Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Canoe Adventure Down the Red River

I've had a long-standing fascination with rivers. Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, rivers were the highways. Rivers were everything from water sources to geo-political boundaries, travel thoroughfares to critical commerce lines. Since time began really, as far back in human history as we can study, rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates were basically the most critical component of human development and progress. But we live in a different world now, where rivers – although still important – have taken a backseat to other modes of transportation and commerce. What remains are the ghosts of a fascinating era. The Red River that slices through the Ark-La-Tex is no exception.

For a long stretch of it’s history, the Red River was held hostage by something called The Great Raft, a monstrous river obstruction of driftwood that blocked the river 165 miles in varying sizes and depths. Its removal has to be one of the most unheralded demolition projects in American history. You can read about it at this link: http://www.caddohistory.com/great_raft.html. The Great Raft had been in place for so long, the native Caddo Indians simply said that it had always been there, through thousands of years of oral Caddo history! It’s ultimate removal took the better part of the 19th Century, but it was spear-headed and made possible by Captain Henry Shreve, which of course where Shreveport gets its name. The affect of The Great Raft was so widespread I can’t write it all, but it’s vast and lengthy – everything from the birth of bayou boomtowns like Jefferson, Texas, to a multi-million dollar cotton trade – all were affected by The Great Raft.

That brings me to the whole point of this post: my canoe trip down the Red River in my refurbished canoe, the Donna Lynne. For a long time, I’ve wanted to spend a long day on the Red River. (I'd done a short trip before in an inflatable boat with my friend Matt Keim.) I guess in part this trip was fueled by my desire to take a epic river journey one day which of course was inspired by Lewis & Clark.  I decided to set sail south from a Red River crossing in Hosston, Louisiana, (about 10 miles from the Arkansas border) and head south toward Shreveport. I guesstimated that with a little luck and a tail wind that I could at least make it near Shreveport before the sun went down. Early in October, the perfect weather forecast came along and I couldn’t help myself. I enlisted Donna’s help, who despite having to arise at 6 a.m. got me and her namesake, the Donna Lynne, delivered to the boat ramp in Hosston. Donna snapped this pictures before I took off down the river. I decided not to take my dog Hart. Even though he loves canoeing, I was afraid his endless exuberance at every passing furry creature and his added weight would slow me down entirely too much for this trip. You can see in the photos he was not happy about being left behind. He even chased me down the river a short ways before Donna called him back. The morning broke bright and clear and I set off into the morning light. It was sublime watching the river awake as I embarked on my short journey. 

Although the beginning of the trip was beautiful, it quickly turned from an adventure into a painful, laborious, arm-wrenching struggle. This happened for two reasons. First, the weather forecast called for a slight breeze from the north. Instead, what I got was a stiff breeze which always came from whichever direction I happened to be paddling. The only thing I can attribute this meteorological oddity to is that the river channel itself serves likes a wind tunnel, funneling whatever wind there is up or down the river. (In this case up.) My heavy canoe quickly turned into a sail spinning me around and blowing me upstream. I spent half the trip sitting in the front of the boat and paddling backward. The other factor that contributed to this unfortunate event was extremely low river levels. What this meant is that I only occasionally managed to maneuver into a flowing stream of water. The rest of the approximately 35 mile trip was spent paddling across essentially a lake on a windy day.

That of course is not to say I did not encounter some wildlife. At one point I passed within about ten feet of a big chubby beaver sitting on the bank. He gave me curious stare as I paddled by. I saw numerous birds and fish, as well as the occasional turtle. The Red River above Shreveport is sparsely populated.  Almost the entirely of the day I did not see any human beings. Of course the low water levels kept powered boats off the water so the entire day I had the river to myself.

In retrospect, I would make this trip next time in a one-man kayak.  The problem I kept running into from a navigational standpoint was that I was relegated to simply guessing where the deepest channel was. Needless to say, more than once I got it wrong and ended up grounding the heavy canoe, then had to backtrack upstream and try again. This ate up precious daylight - which ended up costing me later, not to mention the extreme physical toll on my arms. 

By 2 p.m. I stopped for lunch on a beach. 

The Donna Lynne, docked for lunch

It was apparent by this point that my mission was in jeopardy. The slow current and headwinds were simply too much to overcome. Even by this point of the day, my arms were burning with soreness from the paddling. The next five hours would simply be five of the most miserable hours I’ve ever spent in a canoe. Mindless, painful, paddling that droned on and on. At one point I even stood up in the canoe, not wanting to concede the time it would take to stop and stretch my back. In the most awkward moment of the trip, which would have made me look like a crazy person to any one passing by, I laid a paddle across the canoe, leaned back against it and and splayed my legs out forward across the bow. At that point I was doing anything I could to relieve the back pain and cramped legs. Somewhere along the way I snapped this self portrait. 

I could have exited the river at Cash Point Landing, but mistakenly (and hard-headedly) believed I could push on to my final destination near Samstown Casino in downtown Shreveport before dark. About two miles past Cash Point it became obvious I had made the wrong decision and called Donna and asked her to meet me upriver from the casino, officially conceding defeat. I had been on the water for twelve hours and had been out of the canoe a grand total of about twenty minutes. Donna met me (with Hart) in a gated community where we drug the canoe up a steep slope and using every last ounce of engery I had, we managed to get the canoe on top of my car. I was literally unable to lift my arms above shoulder level once my muscles tightened up. Donna snapped this nice pic of me after she saved me from the river.

 Like Apollo 13, my journey down the Red River was a successful failure. It was successful in the sense that I quit talking about doing it and actually did it.  It went from something I was going to do to something I did, which is a surprisingly empowering idea that many people do not fully understand nor appreciate. And it was successful because I gained a basic knowledge of that stretch of the river. It was a failure in the sense that I did not make it all the way back to Shreveport. (Instead of the 42 or so miles, I only made it about 35.) But the urge to explore and persevere never really fades away, so I’m pretty sure I will accomplish this goal one day. All I have to do is wait for a favorable wind, a strong current, and get my hands on a kayak…

Until the next adventure! 

Friday, October 12, 2012

A True Adventure: Costa Rica!

What I have always loved about traveling is that it forces you to realize that you have stereotypes in your mind about every place in the world. You don’t think you do, but you do. When you travel somewhere your perception is usually changed - immediately shaped by the intricate details of the human experience like smells, sounds, sights, and flavors. They are things a photo will never do. The 4D human experience is irreplaceable.

I made the decision to go to Costa Rica with the Methodist Church about eight months ago. My dad had been on this same trip five or so years earlier and encouraged me to go. I grew up in the Methodist church and while in college attended the First United Methodist Church in San Angelo. I still have many friends there and so when they announced they were returning to Costa Rica for a mission trip, I decided to tag along.

I would be remiss if I didn't first mention the amazing group that I traveled with. It was an incredible assortment of like-minded individuals who put their talents and hearts to good use on this journey. Almost all of the group was from the First United Methodist Church in San Angelo. While I was in Costa Rica I had the honor of publishing a blog specifically created for this mission trip. To avoid telling the same stories again and reposting the same pictures, I'm simply going to include that link here: 


I encourage you to take a second and read this blog first. It will highlight more specifically our mission and the people involved in this good work. 

Now...onto San Jose! We flew into San Jose at night. I sat next to a man named Glenn Karlindsey who worked for Carghill Agriculture. He shared some insights as to the culture of Costa rica and what to expect. San Jose is in a geographic bowl and Glenn told us that often times the city was shrouded in clouds and inclement weather which forces go-rounds. He said once on a flight they got diverted to Panama after several attempts at landing and he spent the night in Panama City.

We descended through a thick bank of clouds and then much to my relief, broke through and saw the lights of San Jose. The airport and customs was the usual clutter of travelers and bags, only to be accosted by a mob of salesmen and tour guides when we exited the airport. The evening air was cool, relative to the steamy Louisiana summer nights I was used to.

We drove from the airport in a bus, winding our way through the crowded streets. I have traveled enough in Latin America to understand the insanity of the traffic – and the rule that all traffic signals are merely suggestions.

We eventually arrived at our accommodations for the week - the Methodist seminary in San Jose, dorm style living that was perfect for me.  A bed, a meal, and a shower. That’s all I’ve ever needed to make my traveling experience perfect. Ray Zirkel, the local director of the Methodist church, greeted us at the sidewalk and hosted us.

However, I did not sleep well the first night. Some research has suggested that traveling actually releases dopamine in the brain, just like a real addiction. This would explain why the night before I travel somewhere I rarely sleep. I have never in my entire life missed a flight because I overslept – even when I had less than two hours of sleep. The night before we left for Costa Rica I got four hours of sleep, and our first night in Costa Rica I got another four hours of sleep.

We awoke to breathtaking views of the mountains surrounding San Jose. It’s moments like those that have created this addiction I have to traveling. You peel back the curtain, and there’s a moment – a breathtaking moment – when you are reminded of the splendor of God’s handiwork. It’s the newness that attracts me, the bright colors of the building, the plants and trees, the new animals. The different smells of someone cooking next door, the unknowns entering your nose. I stared out the window (which had no screen) and for a good five minutes simply reveled in the newness of my surroundings. A bird playing in a puddle on the roof, a cat off to my left on a tin roof bathing itself. A slight, cool breeze coming down off the hillside. And green. Everything everywhere was green.

I fell in love with Costa Rica in those first five minutes.

The sun rises early in Costa Rica, just after 5 a.m. Needless to say, I entered the first day in a zombie like state. We enjoyed breakfast and then headed off to church at a small Methodist Church in a town called Llano Grande, “up on the hill side.” I sat in a small shotgun seat up by the driver and riding through the narrow streets of San Jose in a big bus zipping about was like a roller coaster ride. But boy was the view great!

We joined the small congregation, sang some praise songs, and as we entered the service, which Ray Zirkel translated, it was then that the dopamine wore off and the eight hours of sleep that I’d had in two days caught up with me. The message was beautiful, but physiology doesn’t go away. I struggled to stay awake and at one point my eyes even crossed while I was standing! I ended up pinching myself literally to stay awake through the end of the message.

After church we headed off to enjoy lunch at a place called La Casona del Cafetal, nestled in the Orosi Valley southwest of San Jose. La Casona del Cafetal has the feel of a plantation or farm, and sits on a small hill overlooking the Cachí Reservoir. To get to there, you must first descend a dramatic downhill slope in to the valley below and then pass right over the dam that creates the lake. It was here that I really started to get a feel for the dramatic scenery that is so prevalent in Costa Rica. When you hear the word “resevoir” I tend to think of some old barren, half empty West Texas lake. This is not that. Draped in greenery, it almost looks fake it’s so beautiful. It appears as though it were a painting.

The view looking south from Cafetal across the Cachi Resevoir
Our table for lunch was on a tiled patio, surrounded by blooming flowers and draping vines, with a picture perfect lake snapshot in the background. As Americans, we always eat too fast. I remember once when I intentionally took my time eating a cheeseburger – I dragged it out to seven minutes.
Sitting there with the pleasant afternoon temperatures, the soft lake breezes, and the pleasant company, it was impossible to eat fast. To rush things. After gorging on a variety of local foods of fish and red meats, some of the people in the group enjoyed a local custom – Cafetal’s special coffee brewed one cup at a time using a nifty little coffee strainer that they bring to each person individually.

Enjoying a laid back lunch - note the blue coffee strainer on the table. 
View from the patio

After eating we all felt obliged to wander around and enjoy the grounds. Many locals were there unabashedly stretched out under the shade of the large trees at the lake’s edge napping and relaxing in the grass. It’s easy to see why Central American people are the happiest people in the world. The collective “whoosh” you heard was the sound of everyone’s blood pressure dropping. This claim is not made with out empirical evidence. A group called The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has something called the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which ranks the overall happiness of people based on a number of factors - which include the surrounding environment. For the second year in a row, the NEF ranked Costa Rican people as the happiest people in the world.
I took a moment to examine the flowers and trees surrounding Cafetal. I honestly had no idea what any of them were. Costa Rica is so overwhelmed with plant species that I don’t know that you could ever learn them all. It’s almost like God tripped while carrying a bucket of biodiversity and spilled it all in Costa Rica. I took some pictures of a few of the flowers on Cafetal, but I have no idea what they are. You’re guess is as good as mine. If you love flowers, Costa Rica should be your next destination. They are everywhere, even in August. When you live in Texas, you’re very accustomed to things turning brown and crusty around August. Not in Central America.
Unidentified beautiful flower

After a while I stopped resisting and stretched out in the grass under a giant shade tree. I almost fell asleep and would have were it not for the announcement that our group was leaving. We loaded up and on the way back into San Jose stopped by the Ujarras Ruins, one of the oldest historical ruins in the country of Costa Rica, built around 1580.  The setting was spectacular, but I was a little bothered by the blase way the ruins were treated. I'm more used to the American practice of "not touching" and "no flash photography please." These ruins were free to climb on and walk over and pretty much do anything you wanted. I was even appalled to see some graffiti scribbled on the inside of the church. On the other hand, the ruins have been there since 1580 so I guess they're not going away anytime soon. 

View looking north from the ruins. I was shocked to discover that Costa Rica in fact has pine trees at some of it's higher elevations. You can see a few of them on the ridge in this picture. 

This is a Costa Rican squash-like plant called chayote.  A man near the ruins was selling them, and when Brenda Stone gave him five dollars he tried to give her thirty of them! Needless to say I had a little fun with the chayote on the way home. 

Something I definitely didn't expect to see at the ruins was wild parrots! When you spend your whole life seeing parrots in a cage, it's refreshingly odd to see them hanging out in trees. They might be hard to see in this video but you can definitely hear them! 

After we left the ruins, we returned to San Jose and spent a relaxed evening at the seminary resting our bodies for the week ahead. Needless to say I slept much better the second night. 
The next morning, Monday, our work began at the Hogar Metodista - a children's home established by Ray Zirkel and the Methodist Church. We were helping do the ground work for another house that orphaned children will one day call home. We worked along side the local crew and I muddled through the spanish as best I could. Little by little we accomplished our goals. 

I have long been a fan of simple work like digging a hole. I always get caught up in the complexities of a task or a vision to accomplish something. It’s always refreshing to me when someone says, “You’re job for the next hour is to dig a hole in the ground.” It’s mentally non-taxing and physically demanding, and as the work progresses you feel the hardening of your muscles, and the thickening of the callous on your hands. Moreover, you feel the strengthening of your spirit as you pour yourself into work that you will not benefit from in any manner. This is the essence of loving your neighbor as you love yourself and every person who calls himself a Christian should understand this at some point. Working for the benefit of others, through love, opens doors in your heart that I think are really the key to understanding service and loving as Christ called us to love.
At any point, were you tired you could simply sit back and enjoy the scenery of the mountains in the distance or the inevitable rains that came drifting in over the mountains. It was a workman’s paradise. Our elevation at the children’s home was right around 5,000 feet. At that altitude you get the curious mix of cool weather and hot sun that is so common in higher altitudes. I remember my days working at Wind River Ranch in Colorado, you could be cool sitting in the shade and then get the worst sunburn of your life all in the same afternoon – courtesy of the stronger UV rays at higher altitudes. Costa Rica was no different. In many of the pictures, you see us draped in what looks like Arabic guard to protect our skin, and then by the time we sat on the porch to eat lunch found ourselves getting a chill as yet another breeze came down the mountain. 

That afternoon, we held a small bible school for the children of the Methodist home. In an age of television and internet, I think we sometimes forget that the simplest things can be entertaining and special. After a short Bible skit, we moved on to crafts and of course a rousing game of soccer. 

The second day, work continued in the morning. I will spare you the construction details, but I will tell you that most of the work in Costa Rica is concrete and cinder block based which means copious amounts of heavy lifting!

The afternoon of the second day we drove down what has to be one of the most beautiful roads in all of Costa Rica. We left the Hogar Metodista and drove “the back way” to Llano Grande. This road took us up, up, and up some more winding along. At one point we even drove along the crest of a hilltop because when you looked left AND right, it was extremely down hill in both directions. The scenery was soon obscured by clouds as it became apparent we were up pretty high. I tried to snap some photos, but between the passing trees, the bumpy road, and the obscured view from inside the bus, I didn’t get any good pictures worth sharing. You’ll have to take my word for it. We passed more than one “mansion” which reiterated that where we were was in rarified “air.” The views were expensive, to say the least. The culture of the hills around San Jose is very rural. While driving along this mountain pass we passed a guy on horseback, and each field was dotted with animals. We also passed strawberry fields.

If I could describe the church at Llano Grande in one word it would be "simple."  Churches in Costa Rica don't have multi-million dollar entertainment venues. The church at Llano Grande wasn’t much better than a garage. After we hosted another small Bible school, the church members hosted us with coffee and small pancakes.  We sat in the cool mountain air and enjoyed are coffee and cake. You realize why Costa Rica has some of the happiest people in the world. They live in a way that I long for – simply.

Enjoying cake and coffee in Llano Grande
The climate in Costa Rica was perfect. I never encountered an air conditioner the entire time I was there. The weather during the day, even in August was tolerable. At night, the air cooled and we slept comfortably, even in a room with no windows. Almost every afternoon rain moved in, although locals told us it was dry for their rainy season. (I wanted to take them back to San Angelo and show them what dry really looked like.) But the rain usually passed quickly and laid back atmosphere made it easier to just hang out, which is what people tend to do all over Latin America. I've long said the two things that ruined the American culture were air conditioning and television. AC drove people indoors and television kept them there.

I want to take a moment and introduce the phrase "pura vida" to you. It literally translates as "pure life" but it has a more abstract meaning in Costa Rica. It is a greeting and an affirmation. In a way, it kind of means "hakuna matata" or "no worries." The locals use this phrase so much we all found ourselves saying it. It is truly the national motto of Costa Rica, and it's very connotation gives an heir of forgiveness to the entire country. No matter what goes wrong, or how badly, its dismissed with a simple "pura vida." It was an idea I think most of us on the trip embraced immediately. Here we were in a beautiful country, a new land, doing good work and exploiting our very existence in the perfect way - pura vida!

After our week of work was done at the Hogar Metodista, we said goodbye to Ray and all our new friends. The work of the Methodist Church in Costa Rica is truly awe inspiring. It makes me proud of my Methodist heritage. From private schools like the Colegio Metodista (which we got to tour!) to children's homes, a seminary, and even churches at the edge of civilization, Ray and his team are doing amazing work. If you want to know more about Ray's mission check out his website here: 


Our final weekend in Costa Rica was extraordinary. We visited one of my new favorite places in the world, a nature preserve/resort called La Paz. (http://www.waterfallgardens.com/) The highlight of any trip to La Paz are the waterfalls pictured below. I couldn't get my video of the falls to load so I have borrowed this picture so you can get an idea of how big the falls are. This particular fall is around 80 feet tall.

Parrots in a cage - their native habitat. 

La Paz has never had a problem putting the cart before the horse..err..I mean, oxen. 

Toucan Sam. All toucans are named Sam, right? 
"Here kitty, kitty." 

"Say 'Cheese!'" 

This comical photo was entirely accidental. 

If you've never had the chance to wander around in a room full of butterflies, you should visit La Paz. Trying to wipe the smile off your face is nearly impossible. 

This video below is in the canyon just below the waterfalls. The terrain is rugged and breathtaking, but that didn't stop them from putting a gift shop at the end of the trail! 

Fog moves in quickly in the hills of Costa Rica. These two pictures below were taken moments apart from the deck of the main lodge at La Paz.

After returning from La Paz, we spent the night at our hotel near Alajuela. Near the hotel was a small walking path. I snapped these pics along the trail. 

That field across the way is coffee plants! 
Looking toward San Jose

This plant is appropriately called "Cow Tongue" 
Our final night at the hotel, we were in for one final surprise. I stepped outside to soak up the cool evening air and heard music. Being a journalist and adventurer I followed the sounds to a building about two blocks from our hotel. Not wanting some of my compatriots to miss out, I returned to the hotel and snagged a few of them. My friend Kevin Porche asked around and determined it was a school program and the children were performing traditional Costa Rican dances. This only affirms my belief that if you really want to experience a country, you have to step outside the lines drawn for you by other people. Nine times out of ten, the best and most rewarding cultural experiences don't cost a dime (despite what people tell you). All you have to do is follow your nose! Or ears! (Eat your heart out, Toucan Sam!) 

Here is a panoramic video of our view looking down on the San Jose suburb of Alajuela.

Yours truly. *Note the nerdy notebook in my pocket.  I had to take notes for my blog! 
Yet another random, awesome unidentified plant
More often than not, when I return home from a long trip it takes a while for the experience to sink in entirely. We are left with a general idea or a sweeping notion of a place and we take that with us when we return home. Writing about it certainly helps me resurrect the details. To me Costa Rica was a fascinating place with beautiful people and more nature than you could possibly see in one short week. As a believer, I saw God's work being done. As a naturalist I was overwhelmed by Costa Rica's incredible biodiversity. As a traveler and an adventurer, I decided before I ever left that I would one day return to Costa Rica. 

So until the next adventure...


Adios, Costa Rica. Thanks for the memories!