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November 07, 2005

Paddling the Cricamola River

A few months ago, Abelardo's father went back home to his house in Nutibi. There is no work in the area at all, so we sent some seedling bags with him so that he could find seedlings in the jungle and start a little nursery. Nutibi is a little village on the Cricamola river, about 5 hours by boat from the closest town or road. The Cricamola river is quite pretty, and we were told there were lots of dangerous "remolinos" and rocks further upriver -- sounded worth exploring by kayak. So the purpose of our trip was twofold -- pick up hopefully 1200 seedlings, and do some whitewater paddling. Also, this was a chance for Abelardo to see his father again... he had not heard from him since the phone in Nutibi does not currently work.
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But let me back up... this adventure really started the night before. Some time in the afternoon, I realized I was a bit low on cash to pay for 1200 trees; so between that and a few other things, I decided to make a trip to town with its ATM, grocery stores, and halloween parties. Surely we would be back in time to get some sleep before leaving for Cricamola at 3am... Didn't happen. None of it. After dinner with Ed, we went to the Barco Hundido bar (aka the Wreck Deck, named after the wreck in about 3 feet of water that is illuminated at night). It got rather late. The drive back was a challenge... It was pitch dark, choppy, and all I had to go by was a tiny compass. So I did the usual strategy... get the direction, drive for a while, stop,  look back to see if town is in the right direction, and if so keep heading directly away from town, while also using the wave direction as a guide.  But unfortunately, I did not get it exactly right, and we missed the entrance through the mangrove... it took quite a while to find it. When we finally got back and got done packing, it was 3.30am, but neither Abelardo nor Emiliano or Ricarcito showed up... At 4.30, I decided to go get them, but it turned out that Emiliano was in Buena Esperanza, not at home, which explained why his phone was out of range. By the time I headed back, it had started raining, and I could literally see only one thing: a faint light in what I thought was the rough direction of my house, in an indeterminable distance. I am not counting the countless reflections from raindrops that were all I saw when turning on my flashlight...

So I headed to the light, was relieved that it was the house and I did not have to spend 3 hours in the dark in the rain in my bathing suit, and passed out in bed. No point in going in this weather anyway.

We finally left at 7.30 am, in the rain. It sucked. There had not been time to set the boat (42 ft dugout canoe) up properly, so EVERYTHING was damp and muddy. 300 empty sandy flour sacks, 20 plastic plant boxes, shovels, machetes, sandy wet rope, boards with nails sticking out, the bottom of the boat was wet and mudy and slippery, etc. Yuck. And I was picturing gliding through the night and waking up in a hammock to a beautiful sunrise over the water. Didn't happen. (I went back and forth between laughing and whining. Peeple of the wurl, relax! I had just read "Fierce invalids home from hot climates", and have to say I agree with End Of Time that laughing is the best thing to do).

Eventually we set up the hammock under a tarp and got a few hours of sleep, followed by a breakfast of sandwiches with roast beef and guacamole, and a brunch of ceviche we had brought along. At 11.00, we reached the mouth of the river; the level was quite high, about a foot below the famous phone booth on river left.

A few minutes up, we saw a woman sitting in a boat, and a pile of thatch leaves next to the boat. I have been trying to get seeds for this type of thatch for a while; they are the best roofing material around, and have been almost eliminated from the area. People ended up cutting down the palms to get to the tall leaves; a clearly unsustainable practice.

So we decided to stop, and asked if they would be able to get seeds or seedlings for us. I managed to amuse the local audience by seal launching my whitewater boat off the dugout to get to shore, and Alfonso, the woman's husband, and I walked back through the jungle to see if there were seeds. They were "Cerquita", at least for him, who managed to dance on the submerged roots like a mountain goat on steep hillsides. I fell a few times, but managed to not pick up any leeches... Eventually we found some seedlings and seeds, an agreed that he would round up some people and obtain as much as he could until tomorrow afternoon.

Back at the boat, it turned out that the woman's name was Anayansi, which prompted Emiliano to say that that was his sister-in-law's name. Strangely enough, these two Anayansis turned out to be sisters... clearly evidenced by the fact that this Anayansi knew that her sister was married to this "big moreno guy" who refused to pick up her father in Almirante the week before. (Which is another story... The other Anayansi had not seen her father in 10 years, and he was going to come visit, but showed up unannounced and there was no space for him in the small boat. Not understanding the dangers of the ocean, he was upset that Anayansi's husband had to leave him behind...). Emiliano gave them a small barracuda we had caught on the way to the river.

In a  little while I will head over to the caretaker house and show Anayansi the picture of her sister; she has not seen her in 10 years at least, so I am curious if she will recognize her.

But back to the adventure... We made it to the first town, Bisira, without problems, and continued on to Nutibi. After getting stuck in shallow water in one of the rapids, we decided to follow the experienced water bus driver. Our boat was slower than the water bus, and in one rapid we were literally inching our way forward. Emiliano has gotten amazingly good at driving in rivers. In one rapid, he used the hole behind a tree stump to gather momentum and then push through the fast current beside it. Impressive. We were right upstream from a nasty tree strainer; had the engine cut out unexpectedly, we would have lost the boat and had to swim for our lives. But none of this happened, and we made it to Nutibi just fine.

Here, it turned out that Anselmo (Abelardo's father, the one with the seedlings) had moved out of town to his farm, which was a 1.5 hour walk away. Instead of sending one person, our three worker friends decided to go all three, without even letting us know... So I spend half an hour asking around for them, and learned about the location of Anselmo's new home. Eventually, the three guys came back, exhausted, and reported there were only 400 seedlings to be picked up, and many of them not planted in bags.

So we decided to hike to Canquintu, about one hour upstream the same day, with the kayaks, spend the night there, and then hike further the next day, and paddle down to Bisira. The guys, meanwhile, were supposed to load the plants into the boat, drive to Bisira, and then load the boat with rocks for ballast (we can always use rocks at the farm).

We spent the night at Cedeno's house in Canquintu. His wife cooked dinner for us, and we realized where Anayansi learned to cook her signature dish, "chicken surprise" after we were served this for the 5th time in a row. Anyway -- Cedeno had a little church under his house, which is where we piled up our whitewater gear for the night. The next day, we started hiking. There are trails on both sides of the river, but Cedeno recommended the one on river right. The trail was clean, but muddy and somewhat challnenging, at least with kayaks on our backs. It was good to have Cedeno along to help us carry the gear.
After about half an hour, we came to a fork; the left leads to Rio Cana (3 hours to the river, than one day paddling); we took the right, which followed the river. After about an hour, we came to the rock that Cedeno had described to us the night before... he said it was shaped like a woman lying down. We had not thought much of it, but it turned out to be very interesting. It actually contained some parallel, curved lines that someone had carved. Cedeno said it had always been there, and nobody knows where it came from. I asked if anyone had ever investigated it (for example, someone from the university in Panama) but he said no -- few people know it's there. He also mentioned that they frequently find pieces of pottery and figurines in the area.


About two hours later, we reached a cattle farm on river left, and decided to not go any further. Supposedly, the trail continues for 3 days; reaching Piedra Roja in 2 days and finally connecting to a road in Chirriqui. At our put in, the rapids were only class II; we would have to go much further up to get to interesting whitewater. It seems like the way to do this would be to drive to Chirriqui and then hike down from there.

The paddle was uneventful; for a while we joined a couple of kids in a dugout canoe who were taking firewood to Canquintu. We traded paddles and found out that whitewater paddles don't work well in dugouts and that single bladed dugout paddles are even worse for short playboats. Good way to practice the J-stroke...


We stopped in Canquintu; it's definitely the nicest town in the province, which is amazing given that it is so far from the road system. Manicured lawns, trash cans, etc/ Incredible. We bought some local chocolate (25 cents per 1/4 lb ball) and sealed a deal with Cedeno for him to get some more seedlings for us. We continued on to Nutibi, where we stopped briefly to grab a handful of grapefruit and an interesting new fruit that we had just learned about, called "Petate" in spanish in "Odob'a" in Guaymi. It looks like Cacao, but fatter, the texture is similar, but it tastes like Papaya and smells like Durian. Yuck. Still, good to have...

In Bisira, we met up with the guys in the boat, who had had a very scary moment driving down from Nutibi... The current grabbed them when the motor cut out and they hit a tree trunk, doing some temporary damage to Abe's back and some permanent but easily repaired damage to the boat.

The guys had been unable to get permission to pick up rocks since the Cacique was not there; so we continued with an almost empty boat, to the meeting point for thatch seeds and seedlings. We got 3 sacks of seeds and about 50 more seedlings; enough for hopefully about 1000 palms.
Cold, hungry, exhausted, and tired, we arrived back home at around 10pm.

The puppies were fine -- always a relief. They seemed to have inherited their bizarre sleeping poses from their father.

Anayansi did not recognize her sister in the picture... and seemed completely indifferent to us having run into her. She did confirm that she has a sister with the same name who lives around there, though.

Posted by rick at November 7, 2005 10:05 AM

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