Hiking on the beach sounded fun. I pictured us walking barefoot, with small packs, palapas to one side and limbo contest after limbo contest going on to the other, a nice gentle sea breeze blowing and keeping the temperature within the perfect zone and waves crashing onto a never-ending white sand beach showering us with perpetual and refreshing breaths of ocean air as we walked into the heart of the Osa Peninsula. But that wasn’t exactly the way it was.
All we had to do was take a truck for a few miles to the west of Golfito and then walk about 5 miles along the beach to get to the Sirena Biological Research Station in Corcovado National Park, where we’d stay a few days in order to get the full Costa Rica/Osa Peninsula/jungle experience.
But, here’s what it was like:
The black sand absorbed, and then magnified, the solar heat, making what little wind that was actually blowing seem more like stale breath. The beach was a bit off-camber as it dropped down into the water. We were in something of a time crunch, since we’d been told that it was important to cross the various stream inlets we’d encounter during low tide, before the sharks came in to feed and the crocodiles expanded their hunting range. And so, we pushed the pace a little more than we probably should’ve which just exacerbated the various physical challenges we faced. Howler Monkey’s screamed invisibly from somewhere just inland, creating something of an overriding, primordial and uneasy feel. Our backpacks were not light, although we had thought they would be while organizing gear. In reality, the fleece, gloves and wool caps we’d been accustomed to carrying had been replaced by umbrellas, rubber boots and various rain paraphernalia which essentially resulted in a zero net gain in weight reduction.
And so- with full packs, stifling heat, a hurried pace and the extra exertion required for walking at a strange angle both in and on the sand, we faced only a couple of heat/exertion/dehydration problems before finally getting to our destination. But we did get there, and with plenty of time to set up our tents in an open area around the actual station “house” and without losing a single person to sharks or crocodiles.
Back in those days, the major station structure was a spectacular, one story wooden “house” with a big front sitting porch, nestled into the jungle/forest only a couple of hundred yards from the coast. A clearing of about two acres surrounded the main building, providing a small enclave of predictability as well as a place for various outbuildings including bathrooms, storage buildings and small offices or residences for the various resident employees and park rangers that lived there full time. A dirt landing strip ran between the building and the actual Pacific coastline on the front side, and created additional open space for wildlife viewing, which is, by the way, a fruitful thing to do there.
The National Park was created in the mid 70’s and protects one of the largest remaining intact lowland tropical forests in the world. It encompasses almost a third of the Osa Peninsula and is considered to be one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. It’s not uncommon to see Tapirs, American Crocodiles, Sloths and four types of monkeys in the area as well as all kinds of interesting birds, various types of cats, poison dart frogs and a plethora of spiders. The area is home to 13 types of forest and, understandably, is a short-term destination for all kinds of ecologists and researchers doing everything from bird-watching to studying the movements of army ants.
In short, it’s the real thing, when it comes to rainforest. We knew that going in, or at least we should have, since Art, an adventure consultant we’d met and a person who’d actually worked down there, had given us all the preparation details we needed, going in. Since I was the organizer and leader of the trip, it was up to me to make sure we were all ready. To that end, I had brought Art into the process and lined him up to join us. While I knew we needed his input, I’m not sure we actually heeded it, at least up to the time when it all started to actually happen. Up to that point, the bulk of my backcountry and adventure experience had either been in Texas or at various US mountain locations, and that meant cool/dry air, rocky trails, alpine tundra, pine forests, snowcapped peaks, elk, deer, marmots, trout and the occasional non-poisonous snake. Suddenly, at first theoretically and then, in reality, we were discussing and living in the world of rubber boots, vines, umbrellas, things that bit or stung, humongous and strange looking trees, sheets for sleeping and jaguars—in short, Tropical Rainforest.
I began to get a feeling that things were a bit “different” as our startlingly old DC 3 came down for a landing in Golfito. The age and condition of the plane were not so much a concern as was the taking note of the amount of jungle we’d flown over to get there and the lack of sizeable cities I’d not seen along the way or the fact that we were without any of our gear, which the airline guy had sworn would get to us, somehow, but not on our plane.
Things were just beginning to feel more normal as we began actually began to beach hike the following day. The landing had been successful, our gear had arrived on a small boat and we’d unloaded and organized our backpacks the previous day, so that by the time we started walking toward Sirena, it was beginning to seem like just another backpacking trip..
I can say now, that we probably underestimated some of the significance of what Art had been saying about rainforest living and especially regarding the need to time our hiking, so that we’d be crossing the various streams which we’d come to during low tide. With a variable amount of pain and discomfort, we did make each of the crossings at prime crossing time and ended up reaching Sirena late in the afternoon. By the time we arrived, we were feeling confident about what we’d done and partly since we’d seen no sharks or crocodiles in or around any of the streams, had decided that perhaps all of the concern had been a lot to do about nothing.
We spent three nights camped outside the main station house. During the afternoon of our second day, one of the guys in our group went down to the nearby Rio Sirena and caught a nice sized fish when the tide, and thus the water level, was up. He brought it back to the station, cleaned and then saved it to use as bait for something even larger. On the third day, we joined a group of park rangers as they headed down to the coast for what they said would be a good time to salt water fish. Before making the 100 yard walk down to the water’s edge, they grabbed a shark fishing hand line, complete with an astoundingly large hook, for the fisherman to use in conjunction with his bait fish. The size of the hook should’ve been a tip-off, but, nonetheless, we all just fell in with the Costa Ricans and made the short walk down the runway and up to the water’s edge.
We arrived at a small, rocky cove with waves swelling and crashing on rocks just below where we stood. Once we got there, the fisherman wasted no time, as he quickly baited the massive shark hook and tossed it some 20 feet out into the water. Initially, I was skeptical and not real sure what the big deal was until something, apparently a significant something, attacked the line. Luckily, as it turned out, the fisherman was able to maintain his perch on dry ground through it all and ultimately pulled in an empty line with bent hook. We were just starting to marvel at the near miss of a big fish, when we began spotting fin upon fin and even seeing full bodies of massive Blue Sharks in a feeding frenzy, only feet from where we stood.
There was no denying the fact that they were real and only a few feet from us. I thought better of fake pushing people into the water and within moments, broke out in a cold sweat as I visualized the mess and chaos that would certainly occur if anybody or any part of anybody from our group were to suddenly end up in the water. I stepped back from the edge, even though I wasn’t all that close to begin with and made sure our various group members did the same. And then, I began thinking to our crossing of the nearby Rio Sirena and the various other streams and wondered what we would’ve done had we gotten to a crossing at the wrong time and been faced with the prospects of spending the night on the beach without fresh water or just “going for it” and wading out into the stream to cross it, anyway.
I had to wonder, if I’d really believed as we prepared for the trip and then hiked along the beach that all of the talk and hoopla regarding sharks, crocodiles and river crossings was really all that real. Had I really given, at least that part of it, enough credence or respect, in order to be able to make a good, and what certainly would’ve been, a tough decision?
Teenagers being drug and carried down to crocodile nests for seasoning, flapping arms of backpackers being torn from bodies, and helpless people who’d been in the midst of thinking about whether or not their Snickers had melted being drowned right before my eyes overwhelmed my thoughts. And the sick feeling that rose to the forefront of my thoughts, subsided as I consciously came to realize that thankfully, none of that had happened. I was sickened, but relieved and came to realize right then and there, that while there is some measure of control and separation from the real world in many of the things I had and would encounter, there are real things that really do exist and don’t really care about what is supposed to happen. Grizzly Bears, blizzards, avalanches, Moose, rockfall, Rattlesnakes, sharks and in fact, wildness, are by nature, integral parts of what I call the real thing. True wildness is beyond my ability to fully understand, but on that day, while standing and gawking at the uncompromising power swimming in front of me, I at least came to respect it.