In the Beginning
In 1999 my wife and I made our first trip to the rainforest. My friend Steve told me about this cool reserve on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica called Rara Avis. He told me that the station manager, Twan Leenders, was a cool laid back guy who knew his herps. I distinctly remember that trip. I remember the feel of the humid tropical air as we got off the plane. I felt as if I were exploring the deep jungles of a third world country. Soon after arriving we were on a rickety bus twisting over the mountains through Braulio Carillo national park. The drivers ignored lane markings weaving and passing as they pleased. The dashboard instrument lights flashed and the driver banged on the console to get them working. A gasoline tanker truck precariously passed us into oncoming traffic. I saw waterfalls gushing down the shear rock cliff faces and across the road. The smell of diesel fumes, rotting vegetation, and too much perfume from the woman behind me mixed into an unforgettable experience. I met Twan and agreed with Steve. My wife, Beth, and I saw our first snake, a 7′ neotropical bird-eating snake (Pseustes poecilonotus), and it bluffed while we alternately charged each other. All the while my wife yelling, “is it poisonous?” and me yelling back I didn’t know. A little later we saw a small coral snake crossing the ‘road’ and we spent a death defying 5 minutes trying to coax the thrashing creature into a small snake bag without getting bitten or hurting the creature. We returned to the dining hall to proudly show Twan my expert skills. Twan looked into the bag and calmly stated, “cool”. He then reached in the bag and pulled out a very relaxed and harmless coral mimic, the shovel-toothed snake (Scaphiodontophis annulatus). I was dejected that I neither cheated death nor knew my snakes. But I was hooked.
The next year I took a GreenTracks trip to Peru and met Bill Lamar. Bill is well known in neo-tropical herpetology and I discovered that there were hundreds of species of frogs, snakes, lizards, and other creatures that I needed to see and photograph. Bill exposed me to about 60 species of frogs and a few snakes that first trip. I learned the rain forests were not like they are portrayed in adventure books and movies. There are not snakes dripping from every vine. Jaguars, anacondas, and death are not waiting at every turn. Instead I found forests alive with every sort of little creature you could imagine. What seemed to be an overwhelming world of green was actually endless little universes and lives playing out. Plants and insects were at war with each other. Little frogs hid in the leaf litter and the snakes, when you could find them, disappeared just as quickly as they appeared. Birds of every color flitted through the trees and occasionally an exotic mammal drifted through. This was the stuff of National Geographic.
I have made many more trips with Twan and Bill. They have taught me a great deal and I consider them good friends and mentors. Since those first trips I have read many books and studied a great deal about rainforest ecology. I found that writings, when directed to the public, often add a lot of drama or inflated danger. There is much published in the scientific literature but it is often dry or lacking feeling. I hope to bridge these two extremes by highlighting the adventure without sensationalizing the experiences. I want to teach what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) and hope that with my photos and stories, give a greater understanding of the world around and under us, and show the important need to protect these unsung animals.
Since my first trip I’ve made about a dozen returns to Costa Rica and covered much of the country. It’s funny looking back at how little I knew then – both about neo-tropical natural history and herp photography. The country itself is easy to get around, the people are wonderful, and it is, for better or worse, developed much like the US. It has it’s wild places and more than it’s share of wonderful creatures. It was a fantastic introduction to travel and nowhere near as wild or dangerous as I first felt. Hopefully, I can convince some of you to get out and see what is out ‘there’. Whether in your urban backyards, state parks, or the wilds of the Amazon, people really need to see and experience the world around them. How else can we protect it if we don’t know about the people, places, and animals that surround us?