THE KAYAK THAT GOT AWAY

 

kayaks in crystal clear bay in Catalina

kayaks in crystal clear bay in Catalina

 

‘Twas a flat calm day when we cast away

On Godot, my sailing boat.

These three good friends set sail without winds

And motored for all she wrote.

Catalina sang and the buoys they rang.

All day we puttered along.

Till we reached the bay, cast anchors away,

Then things began to go all wrong.

Our kayaks were tied up along the side

When the winds began to blow.

Anchor lines stretched tight throughout that windy night

Till we decided we just had to go.

“Up anchor!”  I cried, almost terrified

As we heaved and motored about.

Then Dave’s kayaks rope almost ended all hope

Of us ever getting ourselves out.

The engine quit cause the prop had bit

the line on Dave’s kayak.

“Oh no,”  I cried, when our motor died

And the boat went sliding back.

The once calm bay had clean gone away

And all Hell was drawing near.

The waves at six feet had us pretty near beat

‘We’re going into the rocks, I fear.’

With mask and fins I told my friends

“Tis over the side I go

To cut that rope and restore some hope

‘Gainst these waves we cannot row.”

Dave’s new boat now cut free

Slowly drifted out to sea.

He never got to use it before we managed to lose it.

We made our way out through that bay

In search of calmer spots

To spend the night without the fright

Of being tossed against the rocks.

The winds did howl when off the bow

A dead calm bay we found.

We motored the boat to a ball afloat

As Dave began to frown.

“My kayak’s lost.  You should a’ tossed

Her line into the boat.

But Captain Cox let her get to the rocks

And I only got to see her float!”

 

 

Dave's yellow kayak.

Dave’s yellow kayak.

 

We all felt bad that Dave was so sad

Over the loss of his brand new toy.

So we drank a bit, some lanterns we let

And tried to bring poor Dave some joy.

Early next morn’ we awoke to a fog horn,

The sea as calm as a sea can be.

Steve cast us off while Dave went aloft

I steamed Godot out to sea.

Ten minutes had passed, when Steve at the mast

Yelled  “Toss me the binocular!

I think I can see what surely must be

Some gulls perched on a reef out thar’.”

Godot steered up close when we all saw the ghost

Of Dave’s kayak all covered with birds.

To my surprise Dave had tears in his eyes

And was surely at a loss for words.

“We found my boat, I’d ’bout given up hope,”

Dave said, wiping away a tear.

The boat we found was still quite sound

And we began to cheer.

So we motored back towing Dave’s lil’ yellow kayak

To tie up to that mooring ball.

There’s not enough words to thank all them birds.

We wore ten-foot grins—all.

Later that day we paddled around the bay,

Each in a kayak of his very own.

Exploring rocky caves, the first boat in–   alway’s Dave’s

In honor of bringing it home.

That night, to our surprise, Dave trotted out one of his pies.

So we went ashore, built a little fire

And spirits couldn’t a gotten’ very much higher.

That pie got cooked the way it should

And you gotta’ believe it tasted damn good!

As we three friends, hardly suppressing grins

Recalled the story in all it’s glory

Of how Dave’s boat became a float

For birds to perch in our successful search

for the kayak that got away.

 

 

 

happy kayaks on the beach

happy kayaks on the beach

 

(images courtesy of Google)

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GOT FUN FACTOR?

Firing a free pistol with serious intent

Firing a free pistol with serious intent

“I don’t understand. Why do you want to shoot guns?” my yoga teacher asks again.

“Because its fun,”  I respond.  I smile.  She smiles back and senses that my smile is a bit insincere.  It  used to be fun, I think to myself, but it isn’t fun anymore.  If it isn’t fun now, when did it stop being fun?  And why do it if it isn’t even fun?  And why am I having all these thoughts while sitting in front of my yoga instructor?

“Are you a policeman?”  she asks, scruntching up her brow.

“No.”  She leans back a bit and her eyes seem to get bigger.  Oh, oh.  She’s trying to read my aura again.  I get a distinctly uncomfortable feeling every time she scrutinizes my aura.  I resist the urge to cover myself.

“I told you the first day of class that I was taking yoga lessons so I could learn meditation and improve my shooting score.  I shoot competitively.  And when shooting I want to learn how to tune out the noise of the guns around me.  I want to feel calm and confident when I walk up to the line.  I don’t want to feel the other guy’s bullet cases hitting me in the face.  I fact, I don’t want to feel anything or hear anything or see anything but that X-ring–  the center of the bull’s-eye.  (She nods.)

Indoor shooting range

Indoor shooting range

I still don’t think she knows why I shoot pistols.  But I have a feeling that something about my psychic aura or what I said is disturbing her, so I bow respectfully, thank her for the lesson and leave.

Dry firing a free pistol against a wall

Dry firing a free pistol against a wall

‘Why do I shoot, anyway?’  I ask myself.  ‘Why do I practice countless hours on and off the range firing expensive loads or just dry-firing at a boring blank wall in my living room?  Why have I tied up thousands of dollars in match grade firearms, reloading equipment and shooting accessories?  And why do I put myself through the grueling experience of a two-hour match firing 60 rounds at an itty-bitty target 50 meters away?  I’m not sure why I do this.  But there’s one thing I do know–  it ain’t fun; it’s just plain old hard work.’

Later that week on the firing line, I feel a tap on my shoulder.  “Gonna go find some fun facta’ ”,  Danny smiles and walks to the other end of the range.  I look where he’s heading.  I don’t see any fun down there either.  I open the action on my pistol and place it on the shooting bench.  Then I walk over to watch Danny shoot for awhile–  he’s smiling!
‘Fun factor,’  I mutter.  ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’  Maybe Danny is joking, I reason.  It’s often difficult to tell when my coach, a former Olympic pistol shooter representing Hong Kong, is pulling my leg or just deliberately being cryptic to piss me off.  But then I think maybe he’s giving me another subtle prompt, a nudge.

Hammerli Free Pistol--olympic class pistol

Hammerli Free Pistol—olympic class pistol

I raise my Hammerli Free Pistol again, my right eye carefully following the front sight up from the bench, over the target and finally settling under the black.  ‘Get back to work,’ I think.  I take a deep breath, slowly exhale half and gently release the trigger, sending another .22 caliber slug on its way to punch a hole through paper.  ‘Ten o’clock, eight ring,’  I mutter.  Then I squint through the spotting scope mounted on my gun case, confirming that the shot was at ten o’clock.  But it was only a 7, not an 8.  ‘Flip the page,’ I command myself, trying to push away the disappointment of a poor shot.

“Why do you shoot?”  I ask the guy methodically firing an Olympic class air pistol.  “Is it fun?  Do you shoot to have fun?” I prod.

He pauses in thought, the pistol resting on a shooting pad.  He slips his hand out of the $200 customized pistol grip and flips up the optical attachment on his shooting glasses.  “No, I can’t say it’s actually fun,” Bryan replies carefully.  He thinks a moment.  “I think I shoot because of what I learn from the sport– the discipline, how to focus and totally apply myself.  When I get into that zone, time stops, you know?”  (I know.)   The pistol is me and together we’re holding a tight group.”

‘Now that’s a real answer,’  I think.  ‘That’s why I shoot, to become a better person, to hold a tight group.’  I leave feeling vaguely disturbed by our conversation.

“Why do you shoot?”  I ask the grizzled range master in the back office of the elaborate indoor shooting range.  Fred scratches the marine tattoo on his left biceps, lifts his chin in defiant thought and before he can respond I interject,  “Is it fun?  Do you shoot to have fun?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth!”  Fred barks.  “It ain’t about fun.  It’s about being challenged.  I shoot because its damn hard to do.  It ain’t like riding a bicycle, you know.  Once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget.  But shootin’ . . . that’s something you got to keep at.  You don’t just pick up a gun after a few months and expect to squeeze of six 10s in a row.  You got to continually push yourself to meet the challenge.  Now get out of my office and quit bothering me.”

I walk away, hearing the veteran national champ muttering to himself,  “Why do I shoot?  What kind of stupid question is that, anyway?”

‘The challenge!’  I think triumphantly.  ‘I shoot for the challenge.  Yes!

Later that night while driving home from the range my thoughts drift, for some strange reason, toward the image of a Rubik Cube.  Now, I’ve always hated Rubik Cubes.  I find them frustrating and rather pointless.  Besides that, I can’t solve the damn things.  But what about the people who like to work on a Rubik Cubes, who can solve them?  There must be some FUN FACTOR hiding within those plastic puzzles or people wouldn’t work on them, wouldn’t spend hours patiently twisting those little squares this way and that.  They intend to be challenged.  The more difficult it is to solve, the greater the challenge; and somewhere within this puzzle of challenge lurks FUN FACTOR.

‘That’s it!’  I slap the steering wheel.  It’s all about intent.  A beginning shooter goes out to a range to have fun–  that’s his intention.  If it isn’t fun, he just quits and looks for fun elsewhere.  However, when intent changes from ‘just out to have a good time’ to doing well in a match or to showing consistently higher scores, then FUN FACTOR inevitably fades.  Now, with serious intent the objective,  then hard work, total concentration and dedication are needed to meet the challenge.

Danny had walked to the other side of the range to shoot,   focusing all his being to enter the FUN FACTOR ZONE, that elusive zone of perfection.

I let out a deep breath.  Now I know.  I should have told my yoga teacher that somewhere within the ‘rubric’ of shooting lies FUN FACTOR, hidden and confined.  And I shoot to meet the challenge of finding it and setting it free.

That would really freak her out.

Cowbells and Condos– and how I miss living aboard

Phone ringing late at night jolts me out of a dream.

“Yeah?”

“Kip, are you awake?” Bob asks.

“Uhm, I guess so. What’s up?” I groggedly ask.

“Did I wake you?”

“Oh, that’s OK. Had to get up anyway. The phone was ringing.” I make a weak attempt at humor.

“Kip, you’ve got to sell that boat and buy a condo with me.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, right now,” Bob affirms. “The market is red-hot. We have to buy something right now. Sell the boat and you can live in the condo. We’ll make a bundle.”

Bob’s late night phone call intrigued me for several reasons. I was 26 years old and had been living aboard sailboats for several years. I loved the sailing life but, true to form, ‘A sailboat is a hole in the water, into which one throws money.’ Indeed, boats are a lot of fun but can turn out to be real money pits. Besides, my 38 foot motor sailer had the most annoying habit of dripping water on my pillow as I lay in my bunk. I was getting fed up with wet pillows.

It was the mid-70s and real estate in Orange County, California was hot, hot, hot. My friend Bob was a real estate agent, his father a real estate broker, and I knew Bob knew what he was talking about.

But was I really willing to give up all this to live on shore? Did I want to exchange my bohemian persona for life in a condo? I mean, what would Jimmy Buffett think? Well, I’m pretty sure what he would think. But I was at one of those critical junctions in life. I could go this way or I could go that way and— well you can probably guess which way I went.

Memories of living aboard my motor sailer.

Memories of living aboard my motor sailer.

Today, almost 40 years after Bob’s late night phone call, I sit in my ‘Archie Bunker’ chair and inhale deeply the aroma from the leather sheath of my old Swiss Army knife and can still faintly smell the bilge from my boat. It smells of fish and wet wood and salt water, and it brings back so many memories. The nights aboard were best because then I could hear the screech of the gulls, the occasional bark of sea lions, the slap of a jumping fish hitting the water, the deep resonant call of the fog horn, the rumbling diesel engine of the harbor patrol boat slowly cruising the bay and the way my boat slowly rocked in its wake.

Back then Bob and I decided to become partners, business men, entrepreneurs– and I was going to get off that leaky boat. I sold the boat fairly quickly to a lady from Long Beach who always wanted to live aboard. I wished her well and hoped she could keep her pillows dry. She sailed off into the sunset and I became a landlubber for the rest of my life.

Bob had his sights set on a condo under construction in a ‘condo village’ near us. But we had to fight to get it.

The cow bell rang and I awoke from my uneasy slumber and trudged toward this lady I had begun to detest. For three days now, I had been waiting in line to buy this stinking condo that hadn’t even been built yet. I literally had to camp out in front of the sales office on the building site along with dozens of other potential buyers, or ‘flippers.’ I believe I was the only person there who had any intention of actually living in the condo. The other buyers were simply interested in getting in and getting out; buying low and selling high–flippers, and one of the motivating forces behind this exuberant appreciation of real estate we enjoyed.

These condos were so hot, there were no shortage of buyers. And this rude, imperious sales agent played the upper hand to the max. Periodically she would ring that damn cow bell and we bovinist buyers had to respond to a roll call at her whim. Failure to respond during this random summons meant losing our place in line and missing out on the opportunity to purchase a condo for $50,000 and, six months later, selling it for $70,000– easy money.

Bob and I got that condo and I moved in. It had a tiny man-made lake in back of a tiny patio facing other tiny patios. There weren’t any seagulls around or barking sea lions or jumping fish or horns blowing to the fog, but we did make a pile of money.

A friend waits to come aboard.

A friend waits to come aboard.

You God-damn Muther-Fuckin’ Tree Hugger!

An old book, but a good one.

An old book, but a good one.

So, y’all must be wonderin’ why I turned into one a dem God-damn, hippy-freak, tree-huggers.  Well ha-yell, if ya don’t know why, jes maybe dats why you’re readin’ dis here blog.  So I’ll tell ya.  Jes kick back, put shor shoes up, and let’s toast to the Boy Scouts of America wit sompin cold.  Cauz it probly’ all started way back when.    (‘Huzzahh!’  murmered the WordPress computer.  ‘Thanks for flying with . . . ‘    Ahhh, shuddup!

Larry and Gary Grant’s dad, our scout master, hefted my aluminum Sears and Roebuck backpack frame supporting a rather bloated pack  and muttered, “Damn, Kip.  What do you have in there, bar bells?”

Which was kind of funny, I guess, because I was just a skinny 14-year-old with little or no experience with bar bells.  But thanks to our scout master and all the other parents who donated their time and energy to support Troop 465 (including my dad– thanks dad), we young men had gone on numerous trips into the wilds above Los Angeles and were just itching to ‘strut our stuff’ and show off all our skills at this Boy Scout Jamboree of 1963.

“No sir, Mr. Grant.  Just some food,” I replied, as sweat rolled down my freckled face.  (We naturally included a ‘sir’ or ‘ma-am’ with people we respected back then.)

“Well, you must be pretty hungry, Kip.”  He smiled.

“It’s not just for me, Mr. Grant.  It’s for them too,”  I said, pointing over my shoulder to the four other scouts standing in line behind me.

Scouts in line.

Scouts in line.

“Well, why are you carrying all their food?”  he whispered, looking around, nervously.

“Uhmm, some of them got here a little late and we didn’t have time to divvy up,”  I replied, wiping sweat from my face.

Mr. Grant gave the other members of my scout pack a stern glare, then looked around  to see if any other authority figures had observed our exchange.  Lifting my pack again, he whispered, “Well, gee whiz, Kip.  Just try to stay on your feet during the parade, OK?”

“Yes, sir,”  I dutifully replied.

“And try to look like you’re having fun.”

Glancing around at the dozens of other scout troops in uniform wearing backpacks, some quite large, others rather skimpy, I grinned and said,  “Oh, I am having fun.  This is really cool.”

He smiled, patted me on the head, squashing down my scout hat I had arranged just so, and sauntered over to inspect his other scouts.

merit badges earned from mastery of survival knowledge

merit badges earned from mastery of survival knowledge

Troop 465 did pretty well during that Scout Jamboree, earning all kinds of awards.  But I think this public display of scouting skills merely served to hammer home the laws we youngsters had been taught:

— Obey the Boy Scout Code

–Pack it in-pack it out

–Leave camp cleaner that you find it

–Lights out at 10:00 pm   (this one needed a little work)

–Trees are living creatures and deserve our respect

At this point in my life 50 years later, I have a little trouble remembering the Boy Scout Code  (I should probably Google it), but I developed a life-long respect for trees, thanks to my scouting experiences.

And that, my friends, is why I turned into one a’ dem Goddamn, muther-fuckin tree huggers.      (Sorry for the language, Mr. Grant.)

Proud scout from the 60s

Proud scout from the 60s

Night Diving for Bugs— yum!

An early attempt at diving.

An early attempt at diving.

The first few years of scuba diving were so intense, I couldn’t sleep the night before out of anticipation of an activity so fraught with excitement and danger. Night dives were scary.

Suiting up close to midnight, I had to calm myself down so I wouldn’t suck the tank dry before its time. My wet suit smells like fish and kelp and nervous sweat– and because it got peed in on a prior dive, like, well you know. Looking off the cliff above Scotchman’s Cove in Southern California, John and I try to assess diving conditions for the evening. However, with no moon, (perfect of getting lobster–bugs in scuba-talk), we had little chance of getting prior knowledge of our impending adventure.

All equipment had been thoroughly checked that afternoon; fin straps and mask strap stretched and examined for tears or rot, tank and respirator O rings scrutinized, air pressure in tanks verified, Dramamine and Sudafed tablets noted, gloves and booties checked for rips and tears, pole spear points sharpened, B/C inflated and checked for leaks and fresh batteries installed in the dive light. My dive light is huge and casts a brilliant beam using 10 D cell batteries used for power. Those batteries had to be fresh to ensure a safe dive. With a pre-purchased dive card, it only cost about a buck and a half to fill a tank. My batteries cost about four dollars, representing a major expense for the evening.

Gear to be checked.

Gear to be checked.

This dive gear had to be checked and rechecked because if one item broke or got left behind, the dive had to be scrubbed. This was dangerous stuff and our lives depended upon careful preparation, one another’s vigilance and good luck; night diving through the surf and rocks with no moon is not something to take lightly. No wonder my heart is beating so loudly; I was about to climb back upon life’s knife-edge.

Getting into a skin-tight wet suit is tough. A little baby powder helps. Finally! Wet suit on, regulator and chem light fixed to tank, air on, B/C operational, mask and fins and goody bag and light and spear . . . what am I missing? Ah, and weight belt, all at hand. My dive buddy and I lock the van and lumber down the hill to the unseen waves crashing on the rocks.

lobster antenna sticking out from a cave

lobster antenna sticking out from a cave

John and I have an ongoing competition about who comes up with the most bugs. An ‘ab’ (abalone) is equal to three bugs. Loser pays for breakfast the next morning at Denny’s in Laguna Beach and neither of us enjoys losing.

Finally reaching the wet sand of the surf line, we flip on our dive lights to check the wave action. Looks good. Not too big, hardly any wind on this chilly December evening, and no evident rip tides streaming out to sea. Supporting myself with my pole spear, I slip on my fins. Then I spit into my face mask and rinse it out in the water at my feet and slip it on my head. I quickly check my buddy and he does his rapid safety check of me, ensuring that air lines are free and each of us may enter this inky void with minimal difficulty. I inflate my bouyancy compensator (B/C), suck on my regulator, adjust my mask over my face and begin walking backwards into the surf I can hear but not see. When the water is about waist height, I flip onto my belly and kick like hell, trying to quickly get through the surf line. Once through the waves, I lie on my back, remove the air regulator from my mouth to conserve air, pick out a star for guidance and leisurely kick my way out to sea. After carrying the heavy dive equipment down the hill and making my way through the surf, I can finally relax. My huge jet fins easily propel me through the night.

Heading out to the reef

Heading out to the reef

The reef lies about 75 yards off shore, and that is our destination. The terrain below is sand with an occasional bolder, resembling a moon-scape devoid of life. John and I love this part of the dive because at any moment we can roll onto our bellies, flip on our lights and check the ‘viz.’

Visibility is what scuba diving is all about; poor viz=bad diving. If you can see a reef 15 feet away, it’s an OK dive, an average dive for this area.  Occasionally you can’t see much past your spear tip and you might as well cancel the dive and come back later. But once in a while, not often, but maybe once or twice a year you get exceptional viz, 30-40 feet of crystal clear water. On a night like that, when diving during a full moon, you hardly need a dive light. When diving with no moon and with a high period of luminescence, the dive is simply awesome. Make yourself heavy, sink to the bottom at 30 feet, roll over, turn your dive light off and look up and see blue-green lights defining your air bubbles as they course upward to the surface. Swish your hand through the water and you are totally illuminated in a magical bioluminescent glow. Fish dart here and there trailing a luminescent corona. Incredible!

John and I both turn onto our bellies at about the same time, snorkeling to conserve precious compressed air. We turn on our lights and glance around– it is one of those rare nights of exceptional viz. I can hear John laughing with glee through his snorkel. I begin laughing too. We both accidentally inhale water and choke. (Heads up. Slap hands.) Far out! A dive like this with great visibility, no surge and the water warmer than the air temperature is one for the memory banks. I see it and feel it so clearly; I can taste the salt on my snorkel’s mouthpiece, despite the fact that this dive occurred more than 40 years ago.

We finally reach the reef and submerge. These shore dives aren’t very deep. The bottom by the reef is around 35 feet on the ocean side of the rocks and we spend most of our time inspecting caves at around 20 feet. At this depth we have around 50 minutes of bottom time. Perfect. Much more than that and I get cold. We just dropped to the bottom and I’m already shaking, but my body vibrates from excitement, not from cold. This danger, descending into the unknown at night, blind and helpless from dangers below thrusts my heart into my mouth. I’m really scared and I feel fully alive.

Don't want to encounter one of these at night.

Don’t want to encounter one of these at night.

Or one of these!!

Or one of these!!

I love my pole spear. It is yellow, made of fiberglass, about 6 feet long, has three sharp steel barbs on the killing end and a two foot looped length of surgical tubing at the other end. Stretch the tubing, point and let it fly. It only has an accurate range of a couple of feet, but it is great for getting fish or bugs. (Yeah, I know it is illegal to spear lobster in California. Well, I rationalize, the bugs are for my consumption and I only go for the ‘burros.’ I leave the babies alone.) Besides being my underwater weapon of choice, my pole spear serves as a crutch, pushing me along the bottom from rock to rock. Finally, my spear is useful to probe the bottom upon descent to verify I won’t drop onto a sting ray hiding in the sand. Those suckers hurt!

The reef is alive. Every inch is covered with some kind of shell fish or baby finny fish or quivering vegetation; a rainbow of colors, a cornucopia of treats– my mouth waters.

Mermaid on reef--  Opps!  That's another story.

Mermaid on reef– Opps! That’s another story.

Liife on a reef.

Liife on a reef.

Glancing around, I see the glow of John’s chem light on the other side of the reef. I know, dive buddies are supposed to be within an arm’s reach of one another for safety reasons. But hey, it’s a clear dive with no surge and we’re both going to make the most of it. We’re gonna get some bugs!

This isn’t a coral reef we’re hunting on in Southern California, it’s a rock reef. No coral here. Rock reefs aren’t as pretty as coral reefs but they have many more hiding places for bugs. Despite the fact that John and I have dived at this location countless times, each dive yields new terrain for exploration. It always seems new, especially at night.

John is working the outside while I search the shore side of the reef, each seeking caves within the rocks because that is where the bugs hide. You find the right size cave and, with luck, you might stumble upon a ‘glory hole.’ Oh, this hardly ever happens, maybe one or twice in a lifetime of diving. And yes, you guessed it. Tonight I find my glory hole. Yum.

This is such a rare experience you don’t want to keep it to yourself. You just gotta share it. I swim over the top of the reef, get John’s attention by banging on the bottom of my tank with my dive knife and signal him that I’ve found a bunch of bugs. Sneaking a peek at his goody bag, I see he has already captured a couple of good-sized ones. John follows me back and, after a bit of frantic searching, I locate the cave filled with lobster. I search John’s masked face for a reaction. It is about what I expected, a ‘don’t bother me, I’m busy expression’ as he begins to spear bugs.

Lobster are pretty helpless critters. They can hardly see, don’t move very fast, swim better going backward than forward and have poor thinking skills. Basically, they survive by touch, swinging their antenna back and forth in a meager effort to detect prey or danger. John and I methodically fill our goody bags to the limit by carefully approaching with spear cocked until about 12 inches away, then BAM! I have a thrashing varmint on my spear tips.

It is at this point in the dive that I must be totally comfortable with my gear.  My dive light is useless now because two hands are needed to secure the bug. Grabbing the lobster with gloved hand, I remove it from the spear then twisting with my other hand, I separate the head from the tail. I then blindly open my goody bag, insert the tail, close the bag and grasp the teathered dive light that has been floating above my left hand. I’m ready for another bug.

After a while, we check our air gauges and see we’re below the 500 pound mark. Time to head back. That’s fine by me. I’m getting cold and I’m ready to kick back and relive the evening’s experience with my buddy. An early breakfast and some hot coffee would be nice too. No abs tonight, but we got a shit-load of bugs.

Day after the dive.

Day after the dive.

Ready for a quick dive before work on Monday

Ready for a quick dive before work on Monday

SUNDAY MORNING TREK

Cloud forest above my home in Costa Rica.

Cloud forest above my home in Costa Rica.

Between Chompipe and Delicias mountains, at an altitude of around 8,000 feet in a cloud forest in the middle of Costa Rica, nestles a remote pond ripe for discovery.  This body of water reveals itself from a distance by tendrils of clouds rising between the two peaks; these clouds forming as the sun slowly warms the water. Luis, my Sunday morning hiking companion, readily agreed to the proposal of venturing due east and upward to this intriguing saddleback nestled between the peaks. It would be a tough hike, but it would be an adventure.

Forest area that had been clear-cut to harvest a few cypress trees

Forest area that had been clear cut to harvest a few cypress trees

The first leg of our journey brought us to an area of illegal clear-cut forest measuring around 100 square meters. All the trees, vines and shrubs had been bulldozed, scraped clean on a steep mountainside in order to harvest a few virgin cypress trees. A huge mound of excess planks and boards denoted the place where trees had been ripped and shredded into sellable lumber. Nearby, a rough lumber road facilitated removal of the illegal harvest. Erosion of the mountainside was already evident, despite the fact that we had just recently entered our rainy season. Our true journey began just above this obscene scar on the mountainside.

Luis had his intelligent cell phone, capable of taking photos, indicating compass heading, depicting our position on satellite photos as well as making the mundane phone call. I had my topo map, compass and machete. We two weekend warriors were set to venture into the unknown on a quest for that elusive feeling of being truly alive.

At first the difficulty lay in zigzagging our way upward and around numerous tree trunks that had been bulldozed and discarded on the hillside. A new growth of vines and shrubs further complicated our assent. Just beyond these clear-cut remains virgin cloud forest, thick and green, beckoned seductively. Entering this verdant forest, we quickly lost sunlight as a profusion of leaves from the tree canopy high above filtered and eventually blocked the sun’s rays.

vegetation in the cloud forest.

Vegitation in the cloud forest.

Easy hiking soon gave way to foliage so dense we had to resort to bush whacking with the machete. After a while, even this proved almost impossible. At this point we encountered a barricade of foliage punctured by numerous game trails. These trails had the distinctive three-toed hoof marks of dantas, a 300-400 pound cross between a wild boar and anteater. These marks, fresh from the previous night or early morning, were scented by urine. As we slowly whacked our way through these game trails covered by bamboo and ferns and inch thick spine covered vines, we sometimes resorted to crawling on hands and knees. Gratefully we followed these trails until they inevitably vanished into the undergrowth because without them the path was truly impenetrable. Nevertheless, at any moment, we half expected to look up and find ourselves face to face with a mammoth ant eating pig.

 

 

Danta--  sure glad we didn't see any!

Danta– sure glad we didn’t see any!

 

 

Prior to our assent into this forest of the clouds, we took a compass bearing in relation to the sun and deemed our heading to be just to the left of that rising orb, or about 75 degrees. Thus far our assent was fairly true to course despite numerous detours in our attempt to navigate to the summit. We were hoping to discover a pristine lagoon on the top. We were expecting to climb to the ridge of a series of mountain peaks affording incredible views, perhaps even providing a glimpse of the blue of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other. As things turned out, we found neither.

Max, my two-year old German Shepherd, always accompanying us on our hikes, provides security as well as companionship. This morning, we relied more often than usual on his ability to detect the surest course to follow. Completely blocked by stands of fallen trees knocked to their sides by strong winds, exasperating clumps of thick and prickly bamboo, compelling masses of heliconias and ferns mixed with clinging vines that somehow managed to grasp feet at the worst possible moment, Max unerringly led us to yet another game trail in this precarious ever upward trek that grew more dense, more slippery and more questionable with each step.

It was, at this bleakest of moments, that Luis, looking down, pointed by my foot and exclaimed, “Hey, isn’t that an orchid?”

There, twelve inches from my boot, grew a wild orchid. Having but a single perfect flower, golden with brown spots and defined by the distinctive shape of the ‘slipper orchid,’ this unexpected gift of nature buoyed our spirits and fueled our desire to trek onward.

'Slipper orchid'  resembles a dutch shoe

‘Slipper orchid’ resembles a dutch shoe

Periodically, Luis would crank up his cell phone, acquire a signal and proclaim, “Only 200 more meters to go.” “Only 150 meters left.” And so on. I thought 150 or 200 meters was quite attainable. After all, a football field is only around 100 meters. Surely I could climb up this slippery, muddy, almost vertical slope another football field or so, even if we did have to navigate through a wall of green. No sweat. Well, yeah some sweat.

Time passes. At this point, the going was so tough we had two ways to climb after first clearing a path with the machete– grab a tree and heave ourselves upward or drop to hands and knees and claw through leaves and mud and danta shit. Max was getting freaked out and, bit by bit, so was I. Every other moment I found myself exclaiming, “Fuck me! Fuck me! This is just too much!”

I overheard Luis exhorting, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha!,” which he later translated as ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun.’ (not really)

I had had it. We’d been climbing this exasperating mountain for over three hours without a rest, without a view, without any indication of ever reaching anything worthwhile, aggressively whacking the machete three times for each single step upward, forever upward in this muddy green almost-hell.

“That’s it,” I said. “That’s the longest 100 meters I ever climbed. I quit. What do you say we have a rest, eat a tangerine and turn back?”

Luis, covered head to toe in muck (as was I), dripping sweat (me too), grinned and replied, “That’s fine by me. I thought you’d never say so. Let me check our altitude one more time so I can mark our route.”

Altitude? I thought, altitude! He’s talking 100-200 more meters in altitude? I was under the impression he meant distance! No wonder we can’t even see the top of this damn mountain we’re trying to climb. It’s another 300-400 feet higher up, straight up. Fuck me!

And here’s where things get good, or at least better. While Luis attempted to check in with his very smart cell phone, I looked around and realized the tree canopy was so dense we hadn’t seen sunlight for several hours. This same vegetation was now apparently giving birth to clouds as the tropical sun began to bake water droplets from last night’s rain. This explained the evaporative clouds I had noticed earlier. There was no pond awaiting discovery; there were in fact millions of leaves beaded with water that changed into vapor as part of nature’s rain cycle. Lost in amazement, I watched clouds, thick and moist, swirl up and away into the incredibly blue sky.

Luis abruptly brought me back to earth by shouting, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha! We’re standing next to a road! Chompipe is right over there,” he said as he pointed North.

The satellite view on his cell phone showed that although we were way back in virgin cloud forest, we were also within 200 meters, distance wise, from a road. Chompipe had a telecommunication tower on its summit, as well as a road leading to the tower. We knew a return trip straight down this muddy slope meant a butt mud ski trip. Since we were both dressed in hiking shorts, this method of conveyance was distasteful, to say the least. So, altering our heading from 75 degrees to pretty much due North, we decided to aim for Chompipe.

In retrospect, I believe Luis took pity on my pathetic whacks of machete and valiantly took over leadership of the hike. That was fine by me. I was whipped. Each step upward was so much effort that it felt my last. My diminished capacity so freaked out Max he huddled next to us at every opportunity, frequently forcing one of us off the side of our slippery slope in chilling descents punctuated by my rebel yell of “Fuck me! Fuck me!” This echoed by Louis’ equally sincere, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha!”

Incredibly, the slope got steeper. Now we were clawing our way almost vertically. Max began to whine. I probably would have whined as well, if I’d had the breath to do so. The immediate goal was to make one more step, then one more. If we could make it up to the road to Chompipe, we’d be ok. Reaching that road meant safety, security and most of all it meant we hadn’t given up. We wouldn’t have to quit and turn back. It meant we could valiantly hike into the wilds and make a noble return. And that’s what we did.

The last 15 meters to the road were hell– muddy, incredibly steep, outright dangerous with Max shivering at my knees and I shivering at his. We didn’t see the road until we were 10 feet away. Then all we saw at first was a bit more sunlight breaking though the trees. It was just so beautiful. We made it!

Heaving a collective sigh of relief, we plopped down on Chompipe road and rested a while, sharing high fives, sweet tangerines and bars of trail mix that tasted oh so good. Later, we noble warriors of the weekend triumphantly marched down the steep, albeit paved, road toward home. Sweat drenched, muddy from head to toe, bloody and torn in spots, utterly exhausted, in turn we smiled and occasionally chuckled as we relived our morning’s adventure.

Max kicking back after the hike

Max kicking back after the hike