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Day 17 (Monday February 13, 2012) On Saturday June 4, 2011, a fissure in the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle chain of South-Central Chile erupted spewing out ash for more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) into the sky. The predominant winds in the Patagonian steppe come from the Pacific so the volcanic plume extended mainly into Argentina dumping tons of sand-like pumice and ashes onto the temperate rain forest and the glacial lakes of the Argentine Lake District. The extent of the plume was such that flights had to be canceled in Buenos Aires, nearly 2,000 kilometers away. Amazing pictures were published by The Atlantic two days after the eruption. The city of Villa La Angostura, an important tourist destination located immediately downwind from the eruption, has been economically devastated.  The ecological impact on the beautiful southern beech-dominated forests of Lanín National Park is still unclear—thousands of acres have been covered by a thick layer of pumice and ashes. The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle fissure is still sending out ashes eight months after the initial eruption and we got to ride through the ash cloud today.

We left Zapala after riding through the city for a while trying to get gas—most gas stations were out of it. It was a nice cool morning; the ride around the steppe mesas with their straight basalt tops was quite enjoyable. In many of the valleys, hidden away from the wind, we passed houses with their typical Lombardy poplars.

At a given point the nearly perfect cone of Volcán Lanín appeared at the distance. This is an emblematic mountain that gives its name to Lanín National Park. Both my brother and I know this area well because we fly fish here relatively frequently. Although you cannot guess it from far away, we know that Volcán Lanín has two very different faces. On the northern slope of the volcano there is a forest of Araucaria or Monkey-puzzle trees that extends onto the shores of Lake Tromen. Once you are there, you almost expect to see long-necked dinosaurs browsing on the monkey-puzzle leaves. From Lake Tromen emerges the Malleo River, a stream in which I have caught beautiful brown and rainbow trout with my favorite fly, the Elk Hair Caddis. The dense forest that covers the southern slope of Lanín is dominated by several species of southern beeches, some deciduous and some evergreen. The view of the snow-covered volcano from gorgeous Lake Paimún is unforgettable.

Approximately 150 kilometers from Zapala, route 40 comes down to the valley of the Collón Curá River and follows the stream for a while. We came across several guanacos that were grazing by the road. I had the chance to take a close look at a small Gauchito Gil shrine. Inside two little red-painted wood-made houses were several figurines of the gauchito wearing a light blue shirt, white bombacha pants, a chiripá—a piece of cloth that looks like, but it is not, an external diaper—and a red bandana over the shoulders tied at the front. The gauchito is represented with long hair, heavy moustaches, and holding boleadoras—a throwing weapon mainly used to trap animals. There were various objects inside the red huts including a maté gourd, cigarettes, candles, a plastic water bottle, and plastic red flowers.

We eventually crossed the Collón Curá and rode towards the man-made Lake Alicurá—created when a hydroelectric dam was built over the Limay River. As we were approaching Alicurá we noticed that we were driving towards what looked like low clouds that we assumed to be part of a storm. By the time we reached Alicurá it was clear that we were in the middle of a cloud of ashes from the eruption of the fissure in Chile. We had both heard about and seen pictures of the devastation caused by the eruption, but riding through the cloud of ashes miles away for the actual fissure was very powerful. We just could not believe what we were seeing.  The ground was covered by a whitish layer that looked like old snow. Trees, especially poplars, did not seem very healthy. The sun looked like a translucent circle on a grayish sky. After riding in the dirty air for a while I began to cough and felt an itch in my throat. We stopped to get gas at Confluencia, where the Traful River enters the Limay. The wind was blowing so much ash that it was difficult to see the hills on the other side of the river. South of Confluencia the road enters the “Enchanted Valley”, where the greenish blue Limay runs through a glacial carved ravine with striking rock formations pointing towards the sky. Groups of elegant Cordilleran Cypress (Austrocedrus chilensis) introduce a touch of green to the mainly yellowish mountains. Today, the Enchanted Valley seemed more enchanted than ever. The falling ash added an air of mystery to the mesmerizing scenery. By time we got to the city of San Carlos de Bariloche on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the sky was clear and the sun shining. We stopped at the Centro Cívico—the highly recognized landmark of Bariloche—to wait for my friend Sonia Fontenla, who will be our host for the next two or three days.