Bikepacking Patagonia’s abandoned tracks in search of insects. (R. Isaí Madriz)
My bicycle is knee deep in mud. The snowline on the nearby mountains is closer than the previous day. The abandoned track has been softened by the stomping of cattle. After an hour of pushing my loaded bike half a mile through the mud, I begin the task of setting up camp. The only suitable configuration in which to pitch my tree tent is over a swamp.
Balancing over several logs, my tent is finally set. It is almost midnight and just as I am nestled in my bag falling asleep, my boots, which were hanging from my tent by rope, splash into the muck below. As I get down to retrieve them, freezing rain begins to fall. Thus far, the carefully planned expedition seems to be hampered by fluctuating weather.
After a few frigid hours of intermittent sleep, I pack up my camp and take off before sunrise. I am trying to reach the final waterfall of this expedition in search for morning-emerging insects.
The dense fog is overwhelming. My headlamp’s light clouds the way ever further.
As I slowly pedal up a steep hill, posed on a fence post, a Magellanic horned owl twists its neck around to stare at me with curiosity.
Dark shapes appear above. Adult Andean condors glide effortlessly through the air looking for their next meal. Close by, near the waterfall, a young sheep died overnight. In nature, nothing goes to waste as condors will soon discover its remains and feast from it.
I finally reach the waterfall only to find that the Torrent Midge I am looking for are still in their early stages of development. In order to identify the species, I must find adults. Thus, I leave the site without what I have been pedaling for days in search of.
As I continue to ride back to headquarters, I travel along a roadside permanent seepage and stop to take a closer look. There, a male crane fly is hanging from the wet moss. Close inspection reveals a surprise: it is a flightless species. Through time, the species lost the ability to fly and its wings, although present, have deteriorated to small nobs. As I look around I find a female, a remarkable find as this is one of the few known species of flightless crane flies in the country.
At that moment, it is raining again. My bicycle is sideways in a ditch, I am hunched over behind a large ditch weed, my hands are full of mushy moss dripping mud onto my pant legs, and my face is inches away from the seepage.
Suddenly, a vehicle appears and slows down. The driver lowers his window and asks if I need assistance. I turn around and reply euphorically, “I found a strange fly!”
With a furrowed brow he asks, “Flies? Like… maggots?”
“YES, like maggots!” I replied.
The driver’s eyes open wide as his chin touches his neck. “Ok?..”
He slowly begins to drive away from the grinning man in bright clothes stomping in a watery ditch looking for “maggots”.
New discoveries happen in unexpected places and with an open mind, every expedition is a success.
Dr. R. Isaí Madriz is an entomologist and zoologist with expertise in freshwater aquatic insects of Patagonia. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, he is telling the story of deglaciation of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, focusing on its vanishing aquatic insect diversity through images and stories of exploration, science and human connections. He combines combine hiking, bikepacking and packrafting to transect unexplored areas and secluded fjords in search of some of the rarest insects on the planet. This low-carbon footprint approach utilizes renewable energy sources to capture never-before-seen footage of remote glacial outlets and hidden valleys of wild Patagonia. Madriz wis documenting the largely unknown endemic aquatic insect fauna of this vital region before Chile’s Aysén region’s biodiversity is transformed forever.