Mapping Cocobolo

By Chris Anton '18
Panama Trip, January 2017

        Chris Anton ‘18, left, and fellow explorers plan their
        mapping trek with Stéphane De Greef, right

I was surprised that no one had ever made a map of Cocobolo Nature Reserve. Stéphane De Greef, an entomologist who works for CREA, had begun to map it with GPS when we were there, and I was excited to be one of the map explorers. It wasn’t too hot the day that Julina Yang ‘17, Colin Trinity ‘17, Nick Cronin ‘17 and I set out with Stéphane. We gathered up our packs and began to hike along a trail to a narrow river which runs through the Reserve. Once we reached the point in the river where Stéphane had left off mapping, we turned on the GPS and began our expedition. Little did we know what would lie ahead! I was starting to realize that this would be like no other river walk I had ever been on. We walked upstream, crossing from side to side, careful not to slip, keeping our eyes out for frogs and insects. Finally, we reached the farthest point up the river that had previously been explored. There was a small weather meter on the bank, which we marked as a point on our GPS. From this point on, we became the first people to walk this part of the river, since the land went from deforested ranch to rainforest. The idea that no one had been here before us was amazing.

At one point, we heard a frog. At first we couldn’t see it, but we knew it was different from the others we had seen before. As my eyes and ears scanned the rocks, I saw it. It was not a rare frog, but it was new for Stéphane, so we put it in a container to photograph back at base camp.  In order to supplement the GPS data, we recorded key points in the river, such as large trees or deep pools in the river. We reached a long, deep pool in the river,  with two vertical rock walls on either side and very narrow ledges; deciding it was too difficult to pass, we turned back. We took some beautiful photos and I felt amazed to have been one of the first people to ever see some of the sights along the river. We started back, looking for a way up the bank so we could walk along the river. Finding an accessible area, Stéphane and Colin bolted up and the rest of us followed. Just as we started up a very steep slope, it began to rain. Using my walking stick, I was able to get a little ways up, but then the slope became much too steep. I had to grab onto one of the small trees that was growing out of the slope, but was unable to find a foothold. At this point my heart was racing. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but Nick stuck out his hand. With him pulling one hand while I pulled on the tree with the other, I made it to a point where I could stand. Just after I had finished that nearly impossible step, however, I was faced with practically the same situation. Once we were all safely up to the top, I felt such accomplishment. After walking up a much less steep portion of the slope, we made it to a flat area. The rain was pouring down by then, and I felt miserable but at the same time amazed and grateful that I made it up without injuring myself. I was so excited, as well, to be exploring uncharted territory.

After putting on our ponchos, we began to bushwhack a trail. From what Stéphane had seen on a general map of the area, the top of the ridge appeared to be flat grasslands, which we intended to walk along until we were closer to camp. As we started up, the ground was becoming slippery from the rain. All of a sudden, Stéphane told us that we had just entered a cloud forest. I was astounded. I have always wanted to experience a cloud forest and now I was bushwhacking in one. I truly felt like a jungle explorer from the movies. As I began to look around, everything was misty; the whole environment was different. It was spectacular, just like I had imagined it to be. Finally, we made it to the top of the ridge and what little  I could see from an opening in the trees was beautiful. We soon realized that it was not flat grasslands along the ridge, but very tall ferns on extremely soft ground. We decided to start back down towards base camp through the jungle, following small animal tracks which led in the right direction. Going down was equally tricky, since it was steep and very slippery from the downpour. We reached a stream and decided that it was most likely the same stream that runs near base camp, so we followed it until we made it to the trail that led back to camp. After a short hike, we came across mist nets that were being monitored by our group. We were ecstatic. One last treacherous stretch of trail, and we emerged from the rainforest at base camp. I stumbled into the hut and plopped down on a chair. I was wiped out, but thrilled with our accomplishments!