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Panama Rainforest Expedition 2010

Author: Bill Maher
Date: February 15, 2010
The beach sand was brilliant white, the sea water was clear enough to count starfish on the ocean floor, the coconut palms and banana trees swayed in the warm breeze, the thick jungle glistened in a dozen shades of green, and a lot of the people up in the treetops had undeciperable British accents.

It seems that the British also like climbing in the 180- to 200-foot tall trees - and in the 90-degree winters along the Golfo de los Mosquitos on the Caribbean coast of Panama.

The 2010 tree climbing expedition to Bocas del Toro Province near the Panama-Costa Rica border turned out to be the year of the British invasion. Four members of our January expedition to the coastal rainforests were from southern England, and three of them were able to stay for the entire expedition.

In addition to me, Joe, Abe and both Enrique Dixon Sr. and his son Enrique Jr., the members of the expedition were Martin (Marty Tree) Wisson from the Isle of Wight; Larissa (Lady Lalala) Chambers and James Sweetman from Bristol, England; Holli Kilburn from Wiltshire, England; Tom Earing from Colorado Springs, Colo.; Emily (Elbowgreen) Muelhstein from St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Glenn (Formerly Fat Boy Rogue) Fell from Woodstock, Ga.

Along the way we were joined for one or more days by old friend David Zimmerman, who is from Vermont but lives in Panama; Jason and Kim from Toronto; Maya from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.; Theresa from the State University of New York-Buffalo; Anna from upstate New York; and Andrew from Massachusetts.

The eighth annual climbing expedition to Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon officially got underway Jan. 10. We were headquartered at the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC), a working biological field station in the tiny beachfront community of Boca del Drago on the western end of the island. As usual we did not have things like electricity, television, hot water, telephone lines and paved streets.

In fact, the eight-foot-wide sandy track that serves as Main Street in Drago had been washed out a few days before our arrival by heavy seas in the Almirante Channel, which runs in front of the ITEC field station. This meant that expedition members had to haul their gear about 400 yards up the beach from the end of the only paved road on the island.

By the time the expedition started all the ugly weather had moved out of the area; we had to suffer through sun-drenched days and warm, clear nights - which was totally opposite of the huge winter storms raging at that moment across North America and western Europe.

The sandy beach, just 20 yards in front of the field station, was popular every afternoon with climbers who had struggled in from the nearby mud filled rainforests with heavy gear and sweat-stained clothes. Glenn didn't even bother to change into a bathing suit; he walked fully clothed into the warm surf to rinse away the gooey jungle mud.

The first day of the expedition was Jan. 10, when climbers began arriving at the field station, and college students who had been there for a month packed their bags and headed back to academic campuses. We practiced climbing techniques in a small tree in the station courtyard while waiting for stragglers; this let expedition members get used to the steamy local climate.

That night we watched a movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy", on a makeshift screen in the courtyard while sipping on favorite beverages.

We headed out on foot the next morning, Monday, for the primary rainforest and our first real climb in one of the jungle giants. Tom was lead climber and everybody made it to a platform about 85 feet above ground in a prioria tree. Tom and several other climbers inched their way higher into the top branches above 100 feet.

Tuesday morning found several climbers working on ideas they had learned the previous day from other expedition members, followed by climbs in trees near the field station. After lunch we headed back down the island's only road for 12 miles to Bocas Town, for visits to the local internet café and seafood dinners at Le Pirate, our favorite restaurant in town.

Members of previous expeditions will appreciate that the Panamanian government is finally beginning to upgrade the paved road across the island. Curbs and gutters are being installed along the first five miles of road, and a new tar-and-gravel surface is filling in the gigantic potholes that had previously swallowed whole buses and other vehicles. It was not known, though, how long it will be before the rebuilding project would reach the Drago community, or if it ever really will!

Wednesday morning found us out on the grid, which is an area of research rainforest where some of the biggest trees on the island are found. Joe led one group into Bucky, a gigantic strangler fig popular with several troops of howler monkeys, while I went with another group to Braveheart, an equally giant leuhea tree. Everybody climbed to about 140 feet.

Thursday morning we headed out on foot for a long, exploratory hike to the northwest corner of the island. Along the way we checked out Awesome, a monster-sized leuhea that soars nearly 200 feet above the jungle and has a limb spread of more than a half acre. We stopped for ice water at the home of Tequila Dave, a North American who has carved out an 18-acre paradise from the thick rainforest, and then we installed haul lines in several trees on a hill above a series of limestone caves.

Friday turned out to be a long day on a low ridge above the local swamp forest. While the rest of the group attacked a monster-sized almandre tree, Forbidden, I fought my way up about 160 feet to the top of a virola (wild nutmeg) that was about 50 feet away from the other tree. From that vantage point I was able to photograph expedition members fighting their way up 185 feet or more to the top of the almandre.

We spent nearly seven hours on this climb, and Larissa managed to do bat hangs from the middle of a traverse at about 170 feet, while James and Holli worked their way to the topmost branches. A group of children (it was a normal school break in Panama) watched us from the nearby road.

Saturday morning I led one group to the hilltop above the limestone caves for climbs in a huge prioria tree while Joe led another group to Awesome. Several expedition members took time to explore two of the caves, which are home to thousands of local fruit bats.

Two Canadian tourists, Jason and Kim, wandered into the ITEC compound Saturday night and immediately accepted our offer for a free guided climb the next morning.

We were up early and were headed to the grid when Glenn finally arrived at the field station. He dropped off his suitcases and grabbed his climbing gear for the one-mile hike to the climbing trees. Both Canadians managed to climb 125 feet on the yo-yo system; an expedition member accompanied each.

Emily arrived at the field station in late afternoon, after a bus ride from San Jose, Costa Rica and a long walk across a railroad bridge at the Panama border.

Monday was spent back at the big Prioria tree above the limestone caves, where Glenn and Emily finally got to put on their headlamps and explore the bat-filled caverns.

Tuesday started with an early morning boat ride to search for the famous red tree frogs on the remote island of Bastimentos. Although Enrique Jr. had spent his entire life in the Bocas archipelago area, he had never seen the red frogs. The island's famous beach attracted the sunbathing attention of expedition members, who reluctantly left the pristine white sands for climbs in a nearby tree (unknown species).

Abe had arrived while we were over on Bastimentos, and he joined us the next morning for the annual trek to the graduation tree.

Needless to say, this particular giant has inspired - and frightened - expedition members for eight years. It stands nearly 200 feet tall and has a limb spread of 153 feet, which shades roughly three-fourths of an acre. Its lowest limb is 111 feet up, and the best anchor point is at roughly 140 feet. It is filled with more than a dozen varieties of gigantic epiphytes.

We used 300-foot ropes for the entry lines.

Joe went up first and set a second line for Larissa. He then got a second setting on his side of the tree and came down to let others use his rope. I went up and installed ropes for several other climbers at about 160 feet, while Holli took Larissa's setting and set ropes on the opposite side of the tree. By lunchtime everybody was high above the rainforest in one of Central America's largest trees, and nobody came down until well after 4 p.m.

Glenn made a 150-foot SRT Australian descent on his brake bar rappelling rack, which he later admitted was very scary.

We worked in the courtyard tree Thursday morning, to practice several rescue techniques, and James left for England just after lunch. A British tourist wandered through the compound in mid-afternoon, so Holli and Larissa took the opportunity to sharpen their new facilitator skills by getting him off the ground.

Friday morning found Holli and Larissa headed to the 185-foot Forbidden while all the other expedition members set out to explore a corner of the island that had rarely been visited. Even Enrique Sr., who has explored nearly every corner of western Panama, had only recently been to this area.

The new area, along the banks of the Mimitimbi River, featured more limestone caves, plenty of climbing trees - and a trio of tortoises that fascinated Maya, who is an entomology student. Glenn nearly got stuck in one cave but managed to work his way free with only a scratch on one elbow.

Saturday morning arrived all too soon, and expedition members packed for their trips home. Abe and I set out by water taxi to the mainland banana port of Almirante and a bus ride to the mountain resort town of Boquete and the fishing villages along the Pacific coast.

The 2010 tree climbing expedition to Panama was over.

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