West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Part III, in which we meet the giant anaconda

We hiked into the forest to spend two nights at another oxbow lake, miles from anywhere, camping on a thatched-roof platform close to the water. When we arrived, guides from another lodge were just leaving with their group of tourists, and they told us about an enormous anaconda hauled out on the far bank, apparently digesting a large caiman. John and I jumped into a dugout with two Peruvians, Jon and Isaac, to go look for it. We paddled stealthily along the lake margin, under tall stately Mauritia palms. I saw something that looked to be the right color for an anaconda, hauled out on the bank, but my first thought was that it was far too large to be a snake. I could feel my brain undergoing an odd sort of rearrangement then, redefining the mental category “snake.” It reminded me of the first time I saw a giant sequoia in California, when I was 16, driving up a mountain road with my parents. We had come around a bend in the road, and up ahead I could see that the road curved again to go around… something monumental, colossal, columnar, shaggy brown, that my brain slowly expanded the category “tree” to make room for. And so it was for this anaconda, something so far outside my previous experience of snakes as to necessitate that shift.

The part we could see of the anaconda was at least five meters, and its tail trailed off, hidden under palm leaves. It must have eaten recently; a bulge in its body about two meters long and almost as thick as the palm trunk beside it indicated the final resting place of a hapless caiman. Jon and Isaac edged the canoe up beside it so we could take photos. I was nervous about getting too close; I had seen an anaconda about a quarter the size of this one take a nasty chunk out of Franklin in the serpentarium in La Virgen de Sarapiquí. (As my mother later remarked, that snake was a good judge of character.) But this wild anaconda on the bank of an oxbow lake miles from nowhere was more interested in basking and digesting its prey than in taking a chunk out of anybody, and gradually we brought the canoe closer. Eventually I stepped out on the half-submerged palm log that served as a convenient jetty, and got probably closer than was wise in the interest of photography. But you only live once.

At sunset, we went to look for monkeys. John heard them from halfway across the lake: squirrel monkeys, whistling and chattering in the treetops. “A waterfall of monkeys,” he said, and it truly was. Squirrel monkeys travel in troops of several hundred, and they bounced through the canopy one after another just like their namesakes. A troupe of brown capuchins, maybe 30, followed after them. Monkeys are magical to see in the wild; their little faces, so expressive, almost human and yet so alien; their fluid movement through the trees. We watched them climb up into the Mauritia palms to spend the night, going hand-over-hand up the vines like sailors climbing ratlines.

We woke up in the gray light of 5 am, the forest coming alive, and bolted our morning Nescafe. Down to the dock again, and a quick paddle over to the far end of the lake as the sky went from opaque gray to pearly silver-pink. The macaws were just waking up in their treetop nests and heading to the forest for the day. We watched flocks of them go overhead, always in pairs, arguing back and forth in their cackling voices like bickering couples. One pair stayed around their nest in a hole at the top of a palm snag, popping in and out of view, muttering, and preening each other. A light mist rose out of the water, vanishing as the sun came up.

In mid-morning we took a walk through the forest on the far side of the cocha in tierra firme forest, the area above the periodic rainy season floods. On the high terraces, Brazil nut trees spread out their tall and elegant silhouettes above the rest of the forest. They are emergent trees, some of them edging towards 50 m tall (165 ft) and nearly 2 m (6 ft) in diameter. Some of these trees have been estimated at >1000 years old. I always feel reverent in the presence of trees that venerable, especially when they are also lovely to look at. And delicious to eat—we found a few old seed pods on the ground, which John hacked open with his machete to reveal the seeds nested inside. Fresh Brazil nuts are nothing like the ones they sell in stores, roasted and salted within an inch of their lives. Right out of the shell, in the middle of the forest, they taste heavenly, like fresh coconut or sweet corn right out of the garden. We gathered a few to take back with us.

Back at the camping platform, we spent the afternoon in a fruitless attempt to fish for piranhas. Apparently the last group of guides had hidden fishing poles near the camping platform, but they hid them so well that our repeated searches turned up nothing. Well, we found a few poles and a bit of monofilament line, but no hooks. It would have been a matter of two hours, probably, to hike back to the main lodge and get some, but we were feeling lazy and MacGyver-ish in equal parts. Jon found a length of wire somewhere and hammered it into a hook shape with his machete. John cut down some paca, with its hook-like barbs, and I tried to rig up something from one of the smaller branches. We baited our improvised hooks with bits of leftover chicken skin from the previous night’s dinner. The bait vanished in short order when our hooks were dropped into the murky water, but the fish were so stealthy we couldn’t even feel them nibbling. Smart piranhas. We were reduced to a dinner of boiled pasta with no sauce except ketchup, and the sempiternal Nescafe.

Next up: a tapir! or at least its disappearing hind end…


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