A Second Update from Tiputini

Hello Everyone!

It’s been an exciting week and as I’m leaving Tiputini on Monday I wanted to send an update before heading off to Catolica where I hear internet access is even more sporadic. First and foremost all is very well in Ecuador. I’m having a fantastic time spending more time with Shawn, the researcher, Bejat, his wife, and Kenny the other student researcher. We’ve formed a cohesive group and we have a lot of fun. All in all I am learning a ton about tropical field biology, graduate schools, herpetology and the rainforest. Every day and every time I go out into the field here I’m sure to find something completely new and stunningly different from anything I’ve ever seen back home.

Tuesday was of course a very exciting day here. We were all hovering around computers as the night wore on. The slow internet was an interesting twist to the anticipation of the election given that the internet would frequently crash leaving us all breathless. When the election was called for Obama there were many whoops and shouts of joy. While it would have been fun to experience the election night in the states it certainly was memorable watching it here.

Wednesday was my second day off since I arrived two weeks ago. It was especially welcome after staying up late the night before watching the election. I slept in late (breakfast is always promptly at 6:30 here so there’s no sleeping in if you want to eat) and then spent the morning reading in bed. It was luxuriously lazy. After a quick lunch I headed off down the trail to explore a lake on the far side of the Tiputini reserve and climb another canopy tower overlooking it. I had great intentions of sitting atop the tower to pass the day watching birds and reading my book. Unfortunately that didn’t work out quite as I had hoped.

I managed the 2 kilometer walk without incident. I’m getting better at walking through the rainforest though I’m still pretty slow. I am extremely careful crossing under any hanging vines or downed branches for fear of the infamous conga ant (also called bullet ant). These ants are frequently over an inch long and pack a wallop of a sting that is said to be excruciatingly painful. I hope I don’t have the opportunity to describe it to you from personal experience. It also takes me a long time to navigate the huge pools of mud that have developed from all the rain we’ve been having lately and stream crossings that used to be easy fords are now highly involved scrambles over logs or up and down eroding banks. It’s messy and slow work but still very fun.

I arrived at the lake hoping to take the dug-out canoe tied up there out on the water. Unfortunately though I couldn’t because the tree the canoe had been tied up to was now about 5 feet off shore in 3 feet of water. I took a nice look around and heard lots of water birds squawking but couldn’t get any closer without risking an encounter with the resident black caiman or any lurking Anacondas. I took a few pictures and then headed up the trail to the canopy observation tower.

This tower was very different from the first that I climbed. Instead of being constructed from metal scaffolding it was made of wood in a long spiraling staircase around the tree. It’s a beautiful big tree – perhaps 45 m in height and stands well above others in the immediate area giving expansive views in all directions. The stairs were not a problem, I negotiated them without too much concern and made it to the top fairly quickly. The tower actually has three different platforms at its top, one at the very top of the tree’s canopy and two others below it to give more of an intermediate perspective. All three were beautiful. It was a bright and sunny day and was hot, so I stayed up on the top section for a little while, took a bunch of pictures and then moved to a lower section to start looking out for birds. It was about at that time the sweat bees found me.

Of all of the challenges of the amazon, I think I’m having the most trouble getting used to the sweat bees. They don’t sting but they do buzz incessantly and flock in droves to any sign of sweat they can find. Sweaty shirts are good but hands, neck and face seem to be their favorites. Shawn has made his peace with them and frequently gets covered with many hundred when he goes up in trees. I haven’t been able to relax into their omnipresent buzzing and crawling and so, when they start to arrive I usually have to leave. I’m starting to get better – I stuck it out for a while this time staying up in the tower for a full 45 minutes but eventually, as they just kept coming, I was bested and retreated out of the tower. For some reason they are either weak fliers or can’t track quarries very well and so it’s easy to lose them as soon as you start to move. Alas though the tower was beautiful and I wasn’t able to find very many birds during my short stay.

When I returned to the station Kenny invited me along on a trip to Tiputini’s high canopy walkway. Now that I seem to have my fear of heights somewhat in check I readily accepted. The walkway is a string of several cable bridges about 40 m off the ground between several platforms on 6 or so trees. The walkways are fairly stable but as a backup you’re required to wear a harness and always be anchored into a guide wire above your head. This, needless to say, increased my anxiety more than it allayed my fears.

My concerns were unfounded though, as soon as I got up to the canopy I felt very comfortable and my discomfort at being so high off the ground and walking over wooden planks (some of which were missing leaving a gaping window back to the ground) was distracted by all there was to see in the canopy. While the rainforest floor is fun to explore and richly diverse, the canopy is the place to be. Up there there’s a breath of a breeze and I feel much better able to get a handle on the sea of plants around me. Instead of seeing a forest of vines, tree trunks and shrubs forcing their way sunward in every direction you can see leaves, distinguish tree tops, look at bromeliads and see birds and monkeys dashing from tree to tree. I can see why Shawn has decided to conduct his research at the very top of these rainforest trees.

We were on the walkway just as the sun was going down and so, while it was a little dark for great photography, the views of sunset were very memorable. I must admit though I wasn’t quite able to complete the entire walkway. At one end, a 20 foot aluminum ladder has been bolted to the tree trunk and climbs up, off the level of the walkway into a perch in a very high crotch of one of the trees. The ladder is painfully rickety and rocks and bends as aluminum ladders are wont to do. To make matters worse the ladder is attached at both ends – the lower to the platform and the upper to the tree trunk with only one support in the middle. The first 10 feet mostly match up with the tree trunk you are following but after the middle support the trunk curves drastically leaving the climber with a sickening 10 feet on the ladder looking down at the ground 130 feet away through the bars of the bouncing and swaying aluminum ladder. I made the first section but just couldn’t manage the next. It was pretty terrifying. I’m hoping that come December when we’re back here next I’ll be able to do it.

Thursday was a long day spent in the field finishing surveys within the “Puma Plot.” Kenny and I had an extremely productive day and were able to relocate and collect data on 23 trees – a pretty big feat when they are spread out over a 1 kilometer square of extremely thick rainforest with steep rises and falls and many streams. We were exhausted by the end of the day but Shawn was really excited by our progress which made the trek well worth it.

Friday Shawn decided we needed another free day so he brought us out to a tree he’d sampled earlier on in the year so Kenny and I could climb it. I was extremely excited but more than a little bit nervous. We hiked out to the tree, about 2 kilometers with all of the gear – I carried a bag filled with rope that weighed over 60 pounds. Luckily Shawn had left a small string still in the tree from the last time he had climbed it so that we were able to just haul the rope over the top of the tree by attaching it to the cord and pulling it through. The rope passed right over the highest crotch of the tree about 43 m off the ground! With the rope secure and tied off we decided that I should be the first up.

Shawn climbs using what is called “single rope technique” (srt) that consists of a series of clips called ascenders that you use to haul yourself up the rope. I got my harness on and was given an extremely quick crash course (that pun was made several times during the climb). SRT (at least with the setup that I used, there are several different options depending on gear) has the climber attached to the rope in two places via two ascenders. These ascenders tightly grip the rope when they bear a load but can slide freely up to grip higher on the rope. My high ascender was attached to my harness and my low ascender was attached both to my harness and a foot strap that I could use to leverage myself up. So, climbing the tree consisted of me trying to pull myself up to place my top ascender as high up the rope as I could reach and then holding onto that ascender while I moved my lower ascender and also my feet as high up the rope as possible into a squat. I would then extend – stand up if you will – raise the top ascender and then catch up into a squat with the lower ascender. It’s a tough system and exhausting I had to take several breaks in order to climb the 13 stories to the top of the tree but I was impressed at how much progress I was able to make relatively quickly.

The fear of heights came and went in waves. For the first 30 feet things were pretty edgy. I was still pretty rough with the gear so I was doing a lot of bouncing on the rope and ended up spinning which is extremely disorienting. To make matters worse I had to navigate through the smaller trees surrounding the large tree my rope was in so there was much hitting of branches and bouncing between trunks. At this relatively low height as well the ground is still well within view and vertigo was a bit of a problem. I realized though that going farther up the tree was no more or less safe because the rope that I was on that held me at 5 feet would also hold me in the same way at 105 feet and as long as I didn’t panic I wouldn’t have any problems. That reassured me a bit.

Once I cleared the closely surrounding trees at about 30 feet I had a nice clear climb through the middle story of the rainforest. At this point I was very close to the big tree’s trunk and was able to feel relatively comfortable bracing myself against it with my legs. In this way I was able to stop my spinning. I was also getting a slightly smoother rhythm that didn’t bounce me quite as much though after about 45 feet of climbing (just over a third of the way) I was getting tired. I noticed to my amusement but also annoyance that there were several big ants on the tree who were walking up it faster than I could climb. Oy!

As I passed 75 and 80 feet I began to really feel shocked at being so high off the ground. By this point the tree had begun to branch out instead of just having a single large trunk. This forced me to adjust my focal point from the nice solid reassuring tree trunk to the wide open space in the canopy. I was free climbing on the rope with no part of the tree particularly close to me and all I could do was continue to climb up. By this time I could only barely distinguish the ground from the tops of the lower canopy trees. This was an odd effect in that all I could see was my rope descending down into the trees without any sign of where it stopped. I got my first breath of a breeze at about this point though which was extremely refreshing. Its incredible how noticeable a breeze is after the stifling air on the rainforest floor on a hot humid day.

Finally, I made it to the top of the rope. I put my ascender within a hand’s width of the crotch of the tree that it was bent over and surveyed my surroundings. The view was incredible. This is one of Shawn’s favorite trees to climb (that’s why he had left the cord still in the tree) because it is very tall but also situated on a ridge which allows it a commanding view of all of the surroundings. I could see for miles and miles in every direction. It was a veritable sea of green tree tops everywhere I looked. I managed to bring my camera up with me, unfortunately the pictures don’t quite do it justice because I was so intent on holding onto my line at as many points as possible, but I’m sure the experience isn’t one that I’ll soon forget. The view and the feeling of hanging from the treetops was absolutely magical. I am definitely going to do it again this trip.

By far the hardest thing about climbing this tree was getting back down. Ascenders are a one-way tool and in order to get down one must switch over to another piece of tackle called (you guessed it) a descender. The tricky thing is making the switch 130 feet off the ground, getting the descender hooked onto the rope in just the right way so that you don’t crater the forest floor with a frightfully long fall, and then completely detaching your ascenders – what had been to that point your sole anchor to the line.

By this time the sweat bees had arrived as well. They swarmed me by the hundreds in a cloud that was not only annoying, they actually made it difficult for me to see, hear and breathe as they were extremely intent on entering my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. This obviously made concentrating on this extremely important step all the more difficult. As if I didn’t have quite enough troubles my hands started to shake quite fiendishly at this point despite my best efforts to steady them. Between the twitches I was trying to suppress to shake away the insects, the pressure I was feeling to switch the gear correctly and the anticipation of the long drop down – either very very quickly or somewhat slower my hands just wouldn’t cooperate. Finally I got the descender opened and the rope threaded through correctly. At that point all there was to do was take off my ascenders and hope. The descender held.

Using a hand brake on the descender I slowly slid back down the rope, out of the tree top, past the ants on the tree trunk, crashing through several more branches on the tree immediately below me and finally to the ground. I was sure happy to be there. It was an incredible experience but boy did I ever appreciate sitting on the ground for a while after that.

Today and tomorrow will mostly be spent packing our stuff for Catolica. Kenny and I are going to attempt one more foray into the plot tomorrow to try to finish a few trees but other than that we’re starting to switch gears. I’ll be extremely curious to see Catolica. I’m starting to get a feel for Tiputini and it’ll be fun to see another part of the rainforest (though we’re only going about 30 kilometers upriver). It sounds as though internet access is even more limited there so I may or may not be able to send a message sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll do my best.

I’m thinking of you all and miss you a ton. I hope you are well back in the states, I’m looking forward to sharing my pictures with you when I get back.

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