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2008 Panama Expedition report
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Abe Winters has a philosophy about the endless mud along the Golfo de los Mosquitos on the Caribbean coast of the Republic of Panama. “Some people pay big money for mud baths like these,” Winters commented as he struggled a couple of weeks ago to extract his knee-high rubber boots from the ugly gray muck that had him glued to the rainforest floor.
“And some people ain’t got no sense,” replied Mike Ivie, an adventurous tree climber from Senoia, Ga., while trying to swat gnats and stay balanced on a narrow log across one of the wetter and muddier spots of a jungle creek.
They were both members of the January 2008 tree climbing expedition to Bocas del Toro Province, just 18 miles from the border between Panama and Costa Rica.
The other expedition members were Lyndsey Read from Ariesey, Bedfordshire, England; David “When Am I Gonna Be Challenged” Obi from Jacksonville, Fla.; Dr. Peter Lahanas from the Institute of Tropical Ecology and Conservation in Panama; Joe Maher from the Treeclimber’s Coalition; and me, from TreeTrek Adventures.
Jessica Clyne, a coral reef researcher from Arizona who was working in Bocas del Toro, joined us for half of the 12-day expedition
It was our fifth annual winter expedition to the tiny beachfront community of Boca del Drago, a collection of about eight homes and a small sand-floor restaurant on the western end of Isla Colon. As usual the expedition was based at the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC), a working biological field station.
And, as usual there were no televisions, telephones, hot water, or reliable electricity (the small generator ran from 6 p.m. to about 10 p.m. every day, if the diesel fuel lasted that long).
The only unusual thing was the weather. It routinely rains in a rainforest, but we had only two mornings with measurable precipitation. The ocean waters around the coral reefs off Drago Beach and Starfish Beach were nearly crystal clear and perfect for snorkeling.
A few words of explanation: Bocas del Toro is the name of one of Panama’s nine provinces, and the province is composed of a small area of mainland along the Caribbean coast and several hundred small to medium-sized islands. The town of Bocas del Toro is the provincial capital and it is located on the east end of Isla Colon, the largest island in the province. ITEC is located on the opposite end of the island in the village of Boca del Drago.
There were several reasons for a group of recreational, adventure, research and educational tree climbers to spend 12 days each January in the village.
First, it is always warm in Boca del Drago, even when large parts of North America and Europe are locked in the midst of winter storms. Daytime temperatures here are about 90 degrees Fahrenheit all year long, and the ocean breezes at night are about perfect for comfortable sleeping without heavy blankets.
Second, there are always one or more experts in various biological end ecological disciplines at work at the field station. Tree climbers can, and regularly do, learn a lot from these researchers.
And third, Panama’s estimated 1,100 species of trees grow incredibly fast here. This coast is home to one of the world’s most important rainforests and Boca del Drago gets 20 inches of neotropical rain a month. The rain, when coupled with the greenhouse temperatures, has created a magnificent and incredibly diverse canopy across hundreds of thousands of acres with an average height of about 150 to 175 feet. The occasional emergent trees routinely soar to well over 200 feet.
That canopy is home to hundreds of varieties of epiphytes, bromeliads, orchids, lianas, primates, insects, reptiles and tropical birds.
Despite the mud, heat, snakes, bugs and other critters, it was the perfect environment for the expedition. And to make it even better we had Enrique Dixon Sr., known as Don Enrique to members of previous expeditions, to guide us to the best trees and to the wildest and most remote climbing areas.
Don Enrique, at age 57, is a farmer and valued elder of the Ngobe tribe of Amerindians who inhabit western Panama. He knows the jungles and waters of his native Bocas del Toro Province perhaps better than anyone on earth, he knows the local names of most of the local trees, and he even knows most of the secret native trails that crisscross 60-square-mile Isla Colon and the nearby mainland.
And, Don Enrique speaks excellent English. The language, which he learned as a child from the English family that adopted him, serves him well while working with the researchers and sports fishermen who value Enrique’s expertise.
This year’s expedition was blessed by better than average weather – it only rained two mornings, rather than the usual five or six days – and by incredibly clear and warm ocean water on the beach that was only 50 feet in front of the ITEC compound. Everybody went snorkeling between climbs, and the evening sunsets were more brilliant than ever.
The expedition started the morning of Jan. 9 when Abe, Mike and David met at Miami International Airport for the flight to Panama City, Panama. Lyndsey, flying from Gatwick Airport near London, caught up with them at the Hotel Covadonga in downtown Panama City that night.
None of us had ever met Lyndsey but she turned out to be a tough, highly skilled climber who fit in perfectly with the group. Lyndsey knew several techniques that she taught us; in return, we showed her a few climbing tricks.
The group checked out of the Hotel Covadonga before dawn the next morning and took a taxi to Albrook, the smaller of Panama City’s two airports. There, they boarded a 23-seat propeller airplane for the 50-minute flight to Bocas del Toro “International” Airport on Isla Colon. The single 2,500-foot runway at Bocas Town, as it’s sometimes called, does occasionally serve as the destination for a flight from neighboring Costa Rica so it has an international designation.
Joe and I met them at the airport at 7:30 a.m. with ITEC’s gray-green school bus. We made a quick stop in Bocas Town for forgotten items, and then headed west on the island’s only road to Boca del Drago.
Members of previous expeditions will remember this 12-mile, 10-foot-wide “road from hell.” Although it’s allegedly a tar-and-gravel surface, the 240 inches of rain that falls on the island every year has washed away most of the pavement and left it pitted, rutted and in some places almost impassible. It now takes about 40 to 45 minutes to complete the trip to or from town.
The local bus that is supposed to make three round trips each day between town and Boca del Drago was unable to get through several times, and at the end of our expedition the bus driver started a protest against road conditions that ended with his bus and several dozen taxi cabs blocking the road for two hours. We actually had to drive up to the protest site, tote our luggage past it, and then get into another vehicle for our final trip to the airport. Local police wisely took one look at the protest group and retreated to their barracks.
After lunch on the first day at ITEC, Dr. Pete Lahanas led the group on a three-hour boat trip and orientation hike through the mangroves to a primary rainforest and a swamp forest near Enrique Dixon’s isolated 140-acre farm on nearby Ground Creek.
Lahanas repeated the warning he’d issued to every climbing expedition for the past five years: “Don’t put your hands on anything out here until you’ve looked carefully at it, even if you’re falling.”
It was a wise warning since the tarantulas could be as big as saucers, some local ant species could bite much worse than fire ants, innocuous leaves could slice the skin like a surgical scalpel, and the poisonous fer-de-lance snake could look just like a stick (fortunately, fer-de-lances are not particularly aggressive and they rarely come out during daylight).
The first night we watched the National Geographic film “Heroes of the High Frontier” outdoors in the compound at ITEC. Although many climbing and canopy-access techniques shown in the film are now out of date, it shows the value of treetop research and the commitment of the researchers.
After breakfast the morning of the second day at ITEC, we headed back to Enrique’s farm in the field station’s 20-foot boat. The first climb of the expedition was made in a gigantic ficus tree where Joe had lashed a small platform about 95 feet above the rainforest floor.
David, Lyndsey and Joe joined me in the platform tree, while Abe and Mike climbed another large ficus about 400 yards away in Enrique’s pasture. Pete stayed on the ground and worked on a sketch map of the area.
After our sack lunches were finished, everybody joined Abe and Mike for a second 80- to 100-foot climb in another ficus in the pasture. Mike also worked in a 60-foot climb in an unknown species in the pasture before we headed back by boat to base camp at ITEC for swimming, showers and dinner.
On Saturday morning, the third day at ITEC, Joe led the expedition to a new climbing area near the northwest corner of the island. There were dozens of huge ficus and ceiba trees about 1,000 yards into the jungle.
David and I climbed to about 100 feet in a giant ficus named Balboa that had three main leaders that shaded about a half-acre of rainforest floor. While we climbed, a flock of about 60 to 70 Oropendolas, beautiful native black birds, began feeding in our tree. At least two troops of howler monkeys came close to the tree but kept a safe distance away.
Other expedition members were busy trying to get lines into nearby trees, and Mike and Abe climbed a gigantic ceiba on a ridge along the edge of the local road. They later said it had an awesome view of the entire west end of the island.
That night we made the long, difficult drive back to Bocas Town for seafood dinners at Le Pirate, one of only a few real restaurants on the island. The little town’s main street was crowded with surfers who’d come in from North and South America and Europe to enjoy the 10- to 15-foot waves on the island’s north shores.
Sunday morning, the fourth day at ITEC, we headed back to the new climbing area. I went up a ficus that had never before been climbed and set a line at about 110 feet for Jessica Clyne, the coral reef researcher who’d joined us. It was only her second SRT climb and her first time above 100 feet. We stayed in the canopy about an hour, watching a troop of howler monkeys in another huge tree about 150 yards north of us.
Joe, David, Mike and Lyndsey went up in other nearby trees that had never before been climbed. Abe and Pete stayed on the road and worked on the ITEC school bus.
By mid-afternoon we were all back at the ITEC compound and ready for more swimming, sunbathing and snorkeling along the coral reefs.
Monday morning found us coated with bug repellent and in a boat with Don Enrique, heading for the gigantic red and white mangroves beyond Punta Rosa along a saltwater stream called Caracol Grande. Despite the clouds of bugs and the thick black mud in the mangroves – and, of course, the threat of saltwater crocodiles and caimans – we managed to get everybody up into four different trees.
Floridians who’re used to the small mangroves along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts near the Everglades might claim that it’s impossible to climb more than 40 feet or so in one, but the mangroves along the south shore of Isla Colon often reach 90 to 100 feet in height.
Lyndsey discovered she could swing from the top of the tree that she and Joe were climbing and almost reach the red mangroves that Abe and David were climbing. The first swing startled Joe, who was half napping in the late morning sunshine and not ready for the sudden shake of the tree trunk. Joe survived and kept his perch.
Tuesday was a free day, but I headed back to the primary rainforest with Abe and Mike. We tackled an unknown species of tree that was about 100 feet tall along a creek bottom. It looked like an easy climb but turned out to be far more technical than expected and required about six or seven pitches to reach 80 feet.
Mike discovered a hollow spot in the trunk with an opening in the main crotch at about 50 feet. He also discovered it was home to large numbers of fruit bats.
We were finally back on the ground about 2 p.m., for a two-mile hike along the coast to the ITEC compound. We passed two native huts where children came out to greet us. (Panama has compulsory school attendance for all children up to age 16, but their “summer” vacation starts at Christmas and ends in early March, which is the “dry” season along the Caribbean coast.)
After a late lunch, Mike and Abe climbed another unknown species of tree at the ITEC compound. Both of them managed to reach about 60 feet, where there was an awesome view across the Almirante Channel, where Christopher Columbus anchored his fleet in July 1502 during his fourth voyage to the New World.
Don Enrique was in the lead again Wednesday morning for a four-mile hike through the mud and jungle to the middle of Isla Colon, where the fast-moving Nemeteme River (also called the Mimitimbi) flows through a series of limestone caves. Everybody managed to walk and swim through several caves, despite the huge numbers of vampire bats hanging from the ceilings of several caverns.
Expedition members also discovered the refreshing joy of juice from just-picked cocoanuts, personally hand-sliced with Enrique’s razor-sharp machete.
Don Enrique’s son, Enrique Junior, was at the helm of the boat the next morning when Joe, David and I decided to explore the wild and wooly Soropta Peninsula, a place where the going gets rough and the bugs, snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, monkeys, jungle cats and everything else are real.
Everybody else chose to stay on the island and climb in several trees near the ITEC compound.
Our sweaty, long hike across the jungle-covered peninsula was made on an old cattle path, where the mud was usually knee-deep and slick. It sucked the boots off our feet a couple of times.
David, still asking “When am I gonna be challenged,” got up close and personal with a couple of deadly eyelash vipers. One of the yellow vipers actually leaped several inches toward him, a trait that had never before been observed in eyelash vipers by ITEC students and personnel.
We finally fought our way across the peninsula and through incredibly thick underbrush to a gigantic zapatilla tree that Joe and I had first spotted three years earlier but had been unable to reach. Joe had come back and climbed this tree this past summer and there was the remnant of a tag line still in place at the tree’s base. It took several hours of difficult rigging and climbing to reach the canopy of the zapatilla, but we were rewarded with a 360-degree view that included the main volcanoes in the distant Talamanca Mountains of neighboring Costa Rica.
We hiked back along the narrow beach for about two miles to the boat, where Enrique Jr. was waiting to return us to ITEC.
Friday morning was the start of our last full day at ITEC, and it was finally time for expedition members to meet “the big surprise.”
We headed east after breakfast on the island’s road for about three miles and turned into a pasture at the farm of Don Pedro Iglasias, a local farmer who happens to own what is arguably the largest tree in Bocas del Toro Province. This is a ceiba that has been climbed by members of every tree climbing expedition to Panama.
The tree is more than 200 feet tall and has a drip line that was measured two years earlier at 153 feet; shading nearly three-fourths of an acre. The lowest limb is 104 feet above the pasture. Abe, who every year tries to break his record with a throw bag and line, got the lowest limb on his third toss. Previously, he had thrown more than 50 times before reaching a record of 111 feet on the opposite side of the tree.
Everybody just looked up at the tree and giggled. David, who moments earlier had still been asking the question “When am I gonna be challenged,” apparently began to reassess his offer to be lead climber. Joe wouldn’t let David back out.
After several shots with the Rogue Sidewinder, David managed to get a line over a huge limb at about 130 feet and he started up the tree. Once he reached the top of the rope, David realized he didn’t have any place to go or any easy way to throw to another limb. Joe finally took pity on him and fired another setting with the Sidewinder at a limb about 15 feet higher. Joe missed, and David, trying again, finally got a throwline to sail over the setting and could then get on top of his limb.
David eventually managed to haul up three more ropes. Lyndsey, who suddenly realized she was about to climb a lot higher than her previous height record, was nervous but managed to finally make it up the tree. She spent the next two hours working her way between several huge limbs and into the hanging chair she’d brought all the way from England.
Joe and I soon joined them at the 150-foot level, while Abe and Mike headed to a pair of slightly smaller trees about 125 yards away. Pete had gone back to the ITEC compound to complete a personal project he’d started earlier in the expedition.
All good things have to come to an end, so we eventually worked our way back down the gigantic tree. Nobody wanted to leave, but finally we packed up, shook Don Pedro’s hand to thank him for letting us climb, and headed back to ITEC for showers before making the long bus ride to town before sunset. We dined again on ceviche and fresh-caught shrimp and other seafood at Le Pirate.
The sun was bright Saturday morning, and several expedition members got in one final swim before we packed our bags in the old ITEC school bus and headed back to the little airport in Bocas Town. Despite the road protest by the island bus driver and several taxi drivers, we made it to the airport in plenty of time for the afternoon flight back to Panama City.
Everybody checked into the Hotel Covadonga, got their first hot showers in nearly two weeks, and headed out to our last dinner at an excellent steakhouse that Abe had discovered two years earlier. Everybody then got to sleep in air-conditioned rooms for the first time in two weeks.
Lyndsey and Pete headed to Tocumen International Airport outside Panama City before dawn Sunday, for their respective flights to London and Orlando. Joe drove north toward Colon, Panama to spend a week with Dr. Noel Rowe, a primate researcher who had learned tree climbing at ITEC three years earlier.
David, Mike, Abe and I took a taxi after breakfast to the Panama Canal Visitor’s Center at the famous Miraflores Locks to watch the giant ships make their way through the narrow waterway. At noon, David and Mike left for the international airport and their flights to Miami.
Abe and I spent the next three days around Panama City, where we explored the renovated ruins of the original city, toured the famous seafood and municipal markets, rode the express bus to Colon and took the Panama Canal Railway train back to town, and hiked the new causeway to the city yacht basin.
Early Wednesday morning we flew back to Bocas Town on Isla Colon, hopped on a water taxi to the mainland, and shared a taxi with an Irish couple to the international border with Costa Rica.
The border crossing is a 1,000-foot railway bridge across the Sixaola River that separates the two Central American countries. We had to drag our bags along a narrow walkway beside the tracks, while several tractor-trailer trucks came across by straddling the railway tracks. Some boards on the walkway were missing or rotted, and we had more views of the muddy river beneath us than we really wanted.
We cleared customs on the Costa Rica side of the river and discovered we’d just missed our bus. The next bus was not due for several hours, but a local farmer doubling as a taxi driver threw our bags in the back of his stake-body truck and chased the bus for about six miles before he caught it.
An hour later we checked into Cabinas Safari, an excellent 7-room motel a block from the beach in the dirt-street Caribbean town of Cahuita. Costa Rica has a lot more crime than most other countries in Central America, but the hotel manager had solved the problem by surrounding the motel with an 8-foot chainlink fence topped with barbed wire. Each guest has a key to the gate.
Cahuita turned out to be what Abe has always called “a find.” Prices were cheap, small sand-floor restaurants were within easy walking distance of the motel, the beach was unspoiled black sand that had washed down centuries earlier from the volcanoes – and the entrance to a 28,000-acre national park was two blocks from the motel.<p>
That’s when I got busted!
It started when I decided to climb a tree too close to the main trail in the Cahuita National Park. I was about 30 to 35 feet up in an unknown species when something moved in another tree about a dozen feet away. A female howler monkey and her baby had just woken up and were starting to feed; they completely ignored me.
Two other howlers joined them, jumping from branch to branch and tree to tree as they fed on green leaves and small figs. The alpha male of the troop aggressively dropped down from the top of another tree about 50 feet away and began hooting at me. A crowd of park visitors began to gather on the main trail to watch, and someone apparently realized one of the monkeys was wearing clothes and hanging on a rope.
“Sir, you can not climb the trees,” said a female voice below me. I looked down and saw a 30-ish woman in a park ranger’s uniform with captain’s bars on her shoulders and a revolver in her holster. I came down immediately.
She gave me a hard time at first, but Captain Alina Soares quickly became fascinated with my gear and asked a lot of questions about how everything worked. It turned out that she’d done some rock climbing, ropes courses and wall climbing while a graduate student in wildlife biology a few years earlier at the University of Texas.
I then filled out a 15-page visitor’s survey that asked a lot of questions about how Costa Rica can improve its national park system, accepted the captain’s business card with e-mail address, and agreed to contact her for permission before climbing there in the future. She even offered to help me get a “research permit.” I made a $10 “donation” to the park on my way out the gate.
The next morning Abe and I rode a bus to the Aviaores Preserve and Sloth Rehabilitation Center about 10 miles farther north on the Costa Rica coast. Abe had wanted to visit the center for several years, after meeting a sloth researcher who’d made several wildlife films of the harmless tree-dwellers. Abe also likes to tell people that he climbs like a sloth – slow and careful.
We each made a $25 donation to the center, which takes in injured or abandoned sloths and nurses them back to health before they’re released back into the wild. The donation was supposed to cover our tour of the center and the lecture.
Afterward, Abe and I agreed on one thing – we each wasted our $25 so that other tree climbers won’t have to waste theirs in the future. In short, don’t bother since most climbers can see more sloths up close in the wild than at the center.
Friday morning we boarded an express bus for an excellent and comfortable four-hour ride to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The trip took us across some of the highest mountain passes in Central America and back down into the big “bowl” where San Jose is located, about 3,750 feet above sea level.
It is a huge city with an unexpectedly friendly and clean downtown, where many of the streets have been turned into pedestrian malls. It is more expensive than the rest of Costa Rica – about the same as staying in a mid-grade hotel in most cities in the U.S.
The area around San Jose was not very suitable for tree climbing, due to Costa Rica’s excessive efforts to attract tourists. The tourists were everywhere, and there were also park employees everywhere. Costa Rica’s efforts to help tourists were actually killing our attempts to climb trees.
After 36 hours in San Jose, we headed to their new international airport, got through passport control in near-record time, and made our way to our American Airlines flight to Atlanta. The 2008 tree climbing expedition was finally at an end.