learning through the school of hard-knocks

I really am new to this blogging business and it shows from the fact that I spent the last 3 hours typing up the first 4 action packed days  but am now with nothing to show for it. More thoughtful words lost to the abyss of cyber space… What gets me about these situations is not only that my time was now squandered but that I had everything outlined and worded in an eloquent way that I was happy with. I know I will not be able to recreate what I had. pout, grrrrh, ahhHHH.

Anyway, now that you know how and why I am here in the rain forest (in more detail than you may like) I will try my best to now re-retell the days events of the first week.

Miercoles 8 de junio de 2011 (Wed. June 8 )

One cannot talk about a night in the rain forest of El Yunque without some mention of the tranquil sounds the dark produces – http://www.mobiles24.com/downloads/s/64471-3-el_coqui-puerto_rico_frog this 15 sec soundbite plays to me sleep looped, every night in real time. It is tranquil to say the least.

We had to meetup at 8 in the conference room. On my way out of the mc to the kitchen I passed an elaborate spiderweb. I ran back to grab my camera and got a few shots of a neat looking pair of mating spiders. We went over some more paperwork logistical stuff . Afterwards Chris gave us a proper tour of the field station and its facilities. I learned that the historic dorms I am staying in were build in the late 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and all of the 8-9  offices and rooms in the main building are built off of a single original room with reinforced concrete walls and no windows. The room hails from the 1940s and was used as a bunker of sorts for a radiation experiment. After learning some rules and regs. we were given 3 hours to make lunch and read over out protocol – 33 pages of protocol! I made it for a while but ended up falling asleep on one of the benches in the kitchen.

After out 10-1 “break” Jill (one of the project directors from Scotland who has been working on the project since 1994) along with Chris and Alejandro started to go over the protocol in more depth. We were forced to finish at 4  as the conference room is the stage of a weekly speaker series every Wed. at 4:00. We all stuck around to listen to Dr. Chaco from Georgia University talk about his studies in benthic ecology. Benthic ecology is the study of things from the bottom and looks at the small critters on the bottoms of streams, rivers lakes and marine systems and how they affect other aspects of the system. Basically its the “circle of life” starting at the bottom. Anyway it was a great talk and I look forward to attending the rest in the coming weeks.

After a day of protocol and rules the 5 of us were antsy to get out and do some exploring. So I grabbed my camera and we headed down to the main road in search of a parrot sanctuary we had heard about. On our way down the long drive we ran into Alejandro and told him our intentions. He told us of an awesome waterfall we should not miss on the way. Given that we are on the side of a mountain, a journey is either up hill or down. In this case it was all uphill but scenic none the less. We passed over a rushing mountain river (which we later learned was just a lower part of the river we were headed to, aptly named Espiritu Santo http://www.puertorico.com/blog/exploring-espiritu-santo-river ) as well as grand stands of bamboo, all while under the cover of large tree ferns and Cecropia leaves larger than dinner plates. Mark and I walked slower than rest so we ended up behind the other 3, we discussed our recent schooling, past experiences and future plans. Interestingly we had both applied for many of the same positions across the country. An hour and half later the sound of flowing water directed us to turn off the quiet dirt road and down a steep footpath. After slipping and sliding down the steep muddy path, the ground opened to large strewn mountain boulders framing cool and clear water. Alejandro did not let us down. The thick canopy was held at bay by the waters and stone, allowing us to view wispy clouds scuttling across blue sky. The circumference of the clearing of course was a thick green palisade of trees and foliage.  We were warm and sweaty but the site was something to see! The water stumbled and fell for as far up river as we could see, but where we were the water was given a chance to sit for a bit before it was hurried down stream in its march to the sea. I jokingly mentioned “well i’m going in” to which Rachel quickly responded “me too” before I could respond she was swimming across the enticing pool to the rocks adjacent to the falls… I was left bound to my words. I tucked my camera bag between some rocks, got down to my skivvy’s and made sure my iphone was secure in my folded Boy Scout shorts. The water felt great but the air temp and humidity felt better than any blanket against my wet body. The swim was short, but I was content. If I wasn’t sold on PR I was now!

The trek back to the station was short , and the road was just as quite as before  apart from a hard core middle aged American couple peddling up hill with their diversely assorted pack of dogs faithfully trotting alongside. I was tired by the time we got back but made a stew consisting mostly of malanga(a tuberous root similiar to a potato), carrot, onion,potato and a ripped pieces of a few burger patties that had been sitting out on the table. The stew was a bit bland despite my continuous haphazard addition of spices. Nevertheless it was satisfying.

Jueves 9 de junio de 2011 

Jill started the day at 8am with some history on the big grid as well as information on other research projects conducted at the site. After the lecture we began our first day in the field. Jill started to teach us how identify some of the more common trees we would run into while censusing. We learned 26 of the 130 total species. We headed back to the station for lunch and I finished my leftover malanga stew (This tuberous stew and my purchasing primarily tubers on the first day landed me the nickname “tuber” which I do actually respond to). In the afternoon we headed back to the field and learned how to implement the techniques we learned in our protocol.

After the work day was complete the 5 of us were antsy to relive yesterdays adventure. We headed back up the main road but stopped much sooner than the  day prior. The bridge and section of Espiritu Santo that it spanned looked perfect for exploring. Soon we were clambering every which way over large strewn mountain boulders. Rachel headed up a small path adjacent to the river and I followed. Soon after her, Liza and I were atop a grassy opening with a large but narrow waterfall to you left, a treacherous stony gourge bellow and Mark and Ed to the right but even further down yet. It wasn’t long and Rachel was off again heading even further up hill. At one point we crouched through a small rock cavern which ended with a straight vertical ascent to the lush canopy above. After popping out like rabbit we continued out upward ascent utilizing hanging vines like climbing ropes and roots like handles on a playground. It wasn’t long until we saw no point in continuing so we turned around and headed back down more or less on our butts. When we were all safely back on the bridge Ed pointed us to the source of some elusive trumpet playing. It was a lady below the bridge playing as loud as she could, only to be continually beaten out be the torrent of the waterfall. It was beautiful regardless.

After dinner we learned that our industrial sized refrigerator (filled to the brim) was no longer keeping our food cold despite the fans running. Everyone relocated their most perishable food items to various other refrigerators around the station. Afterwards 4 of us studied our plant ID materials. Liza got a good portion of them even though she had her back to us and was playing guitar. As long as the fridge was out, I decided to eat one of my three varieties of mango I had purchased from the roadside vendor. I didn’t bother washing the skin. Soon afterwards I was talking with Joey in one of the few spots in the parking area that got cell reception. I started to feel sick. I took a shower and went to bed but didn’t fall asleep for another 2 hours due to my relentless stomach pains. Needless to say I now wash all my fruits and veggies and have not had a mango since.

Viernes 10 de junio de 2011 

Today marked the first day actually in the “big grid” which will be where we do all our censusing and where we will be spending our days for the remainder of the summer. The grid is about a 10 minute trek through the rain forest and across a suspended bridge. Along the way Jill taught us how to ID even more trees effectively doubling our tree knowledge base. Jill also took the time to show us the different land use areas and tell us more about the history of the area. We walked the full length of the big grid. Once at the end Alejandro took us to a large pit maybe 4 0r 5 ft wide and 6-7 ft long. I don’t recall how deep the pit is but it is all light colored clay and filled with rain water to the point that you cant see the bottom. Here we ate our lunch and then headed straight back to the station. A .5 hour walk compared to the 4.5 hour walk it took us to get there.
Once back at the station we cleaned up and then all gathered around some picnic tables to ID leaf samples that Chris and Alejandro had collected throughout the day. In the end we got 4 out of the 50 samples wrong. Not bad, bring on the weekend!
Our first trip to the big grid was followed but our first trip to civilization. Jill and Jess (another long researcher and director of the big grid) treated us to drinks at a fun surf bar located right on the ocean In Luquillo. I had a few Medallas (PR’s premier light beer and well pretty much only beer available. Interestingly it comes in 10oz cans so that none of the U.S. brewery’s can ever produce it)  and bought myself a mahi mahi wrap. After admiring the ocean at dusk, Seth (another grad student who was involved in the 2005 tree census) and Alejandro brought us to the kioskos which are a line of little storefronts – mostly restaurants open on both ends – the back opens up to ocean. At one kiosk I purchased a fried plantain filled with fried ground beef and what looked like cheese whiz on top paired with a Medalla to wash it down. We went through one more upscale seafood restaurant type  kiosk to the ocean on the other side. After wadding in the warm water and talking for a while we headed back and called it a night (but not before bottoming out Seth’s little Mitsubishi sedan on the hill up to the station…We walked the rest of the way).


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Krista James on June 19, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Keep the blogs coming. Very interesting. Reminds me of my experience in Barro Colorado Island, Panama. We did they EXACT same thing. ID’d all trees greater than 1cm.


    • Ah it all is coming together now! http://www.ctfs.si.edu/ (if you go to this site you will see what I mean) last week Dr. Thompson our Associate Director gave a presentation on the project. She mentioned that our work was part of global network of tropical research called the Center for Tropical Forest Science. It is all run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute which has its “home base” in Panama and more specifically Barro Colorado Island. The ctfs is all standardized so basically we are working on the same project just in different locations and time periods. Thats pretty ironic!


  2. Posted by Emily on June 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Loving your blog so far Mark! And don’t apologize for the detail because it makes me feel like I was there, rather than reading it from my desk in River Falls! Also, while your fridge may be a lost cause, fridges are the most efficient when are kept 3/4 full. Just a little info from your food science friend. Sounds like your trip is a blast and keep the blogs coming!


    • Thanks for the positive feedback Krank! The fridge ended up pulling through but I appreciate the knowledge. I can tell you that fridge is overloaded to the max and its really a wonder its still around… What are you up to at a desk in River Falls?


  3. Posted by Emily on June 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Well currently I am completely jealous of your adventure, but will settle just to read about it. But really I am finishing up my internship so officially graduate in August. I work at FiberStar, which as the name implies means we make fiber but think not so much dietary needs as it works as an ingredient in foods for specific purposes such as to replace eggs in muffins or replace fat in ice cream. Next week I’ll be in Florida to visit the companies plant and take samples and run tests so it will be nice to get out of the office. Keep the great adventure stories coming and stay safe!


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