Hiking on the beach sounded like fun. I pictured us walking barefoot, with small packs, palapas off to one side and limbo contest after limbo contest happening on 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.
The plan was simple enough. 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 for 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 that 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 only exacerbated the various physical challenges we already 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’d 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 In reality, the fleece, gloves and wool caps we’d been accustomed to carrying had been replaced by umbrellas, rubber boots and various rain paraphernalia which essentially resulted in a zero net gain in weight reduction.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 our fair share 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 few hundred yards inland from the coast. A clearing of about two acres in size 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 living quarters for the various resident employees and park rangers who 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 were aware of that fact from the outset, since our guide/facilitator- Art, an adventure consultant whom I’d previously met and a person who’d actually worked down there, had given us all kinds of preparation details, beginning well before the trip ever even started. 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 until 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, which 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 was not so much of a concern as was noting of the amount of jungle which we’d flown over to get there. That, when coupled with the lack of sizeable cities which I’d very obviously not seen along the way and the fact that we were without the bulk of our gear (which the airline guy in San Jose had sworn would get to us, somehow, but not on our plane) all added up to leave me feeling a bit unsettled, even before we set foot on the Osa.
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 we’d encounter during low tide. With a variable amount of pain and discomfort, we did make each of the crossings at prime crossing time and ultimately 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 “much ado 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, where he 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 our 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 back 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 prospect of either spending the night out on the beach without fresh water or just “going for it” and wading out into the stream to cross.
I had to wonder, if I’d really believed back when preparing for the trip or later, when we hiking along the beach that all of the talk and hoopla regarding sharks, crocodiles and river crossings was really all that real or significant. 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?
Visions of 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, all overwhelmed my thoughts. Thankfully, the emotional chaos which rose to the forefront of my thoughts as I visualized all of that, subsided as I consciously came to realize that none of it had actually happened. I was sickened and almost simultaneously relieved by the whole thing. As I think back to my years of adventuring in the outdoors, I now realize that it was at that moment that I came to the conclusion, that whenever an outsider ventures into the real, wild world, they need to understand that it’s simply that- a real, wild world. And that if a place is really wild it operates on its own terms. I decided that while wild places are very much worth experiencing, visitors who go there should take that wildness seriously and be prepared to deal with the very real consequences of being out in the midst of it, in the first place. Grizzly Bears, blizzards, avalanches, Moose, rockfall, Rattlesnakes, sharks and in fact, wildness, are by nature, integral parts of what I call the real, wild world. True wildness is beyond my ability to fully understand, but on that day, while standing and gawking at the uncompromising power that was swimming out in the ocean and only a few feet away, I at least came to respect it.