Saturday, January 31, 2009

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

A lone Howler Monkey stares balefully from the forest canopy. All around me, primates of a distinctly lower order are looking back up. They are Michigan frat boys, and they’re on a nature walk. And nothing says wilderness adventure quite like standing under a tree and making monkey noises while engaging in witty banter.

“Somebody give him a banana.”

“You see that? He’s giving me the finger.”

“Dude, it's black, I can’t believe it’s black.”

“That’s okay man, so’s the president.”

And people wonder why monkeys hurl shit at them.

These guys are like overgrown children, big but soft, loud and demanding of attention. I used to think it was a good thing that Americans get out and see the world. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s just as well if the world only gets to see us on TV.

I’m headed for the airport today, a three hour drive away from the ocean, through the rainforest and back into the volcanic bowl of San Jose. I'm more than a little sad to leave a country that has managed to preserve such a significant portion of its wild places, along with its dignity and grace.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Rio Tarcoles, Costa Rica

I looked up, arched an eyebrow and just had to ask “¿Peligrosa?”

Is this dangerous?

“Un poco.” A little...

Standing knee deep in swamp goo with a crocodile eying me while crawling up the river bank, that seemed an optimistic appraisal. On the other hand, I wasn’t the one holding a chicken.

In the mangrove swamps where the Tarcoles River empties into the Pacific, crocodiles thrive, and a nascent tourist industry has been born. Half a dozen boats now offer river trips, and all advertise pictures of their boat captains dangling poulets in front of oversized, airborne crocs.

Foregoing a group tour, I sprung for a boat of my own and showed up at sunrise to go chase Scarlet Macaws around the mangroves for a while (a process that reminded that while it’s easier to photograph exotic birds in a zoo, it’s also more dignified, cleaner and less expensive). After that, we went looking for crocs. it wasn’t all that difficult, since the low tide mud flats were pretty much lined with the evil looking bastards. But at one particular river bend lives an old friend. Slapping a chicken in the water is the traditional calling card, and soon a 15-foot long croc sidled up at the river’s muddy bank.

With that walnut-sized brain, multi-tasking isn’t a crocodile’s long suit. And apparently a small but dead chicken is just a lot less bother than 180+ pounds of flailing, mud-covered photographer. At least first thing in the morning. Once the sun gets his the old reptilian blood flowing, all bets could be off.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Playa Caleta, Costa Rica

It was like walking into an episode of Lost.

A group of strangers cast up on a tropical shore. Paradise it seems, and yet...Certainly there was a number of sunburned, skinny women in bikinis, some intense guys with patchy facial hair. A family of drifters in their midst, hyperactive children, earthy mom but there’s something a half bubble off plumb with dad...

This was all way more interesting than the turtles I came looking for.

In keeping with my newly compromised ethical standards, I opted not to spend days camped out on a sun-scorched beach waiting for little hatchlings to emerge into the bright light of day. I checked around and found an egg recovery team at Playa Caleta. They do the hard work of scouring the beach at night, collecting turtle eggs as they plop out of the mum, then incubate and guard them until they hatch. Then they hand deliver the hatchlings onto the beach and speed their way to the surf.

Wildlife, but with more convenient parameters.

It took five hours driving switchback miles of dust, rocks and sand to find the hatchery. Staffed with volunteers, it still had a vaguely governmental sound to it. I had a mental picture of something like an northwestern salmon hatchery, but with palm trees and tropical colors.

Imagine instead you’re on a plane going down over a mysterious island. The cargo hold is inexplicably filled with hammocks, blue tarp and lentils. This is the place you’d wind up with by the end of the first season. I wandered in dusty and sweaty from the road, but was nonetheless surrounded by eager, hungry eyes. It was as if this lonely band of survivors was awaiting word of impending rescue, or at a minimum the election results. From 2004.

Hermit crabs scuttled under feet, eying the dog's nether bits as he slept in the airless heat. Someone started cooking lentils. My value as a distraction ran it’s course. I sensed a buzz of tension in the air and soon spied a knot of women conferring on the beach. My first and only thought was; somebody’s getting voted off the island.

I came for the turtle hatchlings though, and they were having none of it. I sat for hours until darkness descended before driving back up the coast to my beach lodge. Which was pretty much closed, but they were kind enough to leave a key, and I managed to track down a cold beer or three.

Inexplicably, the only living thing in the place was toad, sitting under the only light in the place, collecting stunned insects off the floor of the bar.

It wasn’t a turtle, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Playa Grande, Costa Rica

I have never been much of a surf beach kind of guy. I grew up next to a chicken farm, a long way from any ocean. Plus I have issues with public nudity stemming from low self-esteem and a rigorous Lutheran upbringing.

I’m never going to have that tan, those dreads, or figure out the cool but indecipherable hand signals. Sad, but as I close in on my 48th birthday, I’ve just about come to terms with it.

So it was with some trepidation that I changed into my board shorts in the rental car’s sticky hot front seat, struggled into my shortie wetsuit like it was a sausage casing and walked gingerly across the hot sand and into the waves. I wasn’t going surfing, but I spent good money on an underwater camera housing and I was going to do the next best thing, take pictures of other people surfing. More expensive, but requiring fewer motor skills.

Playa Grande is reported to be one of the premier surfing spots in Costa Rica, and the mob of tanned, athletic specimens of both sexes bore that out. I felt like something bloated and pale that had washed up with the tide.

But I was ready to face death in the form of monster waves, lethal rip tides and extreme risk of sunburn. I marched bravely into the breakers, my nerve bolstered by the presence of a gaggle of teenage girls standing in waist deep water a hundred yards offshore. It took some time, but I made it out to the breakers, and spent a lot of time bobbing over, under and sometimes within the maw of curling walls of water. Four feet of surf isn’t a lot in Oahu North Shore terms, but when you’re a balding middle age man in a neoprene suit, it focusses your attention.

I eventually decided the trick was to predict the spot where breaking wave, rapidly paddlng surfer and camera should intersect. Like a lot of things in life, I make it look a lot harder than it probably should. Over the course of four hours this happened roughly...once. But on top of that, I built an extensive image collection of blurry sand, bubbles and clouds. Sort of like if I put my camera in the washing machine. Which by the time the sun set, was how my entire body was feeling.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Volcan Tenorio, Costa Rica

Even over the roar of the waterfall, I could hear it coming.

It was only supposed to be a quick hike in. As I headed away from Miravalles this morning, I’d taken tone more look through my Lonely Planet to see if there was something else I should shoot in this neck of the woods before heading on. Volcan Tenorio lies no more than 20 miles south of here as the crow flies. But someone ate the crow and Costa Rican road miles remind me more of dog years.

The first hour was the easy part, after that I was crawling the Jeep over rock fields in first gear, listening to the sound of my insurance deductible grinding away below me.

I wanted just one more rainforest shot, and I read up on a waterfall here that empties into a spectacular blue pool thanks to its high mineral content. What’s not to love. The weather seemed cooperative, in a cloudy but warm sort of way. I grabbed my stuff and headed up the trail, not even bothering with the raincoat. It would only be an hour...

But time has a way of slipping away once I’m in the woods with a load of gear. By the time I’d shot my way through the mosses, vines and random tropical greenery the clouds seemed to loom a bit darker. I climbed a 150 feet down a precipitous set of steps carved into the cliff wall and looked out at the waterfall and pond, as described. The tripod went up, the camera came out, and off in the distance, even over the rush of waterfall falling, I heard a sound like interstate traffic in the distance.

It started to rain. And not some little cloud forest misting. This was the real deal. A cloud emptying, gully washing, if you fell asleep you’d wake up drowned sort of storm. I huddled under a thicket of trees and vines, but that only lasted so long. There might have been a dry stitch on me somewhere, but it would have taken more looking around than I was inclined to do at that point. After a while, I simply hunched over the camera bag, trying without much better luck to save the electronics.

It let up just enough for me to think to myself, ‘a real photographer would get back to work.’ I headed for the car. But along the way, fog and mist descended most moodily, and I managed to dry out the gear enough for another frame or two.

And then it REALLY started to pour.

In the park ranger’s outhouse, I stripped off everything, piled into dry clothes and started driving. I did not stop until I saw the Pacific Ocean.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Monteverde, Costa Rica II

The tree frog looked surprised. But with bulbous red eyes against that vivid green amphibian’s head, a look of credulous alarm is pretty much a constant. Enjoying his Sunday morning lie-in after a long night tormenting the insect life of his little corner of paradise, he was roused by a drippy hand. That would be mine. Instructed in the fine art of frog wrangling by one of the Frog Pond’s enthusiastic staff, I gently prodded my subject to life.

I wasn’t asking for much really. It’s not like hundreds of his kind haven’t been poked and prodded and cajoled into an endless series of poses by other photographers through the ages. Everyone has that shot, the red-eyed green tree frog, poster child of the Costa Rica’s endangered cloud forest.

Except for me. And I wasn’t leaving without it.

At the local Ranario (Frogarium, give or take), I was told it wasn’t possible. I was told it might be possible, but I’d have to talk with the owners. I was told I could come in after closing time, but could only use a flashlight. I settled on showing up at seven o’clock on Sunday morning and promising leave my flash in the car. Paying the ten dollar entrance fee and subsequent heavy tipping seemed to help too.

So my spanish-speaking frog wrangler unlocked the display case, we coaxed some nocturnal amphibians into grudging diurnal wakefulness, and we proceeded with what must have been an amusing multilingual pas de trois. I said something in mangled spanish. The trainer looked at me quizzically. The frog tried to crawl back to his shady leaf. The trainer gingerly picked up the frog and tried to place him in a photogenic posture. The frog leapt away. The photographer used up all his spanish apologizing for all the trouble he was causing both the trainer and frog and began talking to himself in more familiar anglicisms.

It was only through a mix of friendly persuasion and nervous I’m-overstaying-my-welcome laughter, combined with Costa Rica’s unfailing politeness and the absence of any known defense against photographic obsessiveness, the morning wasn’t a total loss. I got the pictures, the frog wrangler got a generous gratuity for his trouble, and the frog finally got to go back to sleep.

And then I drove up to the cloud forest looking for hummingbirds. Everyone has that shot, and I’m not leaving without it...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Monteverde, Costa Rica

There’s something deeply ironic about fleeing Seattle winter, only to settle on a cool, damp rainforest as your destination, Getting mad about it not being rainy and miserable enough, that’s some new level of weirdness.

But I must admit to some level of frustration in hiking through Costa Rica’s verdant forests. It’s quite lush. Very green. Perfectly wonderful. But it doesn’t really shout “forest primevel,” if you get my drift. I’m looking for the ├╝ber rainforest, something primal and misty and altogether Jurassic.

On my way to Monteverde, I took one more shot at it, heading at first light down to the waterfall outside La Fortuna. The morning looked promising, in that it was pissing rain with a cloud deck hovering somewhere below the treetops. A vertiginous track leads three miles uphill to the park gate, where for eight bucks I was first in line to climb back down to the river valley floor.

I pity the souls who had to carve a trail out of the muddy and sopping wet cliffs, then carry down ton after ton of cinder blocks to shore up the path in the hopes of keeping klutzy gringos from plummeting hundreds of feet into the abyss. Lugging tripod and heavy camera bag, I only just managed to resist gravity’s siren song.

As I climbed down, cameras and I got wetter and wetter. And as the fog rolled in and the rain picked up another couple notches and mist billowed off the waterfall, it seemed things were finally looking up.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Muelle, Costa Rica

I’m staring at the iguana. The iguana is staring back at me. He is perched on a tree limb, flipping his orange dewlap from time to time, looking pretty tough and looking to make time with the iguana babes.

For my part, I am standing on a bridge abutment and staring a hundred feet down to an unsanitary looking river. As the concrete bounces up and down with each passing truck, I try not to think too hard about Costa Rican building standards.

Between the iguana and me, I know which one looked more worried.

The tiny hamlet of Muelle lies in the heart of sugar cane country, half an hour east of La Fortuna. It could be any other forgettable agricultural town, sleepy and dusty and suffering from an overabundance of truck traffic. Except that along the steep river bank, a cafe started chucking their garbage out the window.

This pleased the resident iguana population no small measure. And for reasons I am unable to discern, the locals resisted the urge to serve them up on the lunch menu with black beans and rice. So instead tour buses stop and pale gawkers take snapshots and obstruct bridge traffic while dozens of iguanas sun themselves, oblivious to their good fortune.

All the same, I was a little nervous about eating anything chicken at the restaurant.

Iguana, the other white meat.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

La Fortuna, Costa Rica II

Six years ago, when I first visited La Fortuna, it seemed a sleepy tourist town built at the base of a fictional volcano. People said there was a volcano. All the tourist brochures showed pictures of a volcano. But with the clouds hovering just above the treetops, I couldn’t ever really say with certainty that it wasn’t all just an elaborate hoax.

A number of things have changed in the ensuing years. They put in a Burger King and couple dozen more tourist hotels. But as far as the volcano thing goes, I remain unconvinced. I drove into town after dark, and it commenced raining not long thereafter. The clouds parted just enough this afternoon to allow a fleeting glimpse of something vaguely mountain-like, and I could make out some distant eruptive rumbling, but I remain unconvinced.

Still, I had a better day than the frogs. Using my abundance of non-eruption photographing time on my hands, I wandered as far as one of the dozen eco-center reserves fringing town. Most of it seems to be farmland that no one’s gotten around to deforesting yet. Put up a fence and charge seven bucks to get in. Good work if you can get it.

Unlike the real forest, the various forest frogs are easily found. And if they hop off in a panic, there’s usually someone to help you find the thing again. So it was that one tiny red and blue denizen of the rainforest came to spend his afternoon in blinding proximity to my macro lens and flash system.

Every few minutes when I thought he might burst into flames, I poured a thimble of water onto him and he seemed good as new. And people call me heartless.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

La Fortuna, Costa Rica I

In my younger days, I wanted my critters wild and the experience unsullied. If I didn’t have it in me to walk a fortnight through the rain forest to track the splendid Quetzal to its home range, then it wasn’t going to get done. I thought about those days on my drive to San Jose’s Zoo Ave this morning. How noble, expensive and unproductive my younger days were.

The private reserve (it sounds so much more eco-friendy than “zoo”) lies under the international airport’s approach path, and I had to wind my way through a knot of tour buses to find parking. Carting an expedition’s worth of camera gear, I paid my $17 entrance fee, set up my tripod and went to work amidst the squawking tourist throng. Macaws in several colorful flavors, check. White Face Capuchins, got ‘em. Peacocks...I don’t even know if they have them in the wild here, but I got shots of them too.

Pride is for people with positive cash flow.

Packing up, I headed out of town for Costa Rica’s famed cloud forests. Monteverde is on everyone’s list, but in the meantime I found a private reserve on the way north into the central highlands. Driving back a winding one-lane farm road, I finally found the entrance gate. Twenty bucks to hike in the reserve, thirty if I wanted a guide. The idea of hiring a wizened forest elder on the cheap didn’t sound unreasonable. I figured he’d help find all of the stuff that I normally blundered past.

If nothing else I could get some help carrying my stuff.

My guide strolled up wearing jeans, sneakers and a very uncamouflage red t-shirt. And braces. On his teeth. Wizened he was not. It turns out his real job is running the zip line concession, which involves strapping tourists onto a steel cable hung through the forest primevel and sending them plummeting through said wilderness at breakneck, scream-inducing speeds. With the economic downturn, he had the afternoon free.

We had a very nice stroll through the woods, and he sometimes even took a break from his cellphone to have a look around. We also stopped to crawl around in the mud after some leafcutter ants (my find), ferns and rainforest greenery (ditto) and a small marsupial looking primate that had him flipping through his guidebook and scratching his head trying to identify. The Olingo (his best guess) is a nocturnal rodent that was busying himself dragging a ground nut rather larger than his head across the forest floor and up a tree. There was a lot of dropping of lenses, toppling of tripods and swearing involved in that one. The Olingo didn’t seem to be having all that much fun either, as he struggled to carry a heavy nut the size of a grapefruit up a tree.

He’d make it halfway then gravity would win out and he’d have to start all over again.

As I picked up the cameras and lenses I’d scattered across the forest floor, I could sympathize.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alajuela, Costa Rica

When the taxi finally rolled up to my hotel in San Jose’s garden suburbs, I was slightly taken aback to see the place surrounded by bikers. They were all 15 and unfailingly polite, this is Costa Rica after all, but still. I was hoping they’d offer to help with my bags, but they left me there in a cloud of two stroke exhaust to fend for myself.

Morning came and with it my rental car. In my experience, Costa Rica, for all its eco-friendly delights and solid middle class values, has never seen fit to make road travel easy.

Maybe that’s a good thing. In the absence of their own army, they plow the savings into health care and education for the populace. My guess is the impossibility of convenient road travel is the first line of defense. Nicaragua’s tanks might breach the northern frontier with ease, but they’d be driving in circles weeks later while finding nothing more strategic than the same roadside souvenir stand to pulverize.

And while I am no great fan of the United States military machine, they have made at least one contribution to making the world a better, or at least more easily navigated place. That is the GPS. My abysmal sense of direction made me an early adapter of this technology, but my latest purchase actually talks to me. She sounds kind of cute, in a stern sort of way. And Lord knows, I need the discipline.

I type in my destination, be it ocelot petting zoo or lava spitting volcano, and she guides me through all the hairpin turns and inexplicable detours of the Tico landscape.

I drove north from San Jose toward Volcan Poas, an active volcano that looms above the city like a curled fist. Last week it punched out a 6.2 earthquake, setting off landslides that further crippled the road network and killed more than two dozen. The volcano itself was wrapped in mist, and as I drove along it’s flanks I dodged bulldozers and cranes scrambling to clear the wreckage and mud.

Some vestigial journalistic urge bubbled up from below, suggesting that I go find some picturesque refugees huddling in their destroyed village. But the urge to profit from other people's misery isn't what it used to be. After an hour of driving through the muck and devastation, I turned around and settled on some out of focus leaves instead.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hornby Island, British Columbia II

Each day the forecast calls for clearing fog giving way to afternoon sun. For three days
running, the fog has had ideas of its own. Amanda says that red wine and prozac can get you through most any winter here, but I have my doubts. Hornby Island lies in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island's mountains, but I still count us lucky to have avoided three days of frigid, sideways rain.

Then again, I'm going scuba diving. In Canada. In January. What precisely am I worried about?

Each morning I join my boatmates for breakfast and meteorological grumbling, looking out the picture windows at the fog settling down on Hornby Island's small boat harbour. We drink coffee, we eat pancakes, we gather up our ge
ar and trudge down to the boat.

The twin 225hp engines seem like a little overkill for our five minute morning boat commute. Scuba diving is a gear-intensive pursuit in this climate, and we barely have time for all the strapping, grunting, zipping and insulating that we need to do before trundling across the deck and into the bracing sea. Some days go more smoothly than others. Yesterday I was seconds away from launching myself into the abyss with my zipper undone.

You'll have to trust me, with a dry suit in 45° water, it's worse than it sounds.

Most mornings, the sea lions hear the boat coming and are waiting for us, a seething, tumbling, barking ball of playful mayhem. We're diving in shallow water here, hardly deeper than swimming pool depth A tank of air lasts over an hour, plenty of time to (I) frolic with the sea lions and (II) track the onset and progressive loss of function due to hypothermia.

The former is a blast. I'd say more about the latter, but my lips stopped moving half an hour ago.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hornby Island, British Columbia

There’s a sea lion attached to my head, biting down just hard enough to get my undivided attention. Swarmed by a gang of adolescent pinniped delinquents, I feel like the new guy on his first day in prison.

We’re out on our first day diving with Rob and Amanda off Hornby Island, a small speck along the British Columbia idyllic coastline. Sheltered from the Pacific by Vancouver Island, the water is clear and cold, and filled with marine life.

Rob’s dad helped pioneer scuba diving in these waters, and they’ve explored the local waters for 37 years. A local colony of Steller’s Sea Lions calls a nearby set of rocks home for the winter months.
After sorting all of our gear, we drag scuba tanks, dry suits and a bewildering assortment of camera gear down to the dock and onto their aluminum 36-foot boat. From there, it’s all of five minutes to the sea lion colony.

My last scuba diving was in Cozumel, which seems a very long way away as I look around at the snow-covered mountains here. I put on heavyweight long underwear and the thickest wool socks I can find. Then another layer of heavy fleece overalls that are more than a little reminiscent of the union suit pajamas from the 50’s, only without the bunny slippers.

After that comes a dry suit of heavy coated nylon and latex, sort of like a radiation suit but not as flattering.
I strap on my scuba tank and another 30 pounds of lead for good measure, slip on my fins and goggles and shuffle across the deck and splash into the water with an audible gasp.

Feigning indifference to the mother of all ice cream headaches, I dive headfirst 30 feet down to the bottom and look around. Shadows appear at the edge of vision, and a swarm of sea lions appears, slowly approaching. They circle our small group at a wary distance, the boldest rushing past as if on a dare.
Sensing that we’re (I) harmless and (II) slow, clumsy, and defenseless, we seem to provide some entertainment value. They rush in closer to see if maybe we’re edible. too.

For the next hour, they tug and nip at fins, hands, cameras and heads. Several admire their reflection in my underwater camera’s glass dome before trying to swallow that, too.
They move through the water with astonishing grace and speed, and as I do my feeble little doggy paddle back to the boat, I’m more than a little jealous.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Road Trip, British Columbia, Canada

I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was Annie Liebovitch who said that photography is 10% creativity and 90% moving stuff around. Today was one of those 90% days.

Waking before dawn to one more morning of Northwest January soup, I chugged down a couple quarts of high test and started to assemble my cases. I’ve signed on with my friend Jon for a week of scuba diving in British Columbia, hoping to photograph a colony of threatened Steller’s Sea Lions along the British Columbia coast. While Canadian winter scuba diving ranks low on most vacation to-do lists, the Pacific here is clear if chilly.

Getting there sounded simple enough. Vancouver sits barely three hours north of Seattle, and BC Ferries offers connections throughout the coastal islands in even the bleakest winter months.

I lost count of the number of times I ran up and down the three flights of stairs separating my apartment from the truck, but the VW’s Teutonic suspension heaved an audible sigh as I piled in the last of my scuba and camera gear.

Heaving a happy if sweaty sigh of my own, I popped in a cd and merged onto the interstate heading north. Two hours to the border, then into Canada with barely a tap of the brakes and a ‘how’s it going ‘eh’ at the border. From there it was a simple matter of boarding the ferry to Vancouver Island for an hour and change, driving an hour north amid fog and logging trucks, wait as darkness falls to board another ferry to Denby Island, drive another long stretch of winding, snow-lined two-lane before catching one final ferry to Hornby Island, disembarking in fog and utter darkness for the last interminable backcountry push to the lodge.

Ten hours door to door, covering rather less than 200 miles.

Greeted by roast chicken and warm hospitality, I am singularly happy to stop moving. Just as soon as I drag all my gear inside.