Columnist Anthony Brogno: Bound to a mission of protecting wild places

  • Robyn McLellan, from left, Aljoscha Adam and Anthony Brogno study a map during the first section of their trip on the Greater Patagonian Trail in December.  GARRETT MARTIN

  • Robyn McLellan and Anthony Brogno paddle their pack-raft across a glassy, flat lake along the Greater Patagonian Trail. GARRETT MARTIN

  • Aljoscha Adam prepares to embark across a large lake with his loaded pack-raft along the Greater Patagonian Trail. GARRETT MARTIN

  • A sunset view from above the clouds on the Puyehue volcano along the Greater Patagonian Trail. Other volcano summits are seen. GARRETT MARTIN

  • Garrett Martin, from left, Aljoscha Adam, Robyn McLellan and Anthony Brogno atop the summit crater of the Puyehue volcano near Osorno, Chile. GARRETT MARTIN

  • Anthony Brogno, from left, Robyn McLellan and Garrett Martin climb the summit of the Puyehue volcano near Osorno, Chile. ALJOSCHA ADAM

  • Capturing footage of the stunning Futaleufu River in Patagonia. GARRETT MARTIN

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Last December, I left my home in Belchertown bound for a return to the other end of the world. A kismet turn of events had lead to my setting out on this adventure of a lifetime.

It started a couple of months earlier when a post on social media caught my eye. Reaching out to the team of “Unbounded” (an ambitious adventure-travel documentary, in which an unaided crew of four would attempt to film their expedition through the remote Chilean wilderness) was more of an unconscious reflex than a decision for me.

The project was pretty much everything I love rolled into one. Adventure, environmentalism, and Patagonia — it had it all! A response seemed like a long shot, so I was thrilled when I heard back from them shortly after, even if they didn’t have any way for me to get involved at that time. Little did we know that a last-minute fluke would have me signing up to lead the expedition, just days before departure!

Despite my lack of time to prepare for the expedition, I had no second thoughts about taking the opportunity to guide the crew, after their original wilderness expert was unable to make the trip. After a single Skype meeting with the three people who I’d be living with for the next four months — director and producer Garrett Martin, cinematographer Aljoscha Adam and translator Robyn McLellan — we were en route to Santiago. I’d spent time trekking in Patagonia a couple years prior, but nothing could have prepared me for what the Greater Patagonian Trail (GPT) had in store for us.

This little-known trail network weaves its way over 3,000 kilometers through the southern Andes, making it the longest continuous trail in South America. Infrastructure and trail markers are practically nonexistent throughout the majority of the route.

Unlike most long distance “thru-hiking” trails in the U.S. and elsewhere, there are no organizations, governmental bodies or institutions that perform maintenance on the trail. The GPT was born of pure desire for a means to connect the incredible landscapes of Chile — from the high and dry volcanoes in the northern sections, to the glaciers at the southern tip of the world.

It is truly a trail for hikers, by hikers; in particular one hiker named Jan Dudeck. The Swiss adventurer began forming the way for the GPT over five years ago, and has returned each year to continue mapping and adding to it’s staggering length. Jan’s comprehensive Wikiexplora page at www.wikiexplora.com/index.php/Greater_Patagonian_Trail is the one main resource for information on the trail, and it was the inspiration for our journey.

We knew before taking on this venture that the GPT is much more than a hiking trail. This is why on top of all of the food, gear and camera equipment, we also carried pack-rafts, oars, life jackets and dry suits (resulting in us carrying 50-plus pound packs).

Many parts of the trail include an option for pack-rafting across massive glacier-fed lakes, and down swift flowing, sapphire-colored rivers. None of us had experience using the lightweight rafts before this venture. The rafting was one of my greatest concerns going into the trip, as the region is known, even by experts, to be potentially very dangerous due to volatile weather and freezing water temperatures. We played it safe though, and the rafting ended up being one of the greatest highlights!

The diversity of landscapes and the ability to personalize one’s experience is perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the trail. Broken into 40 sections, you can choose what you want to see and do. Whether it’s bagging snow-capped peaks, traversing volcanic deserts, rafting glaciated fjords, immersing into the culture of life in the “campo” (countryside) or seeking solitude in remote wildernesses, the GPT has it all. You can choose to go in order, starting with section one, or you can select the sections that have what you’re looking for. Between each section of the trail are places that fall somewhere on the spectrum of civilization, ranging from small cities, to tiny settlements of just a couple of homesteads.

The beauty of the trail’s length and diversity is also the curse that makes it impossible (at least no one’s done it yet) to complete the whole thing from one end to the other in a single season. The high summits in the first sections are impassibly snow-covered until too late into the summer to allow time to reach the end before winter sets in on the far south. Due to this and some snags, such as the worst wildfires in Chile’s history this season, we bounced around to many different sections, while keeping the main theme of heading south.

In a way, this is one of the reminders that the GPT is not a hiking trail. We quickly learned that if you’re bent on conquering the trail, or reaching the other side, then you’re in for a disappointment. As with all journeys of this magnitude, it’s about the adventure, and who you become along the way, not getting to the end. It’s not like the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, and I hope it never will be.

Adventure and exploration are passions of mine, but what really moved me enough to reach out and become a part of this project was the focus on protecting wild places. A portion of the proceeds from the film will go directly to environmental organizations that are working to protect and preserve Chile’s natural landscapes.

I couldn’t have imagined a more poignant time to be a part of a mission like this. With all of the backward steps being taken recently in the U.S. in regards to the environment, we hope to showcase the incredible ecological victories that are currently taking place in Chile.

Our journey concluded over 2,200 kilometers south of where we started, in a place called “Parque Patagonia” (Patagonia National Park). This binational park in the making is a shining example of modern conservation that lies in the remote mountains along the Argentine border. The massive territory is just a part of the largest private land donation in history — over one million acres — recently made by the Tompkins Conservation to the Chilean government. The president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, has agreed to match the Tompkins’ donation with another nine million acres, increasing the country’s national parklands by a total of nearly 10 million acres.

In a country that historically has had an extremely exploitative relationship with the natural world, it is immensely inspiring to see such incredible strides being taken to protect and share pristinely wild landscapes.

There are still many environmental issues facing Chile, which are explored in the film. However, it gives us great hope to see Chile’s example of what’s possible if we commit to responsible stewardship of the world’s remaining wild places.

Our mission is to ensure that environments like those we witnessed on our journey remain untouched for future generations to explore.

A Kickstarter campaign for the documentary film “Unbounded” is at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1118318772/unbounded-a-feature-documentary. A video is available at https://youtu.be/vzoajQp9QmQ. Visit unboundedthefilm.com for updates and info on the release of the film, and showing here in the Valley.

Anthony Brogno is a wilderness education instructor and expeditions coordinator who has written multiple articles about hiking in Patagonia. He lives in Belchertown when he is not traveling through remote mountain ranges around the world.