Thursday, August 28, 2014

Costa Rica: Rainforest hiking in snake country

The verdant rainforest of Refugio La Marta.

Story and photos by Elliott Almond

REFUGIO LA MARTA, Pejibaye, Costa Rica -- Walking in a slick rainforest can be challenging in the best of circumstances.
Gingerly stepping over gooey, chocolate mud-soaked paths on the western slopes of the Talamanca Mountains is terrifying when traveling alone.
Lurking behind tree roots, branches and emerald fallen leaves are perilous snakes called fer-de-lance. These fearless reptiles seem happy enough to sample human flesh just for the sake of it. Hikers must not only carefully traverse the gutted pathway to stay upright, but keep vigilant guard against aggressive serpents that grow up to six feet in length and blend into the terrain like a harmless twig.
Such is the aura of fear when communing among the epiphytes, mosses, lichens, bromeliads and orchids in the arbol wonderland of this 3,750-acre reserve that protects the La Marta, Atirro and Gato river basins.
Tucked into the deepest corner of the Orosi Valley, the cloud
forests cling to the wet, humid ridges that rise to the heavens some 6,400 feet above sea level. With 180 inches of annual rainfall, the lush, biodiverse forest attracts stately mammals such as jaguars, ocelots and pumas.
The jaguar sits atop the triangle as king of this jungle. Still, I’d much prefer staring down a jaguar than suffer a surprise attack from a fer-de-lance.
Experts say the pit viper is not aggressive, just defensive. That's splitting scales if you're the one bitten for simply interrupting its perceived solitude. The fer-de-lance is responsible for half the bites in the Americas. The damn thing can be found from southern Mexico to the verdant north of South America, and has migrated to human populations to feast on growing rat populations.
It’s a given the fertile jungles of the tropics are filled with snakes. Costa Rica alone has more than 120 varieties, 18 of which are venomous. None are as fearsome as Tericoplo, as Ticos call the fer-de-lance. The creature can open its deadly mouth 180 degrees before sinking inch-long fangs into its victims. Let's see Dracula try that.
The fer-de-lance is the centerpiece of terror in the jungle though I’m told everything in nature serves a purpose. Here are some unpleasant facts: The fer-de-lance -- French for spearhead -- injects on average 105 milligrams of venom in a single bite. A fatal dose for humans is about 50 milligrams. The snake rarely withholds its poison when striking whatever it has targeted. It’s the kind of animal that would join a crazy terrorist cult.
Victims don’t have much time to write their wills after an attack. The venom causes swelling and blisters as it flows through the blood cells, destroying tissue along its path. The area of the bite can become infected, leading to amputation and/or a coffin.
Fortunately, Costa Rican physicians are well-equipped to handle bites because they deal with them so frequently. But time is against a lone hiker, who would have little chance of surviving an attack in such a remote location as La Marta.
Perhaps that is why the ranger, Carlos, kept asking me for a cell phone number. I was the only visitor to the reserve one August midweek day. The lone ranger was feeling a little uneasy sending a foreigner into a death trap.
“Keep your eyes on the ground and always look ahead,” he advised.
OK. But it’s difficult enough to navigate the treacherous trail much less scanning 20 feet ahead simultaneously. After a while, I mastered the technique of eyeballing my surroundings with robotic consistency. Eyes side to side, down, ahead. Repeat.
It just seems so futile. Pit vipers can sense the approach of a warm-blooded mammal with a unfair detection system that senses a change in body temperature. It has ample time to prepare its ambush on an unsuspecting hiker who has no intention of harming or encountering the snake. The brown coloring also allows it to blend into the surrounding making it difficult to spot to prevent an attack.
The best defense, then, is luck.
Another snake to avoid is the bushmaster, the world's largest viper that grows up to 12 menacing feet. Here’s a cheery thought: According to some reports, 80 percent of bite victims die, including those receiving antivenom treatment. Alas, bushmasters seemingly try to avoid human contact while living in the remotest of jungle, and as a result, they are not nearly the threat of their predatory cousin fer-de-lance.
The deeper I walked into La Marta’s heart of darkness, the more
vulnerable I felt. By the time Carlos would realize I was in serious trouble it would already have been too late to carry me out on a stretcher and then fly me by helicopter to a San Jose hospital that has antivenom.
Then as if a light switch had been employed, I was splattered by rain, turning the already soggy turf into a squishy mess. It made the experience all the more nerve-racking. It doesn’t help matters knowing that failing to see a snake is no assurance of safety. Many other creepers silently cling to their small piece of real estate until suddenly disturbed.
Descending the slippery and steep rudimentary trails must be achieved without the benefit of bracing oneself on a welcoming tree. The first rule of the tropical rainforest is to never grab any handy limb or vine to help prevent a fall. The seemingly benign branch could be home to poisonous spiders, scorpions and camouflaged snakes patiently waiting for any life form to breach the sanctuary.
It becomes a particularly daunting exercise when encountering a branch hanging across the path like an overpass. Hikers must get down the steep pitch while ducking underneath the branch or, with room, bypassing it. Just never brush it aside as if hiking where plants are plants and animals don't look like tree bark while waiting to pounce.
Soloists face further disadvantages in a locale where the more eyes the better. One must always watch before stepping. But she or he also needs to peer upward, too. Firstly, wonderful animals silently live in the canopy. Hikers won't see the sloths and kinkajous with heads down, eyes scanning the horizon on snakewatch.
Secondly, it's important to know what’s above. Namely, a wasp's nest suspended 50 feet above. Those who talk too loud or linger too long below the nest will experience the full wrath of these armed-and-loaded bugs. They often are called deer wasps because of their Usain Bolt speed. They can chase down a galloping deer with weapons fully engaged.
Fortunately, my half day of cloud forest communion in La Marta proved tranquil all things considered. But upon my return, Carlos’ face suggested I had escaped some kind of peril.
He wore the look of relief.