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Treetop Encounter

Author: Will Isaacson
Date: February 11, 2005
A year ago I wrote some about climbing solo and its rewards. I would now like to add to that by telling of an adventure that eclipses the first. Before, it was all about a one-on-one experience with a red tailed hawk while climbing a tree on a ridge in the southern Appalachian Mountains. This time I am in a rainforest, ninety feet off the ground, and the character is a snake. Costa Rica is the place and the snake was a long skinny green parrot snake, non-poisonous, but worthy of watching.

My very first climb had been in a rainforest, under the instruction of Joe Maher at the ITEC site in Panama. Although I climb mostly in North America, the rainforest is where my heart lies. I am a graduate student in biology and epiphytes are my passion. At the time, I was looking at the relationships between epiphytes and the various insects and other miniscule life forms that inhabit them.

The tree was a strangler fig, very gnarly and twisted and with a lot of epiphytes growing within its nooks and crannies. I had come here the day before and gotten a line up although the setting wasn't as high as I would like. I was here again today, not to work with my beloved epiphytes, but to see if I could get my line up to a higher setting. It meant climbing to the first setting and trying to throw a line to a higher limb. The whole thing was difficult because of the abundant presence of lianas and other plant life that got in my way and through which I had to climb as I worked my way upward. I reached the first setting and began the ordeal of trying to hurl a throwline and weight through the greenery above my head to reach the next limb, which was no more than five or six feet higher. A dozen or so throws later, I was hauling on the rope, tying a fresh bridge and moving upward. Repeat. Then repeat again. Then once more with a clear shot at a limb fifteen or so feet higher. I had now been off the ground for almost three hours and decided that this was high enough. The abundant epiphytic growth surrounding me would work nicely for my project. I tossed a monkey fist over a smaller limb only three feet above the bigger limb from which I was dangling, tied my final bridge then ascended upward and onto the larger branch.

For the first time that day I took the time to look around and check out this portion of forest from up high. Truthfully, there was not a whole lot to see. No splendid view at all. Just green plant life in all directions. I was not above the canopy; I was in the canopy. It did not matter. I decided to just sit here for a while. The humidity was horrible, my clothes were sweat-soaked and the cooling-off process was taking more time than I would have liked. A cooling breeze would have been more than welcome, but it wasn't there. I stared off into the greenness and slipped into a groggy daze.

I idly watched as a green vine grew upwards along another thick and darkly colored liana. Then I realized that vines didn't grow that fast, certainly not so fast that I should be able to see them moving. I focused and after several seconds the vine moved again and I realized I was looking at a parrot-snake, brilliant green, very long, very skinny.

The snake seemed to flow right along as it moved upwards, pausing here and there to probe nooks and crannies, searching for a tasty meal of whatever it might encounter. I watched in fascination, having never had the opportunity to observe a snake on the hunt. The snake was hard to follow, being well camouflaged among all of the other greenery. Taking my eyes off for even a moment would leave me searching. The only thing that gave it away was its movement. When it wasn't moving, I couldn't find it. Even when it moved it would occasionally become invisible as it moved through the foliage and in order to follow I would have to predict its direction of travel and then search for it at the place I would expect it to appear.

For nearly an hour I watched and followed the reptile on its journey through the canopy. It investigated every limb, every vine, every nook, and every cranny, flicking its tongue as it probed each little pocket of darkness in search of food. "What are the food preferences of this snake anyway?" I asked myself. That reminded me that I was starting to become rather hungry myself, not having had my lunch and not having brought along a sandwich. After all, this was supposed to be nothing more than a short climb to set a higher line, not a major canopy exploration. I began wishing the snake could find a meal because then I could leave, my curiosity as to its dining habits satisfied.

The snake was now among the foliage slightly above my head, still moving upward, weaving its way along the many options that exist for travel through the world above. It finally encountered a large liana leading upward and headed in that direction to extend the search to a new level. I thought about tossing a higher setting just to follow along and observe progress, but an empty tummy dictated an immediate descent and return to the bunkhouse for a bit of peanut butter and jelly on bread. I knew where my meal was; all I had to do was go to it. No hunting. No slithering along amongst the canopy highways. I returned to the ground, looking forward to a cold shower, a sandwich, thankful in knowing that the next climb into this tree would be much easier.

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