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Belize: Crooked Tree

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And so we said goodbye to the Canadians Peggy and Tassy as we dropped them off at a beach on Coco Plum Caye. Their kayaks were already at the campsite. They hurriedly checked all the other gear to make sure they had everything. As we pulled away I heard some frantic yelling from the beach -- something about only having one paddle. And where was the stove fuel? In the end everything was accounted for. Goodbye, Peggy and Tassy! And good luck! Watch out for crocodiles!

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I must admit that I envied them a little and would have loved to stay longer paddling in the cays, but more adventures were calling me inland. About a week or so later I got an email from Tassy:

 

It was a great trip. We had a good camping experience. The day we went from Coco Plum to Billy Hawk was a challenge as the wind came up. I got really tired but we made it, thanks to Peggy's direction. We stayed on that island for the 4 days as the winds were too strong to venture far but the snorkeling was good and the hammocks were relaxing. Hope all is well and thanks again. Tassy

 

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That evening I was having dinner at the Birds Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree Village, which is located in the center of a shallow lake and only accessible via a long causeway which sometimes floods over during the rainy season. In the summer, the lake dries up to almost nothing.

I had a conversation with a big bearded man sitting at my table and we talked about where we had been in Belize and where we were going. I mentioned that the next day I would be headed up the river to see the Mayan ruins at Lamanai.

"You came all this way just to see ruins?" he said. "And not the birds?"

It turned out that he had been a professor of ornithology at a community college in California for the past 30 years. The wetlands around Bird's Eye View Lodge are a wildlife sanctuary and apparently an excellent place to view waterfowl. I started noticing all the binoculars other people were carrying and suddenly realized that the whole dining room was filled with birders. In fact I think the entire Oregon Audubon Society was there, all dressed in quick-drying khaki-colored ExOfficio Bugsaway® safari wear. I was beginning to feel very out of place. I finally understood then why our driver Lenny that afternoon had made a big fuss about turning off the main highway and a mile down a gravel road to show me the nest of the extremely rare Jabiru Stork. Standing at five feet tall and with a wingspan of eight feet, it is the largest flying bird in the Americas. I politely stepped out of the air-conditioned SUV onto the hot dusty road and made a cursory effort to look for the famed stork but didn't see it.

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In the morning I met my three other companions at 8AM for the ruins tour. A birding-by-boat tour had been arranged for us as well. It came as part of the package. Honestly, getting up at dawn sounded a little early for me, and the thought had crossed my mind to just skip the birding tour to sleep in, but I figured I might learn something, plus I'd get to meet some of the geeky ornithology crowd. It turned out that the four of us were put on a little boat by ourselves -- the tourist boat -- and kept separate from the true aficionados, who also had the more experienced and knowledgable birding guide Lenny. Well, they were going to be out all day anyway, and we had other things planned.

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We were each given a laminated cheat sheet with pictures of each of the birds with their names underneath. The boat cruised slowly along the bank. It was surprisingly cool that morning, made even cooler by a breeze blowing over the lake. I welcomed the warmth of the sun as it rose higher in the sky and the clouds burned away. Large iguanas sat in the tops in the trees sunning themselves. Their color indicates their gender: the males are orange and brown while the females are green.

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Our guide would point out the birds: a snowy egret, white ibis, kingfisher, olivaceous cormorant, night heron, osprey, "Jesus Christ bird", snail eater, Yucatan Jay, Vajay Jay and what have you. For us dabblers it was good enough just to accurately identify these birds, but in the other boat I'm sure they were having fascinating and animated discussions about plumage and nesting habits, and taking turns mimicking their calls.

 


Belize: Middle Caye

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The next morning after a breakfast of fry jacks, beans, eggs and fruit, Mike oriented us to the nautical chart and showed us the route for the day’s trip. We would paddle northeast to Middle Caye, where there was another good patch reef to snorkel around and a ranger station.

I studied the chart with future trips in mind. I didn't realize the cays of Glover's Atoll were so far away −− probably 15 miles −− from the other cays along the barrier reef. In contrast, the cays of the barrier reef were nicely spaced apart. One could easily paddle 8 miles from the Island Expeditions office in Dangriga to the barrier reef and travel from island to island, camping on beaches. It would also be easy enough to leave the tent and sleeping bag at home too and stay in lodges along the way. Imagine paddling in this beautiful water all day and into the sunset wearing nothing but board shorts (and plenty of sunscreen). A plan for next year’s trip was starting to form.

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Two women I paddled with, Peggy and Tassy, had planned such an expedition exploring on their own after staying for a couple days with us at Glover's. They had flown in with their tents and camping gear, and a white gas stove. Island Expeditions acquired the stove fuel, purchased food for them from a grocery list which they submitted, and arranged to have the kayaks, paddles, and had everything dropped off at their first campsite on Coco Plum Caye. It was while helping Peggy calculate routes with her Garmin GPS that the idea of my own expedition came to me.

Mike forgot to tell Peggy and Tassy about crocodiles. He only mentioned it because I asked if there were any. He said the Belizian crocodiles are not particularly aggressive, but still potentially dangerous. They are found mostly around the rivers on the mainland, but many can be found on the cays. The largest population lives on Turneffe Atoll.

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Our route to the Middle Caye followed the inside edge of the reef. Within the reef the water was like a swimming pool. Just outside of the reef to the east, the dark blue ocean crashed in small surf. Mike lead the small group of kayakers, while a few others including the Australian kids went ahead on the motorboat.

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I chose the orange rotomolded Necky Eliza, which I had used the day before and had been guarding jealously the whole trip. So what if it's marketed as a women's kayak? (From the Necky website: "...Its balance of maneuverability and reduced drag will help you keep up with the guys. Or just plain leave them behind.") It turned and tracked well without the rudder deployed. Short and compact, it was definitely the sportiest kayak of the bunch. Generally, I prefer them petite and like a tight fit.

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At dusk while lying in my tent I heard the Australian kids running around screaming something about a shark. Our guide Damasco had been cleaning fish out on the beach for dinner and I suppose that the offal he had been tossing in the water attracted two nurse sharks. Apparently, they are a nocturnal and sluggish species. They have small mouths, so they don't pose much of a threat to humans. The kids stood at the water's edge, and watched in the dying light as the dark silhouettes of the sharks passed slowly in the shallow water. They stepped back a little when Damasco warned them the sharks would bite their toes off.


Belize: Glover's Reef

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The next morning I was back with the college girls having breakfast at the Riverside Café in Dangriga. If you ask the Island Expeditions people for recommendations on where to eat in town, they'll inevitably mention the Riverside Café. Breakfast? Lunch? A good seafood restaurant? The Riverside Café is the answer. The only other place worth mentioning in town is a Chinese place. The Riverside serves authentic, local food. If you want conch, for instance, they have it. The food is cooked slowly, one plate at a time. So for our party of over a dozen, breakfast took forever. Despite our guide's heartfelt recommendation for the breakfast burrito, I ordered the "fry jacks" −− deep-fried pieces of dough, a staple in Belize. It was served with beans, eggs, and freshly squeezed orange juice. By the time I was done (and I ate at quite a relaxed pace, waiting until at least the girls on either side of me had gotten their plates before starting, then getting into a long discussion with them about Mayan caves, howler monkeys, and how tough academics were at Wilson College, where apparently half of the freshman class drops out) our other table hadn’t gotten their food yet. “I think the boat will be delayed”, our guide told me, referring to the boat that was supposed to take us to the camp at Glover’s Reef 30 miles offshore. The college group would be catching a plane back to the States that afternoon.

Those of us who finished with breakfast walked back through the middle of town to the Island Expeditions office. I chatted with one of the girls who is on the vet−tech track. She spotted a scrawny dog tied up in a yard. Its ribs were showing. She told me that the dogs in Belize are afraid of humans and behave like they’ve been beaten. Even the puppies. They are fed food scraps and chicken bones. The Belizians only use their dogs as watch dogs or for hunting, not as pets. My thoughts turned to how we spend no small amount for our pets in the States, including food, toys, haircuts, teeth cleanings and medical care, including even surgery and chemotherapy.

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Glover’s Reef is an atoll named after the pirate brothers, John and Rodger Glover. In the 1750's they used the cays on the reef as a base and buried their treasure there. Pieces of Mayan pottery have also been found on the islands, evidence that the Mayans had sailed there to fish.

In 1996 the atoll was designated as a marine reserve. In 2000 Glover's was designated a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Currently, 30% of the atoll is zoned as a “No Take Zone” patrolled by Rangers from the Belize Fisheries Dept. One of our guides, a fisherman−turned−tour−guide, said he was fined a couple hundred dollars for harvesting a conch from the “No Take Zone”. He hadn’t realized that he was just inside the border. He complained bitterly to me about being fined without even a warning by the woman ranger, who was actually a member of his village. She obviously had some personal beef with him.

The boat that took us to Glover’s sped along at 15−20 knots. It took us about 1 3/4 hours to make it to the reef. We enjoyed a smooth ride until we passed the barrier reef halfway into the open ocean. A cold front had passed through the day before and a fresh northeast wind still blew. In the 6 ft swell the boat bounced up and down. The three Australian kids sitting in the front were buffeted off their seats. They squealed while trying to hold on to the edge of the boat, their seat cushions sliding off onto the floor. The trip was just beginning but their parents already looked exasperated. The hatch to the forward compartment that held our bags flew open, and the captain had to stop the boat a couple times so it could be secured. After about a half hour of this, the kids got tired and the boat had to be stopped again so they could move to the back where the motion wasn’t as great.

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Our guide Mike introduced us to camp at Southwest Cay. We each got our own little tent, with real mattresses and beds. The freshwater is collected from the roof of the dining hall when it rains, stored in large black plastic cisterns, and purified for drinking. The outhouse has composting toilets. Solar panels are used for electricity, which is turned off around 9:30 PM. There is a VHF radio and a satellite phone which is used to check into the Dangriga office every morning. A variety of colorful kayaks line the beach. The sound of the conch signals dinner.

A few people in our group wondered what a "cay" was and how did it differed from a mere island. A cay is a small, low-elevation, sandy island formed on the surface of coral reefs. It is usually almost entirely made of biogenic sediment – the skeletal remains of plants and animals – from the surrounding reef ecosystems. The sand is sharp and quite effective at exfoliating the soles of your feet. According to Mike, the coconut trees on the cay were planted hybrids. When a hurricane comes, the whole place is under 5 feet of water. The outhouse ended up a little crooked after the last big one blew through.

Conch shells lay everywhere. The paths were lined with them. I picked a small one up on the beach and turned it over to see the gray soft foot of the snail retract deep into its shell.

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Over 700 patch coral reefs are scattered within the shallow protected waters of the atoll, which is at most 30 feet deep. In the afternoon a group of us paddled south of the cay to a patch, dropped an anchor and tied our kayaks off. While our guide gave a few of the newbies instruction on kayak self−rescues I slipped on my mask, snorkel and fins, and dove into the clear water to explore the reef. The density, diversity and color of the sea life was stunning. The corals sat just below the water, which was sometimes only chest deep. Occasionally, I would just float quietly to allow the fish to grow used to my presence, simply watching and losing track of time as the fish swam by.

I was saddened by the presence of plastic garbage on all the beaches, even this far from the mainland. Bottles and weathered fragments that looked like they had been floating in the sea for a while littered the sand. The caretakers helped maintained the illusion that our own white sand beach was pristine by cleaning and raking it every morning. I bet that when they open up this camp at the beginning of every tourist season, after hurricanes have passed, the beach is a dump. I wonder if there isn't a beach in the world where you won't find a plastic bottle cap.

 
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Belize: Dangriga

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On my first night in Belize I found myself having dinner with about a dozen college girls on the beach in Dangriga. They had just returned from the Island Expedition's “Ultimate Adventure”, a 9 day journey sea kayaking along the barrier reef, exploring caves inland and floating down the Moho River through a lush rainforest in inflatable kayaks. Since bathing wasn’t an option for much of the trip, half of them had had their long hair fixed in cornrows during the first couple days on the cays. They all seemed quite happy to have finally showered that evening. Many were wearing newly−purchased Island Expeditions t−shirts, because nothing else they owned was either clean or dry. I spoke with their professor: they were actually getting college credit for this! They were all flying back tomorrow to Wilson, a small liberal arts women’s college in Pennsylvania, known for its veterinary medical technician and equestrian programs, and its Fulton Center for Sustainable Living, which operates a organic farm.

We stood in line while one of the local guides passed us chicken and pork from the grill. There was plenty of tropical fruit, pasta salads and of beer on ice −− Belikin, "The Only Beer worth drinking".

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I started talking with the American guide who accompanied the women on their Ultimate Adventure and was delighted to discover that he was a fellow Washingtonian. It seems that wherever there is good sea kayaking, you’ll find a Pacific Northwest native! Bob had been traveling to Belize for a couple years, accompanying student groups from one of the Seattle colleges. He had recently retired from teaching physiology and had moved to Anacortes when he was offered a job as a guide for Island Expeditions.

Among the swaying palm trees on that warm, tropical night, we talked about a favorite topic of PNW paddlers: cold water immersion. It turned out that Bob had done research with none other than George Gronseth on "cold water shock", a study which was funded by Kokatat. His study basically involved placing volunteers into a water-filled tank of varying coldness and measuring their physiologic responses during immersion. There were three study groups: subjects wearing full drysuits, a splash jackets, or just rashguards. The subjects were wired to measure vital signs and placed on a kayak in the tank. The water varied in temperature from 70 degrees F to a low of 58 degrees. They were made to do a wet exit and paddle float self−rescue. Bob said that no matter how much ice he used, he could never get the temperature below 58 degrees F, which I think is unfortunate, because that is the typical temperature of Puget Sound during a hot day in August.

Three phases can be described in cold−water shock. During the first phase, which occurs in the first 3 minutes, the victim experiences tachycardia, hypertension, a remarkably decreased ability to hold one’s breath, and involuntary gasping and hyperventilation. The victim feels like he can’t breathe. It's because exhalation is not complete and victims are trying to breathe with full lungs. In the second phase, between 3 to 30 minutes, the victim experiences neuromuscular dysfunction, impaired coordination, weakness and difficulty with fine motor control. In the third phase of cold water shock, core hypothermia sets in. A tolerance to cold water shock can develop over repeated exposure.

Bob found that there was considerable interindividual variability in his subjects’ susceptibility to cold water shock over all temperatures. He also found that the act of going through the paddle float rescue eliminated a lot of the adverse physiologic effects of cold water immersion.

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There was rumor of rain for the next day. After the party broke up I returned to my room at Pal’s Guesthouse across the street. There was hot running water, and a TV, but hardly enough room to "swing a cat." I went to sleep to the sound of the oscillating fan and barking dogs on the street.

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