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Category Archives: Education/Training

Tennessee Rock Climbing – Preview

This past week I took Elizabeth sport climbing. It was a week full of firsts for her. First time on real rock, first time sport climbing, and first time going on a trip with just me. From sleeping in hammocks in the woods to teaching her to clean a sport anchor for the first time, we had a blast. I will post more pictures from this trip once I finish breaking down the rest of the Costa Rica trip. Stay posted!

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After Months of Waiting, the Day Had Finally Arrived – Costa Rica day 15

At precisely 3:30 AM, the [insert favorite expletive] rooster snuck under my hammock and began to crow. If I were not a guest in a stranger’s home, I would have killed the darn thing. The early bird may get the worm, but the rooster who crows too early gets kicked—and that’s exactly what I intended to do. My plans, however, were foiled because while began to roll out of my hammock, the rooster ran away. Over the next three hours, that stupid cock continued to crow directly beneath me whenever I fell back asleep and promptly run off when my tolerance wore out.

Finally, the sun was up and breakfast was ready. I ate a hearty meal in preparation for my first day of whitewater kayaking. This was the activity I had waited the whole trip for and was the main reason I signed up in the first place. No amount of drowsiness or sore muscles was going to get in my way.

Following breakfast, everyone was taken to the front lawn where kayaks were laid in rows. Each person was to find and claim a kayak that fit his or her body. I got a blue Piranha, the model of which I cannot remember. Once everyone had grabbed a boat that fit, a lifejacket, helmet, drinking water, and any other gear needed for the day, we loaded the trailer and headed out.

I could hardly contain my excitement.

When we all were finally in the river, we had to go over the basic skills to ensure that everyone was on the same page. We started by practicing high and low braces, hip-snaps, ferrying, eddying-out, and T-rescues. T-rescues were very important because they allowed a kayaker the ability to right their kayak without being proficient at rolling. Without the T-rescue, we would have to pull off our spray-skirt, flood the kayak, swim it to shore, and drain it; with the T-rescue, we would grab the nose of a friends boat and simply flip ourselves back over.

Once everyone had become remotely comfortable with the skills and could accurately perform them a majority of the time, we moved on to the skill I had been most excited to learn, rolling.

Each student went one-on-one with an instructor to learn the roll, then paired up with a partner to practice. This allowed the instructors to help with form until the movement came naturally enough to perform before practicing with a partner to give a T-rescue if it became necessary. Everyone knew how much I was loving this stuff, and I think at least some of them enjoyed watching me get so excited because, like many other times on the trip, they offered me the right to go first. I gladly took it. I’m getting excited for you just reading it

One of the girls who was working with another instructor flipped before me, but once I got it, it wasn’t going away. I practiced and practiced until my success rate had gone from zero to about one-in-four, then half. By the end of the next day, I was rolling successfully with nearly every attempt.

The afternoon consisted of class I & II rapids—rapids I would not take seriously two days later. At the present, however, they were a challenge. My boat wanted to tip over any way it could, but I was solid and way more fun than the stable ducky I had previous controlled. I did not have any near-flips and soon began trying rapids backwards and sideways to increase the difficulty. If I could have seen my face, I bet it would have been like a child when his father surprises him with that one toy that he would have done anything to get. I could not have been happier.

During the entire afternoon portion of our paddle, only two kayaks flipped. Each of us had fun, but many stated that they preferred the duckies. I didn’t quite understand why anyone would want that, but I guess they probably didn’t quite understand why I was so gung-ho about every little thing either. To each their own.

When the day was over and we were back at the home stay, everyone was happy but tired. Our leader was not able to join us in the water during the afternoon due to his injury, so we relayed those events back to him and he shared about a wonderful walk he had enjoyed while we went down river. Everyone was tired and went to bed on time because the mornings come early in Costa Rica.

 

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“You won’t drown on my watch” – Costa Rica day 13

Swift water rescue training was a classroom like none-other. We sat on the beach for our lectures and swam rocky whitewater rapids for lab. Oh, if only my other classes could be like that! Though we had a tropical paradise for our classroom, the subject matter was very serious and all were attentive.

We learned the differences between low-risk rescues that used paddles, ropes, arms or even boats to reach victims, and high-risk rescues that required a rescuer to get in the water with a victim or a helicopter from above. Low risk rescues are common, but high-risk rescues do occasionally happen if a person gets very stuck or the water is too powerful around them. We were also taught about the power and relentlessness of rivers and the fact that though they are very powerful, they are also very predictable. For instance, water will interact with rocks of certain shapes in the same way every time. An undercut rock will have water “stack” in front of it then suddenly disappear, water flowing over a rock will cause a ‘hole’ that can suck you in, and water flowing around a rock will cause an eddy that can be a life-saver. These are some of the predictable characterizes of a river.

In time, we all were able to read and understand the movements of water much better than when the class had begun. The last thing we have to learn before entering the water was throwing throw-bags to swimmers. We learned how to get two good throws from a bag in less than 20 seconds!

When the time came for us to begin working in the rapids, we began by learning how to make a “shallow water crossing” through rapids. This is a technique used both for crossing rivers and for getting into place to rescue someone in need. Two methods were taught to us. The first method required us to lean up-river on a stick that we used as a third-leg. This technique worked quite well and I found myself moving through the water very quickly. The second technique I found awkward. Three people would line up around one another and rotate through the rapids. This technique required coordination from all parties and did not work well in our group.

The next step in our training was one of my favorites. We learned to swim rapids safely in case we found ourselves outside of a raft or if we needed to swim to someone to help them. We had already practiced keeping our feet up while going down stream and when to use a defensive position (lying on ones back) and an aggressive position (freestyle swimming on ones stomach), but we had not yet tried them in the fast-moving bumpy rapids. Our assignment was to ‘eddy-hop’ down the rapids until we reached the pool at the bottom. I gladly went first.

I jumped into the main current of the river and guided myself toward the side of a large boulder, around which the water flowed. Just as I was passing the boulder, I rolled twice to my left and began swimming very aggressively in the ferry-stroke we had practiced the day prior. Suddenly there was no current pulling me and I found myself comfortably within the confines of the eddy formed by the large boulder. I was safe. I climbed on the boulder and sat down to watch my friends in their first attempts. Some made it; others rode the rest of the rapids and swam ashore in the pool below.

Those of us who had made it into the first eddy lined up and prepared to swim to the next eddy downstream.This technique was important for us to understand as it allowed us to perform self-rescue in larger rapids where guides may not be able to reach us right away and dangerous obstacles could likely be downstream.

To further our skills, the instructors rigged a ‘dummy’ strainer for us to practice swimming over. Strainers are very lethal river obstacles that with proper approach and technique can be much less deadly. In addition, we learned how to rescue from boats and also how to use a combination of people on the shore and in boats in order to remove large groups of swimmers from the water at one time.

When everyone had become comfortable with the skills we were learning, it was time for another lecture. This time, however, the material was very familiar to me. We were learning anchor systems used in rescue. My prior climbing experience and training through the AMGAhad taught me nearly every rope/anchor system used in water rescue. I even taught the instructor a new trick (putting a clove-hitch on a carabiner in order to keep the knot in a self-equalizing anchor out of the way).

One of the most deadly snakes in Costa Rica, the Fer de Lance, came into our campsite. We killed it because it was too dangerous to have around us.

When all the lessons were done, I spoke with our instructor about his experiences and knowledge in hopes that I would glean a little extra. During our conversation, I received a wonderful compliment when he told me that I had a natural river sense and have a future in the business if I decide to go in that direction. I was delighted to hear that. Although my grades in school are good, they require significant amounts of work; in the wilderness, however, I have found that I excel with ease. Everything feels natural to me and I love it!

We had free time in our campsite after our training but before dinner. I strung up my hammock between two trees and enjoyed the beautiful view. I had planned to sleep in it, but the discovery of one of Costa Rica’s deadliest snakes in our campsite caused our leaders to make the wise decision of disallowing anyone to sleep outside of tents. A group the week before had two anteaters crash into a tent while fighting and that was enough excitement in this campsite for a while.It was good that out guides allowed us to take risks when appropriate but they always weighed the costs. They were fun-loving men who were a joy to be around, but they knew when to be serious and showed their wisdom when it was appropriate. Autentico Adventures has the best guides I have ever met; they got to know each of us on an individual level and cared about making the experience the best they could for everyone involved.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Costa Rica Day 6 Movie

 

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