Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Amazonian Experience

Yesterday afternoon started out like any other...

It was a very hot day in the rainforest, especially in the exposed and barren section the new research station had been built upon, but a forgiving breeze rustled the leaves of the surrounding vegetation and cooled my sweaty brow. The mosquitoes and no-see-ums were out in force and I had not been feeling too well the night before. Thus I had taken some Imodium and decided to wait out the gut. By lunch I was feeling fine so I decided that I'd go on a little hike/collecting expedition to escape the heat in the cooler interior of the jungle.

I tried to get a nap in earlier but it was just too hot. Laying on my mattress and surrounded by the bug netting, I was sweating like a pig roasting on a spit. Unable to get more than a few moments of nap time in, I got out and put my gear together. The idea was to take a trek on the “SA” trail (about 1700 to 1800 meters) and then cut east along the boundary line. The trails through the jungle are all rather thin and cut, usually by one person, via machete. The property boundaries are quite a bit wider, roughly the width of one side of a standard road in the U.S. and cut by a group walking the boundary. Thus the boundary lines are much easier to find and follow.

Ryan, one of the students of Florida International University, wanted to go do his palm transect out in the woods, which happened to be along the “SA” trail. He decided to walk with me as far as his latest study area and then we would part ways.

Along the trek I collected a frog and a small lizard along with a flower and many pictures. The “SA” trail runs almost directly south from the base station which is at the far north of the reserve near a “road” that serves as the northern boundary for all the lots located in this area. To the far south is a cut boundary running east and west. The “SA” trail forms a “T” with the east and west southern boundary near an intersection of two streams that form a sort of triangle.

Without too much difficulty I crossed the stream using an old rotted tree trunk as a bridge, and headed on my way.

My first mistake was this: I wasn't as familiar with the map as I should have been. I knew in my mind that by cutting north on the next available boundary I would intersect the road. Yet I believed that by continuing to travel east I would also intersect the road. I'm still not sure if that is true or not (I need to take another look at the map) but regardless my trek ended up following the eastern boundary.

I had brought the basics: A flashlight and a Camelbak full of water along with plenty of plastic bags for collecting, and toiletries (a small plastic trowel and toilet paper that is bio-degradable), and most importantly a compass.

Traveling east I realized after about two hours that I was getting nowhere near the road. I had run into a couple of villagers with what looked like an ancient shotgun and a machete. They spoke no English and I spoke very little Spanish. That amounted to the most confusing conversation of my life. I ended up continuing East for another few hundred meters. At this point it was getting dark and I cursed myself for not heading north. I figured I had to backtrack and hope that the flashlight I brought would last me to camp.

Now I'm not stupid. I understood that this would be a tough walk. I had already used about half of my water and started conserving it: The jungle is very hot and humid and I was sweating quite a lot as I climbed hills, trudged through swampy areas, and jumped over or otherwise crossed streams.

I made a first goal for myself: Get back to the point where the trail seemed wider past a large fallen tree. This was a place where earlier I had crossed and had a difficult time finding the path. I felt like getting to that point and onto the wider trail would help me mentally and physically. When one is in any unknown area a recognizable place can make all the difference. I kept walking hard west (I had since turned around from my easterly trek) and made it to that spot. Little did I know my greatest challenge lay ahead.

In a bit the trail widened. It was getting dark and I felt tired but good: I was going to make it home thirsty but in one piece and tonight. No problem. I sang a little song about a girl and my two cats Lucius and Sanura to keep my spirits and energy up while I walked. Soon it turned pitch black under the forest canopy as a blanket of night engulfed the forest.

As I was heading west I had another decision to make. I had a basic flashlight, non-LED (the old bulb style) with a few C batteries in it. I knew that it was very limited so decided not to use it until absolutely necessary. This turned out to be a lifesaver.

Compass in hand I continued to travel west toward the boundary. The path was well cleared and obvious. I came to a stream that had a log across it and crossed over. The path on the other side looked OK so I continued on and then...nothing. The path had disappeared!!!!

Now I should say that there are many such paths in the Amazon jungle. Often there are little side-treks that go to nowhere and you have to back track. I had two major problems in this case: 1. I was in a thick jungle with only one flashlight and a compass: I didn't have the time to bushwack for miles to the camp. The light wouldn't make it and my water was getting low. 2. I was scared. I kept reminding myself to keep a level head and so, in the middle of the night in the jungle I did the unthinkable: I turned off my flashlight and thought hard about what I would do next.

I came to a few conclusions. First I knew that the trail couldn't be too far off. That was a fact. I had somehow ended up either too far north or south of it. I could work with that: I turned my flashlight on and readjusted my compass. I walked north for a bit first: Nothing. Then I walked south about the same distance and a little farther: Nothing. I came to my second conclusion: As much as I hated the thought of bushwacking all the way back to camp it might come to that or sitting in the jungle the rest of the night and that wasn't an option. I had to keep moving.

I knew if I traveled west one of two things would happen: If I had overshot the “SA” trail I would run into a northern boundary line. If I hadn't overshot the “SA” trail I would run into the stream that led to it. But another problem arose: I didn't know if I was too far north or south of the southern most boundary at this juncture. Thus my next decision became easy: Plot a course northwest. By traveling northwest, if I was too far south, I'd have to run into some kind of boundary or path since they all ran north to south. Traveling south wasn't an option since that might put me below the boundary and into no-mans land where only forest and a few scattered villages existed for thousands of square miles.

I turned my light back on and adjusted my compass to north by northwest. I took a deep breath and moved forward.

I don't know how many of you have been lost in the jungle but let me say that it is quite disconcerting. You can't see the stars in the sky nor any horizon nor even the sky 99% of the time. I was walking through massive palm plots, understory vegetation, and through every spider web known to man or woman. Somehow, roughly one hundred meters later, I ran into the east-west boundary line!!!! I had somehow gotten myself too far south when I had crossed the river and made the right choice by trekking in a northerly direction.

I still wasn't out of the woods so to speak. Now I had to figure out how far off I was east or west to make it back to the “SA” trail. This proved to be the most difficult.

I tried backtracking east to see if I could recognize anything. The only thing I ran into was a northern boundary line, well cut, leading to the road. Still I didn't know how far off I was or if this line even made it to the road but, after turning off the flashlight and carefully deliberating with myself I figured that the best option was to take the northern line. It was freshly cut and Devon had mentioned earlier a new boundary was opened up on the far side of our property. I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and mentally drained but I had to take my situation into my own hands and do whatever was best.

I should note at this point that the best thing to do in any survival situation is to sit in one place, especially if you are on or near any trail, and make your presence known. Thus, as I walked, I kept yelling “hoooooooolllllllaaaaaa” (or “Hello”). I didn't stay in one place for a couple of reasons. 1st I was very far south on the property boundary but knew generally where I was. Thus, if my flashlight died I could possibly yell for help or at least be close enough to the road to worry less about getting home in the morning. Second, although the distance was a factor, the area was rather hilly making for hard hearing even if I was close to camp. There was a third factor involved: I was running out of water quickly and was quite hungry.

The water actually wasn't that much of a problem. I had jumped over many streams as I walked and the water is quite good. The exhaustion is more of a problem as is the mentality of being out in the woods in the middle of the night with no cover or protection from the elements or the animals and insects. So, drinking water at various streams, I moved on.

Eventually I heard someone reply to my yelling. It was obvious that I was overdue and people were looking for me. Tired I stopped, my flashlight failing. I turned it off and sat on a dryish hillside, waiting for about a half an hour as we all played “Marco-Polo” in the Amazon Rain Forest. In the dark I could see the bio-luminescence of fungi, glowing in my peripheral vision, and becoming stronger as my eyes adjusted. Above me, some rather angry but small members of the primate family were knocking down palm fruits in disgust at my presence.

Devon, the head of Project Amazonas in the station we were at, eventually came up the trail and we were literally only a few hundred meters from the road. Walking out of the forest, the view of the night sky and the stars were exquisite. We met up with Ryan, long since finished with his transect, and in we went to camp where I gobbled down a huge amount of food, peeled off my rubber boots and socks to expose a few blisters, and took a long and exquisitely cool shower. I passed out gratefully under the mosquito netting and slept very peacefully that night.

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