Category Archives: Backpacking

Coming weeks

I will be posting less frequently for the next while. Life is getting very busy all-of-a-sudden and my other priorities are taking over. Follow me so you know when I do post, or check back in this summer when I get back from Alaska and post regularly again!


Posted by on 15 April 2012 in Backpacking


“I hope that wasn’t poisonous” – Costa Rica day 12

Our leader had passed all of the assessments through the night and proved to be in fine condition in the morning. Everyone was relieved when they awoke to find out that he had not regressed in the night. We re-dressed his head because the bandages had been pulled off in his sleep and the gash had re-opened, but it was not bleeding too severely. The situation was turning out as good as could be hoped for.

We ate breakfast, and after emptying the weight from our leaders pack, we began hiking the few miles we had left before we would reach a road. Our leader was doing well. He was able hike as his normal pace without any difficulty. We planned to get him to a doctor when we got to the road just to make sure he was completely fine, but we were confident we had done a good job with the tools we had.

When we arrived at the road, we had to cross a footbridge over the Savegre River. The river was wide and the bridge was long. We were not allowed to have more than four people on the bridge at a time to prevent it from collapsing. As I walked across, the bridge bounced and swayed unlike any bridge I had been on in the United States.

Some random cows were walking down the road and decided to say hello

We reached the vacant backcountry road across the bridge. There were no vehicles. We were instructed to wait and our guides for the next portion of the trip would be arriving soon. Only a minute our two later, a jeep appeared with our guides in it. One of them happened to be a former paramedic and was able to check our leader and clear him to stay in the field with us. Our leader was very relieved. The former paramedic also looked at our SOAP notes and treatment and said that we had done a fantastic job with our patient. Everyone was very happy to hear that, and it was the first time our skills had truly been tested in such a setting.

We unpacked our backpacks in order to change into our swim trunks and re-pack our gear into dry-bags for kayaking. As we unpacked, a fellow member of my group began yelling and swearing as he jumped away from his pack. I rushed over and peered in to see what had caused all the ruckus. It was a tarantula-sized spider that had crawled into his pack while we had been hiking.

The beginning of the swelling

Santiago told me the spider was not poisonous and it was ‘relatively’ safe to hold. I put the spider on my hat for a picture. After the first picture was taken, one of the girls had the genius idea of poking the spider to try and make it move onto the brim of my hat for a better photo. Instead of calmly walking onto my brim as she had hoped, the spider turned and ran down my back and bit me.

I shook the spider off and quickly exposed by back. Although the spider was not dangerously poisonous, the bite caused swelling and localized pain that lasted for several hours. A headache also set-in for about an hour but then dissipated. I learned a lesson, call it quits after you get one good photo with a dangerous animal. Maybe that was the wrong lesson, but its what I took away from the experience.

Soon we put on life vests and hopped in the river to practice our river swimming techniques in order to prepare for the next week of whitewater kayaking. The majority of the first day was spend learning the basics of swimming rapids and paddling techniques. We began by ferrying, a technique of swimming at a 45 degree angle upriver to make it across the river without being swept far downstream. After a few extremely tiring laps through the main current of the river, we stepped back on shore. There we practiced throwing throw-bags for rescue. Throw-bags are small bags of buoyant cord that can be thrown and the cord unravels in the air. The purpose it to hold one end of the rope and throw the other end to someone who has fallen out of their raft and it floating down a rapids. It was a skill I had a natural affinity for, and that made me very happy. Lastly, we practiced swimming in real whitewater and took turns jumping into the rapids and swimming to an eddie.

We ate lunch before climbing into duckies (inflatable 1-2 person kayaks) and practicing basic skills. I had canoed quite a bit in my past and picked up these kayaking skills naturally (if only my schoolwork was like that…) so I played around with my boat to get a feel for how it moved in the water.

Once out guides were confident in everyone’s basic skills, we headed down river. We only went through class I & II rapids on that first day, but it was enough to make the others quite excited (I rather enjoyed the scenery while I waited for bigger waves which would come in future days). Some members of the group did manage to wrap their boats on rocks and flip in the small rapids, but most made it through with ease.

When we reached camp, we set up tents on the beach. The night was uncomfortably warm but it didn’t matter—we were livin’ the life in Costa Rica (Pura Vida!). We


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Friday the 13th Near-tragedy in the Backcountry of Costa Rica – Costa Rica day 11

The rooster began crowing at 4:45 AM and we awoke to the warm mountain breeze. Everyone ate a large breakfast, said our thanks to the family whose house we had stayed in for the past few nights and hit the trail before 7:00AM. Everything seemed like just another day of adventure in Costa Rica.

We quickly came to a river with a rickety cart suspended over it. Jokes about Friday the 13th quickly popped up in the group. We piled into the cart in pairs to cross the river. The cart bounced and swayed while we were in it, but eventually made its way across the river and was pulled back to pick up its next load.

After hiking a couple miles down the trail, we came across the final home stay for the backpacking portion of our trip. It was a big open house built to hold large groups of people.

A surprise was waiting for us upon our arrival. We were going to go zip-lining high above the river. Everyone was excited and it looked safe so we grabbed harnesses and helmets and rushed over to the area where we would zip-line. A few people at a time hiked around to the top of the line while the rest sat in the shade at the end of it right by the house. The zip line was about 100 feet from the ground and a few hundred feet long. It spanned an entire bend in the river.

After everyone had zipped safely down the line and ousted our second opportunity for a Friday-the-13th tragedy in the backcountry, we went back to the house for lunch. The temperature had risen to 88 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and was much hotter in the sun. Our lunch was accompanied by spicy salsa—which only made the day feel hotter.

When lunch was over, a medicine man who also happened to be the owner of the home we were staying in showed us through his medicinal garden. He had plants to cure any ailment that a person could have and swore by them. He claimed that many of his treatments would do things better than what any pharmaceutical pill could do. He had plants for nausea, sore throats, and other minor illness as well as a plant that he claimed would cure irregular menstruation for life in as little as three doses, and also a plant he used to cure cancer.

The medicine man told of a woman who suffered from leukemia and could not be healed through any of the top-end treatments. In desperation, she flew to Costa Rica and allowed him to treat her with this plant, by her next checkup, there was no sign of cancer. She never relapsed. We all listened to the stories in skeptical amazement. None were quick to dismiss the possibility of a plant that could do this, and all had heard of drug companies not releasing cures because they make more money treating an illness rather than curing it, but at the same time we were skeptical of the stories of a medicine man in the jungle telling us about curing a disease that scientists have been working for decades to cure.

Note the large spider by my right ankle.. they were everywhere

We soon migrated to the sauna on the riverside. A small rock hut required a squatting waddle to walk into. The movement brought me back to my days as a lineman in football. We sat in the sauna for 10 minutes then swam in the cool river for 5 minutes and repeated the process three times.

I jumped in the water after the second time in the sauna, and just as I arose from the water, I heard a clunk. In horror, I turned around to see my leader, old enough to be retired, lying on his back with blood quickly staining the rock below him. On his way to the river’s edge, his feet had popped out from under him and his head broke his fall on the rocks.

Without hesitation, Santiago and I (both trained as Wilderness First Responders) rushed to his side. The girls who were nurses also came quickly. The rest of the group gave space for us to work. Some offered to do whatever we needed as it came up while others shied away from the sight of blood. Everyone prayed continuously for our leader over the next few hours. The situation had potential to turn very ugly at any moment without warning.

We treated the bleeding as best we could, checked for any spinal injuries, assessed his level of responsiveness (which was A&O X4, thank God!), and ran through all the necessary procedures we needed to as wilderness first responders. Everyone worked together as a team. The nurse with the most training treated the large gash on the back of our leaders head; I did the spine assessment, checked LOR (level of responsiveness), and wrote the SOAP notes; Santiago jumped in and out to help wherever he could and also helped translate to the family at the house where we were staying.

When we cleared our leader to be moved back to the house, we planned to carry him but he refused. We negotiated with him and allowed him to try walking so long as we could hold his arms in case he were to lose his footing. He consented.

He had a 2-inch gash we had to clean and dress. Fortunately his blood clotted quickly and allowed us to clean it well without much blood coming out.

Once back at the house, we cleaned the cut, sterilized it, and re-dressed it with clean bandages. We discussed our options for evacuation if it became necessary and came up with a plan for how to proceed. We were several hours of hiking away from the nearest road, it was less than 30 minutes before dark, but luckily our leader showed no signs of even a minor concussion.

Our plan was to wake the leader up every two hours throughout the night and re-assess his LOR, pupils, and other indicators of head trauma. If his state worsened, we would evacuate him in the morning by trail or with a helicopter if the situation called for it.

Our leader was grateful to have so many medically trained people around him and he tried to be the best patient he could be. We stayed up and played cards with our leader to keep him attentive and continually monitored him until bed. We arranged our beds such that he slept very near Santiago and I and we monitored as planned.

I monitored our leader at 1:00AM and 3:00AM and needless to say found myself very tired when I awoke early the next morning. Our leader had swelling outside of his skull but still showed no signs of a concussion. He checked out splendidly at each check throughout the night, and he was only slightly irritated from having his sleep disrupted. Our prayers were answered. A situation that could have been fatal and was likely to at least have complications was turning into just a scary experience on Friday, the 13th.

The view from the dinner table


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Banana Harvesting is Actually Fun – Costa Rica day 10

Just before 5:00 AM, the rooster began to crow incessantly. Everyone awoke and met downstairs for breakfast. We grabbed shovels, pickaxes, and our water bottles and headed out. The first half of the day was spent re-grading the trail system that ran between the individual houses in the jungle community. The trails had become overgrown and there were many places with significant evidence of erosion. Because of the weather in Costa Rica, this task must be done every few months during the dry season and every week or two during the rainy season. Although we did not get the whole network of trails fixed, we were able to do a substantial amount of work on the trails near the house. By the time we finished, it the trail was wide enough for quads to drive through, as was our goal.

After lunch, we went to the banana crop on the plantation. It was fascinating. I had always thought bananas grew and were picked like normal fruits, but that isn’t the case at all. Each banana tree only yields bananas once before it is cut down—from the base a new stalk will grow and yield the next crop.

(This video is not mine, it is a related video from youtube that shows the same things we did)

Since the tree-like stalks that grow bananas are useless once they yield fruit, they are chopped down with a machete for harvest. While we toured the plantation, our guides chopped down a few trees and had us haul the large clusters of bananas back to the house – a skilled harvester, such as our guides, can chop the tree so it  gracefully folds over and braces itself against the ground, leaving the bananas at about waist-height. Our guides informed us that this plantation grew its bananas organically and that it took a full year for their bananas to grow. Other plantations can produce banana crops every 6-months, but they use chemicals to grow their bananas at faster-than-normal rates. The bananas from this plantation tasted much better than bananas grown with chemical additives.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Making Cheese and Rice in Costa Rica – Costa Rica Day 9

After checking the level of the river water beneath my hammock each time I awoke in the night, the sun finally rose. I flipped the tarp off from above me and enjoyed the tranquility of nature. For the next while, I nodded in and out of sleep before finally getting up and packing up my camp. I hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day. Hunger was nice though because I knew it would soon be appeased and fasting makes a person more aware of their body and allows them to practice discipline.

I silently made my way back to the house and waited as my group members returned one-by-one. Once everyone had arrived, we went around and each member shared some highlights from their experience.  Some shared stories that were hilarious, while others told of the hours they spent naked since there was nobody around to see. My solo experience had been largely spent in meditation, but did end with a funny story. Some stories, however, are best left untold.

Following our meeting, we went and found the Lopez family in order to express our gratitude for extending their house to us for multiple days. Since we did not speak Spanish well, our group member who was a Spanish major gave a thank you on behalf of the group. We said goodbye, loaded our packs, and left for the third home-stay.

About a mile down the trail, we found the next house in which we would be living. The man of the house ran a 300-acre farm that grows various crops including bananas and beans. We met the family and soon found our way to the river to cool off in the afternoon sun.

Most of the group followed Stewart, the boy who lived at the house where we would now stay, as he swam from rock to rock up river. When we reached the whitewater rapids that were upriver, we climbed on top of a rock and jumped into the main current. The current gently bounced us off some large rocks before letting us go once again in the pool below the rapids.

As we played in the river and cooled off, we would stop to watch the colorful butterflies flutter by and look for any other animals that may present themselves. Suddenly, someone quietly pointed upstream. Two river otters were swimming and playing with each other. The female was in heat and taunted the male before jumping back in the water. It was beautiful to watch the animals gracefully swim through currents much too strong for us to attempt to swim. All but one member of the group witnessed these beautiful animals. The one member who missed them ironically noted that they are her very favorite animals in the world.

Our stomachs had grown hungry since the hike, so the group migrated back to the house for lunch. It was a well built two-story house that wouldn’t stand a chance of passing OSHA? code. The corner of the second-story hallway was cutout for a steep staircase. If one wanted to round that corner, they had to step over the hole in the floor to get to the other hallway. The stairs were steep and one was farther out from the rest. I loved these unique characteristics of the house once I discovered them. It seemed to give the house a lot of extra character.

After a wonderful lunch, we were taken outside to learn how to shell rice the way the owner of this farm had to do it for his family every week when he was a child. The rice was pounded in a large wood basin by large wood mallets. Next, the rice was scooped out and poured back in while being fanned or put on a tray and tossed in the air repeatedly. Both of these methods worked to separate the rice from the shells that had broken off. These two steps were repeated continuously until all of the rice had lost its brown shell and only the rice remained.

We each took turns pounding the rice with the large mallets. It was hard work. We were impressed by the strength of the men who run these farms. Their bodies are capable of doing tasks like this at unbelievable speeds and for long duration. In about an hour, the men had shelled somewhere around 30 liters of rice (uncooked).

After learning how to shell rice, we were taken over to the porch to make cheese. Since refrigerators use too much energy to run on solar power, the family cannot keep milk from spoiling. Whatever milk from the day is not going to be consumed receives an additive that turns it into cheese. It was our job to squeeze the liquid out from this spongy soon-to-be cheese and place it in a mold where it would be pressed overnight. By morning, we would have cheese. It was a simple process and quite beneficial for the family. The cheese, however, was not the best tasting in my opinion, but I had gotten used to it, as it was the only cheese available since I had entered the jungle.

In the evening, we enjoyed time together as a group. Santiago found a large spider that was not poisonous. He let us play with it. It dwarfed any spider I had seen in the United States and was quite hairy. Most of the group was intrigued by it, but some preferred to keep their distance.

Eventually, I strung my hammock on the upstairs balcony and crawled in for the night. I reflected on the perfect weather and beautiful scenery, the people who showed so much hospitality and lived such pure lives, and on the things I was learning and would be able to take with me when I returned home. I was finally beginning to understand the Costa Rican phrase, “Pura Vida” which means “Pure Life.” It is something the culture back home had lost sight of many years ago and now required rediscovery. With that thought, I fell asleep to the jungle sounds and warm breeze.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Night Alone in the Jungle – Costa Rica day 8

Part – I

Our morning got off to an early start. We ate breakfast and quickly prepared to hike to a nearby cave. The cave was 900 feet from the entrance to the farthest known room, with only one small passage still unexplored.  Upon entering the cave, we were greeted by the sounds of hundreds of cave spiders and crickets, which had a strong resemblance to spiders, the screeching of bats. We soon found out that bats scared one particular member of our group a lot, and we got quite a chuckle when one flew directly into her almost immediately after she told us of her fear of bats.

We navigated deeper and deeper into the depths of the cave. We used headlamps to see out way and avoid the 3-12 foot pits the water had carved in the floor and helped one another navigate when the floor was slippery. This was no cement-walkway cave tour. This was the real deal. We got muddy, wet, and had to help each other from becoming stuck or hurt at certain parts.

When we finally reached the back room, there was a large pillar of salt from years of water deposits. On the adjacent wall was the unexplored passage about 10 feet above the floor. Of course, I wanted to explore, but I knew the answer so I did not ask.

We turned our headlamps off and experienced the epitome of darkness. No light made it this far into the cave. It didn’t matter how long we stayed in that room, our eyes would never receive any light to read and we would never see. As the group silently stood and took in the darkness, Carlos spoke. He told us to pass our headlamps to him.

Everyone thought Carlos was joking; it was far too dark to walk out of the cave without light. However, Carlos reassured us that other people had done it successfully and he was confident in our group’s ability to find our way out in the dark. The cave was one long passage, so we couldn’t get lost. The difficult would be in navigating around all the holes and formations. One guide went several meters ahead with one light so the leader of the group would be able to make out, and then we were on our way.

We made a chain and held one another hand-in-hand. I was in the front and told the person behind me each step they needed to make. One-by-one the message would be passed back as people came to that step. In 68 minutes, we found the entrance.

Although we had not gone out as quickly as we may have been able to, everyone stayed safe and took care of one another. This experience required large amounts of teamwork and we certainly had that. Everyone showed a lot of respect for each other. I have been told this is not typical of many groups, but every Calvin College group I have ever been a part of has had respect as one of its central characteristics.

Once out of the cave, we hiked a mile or two back to the swimming hole for a dip in the cool water before heading back to the house to rest for an hour. We would be leaving in the afternoon to participate in overnight solos on the riverbank. Few members of the group had done something to this before. Many in the group were apprehensive though.

Part – II

In the afternoon, the leaders led each member of our group to different plots on the riverbank. We took emergency whistles, a tarp, some cord, and whatever else we needed for the night (sleeping mat, tooth brush, etc). We were told not to bring food but rather to embrace fasting until the next afternoon when we would be fed again.

My hammock strung just upriver from the large boulder

I explored my plot and looked for a suitable place to set up my hammock. No places were going to be very safe. I either would be strung up a good distance over sharp rocks or hang over the river. I decided that the river looked much cooler so I hopped rocks until I got out to a fallen log that had wedged itself against a boulder.

After starring at my workspace for some time, I knew how I would string my hammock and quickly went to work. With one end of my hammock tied to the roots of the fallen tree and the other tied to a limb that had snagged about 10 feet downstream, everything was all set up. These were large pieces of wood and were secure.

After stringing up my hammock and tying the tarp over it, I realized the log was infested with termites. It was too late to change my whole setup – I was not going to work in the dark. I pulled the tarp lower on that side to act as a barrier between the termites and myself. It did its job remarkably well.

Before night fell, I hopped out to a boulder in the middle of the river. Lying there was peaceful. The only sound I could hear was the rushing water of the class V rapid above me; there was not a single sign of other people anywhere I looked. I was entirely alone and it was wonderful.

I fell asleep 12 inches above the warm Costa Rican water with birds and frogs singing their songs all around me. The river was loud but calming and the night was cool but comfortable. Life was good.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Turning Sugar Cane into Brown Sugar – Costa Rica day 7

A spider with a very unique body. There were a half-dozen like this by my bed, It was cool to watch them work as the sun rose behind them.

A morning breeze woke me just as the sun rose above the eastern mountain peaks. A rooster crowed and rain danced on the tin roof. By the time we were eating breakfast, the rain had stopped and the temperature was quickly on the rise.

Our first activity of the day was to hike to the sugar cane field and gather canes to process into brown sugar. The field was a good distance up hill. We thought it took effort to climb all the way to the field, but coming back down carrying the canes was certainly more difficult than the trip up.

When we arrived at the field, a local had already cut the leaves off from the stalks and chopped down the canes. This was a very sticky and uncomfortable job. We gathered stalks and bound them to carry down the mountain. Our guides said that they take up to 30 and a time but since we had so many people, we need only take 6 to 10 per person (we were okay with this as the stalks were heavier than they looked and we knew there was a lot of hard work ahead of us).

A difficult downhill struggle of a half-mile lead us back to the cane processing equipment near the stable. We stacked the canes and awaited further instruction. We had already worked up a sweat and were sticky, but it was nothing compared to how we soon would be.

After we were told how sugar cane is processed we set to work. One person hammered canes to crack their bamboo-like shells while another stacked the cracked canes and stacked new ones for the hammerer as needed. Two people manned the cranks for the old pressing wheels. The wheels had a 1:not-nearly-enough gear ratio and proved to be very tiring even for the fittest guys in our group. In additions to the previously mentioned tasks, there was also a person feeding canes into the wheel and another to catch them on the other side.

Each cane required being sent through the press three times which made the process take a good bit of time. When we finished pressing the several dozen canes, we had strained about 15 gallons of liquid from the canes we collected. This would be boiled down to make about 20 pounds of sugar.

The liquid was strained into a large basin, boiled down, and scooped out when it was a paste. It was then put into wet wooden cylinders in order to make blocks of brown sugar out of it. Some of the brown sugar was also mixed with peanut butter and given to the kids as candy. It was far too sweet for my liking though.

While the liquid was condensing into the paste that would become sugar, we went to rinse off in the swimming hole. The sugar from the canes had covered our bodies and we had worked up a lot of sweat cranking the wheels.

While we swam, we found a “Jesus Christ Lizard” which earned its name from its ability to walk on water. One of the members scared it and we were amazed as it ran across the water and scurried over the rocks to disappear. We swam and cooled off before heading back to learn the finishing process of making sugar from sugar cane. When that was done to went to the house.

Once at the house, everyone took time to themselves. I climbed into my comfortable hammock in the shade. Another group member who also owned a hammock crawled into his as well. In his case, however, the knot came untied just as he transferred the last bit of his weight onto the hammock. With a crash he fell on the wood floor.

The abuela (grandmother) ran into the room to see if everything was okay. When she saw what had happened, she laughed and said something in Spanish to the member who fell because he was fluent in Spanish. They both laughed and she went back to the kitchen.

As time went on, the group reconvened by the beds where the guys’ slept on the upstairs balcony. I joined in and played cards with my group members as we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and weather we were experiencing. We often remarked about the fact that we could be back in the Michigan winter with the grey sky’s and sitting in classrooms. Life was grand where we were.

Before dinner, we were called downstairs to ground corn, add salt and water, and make tortillas from the mix. It was quite an interesting skill that none of us perfected. There was a lot more that went into cooking a tortilla that we had been aware of. They must be cooked first in a pan then let sit against the vent on a wood stove to finish cooking. If the wrong side faces the stove, the tortilla will be hard and inflexible. The women took a lot of pride in the quality of their tortillas.

While the rest of dinner cooked, some of us played with the children. We spun them around the floor of the main room on a mattress until they giggled so hard they could hardly breathe. Diego enjoyed spinning on the mattress, but his sister, Loupe, was more partial to flying around the house in my arms. They tired us out but we all had a great time. Dinner was a good break for our bodies.

As the night progressed, we realized how much everyone missed the three members who had gone into town for evacuating the student that needed to leave. We really missed out comrades and wanted them back. It came up in our evening meeting that everyone really wanted them all back even though we knew that couldn’t be the case.

The night was young, but with our early awakenings, we were tired. Everyone retired to their comfortable beds for the last time. The next night would be spent in solitude as we took overnight solo’s away from the house.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: