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Report On Panama Rainforest Expedition 2004

Author: jmaher
Date: February 01, 2004
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Panama Rainforest Expedition 2004

The thirteen participants in the Panama Rainforest Climbing Expedition 2004 have now returned safely home from their adventure on Isla Colon on the Caribbean coast of Panama. The unanimous agreement among the group was that the trip has been a great success and an enjoyable as well as challenging adventure. Many of those who went have already verbally committed themselves to a return trip in 2005.

The trip, co-ordinated by the Tree Climber's Coalition, involved participants from Tree Climbing International, Tree Climbing USA, Tree Climbing Atlanta, Arborquest, Tree Climbing Taiwan, and Blue Ridge Tree Climbing. Individual participants were Iris Turney, Bob Wray, Bob Remenapp, Patrick Dimmer, Lynn Driver, Bill Maher, Mary Dekeon, Dick Flowers, Rod Justice, Elliott Su, Abe Winers, Tim Kovar, and Joe Maher.

The group was hosted by the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation, a biological field station located on the northwestern tip of Isla Colon at Boca Del Drago, which normally caters to tropical researchers and students of tropical biology and ecology. Joe Maher, a member of the ITEC faculty, had attained an invitation for the climbing group from ITEC director, Dr. Pete Lahanas. Joe had already been working at ITEC for almost a month before the group of climbers arrived on January 11th. Tim Kovar, who along with Joe and Abe Winters had organized the adventure, arrived at ITEC on January 6th, to begin preparations for the arrival of the rest of the group.

The main body of the group assembled in Panama City on the evening of January 10th, met with Abe Winters who had served as the "advance man", and proceeded on to Isla Colon early on the 11th. Others of the group were on the way via Costa Rica. Bill Maher and Elliott Su had come on to ITEC earlier. Everyone would be together by lunchtime on the 11th at ITEC.

The first thing the group did, after lunch at the small restaurant which caters to the participants at the station, was to take a familiarization walk through the forest led by tropical rainforest ecologist, Dr. Pete Lahanas This was a very enlightening experience in which many of the wonders of the tropical forest were pointed out to our participants. Leafcutter ants, bats, a two-toed sloth, and other animals of the tropical forest stepped forth to reveal themselves to the wonderment of the group. Participants also got a chance to look at some of the large trees that would be among those available for their adventures into the canopy. In order to present both the best and the worst of the tropical forest, the walk advanced from a tour of the primary forest to a walk into the swamp forest. By the end of the afternoon most of the group had reached the point where they were now aware that keeping clean and staying dry were goals not worth the trouble of pursuing. They were now ready to venture forth into the canopy.

Starting the next morning the group did nothing but climb. Almost every tree climbed offered the opportunity to break a hundred feet and some were climbed considerably higher. Since these trees were in a primary rainforest very little had been done in the way of prepping the trees for climbing. ITEC's policy includes a strict wilderness ethic. As little impact as possible is to be exerted upon the environment and this includes the idea that trees shall remain wild and will be climbed "as is." That meant that every one of the trees was a challenge and no two climbs or routes into the canopy were alike. Everyone was making at least one climb a day and some of the group were making two and three climbs a day, trying to climb as many of the trees as possible.

By the middle of the week the group had progressed to the point where a new challenge was needed. We split into two groups and one group went across the channel to the really wild Soropta Peninsula while the other group went on a trip by boat through the mangrove swamps to the farm of Enrique Dixon to climb in the trees in a remote area of forest there. The groups would exchange destinations on the following day.

The climbers who went to the peninsula were treated to the chance of climbing in a giant ceiba tree. These trees grow so huge that the Indians of the tropical rainforest refer to these trees as possessing the spirit of the forest. The first limb in this tree is more than a hundred feet above the rainforest floor. Not only is the tree high, but its upper limbs are covered in very sharp and painful spines. This tree has been named "El Arbol de Dolor", The Tree of Pain.

The climbers who went to the remote area near Enrique Dixon's farm had the opportunity to climb in a huge never-before-climbed tree for which there is no identification. The diversity of the rainforest is such that there are more species than any one person could ever identify accurately. This tree was quite awesome, a true rainforest emergent. Its limbs were covered in thick mats of epiphytic growth, including many different species of orchids. The bigshot with monofilament line and a four-ounce lead weight was necessary for getting an entry line into the tree. The first pitch was well over a hundred feet with a whole lot more tree above that. One observer noted that this tree made the rest of the forest look "pathetic." The view from its top offered a three hundred and sixty degree view of rainforest all the way to the coastline. There was not one sign of civilization of any sort visible from the top of the tree.

The day following these climbs was free and in the late afternoon the group loaded itself into the ITEC van for a trip into "Bocas Town" for a fine dinner, souvenir shopping, and just sitting around enjoying the night life.

Then it was time for the finest climb of all. The group knew there was something coming but had no idea what. After a short ride in the ITEC van the group continued on foot across an agricultural pasture to the foot of another giant ceiba, El Arbol Grande. Standing over a hundred and seventy five feet high, the tree completely dwarfs everything else around it. Its position on the edge of a pasture allows it to stand in the open, its entire majesty visible all at once. Two preset lines had already been placed in the tree at an earlier date and each was set at over a hundred and twenty five feet. Climbing these routes would involve dangling in mid-air twenty to thirty feet away from the trunk of the tree. Tim Kovar and Dick Flowers were soon on the way up, setting lines for other climbers as they reached their anchors. In just a short while, the entire group of thirteen had made it to the top of the tree and everyone was quite pleased to have made this particular climb. Most agreed that this climb was the most proper end to our adventure that we could have presented to them.

That evening over dinner, the tee shirts were distributed and graduation certificates presented. The nine days of climbing in the rainforest would end the following morning as the group boarded their flights for the trip back to Panama City and from there to their home destinations.

The group was unanimous in their agreement that the trip should be repeated again next year, and many of those present have already made their verbal commitments to be there when the time comes. The trip is already being planned and an announcement with details will appear on this website shortly.

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