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The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Author: Joe Maher
Date: December 16, 2008
Panama City, Republic of Panama, stting at the southern end of the Panama Canal, is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Central America. Yet, less than a thirty minte drive from the city's center is some of the most beautiful and dense rainforest to be found anywhere in the country. it is here, in Soberania Natonal Park, that one may visit the newly created Panamanian Rainforest Discovery Center.

Two years ago, while spending a few days in the city, I had the opportunity to meet the woman who would become the center's director. When Beatriz Schmidt heard that I was a tree climber and that I had worked with canopy researchers I got an immediate invitation to visit and climb at the site of the proposed center. They were looking for input on where they should place the one-hundred foot high cnopy tower to be constructed on the site. That tower is now a reality and stands less than twenty feet from one of the trees I climbed that day, and was placed exactly where I sugested.

On December thirteenth of this year I returned for a visit and to do some more climbing with some of their staff. I was quite tired from my fly-in the day before, so David Zimmerman, my host, and I, put up lines and made a couple of short climbs. The next day we would be sending others into the canopy.

The tree was a large guanacaste and stood more than a hundred feet high, with big limbs spread over more than an acre of forest. The big limbs were a great place to hang out. To fully explore the canopy of this tree would require several days of climbing and I saw the opportunity for future climbs without having to go even beyond this one tree.

The next morning, we were back early, got the ropes up, and the climbing began. First off the ground was Margelys Barria (in the blue tee shirt), one of the center's resident naturalists. Marge and I were old friends and she and I had climbed together before. She was hauling herself up the rope at full speed and I had to slow her down for photos. I climbed alongside of her, but as soon as I had my photos, I descended to send someone else up.

Juan Pablo Rios (tan shirt, bluejeans), another of the staff, was next and this was his first-ever climb on rope.No problem! It took a few minutes to get him started but then he was gone, heading upward.

Mica Schmitt, a former ITEC student, showed up about this time, ready to take her trip up the tree. Mica is now a tour guide/naturalist working in Panama, and she and I have climbed together often. Mica (white tee shirt) replaced Marge on her rope, and in moments had disappeared into the greenery overhead.

Marcial Caisamno was the last of the center staff to start up (tan shirt, tan lacks) and soon he was out of sight too. Marcial was another that had clmbed before and he was gone as fast as the rest of them.

Finally, my friend and host, David Zimmerman, connected himself to the rope and began his second foray into the canopy of this tree. David is an old friend from days at the ITEC Field Station and had climbed with me before. He now lives in Panama City and takes care of me when I pass through. David has found the yoyo system to be quite to his liking and is climbing better because of it.

The following morning we were back again and climbing a gigantic ficus tree that Marge wanted to climb. This tree was a bit more challenging, but an awesome climb nevertheless. Marge, David, Marcial, and I were the only climbers for this one, and we made relatively short work of it. Time to go. I will be on the way to the field station tomorrow.

Climbing at the Discovery Center has been good for their staff and good for our kind of climbing in general. They are now talking about offering climbing as an option for adventurous visitors. Recreational climbing techniques will play a major role in this and it is my hope to be here to help when it happens.

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