Every Monday for the next six weeks I’ll be posting about my recent trip to the Galápagos. After a week on a big boat, hopping from one imposing volcanic island to the next, I saw most of the odd creatures that Charles Darwin famously wrote about: century-old tortoises, finches with beaks of all sizes, swimming iguanas. But most of what I learned was new to me — like how the Ecuadorian government hired expert hunters from New Zealand to shoot down thousands of goats by helicopter, or how, in 1954, a massive geological uplift almost instantaneously raised one island’s coast 15 feet, taking with it mounds of coral that have since blackened with dust. Many of the stories converge on what’s, for me, a perplexing theme: that people can be sources of both ecological destruction and impressive restoration. As the climate changes, and population and tourism rates continue to skyrocket, it will be fascinating to see how the economic-political-scientific ecosystem of the Galápagos evolves.
I kick off the series with a story about one of my naturalist-guides, Lynn, who has lived on the islands since 1978.
When she was 26, Lynn Fowler began her Ph.D. dissertation with a seven-hour, 5,000-foot hike up to the rim of the Alcedo Volcano, smack in the middle of the large, seahorse-shaped island of Isabela. Alcedo gushes fluid lava every few decades. Lynn camped at its southeastern rim for a year and a half, returning to the mainland just once every three months to call her mother.
Alcedo was not an easy place to live. The rocky terrain wore holes through her sneakers. The days were hot (“I was a one-woman nudist colony most of the time,” she says), the nights were chilly, and the air carried “evil-smelling sulfur.” Lugging fresh water, at eight pounds per gallon, up the volcano every couple of weeks was exhausting. Eventually she learned to trap it herself from the garua, or mist, that surrounded Alcedo. Under a big tree she would rig up a large plastic sheet with a hole in the center to collect dew. She gathered five gallons a night this way, and once during the rainy season netted 50 gallons in an hour.
Lynn is a tough, no-nonsense type who never flinches. Even so, this new habitat occasionally scared her. She was hiking on November 13, 1979, at 8:45 am, when the Sierra Negra Volcano, about 20 miles south of Alcedo, erupted. “It was a great fireworks show — spectacular and frightening,” she recalls. For the next five weeks, she could hear lava spilling into the ocean.
Read more at…
The Last Word on Nothing, June 2012.