trapped on a bush. It's true.
Walking on top of shrubs was only one of their problems. There was also the weather.
We set up camp and it starts getting windy. And the Navy eventually would tell us that at some point the the wind gusts got up to 75 or 80 miles an hour and one of the tents got shredded.
And so we ended up having to squeeze more people into fewer tents.
And so Brian and Ian and I all ended up sleeping for the next 10 days and a two man tent with all of our gear and, you know, were wet and we're cold, we're miserable and we're working all day and we're tired.
We also smell really bad. So I don't want to I had a great time now that it's over. But there were some times in the middle of it where I just wanted a hot shower and a beer.
Where does this trip rank on your personal misery scale? I've been to Antarctica. I've been to the Arctic several times. And I would say that none of those trips have been quite as difficult as this one.
And we were really just on day one.
But there were some bright spots. As the team started exploring the island, ecologist Brian Buma made a friend Steve.
Steve is a really friendly penguin who clearly is comfortable on Iraq.
The team was hiking across the beach when they saw a penguin standing there still as a statue. Brian thought Iraq was pinning the penguins feet, so we moved it to set the penguin free, but the penguin didn't budge.
Then we come back the next day and he's still there and we come back the next day and he's still there and then he's still there. And so every time we went by, the penguin was just sitting there and he eventually stood up and just sat sort of in this little under this little under Hanks. He's a little bit out of the weather and just stared at us every time we went by. And he saw us enough that he just sort of looked at us and didn't appear afraid or anything.
And we named him Steve. He's meditating. He's just meditating. Yes. Eyes half closed against the wind, just staring out over the ocean. He had found his inner peace on land instead of in the waves. Well, Brian was making friends. Some of the other scientists on the team were on their own quests, like Flávia Marello. She's an archaeologist at Universidad de Maggiano's in Chile.
We were very frustrated because we had been over a week and we had hadn't seen any archaeological record. Nothing.
Indigenous people have lived on nearby islands for thousands of years, but nobody had ever found traces of people on Cape Horn. Flávia and her assistant, Miguel Troncoso, walked around the island every 20 yards. They bought a small hole and took a soil sample.
And we did that for like eight, nine days. I was losing my hopes after nine.
That's when help arrived, not from people, from penguins. As penguins scoot across the mud, they carve out little trenches like roads.
We started exploring the penguin paths and Miguel got there first and he said, look, there's something strange here, something strange that didn't come from Mother Nature. There were bits of broken shells smushed into the mud, lots of them.
And when you got near, you started seeing some bones, bird bones, seal bones that were within the shells. I really compact layer where you had earth above and under it. Those bones and shells, they were trash from people, people who had eaten birds and shellfish right at this spot a long time ago. As Flávia dug, she also uncovered a small harpoon and a pile of ashes. It could only mean one thing. She was digging up the campsite and it would have been hard to find on her own.
I mean, all of this wasn't bigger than a circle of three metres diameter, but the pinguin paths had eroded it. So it was very funny.
So the penguins that the work test show the campsite is only a few hundred years old and Flávia is positive. Caporn contains more evidence of indigenous people. Her small site poking up out of the muck is just the beginning.
It's not a pretty thing to see actually, or even to get your hands into it. But it's it's it's really great. So I was happy, my happy Mudie archaeological site.
So one discovery in the books, but Brian Dumor was still looking for the southernmost tree. He says the trees on Caporn, they might not match the picture in your head.
If you're going down there looking for some statuesque, you know, monster of a tree. You're going to be pretty disappointed. There's a reason, isn't an right?
It's a harsh place to be a tree in some parts of the island. Natchios Craig Welch says fours look like something out of Lord of the Rings.
The trees are all gnarled and turned and twisted and just weird. But that is only on the part of the island where there is a protection from wind. Other parts of the island, the trees are growing literally straight, sideways out of the ground.
Picture a tree trunk that goes straight up for about a foot, then takes a hard turn and grows horizontally for half the length of a school bus. There's a little tuft of leaves at the end, but it's laying on the ground. This is what they were looking for, a strange sideways tree.
There had to be one farther south than any of the others. They found a bunch of possibilities, but then they had to, you know, basically do GPS coordinates for each of them and figure out whether or not this was actually the southernmost tree. And eventually they found one that they were pretty sure. Was it after one last check with a GPS and two compasses? They were positive. Ecologist Brian Buma and his team had found it, the tree that was farther south than any other on Cape Horn.
And that means the southernmost tree in the whole world. Brian's quest was over. He did it.
There's this great sense of like, wow, you know, like I intentionally sat down on the south side of it and and you just look like every tree on earth is north of me. There's nothing behind me is forest trees grow. You know, it's Antarctica. That's it. This is the edge. This is it. I mean, it was it is a really cool feeling. I really, really enjoyed it.
Natchios Craig Welch was there, too, and he was also taking in the moment in his own way.
It's literally just a great piece of tree. The shrubs are higher than the highest part of the tree. And I am sitting here looking at this and thinking, oh, my God, I've just found. The southernmost tree in the world. Well, let me rephrase that. I've been with scientists who just found the southernmost tree in the world, and you can't even tell it's a tree.
Sometimes the pot of gold just isn't as shiny as you picture it. You know, you want it to be this gigantic lone Joshua tree in the middle of nowhere that is starkly beautiful.
And, you know, you can set up cool lights and photograph it at sunset.
And, you know, that's not the way real science works.
It's just a humble little tree.
Well, it is not even a humble little tree. It's like a humble little shrubby suggestion of a tree.
But that humble little tree is exactly what ecologist Brian Theama was looking for. He collected data to learn more about it, and he's going to monitor how Capons Forest adapt to their changing environment. But Brian also wants to share the other details, like the crazy hiking and the penguins.
I found that to be a really powerful part of this, just getting people to think about science as a fun enterprise that can be really rewarding not just in a big cosmic sense, but also in a personal.
I had a good time doing this sense because I think that's OK. And I think people forget that. Besides fighting the tree.
Natchios Craig Welch says the team of scientists catalogued all kinds of valuable information about caporn, everything from plants to insects to birds over the course of the 10 days that we were there.
Know, these scientists probably learned, you know, half again as much about Caporn as was known over the course of a century of work.
Before then, Craig says seeing all those explorers working alongside each other, it reminded him of some kind of Victorian science expedition to actually go and like look back at, you know, journals that Darwin wrote and journals that, you know, other adventurers wrote, you know, a century ago and realized that we are actually putting this marker on and saying we have found where this boundary is. That was it was cool. I mean, it made me feel in the very tiniest, tiniest, tiniest way, like I was a part of natural history.
After a week and a half, the team packed up their gear and loaded back onto that small wooden boat.
And the boat takes us back to port to Williams and in port to Williams. You know, we all took showers and then we went out and there is one pizza place in town and we went out and each of us ordered entire large pizzas and a couple of beers for ourselves. And it was very satisfying.
And it seemed like that was it time for the credits to roll and the adventure to get some much needed rest.
But there was one last hiccup, the flight that would whisk them away. It wasn't scheduled to arrive for a few more days. They weren't going to make it home to their own beds just yet. Bryan, being Bryan decided that we should do a 42 kilometre trek to kill some time between then and when we left. So we actually spent two days hiking in the downtown mountains while we waited for a plane that would take us back to Punta Arenas.
And the first step home sounds like a great way to end the trip. It was a great way. And that's the thing about adventures. The end of one meets the next. It's just around the corner. More after the break. I love Craig saying Missouri makes great copy now that you've heard about the misery, you're going to want to check out the story and include some gorgeous pictures of Cape Horn. There's a link in the show. Notes also go on another adventure with ecologist Brian Buma with a bunch of old photos, a metal detector and Fermi's.
He set off to find nine tiny squares of land scattered around a national park in Alaska. And for subscribers, follow Craig Welch to Antarctica to see what he calls the big meltdown that still photographers captured amazing close ups of seals, beautiful, bizarre chunks of ice and, of course, penguins. That's in the show.
Notes right there in your podcast overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Hinter, Brian Gutierrez and BORISLAV. Our Ed Ibby Caputo, a fact checker, is Michelle Harris. Hartsdale HSU composed our theme music and engineers are episodes. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of Visuals and Immersive Experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic's editorial director.
And I'm your host, Amy Briggs. See you next time.
Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it? Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo to see how much you could save. That's Geico Dotcom BINAGGIO. Great rates, great service and a whole lot more. Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo.