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Climbing In The Mangrove Forest

Author: jmaher
Date: August 30, 2006
For those of you tired of climbing in the same old trees in the same old forest, let me recommend an adventure that will take you outside your normal realm of experience. Try climbing in a tropical mangrove forest. Yes, I said a mangrove forest.

Those of you who live in or have traveled to Florida might imagine a mangrove forest to be something of a letdown. The mangroves you see while speeding southward toward Key West from the comfort of an air-conditioned automobile look a bit on the scrubby side and not worth a whole lot of attention. As a climber, I agree. These forests are composed, for the most part, of small sun-baked islets covered in foliage no more than a few feet in height, their trunk diameters hardly big enough to support any climber daring to attempt an upward adventure.

Come on south to the tropical coastlines of Central America and you will suddenly understand the possibility for an unusual adventure and some interesting climbing in the mangrove environment. Here the trees can grow to heights nearing a hundred feet, with climbs possible to seventy and eighty feet. And if you happen to like wilderness it can be arguably stated that forest doesn’t get a whole lot wilder than this. A day among the mangroves will be like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.

You should be warned in advance that climbing and exploring among the mangroves can be a very dirty, exhausting, and bug-bitten exercise in masochism. Those who wish to visit and climb comfortably will need to understand that it is best to accept and plan for these things rather than try to fight them. Surrender to the occasion; go ahead and get dirty, sweat till you smell bad, and use lots of repellent. Then enjoy yourself!

To begin with, don’t even think about trying to get into a mangrove forest on foot. It can be done, but only with a lot of pain and suffering. Take a boat. Get in a boat and find yourself one of the small creeks that go from the seashore into a mangrove forest. Keep going as far as the boat will take you, then start looking for the tree you want to climb. Pick something as near the edge of the creek as possible; you don’t want to have to fight your way through the root tangle to get to your chosen tree. Don’t plan on being able to throw your line into the tree; take some sort of device for getting your line up there. Trying to throw while standing among the roots and in the mud is pure folly. Keep your settings close to the trunk, and stick with the larger limbs. Mangroves can be a bit on the brittle side and it is suggested that climbers choose better settings than would be used in other trees. Once you are off the ground and above the root tangle the climb can proceed as with any other climb but remember that you are in a different environment. There are all sorts of things here that won’t be seen elsewhere, tree-climbing arboreal crabs being just one example. Having said all of that, be assured that a climb in this environment is well worth the effort and discomfort.

Unless you happen to be a local resident and familiar with the area it is advised that you find yourself someone who is knowledgeable and understands life among the mangroves. My contact and source of all information relating to the tropical forest is one Enrique Dixon, an indigenous local citizen who takes great pleasure in showing me all of the wildest and most remote places he can find in order to remind me that he knows more about the outdoors in tropical forests than I do. He has a nice big dugout cayuca with a motor and is personally acquainted with every tree in the forest. He will also climb with me, but only because he feels that I need to be watched over and protected from myself. He also wields a mean machete, which is sometimes necessary on some of our more adventurous forays into the tropical outback.

In addition to offering an out-of-the-ordinary adventure, the mangrove forest is also a place worthy of serious study by field biologists. The mangrove forests of our tropical shorelines are an important habitat for all sorts of unusual plants and wildlife and serve as the buffers between ocean and land. Mangrove habitats are a very serious issue among conservationists and there is a lot of research going on to understand their value and to assess the damage caused by their loss as developers cut them down to make room for resorts and marinas.

The adventure pictured here involved a climb on Isla Colon along the northwestern Caribbean coast of Panama, along a small creek near Punta Caracol. Enrique, Hans Hallman, and I took an entire day to look over the place and make a climb in this relatively remote area of the island. Enrique assured us that no one ever came here except to hunt, and even that did not happen often. A later trip to the same area was made with one of our students, Amanda Ammon, from Canada, who wanted to set up a transect through the forest to collect and test soil samples for analysis. Our eight-hundred meter stroll through the forest was one of the toughest adventures of the entire summer. Amanda is one tough lady! Hopefully, once her project is complete I can pass along her findings to anyone interested.

Now that you have read this and looked at the photos, are any of you interested in going for a climb in the mangrove forest?

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