“And there at the camp, we had around us the elemental world of water and light, and earth and air. We felt the presences of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.” – Wendell Berry
Pushing and pulling a fully laden Canadian canoe over scrubland for a kilometer was, I assumed, going to be the most strenuous part of the week long trip. It was arguably the most dangerous due to an ill-tempered snake that has a penchant for open grassland and prime riverside real estate.
It was just my luck that this snake was out scouting for food while I was tramping through the scrub in a pair of trekking sandals. Not that I would have seen anything sinister in my path, as even with the sun still low in the sky, a steady stream of sweat was running into my eyes, effectively blinding me.
The first time I stumbled upon this snake was in the French Amazon during a field trip to the Nouragues Scientific Reserve. Whack! I slammed into my colleague’s back. “Oh boy,” she said. “Look at that!” In the middle of the path lay a snake closely resembling Australia’s common death adder, and one of the deadliest snakes in the world. I didn’t need a field guide to tell me this snake was trouble.
My internal database went into overdrive: malaria, dengue fever, Leishmaniosis, and there it was: Lance-head viper, Bothrops atrox. Locally known as the grage and the most dangerous snake in French Guiana. It was listed in the pre-field trip notes alongside a warning that read, Never catch snakes barehanded, especially when you do not know them and bear in mind that helicopters cannot travel at night.
This particular grage was not moving for anyone. Backing up to a safe distance, we stomped our feet, waved our arms, tried to look menacing ourselves and yelled, “Hey you, it’s the middle of the day, you are not supposed to be here,” but it refused to budge. Only after twenty minutes of studying and discussing every inch of this stubborn snake, and retrieving our GPS and map to decide on an alternative route, did it sense that it had won, and slide off into the undergrowth.
My companions on this trip were four men, all more than qualified for a sojourn into the jungle. Then there was me, that girl knee deep in mud, blowing her too-long fringe out of her face, and trying not to be a burden. My inclusion on the journey was because I had been nagging for months to join the men due to my passion for all forest creatures. Well, almost all of its creatures. I really hold a strong aversion toward ants. I find them the most hostile and ferocious beasts in the jungle.
I tried to stay focused on where each of my footsteps fell, but from time to time I would look ahead to where the scrubland gave way to the coolness of the rainforest. These moments of lapsed concentration, although rare, always ended with the canoe being hauled out from under me, sending me stumbling forward in a desperate attempt not to reach out for the nearest tree, almost all of which were covered in skin-piercing thorns, poisonous insects, disgruntled ants, or all of those combined.
Finally, I stumbled into the shade of the forest where I could take shelter from the harsh equatorial sun. A little way further, the men enthusiastically announced the discovery of the creek, which to me more closely resembled a drain. As the canoe was dragged and pushed through the shallow water, I held on fast to its stern, desperately trying to free my feet from unrelenting knee-deep mud before the canoe was hauled from under me, an event that resulted in me toppling face-first into the disturbed murky water.
Even while standing still the sweat was positively streaming from me, I was being bitten by insects I could not identify and felt soft objects wriggle from underfoot, all in a place that served up more hostility by the minute. What sort of canoeing trip was this?
Each time I rounded a bend in the creek, I would silently pray for deeper more open water. However, Nature seemed intent on stalling our progress at every turn, her toppled trees forming natural barricades. As the machetes came out and the canoe was hoisted over the debris, my thoughts would try and convince me that I was actually having a bad day.
However, these were the times when the sight of an exquisite emerald green hummingbird, the sculptural buttress of the moutouchi tree or the techno-coloured flower of a river cocoa would pull me back to the wonder of the forest.
The rain forest more than lived up to its name, when the slightest inclination to retrieve my camera from its dry-bag opened up the heavens. The rain, the type that buckets down with such ferocity that it stings your skin, brought forth a frog-concerto so loud I needed to raise my voice to a dull roar to be heard.
Not everyone realizes frogs can sing. It is an event that often takes place when I am trying to sleep, which motivates me to go on a midnight rampage to find the culprits, a futile exercise as they fall silent the moment they hear me approach.
The reason some frogs can sing is due to them having a vocal pouch that serves as a resonating chamber. By blowing air while simultaneously blocking their nose, they can deliver a tune almost pitch perfect. For those who don’t have this musical apparatus, they just croak. And it isn’t a croak but a call, and it is described in accordance to where you live: America – ribbit, England – croak, and France – coa-coa.
There are also frogs that are magicians. During 1971, the late Loren McIntyre, who discovered the source lake of the Amazon, was rescued by a group of isolated whiskered Amerindians (nicknamed the cat people), who happened to lick frogs. When a magazine editor learned of this bizarre practice, he decided to visit the tribe and try it out for himself. He said afterward, “My blood pressure went through the roof, I lost full control of my bodily functions, I passed out in a heap, I woke up in a hammock six hours later, and felt like God for two days.”
It was with great relief that I saw more open water up ahead. However, this section of river just presented bigger and better obstacles. As the men hacked their way through a barricade of fallen logs and branches, I held a bow line while balancing on partly submerged logs, all in varying degrees of decay. Some held my weight, some did not.
At the close of the day, I had a body that was scraped and chaffed from heaving myself from neck-deep water over logs, my face was puffed up from having stumbled upon a wasp nest, my limbs had been impaled by sticks, and my shins had a suspiciously purple hue. It was a tough day.
As I floated on to our chosen campsite later that evening, my thoughts of, “Will this day ever end?” were replaced with, “I’m tired, I’m dirty, I’m hungry, and I am most probably mildly poisoned.” I set about the task of collecting firewood and stringing my hammock and tarpaulin. Afterward, I bathed in the river, a shivering exercise that compelled me to take in huge gulps of jungle air. Over a campfire, we consoled each other over our wounds, tallied sightings of wildlife, and with ear-to-ear smiles listened to Amerindian legends of turtles using vines to climb to their spirits in the sky and how the first fruit trees were created.
As the men began to retire to their hammocks, I sat silently by the flames watching them dying out to make way for the stars. I felt a complete revival of my battered body and during that moment, I understood exactly what Erazim Kohák meant when he wrote about feeling both peace and awe at the same time.
With my headlamp shining brightly, I clambered into my hammock and thought to myself, “Yes, this is the perfect place to spend the night.” I was at one with nature, an almost ethereal experience where I felt an overwhelming joy and gratitude for being exactly where I was – home.
A couple of hours later I was startled awake by a loud noise only meters from my hammock. “Something really big just plunged into the water,” I yelled.
“Don’t worry about it, go back to sleep,” was the reply.
“But I’m scared. It was really big and I think it is headed this way.” I said.
“Donna, go back to sleep.”
My thoughts ran wild, conjuring up all types of wild images including Yetis and Saber-tooth tigers, but in addition to panic, I felt something else. It was that jolt of wildness that comes when you are deep in nature.
At 5am I was wide awake but it wasn’t the tropical heat that woke me. It was that incessant roaring. The first roar woke me from half sleep. It was just one roar which sounded like someone in unbearable pain had cried out for help. But soon, other howls began echoing back and forth, until the entire jungle was alive with howling, roaring trees. When the red howler monkeys wake up, nobody else in the forest sleeps.
Breakfast was the most important thing on the minds of the men, but I was more eager to learn what creature had caused the disturbance during the night. My dramatic theories were brushed off with the explanation it had been a harmless capybara, the world’s biggest rodent. “Donna, they are nothing to worry about.”
“I am not worried about the capybara,” I said. “I am worried about the jaguar that probably chased it into the water.”
“Do you think we will see a jaguar?” I asked.
“No, Probably not,” I was told. “But a jaguar will definitely see you.”
Most of the time, jaguars just want to be left alone. They are shy, solitary, stealthy predators that are feline, not canine, so they will never become endeared to you. They are aloof, distant, cold, and calculating because they are cats: the ninja cats of the Amazon.
Culturally, we love to identify with predators. Whether it is a lion, tiger, or jaguar we embody them in tattoos, corporate logos, bumper stickers, and fashion. However, when it comes to co-existing with them, we are positively terrified. That is human nature.
“We strive to be wild on the inside, while we wipe out the wild on the outside.”
As I packed my gear away into waterproof drums, I watched one of the men for signs of an earlier spider bite. I had always assumed that if you were bitten by an Amazonian spider you would see it coming, but this spider was no bigger than a pinkie fingernail.
Some of them are so small they need to band together with friends to build webs. To give you an indication of how many friends, the webs are large enough to support a fallen tree or have grown men climb on them. However, some of them are just plain huge, including the Goliath birdeater tarantula, the biggest spider in the world.
It wasn’t too many years before that a Harvard entomologist encountering one said, “I could clearly hear its hard feet hitting the ground and dry leaves crumbling under its weight.” “I pointed the light at the source of the sound, expecting to see a small mammal, a possum, a rat maybe. And that is what I thought I did see – a big, hairy animal, the size of a rodent.”
With no sign of symptoms, we flipped the canoes right-side-up and pushed them out onto the water. I was thrilled to learn I was going to be in the faster lighter canoe. It was going to be a good day.
Before stepping into the canoe, one of the men advised me, helpfully, “Donna, make sure you have a pee now because you cannot pee in this river.” “What?” I asked, horrified.
“You are telling me now that the river is full of those lethal cat-fish parasites that swim up your urine stream, attach to your internal organs and then you die?”
Shaking his head from side to side he said, “No Donna, we will be drinking from it.”
I set off ahead of the group but quickly fell behind when I stopped paddling to marvel at a flock of spectacular green ibis, admired a floating seed pod or be dazzled by the beauty of a true forest jewel – the blue morpho butterfly as it flashed across the water.
Two hours into the day the canoe arrangements were changed and I recognized immediately my easy day was over. The rest of the day gave way to a new hell as now, rather than pushing a canoe through quicksand-like mud and having to navigate through a heavily barricaded creek, I was propelling a much larger and heavier canoe down a barricaded fast flowing river. It wasn’t quite the Futaleufú rapids, but it was enough to get my heart pumping.
Seated at the bow of the canoe, it was my job to keep the craft facing forward and to look out for rocks and submerged trees. But when you are sitting in an open canoe at water-level things just appear out of nowhere. I couldn’t see far enough ahead to make an informed decision on which path to take, which side of the river to pass by fallen trees, or where to attempt a stop. As for the direction of the canoe, the river had its own agenda.
Sometimes I chose the right path but then had to change my mind at the last minute because the river wouldn’t let me follow through with my plan. In those times, I did whatever I could do, which ordinarily would have been to scream, but because I was in the company of others was to take decisive action. I made good decisions and bad decisions, missed chances, took risks, and had many surprises. I helped to hack through vines and branches, fell on my face, swam blindly under submerged logs, and was sampled by every unruly ant that lived on the tree trunks I was obliged to scramble over.
Ants bring out the fury in me. It isn’t that they bite if you disturb them, but that they launch a full-scale attack without any provocation at all. Nevertheless, in my fatigued state, I must have begun to hallucinate as each time I came face-to-face with a colony of angry ants, I started to hum along to Queens melody, We are the Champions. I somewhat begrudgingly admired their persistence and determination. Nothing phases them, not even lugging a dead insect about one zillion times their size. They just pool together and soldier on. Just as I was having to, but they did it without complaint.
There were several times when I got it completely wrong. “Oh, blast!” I would say under my breath, “I thought we would make it!” But inevitably the canoe made a horrible scraping sound and came to an abrupt halt on one of the countless submerged tree trunks. We tried to rotate off by using some powerful sweep-strokes, attempt to paddle through with some serious effort, or push off using the paddle blades as leverage, but when none of that worked, which was often, all we managed to do was get more beached.
On one occasion we tried to dislodge the canoe by rocking it from side to side. However, rather than dislodge the canoe, our motions dislodged all the gear, which then slammed into the port-side and sent me hurtling over the edge. It was something I wasn’t too pleased about when wide-eyed, I watched an electric eel pass within arm’s reach.
There were many barricades that appeared impassable to my untrained eye. Yet despite my hesitancy, my paddling companion would urge me to keep going, a course of action I was certain would result in my decapitation. Just before the perceived moment of impact, I would carry out an implausible backwards-folding maneuver, and with unforeseen surprise emerge unscathed on the other side of a log, having just watched tree-bark, and ants pass millimeters from my face.
At other times, after the canoe became beached on a submerged trunk, my companion would spring from the rear, while I rushed forward into the nose clinging desperately to the gunwale, knowing the canoe could lurch forward at any moment. Neck deep in water, he would then give the canoe an almighty shove, sending it lurching free of the obstruction in an authoritative motion, while at the same time he leaped into the rear, causing it to buck wildly.
I had expected a jungle canoeing trip to be a test of endurance and the long stretches of paddling to border on monotonous, but this was turning out to be a battle of the wits. However, the reality is, never once did I want to turn back. I wanted to be part of the experience, to live it and breathe it, to marvel at the easy times and survive the tough.
I wanted to see it through until the end. Although there were moments when I desperately wanted it to end, those feelings were short-lived when something miraculous would happen.
At one time, I almost fell overboard with fright when a giant otter materialized just meters from the canoe to issue a warning snort. Up ahead I could see the unmistakable waves of his family making a dash for it. We stopped dead. The otter dived, resurfaced about twenty meters away, and started to watch us again. When he calculated we were at a safe distance, he turned and hot-tailed after his family, leaving me feeling every bit the intruder.
We drifted downriver in silence. A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable sound of an otter swimming: a loud inhale “UHHG” followed by a soft exhale and “ah,” then silence, then “UHHG-ah.” As we turned the bend I saw a wave of water along the farthest bank and just beyond a family of otters playing on the riverbank. In a sudden flurry, the otters headed for cover. They move unbelievably fast. One moment they were there, the next there were only ripples over the surface of the water, calm and silence.
Despite the hardships, I never turn down an opportunity to venture into the jungle. These voyages offer the unexpected and create opportunities for laughter, reflection, and stories. They build lifelong friendships, allow everyone to share learning and teaching, test your strength of character, and reinforce your personal ties with nature.
You do not really remember the struggle, but you do remember everywhere you went and everything you saw. It is a gathering of memorable moments and a union of humanity with nature.