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.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Part IV: A tapir, almost...

After dinner John, Jon, and I hiked out into the forest to see colpas, mineral-rich areas where all kinds of animals gather to get nutrients that are scarce elsewhere in the forest. The most famous colpas are the clay banks where parrots and macaws gather, usually along rivers, but the flat-ground colpas in the forest are impressive to see as well. As we headed off into the dark forest, the trees around us buzzing with hidden life, I wondered what we would see. The night before, walking near the campsite, we’d found John’s favorite snake, Imantodes (cat-eyed snake), a slender, striped nocturnal snake so tranquilo that it puts up with being handled and photographed. Non-venomous, of course!

The first sign of a nearby colpa was a fine spatter of gray mud over all the leaves on the trail for nearly 100 meters. “Peccaries,” John said, pointing out how the leaf litter was churned up and muddy. These were white-lipped peccaries, larger and reportedly more aggressive than the collared peccaries at La Selva. They move in larger groups, too; up to several hundred. We had smelled them in the forest the day before—a heady, thick rotten-garlic funk even less pleasant than the old-gym-sock odor of the collared peccaries.

The peccary tracks led us to the first colpa, the source of the gray mud spattered over everything. The colpa was an open mud wallow, puddles of soupy gray denuded of vegetation by the constant passage of large mammals. The cloven footprints of peccaries stippled the banks. A hint of their scent still clung to the vegetation, and an overpowering odor of mammal urine rose out of the mud. We spotted footprints of a few species that had passed by after the peccary herd: coatis, something that might have been a medium-sized cat, and the unmistakable three-pronged track of a tapir. The name of the lake, Sachavacayoc, means “place of the tapir” in Quechua (well, a hybrid of Quechua and Spanish; sacha = wild, Quechua; vaca = cow, Spanish; yoc = place, Quechua). I’ve never had the chance to see a tapir in the wild—footprints and scat, yes, but never the beast itself. I had high hopes.

We decided to walk out to the next colpa, further down the trail. John, walking ahead, spotted something in the underbrush. He motioned to me and Jon to follow. Something large went crashing away, and John hissed, “Tapir! Tapir!” I strained my eyes to follow the beam of his headlamp, but it was gone before I could spot it. We heard the noise as it hot-footed up the ridge and out into the night jungle. So I guess I still haven’t seen a tapir in the wild, but I came close.

On the way back to camp, we spotted a lovely little owl perched on a branch above the first colpa. If the small mammals are as partial to the place as the large ones, it must be good hunting.

After eating a few more Brazil nuts for the road, we walked back to the lodge on the riverbank on another glorious day—sunny but with an occasional cool wind out of the understory, and birds and butterflies gloriously alive everywhere. I delayed our start for a while, trying to take a picture of one particularly gorgeous butterfly near the water’s edge, with brilliant blue wings and a maddening tendency to close them in response to my camera shutter. But I finally managed.

The last day that I stayed at the lodge, John had some work to do preparing for the group’s arrival and sorting his insect samples, so I went for a hike by myself. I walked out to Lago Condenado, the old oxbow lake filled in with reeds where we’d almost seen an anaconda. It was late afternoon, and the jungle filled up with a quiet golden light. Monkeys chirped back and forth in the high branches. At the lake, I stepped into the dugout canoe. John had made it look easy to paddle one, but it was anything but. For someone who grew up on the Maine lakes, maneuvering featherweight 17’ Old Towns with a featherweight paddle, this was a new experience. The boat, built out of a single hollowed trunk with the edges shored up with planks, must have outweighed a tapir, and the paddle, solid wood carved out of a thin buttress, probably weighed a good few kilos itself. Clearly, the dip-and-swing method was out. But I had watched John’s technique (and watched him have a good laugh at one of the guides, who didn’t know how to “remar como un peruano,” zigzagging his way across the cocha by switching sides with every few strokes of the paddle). I copied what I could remember: keeping the blade of the paddle in the water always, turning it sideways to move it forward and then turning the flat of the blade to draw water, and making a little outward flick at the end, like a more active J-stroke, to keep the boat moving more or less in the right direction. I wasn’t elegant, but I managed.

Somewhere in the middle of the oxbow lake, watching the sun go down behind the Mauritia palms, I was overcome by a feeling I haven’t had since I stood on Katahdin almost a decade ago: peace, joy, pride in my accomplishments. A deep and abiding contentment. The feeling that whatever has transpired has been worth it, to bring me to this place. The last golden light was touching the reeds at the water’s edge, lending them the fragile, transient, hopeful green the of first new beech leaves unfolding in spring, and the sky overhead was pure and limitless, a color without name. Macaws flew over and hoatzins in the bushes croaked out their prehistoric hosannas. I was in the middle of the Amazon, by myself in a canoe in the middle of an oxbow lake in the wilderness. As long as I live I will remember this.

Early the next morning we had to leave. The Tambopata was flowing blood-red from eroded clay upstream. I tossed my duffle bag into the boat and took one last look back at the lodge. Who knows if I will ever be back. Two weeks earlier, I never would have imagined being there at all. But something has changed in me, this trip. Suddenly I feel again that everything is possible, that the only limits to what I can accomplish are the limits I set for myself.


At 11:57 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That's really beautiful, Susan!

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It almost sounds like it's time to come home.

And beautiful flutterby pic,




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