I have now reached the final push in deploying cameras in the canopy. I’m sitting at in the library of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station near Yasuní National Park after placing cameras in six Ficus trees spread across the trails near the research facility. I’ve also got cameras running at the Yasuní Research Station, two hours up the river, where I’ll return to set up a few more cameras later this week.
The past few days have involved a lot of climbing, most of which has been in trees I had never climbed before. The canopy habitat is dynamic, changing frequently as storms weaken structures and animals move in and out of their homes. Because of this, even on familiar trees, every climb is new to some extent, but I tend to find the first ascent of a new tree holds the most surprises, delightful or otherwise.
I was particularly excited to climb one of the trees at Tiputini, partly because it was big and seemed like it would offer a nice view and a refreshing breeze at the top (neither of which turned out to be true), but mostly because on a previous trip I’d spent a solid four hours over two days trying to set up a line that would allow me to pull my rope up this tree.
After a previous encounter with ants in a Ficus tree in Malaysia, I have been on ant alert in every tree here in Ecuador. Fortunately, this first climb turned out to be lengthy but uneventful — until I returned back to the ground to find my line covered in ants with a nasty bite. As I packed up my gear I plucked, flicked, and smashed in every direction until I was free of them. Later in the day, I found some of their heads still clinging on, their jaws latched to my skin.
The ants found my stuff on the ground while I was in the tree. Some ants will scatter when you start shanking things off. These ones stuck around to fight.
Under the completely false pretense that the worst of the day was behind me, I moved on to the next tree.
When setting up a rope in a tree, I always perform a bounce test – basically pulling on the rope as hard as possible in order to see how sturdy it is. I heard a little bit of crackling, which is normal since there are often small vines and lianas in the way, but when I actually clipped my gear onto the rope and started climbing, small crackles turned into a loud crack, and I dropped a few feet on my setting.
I quickly got off the rope to find that a fairly sizable and live branch had broken completely off, but had fortunately gotten caught on another branch below it, instead of squishing me into the forest floor. I ended up climbing up the other side to push the branch the rest of the way to the ground, which I have to admit was pretty fun. It satisfies a combination of your destructive toddler instinct to knock over towers of blocks as well as that impulse that makes you spit when you look over the railing of a bridge or observation deck (which, let’s be honest, extends well past toddlerhood).Watching a giant branch crash to the ground when I was safely out of the way. The sobering realization of how narrowly I escaped disaster didn’t completely hit me until I stood next to the branch.
After clearing the branch out of the way, I started back up my rope again, but only made it a few feet. When I climb, I use a technique that allows me to go up and down without having to change much of my gear. It’s not the most efficient way to go up, but I can get down in a hurry if I need to. This, it turned out, was one of those times. A small, smooth mound that I hadn’t even noticed until now turned out to be a wasp nest. I had gotten just close enough to disturb them and they were coming after me, stinging me on my ears, hands and neck.
A primate researcher from the station had recounted a story of a young spider monkey poking his face into a similar nest and darting away at top speed. I did not have this option. I went down as quickly as my rope would allow, and they followed me until I was well out of their domain.
I called it quits for the day, and went back to the station to nurse my bruised feelings with some coffee and Oreos.
I joke about the hazards involved, how ill-equipped we humans are to be up in the trees. I complain about discomfort. But days like today remind me that this is actually dangerous, that all the safety training I’ve gone through is for a good reason. When the forest throws everything at you, it can be overwhelming, even discouraging. And then it rewards you.
The tree I was climbing was right next to a stream and its branches provided a nice crossing for a group of woolly monkeys on their way to their sleeping site. They were cautious, but ultimately unperturbed by me as they made their way past me. Apologies for the shaky camera work – it’s only as stable as my head is.
After giving up on the wasp tree, I relocated to another smaller, less interesting-looking tree close to the station. It was a short, stable-branched, insect-free climb, and when I got to the top I saw branches in every direction reaching to neighboring trees. Perfect for my cameras. While sitting up in the tree I heard some rustling and cooing and looked across the tree crown to see a woolly monkey staring right back at me. Seeing animals in the tree is not a terribly common occurrence – I’m loud, I’m slow, and I’m usually out in the worst times of day for wildlife viewing – so it was a nice end to a rough few days.
I’m tired. It has been a long week, a long month, a long year. It’s hard to believe that I’m almost done. Even though the end is in sight; I definitely have to stay focused; the work I chose demands it.
Ecologist, conservationist and National Geographic Young Explorer Kevin McLean is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship in some of the world’s wildest places. He is using motion-sensitive camera traps to report on rainforest canopy wildlife in two of the most biodiverse areas of the planet: Amazonian Ecuador and Malaysian Borneo.