The Osa Peninsula Sea Kayak Expedition
Story by Rob Gibbert, photo’s by Scott Hagerty and Rob Gibbert
Southwest Costa Rica, from Sierpe along the Rio Sierpe to Golfito in the Golfo Dulce; a distance of 100 miles. March, 2005.
I don’t speak Spanish very well. It takes me a long time to formulate the proper words, but I can enunciate tolerably. Unfortunately, the tico on the other end is thinking the gringo can speak his language and belts out something very fast, something rather machine gun like and entirely over my head.
Hmmm, that wasn’t on the tapes; I think to myself. I ploddingly assemble a few words to form a coherent sentence, which is followed by an equally blank look by the tico. So begins two weeks in the country and ten days paddling along the Osa Peninsula with many opportunities in to practice my Spanish with those that have the patience to hear. We get by, but it ain’t pretty.
Of all the friends I asked along, two joined me. Scott is a US Forest Service scientist and Brian a former Earth First! environmental activist. The evening conversations are interesting, to say the least. At latitude 8 degrees north there is 12 hours of darkness to absorb ourselves in topics of politics, sex, religion, gas mileage and the way Steve Irwin treats animals in The Crocodile Hunter. We have dinner in daylight as the gods snap the switch off after fifteen minutes of twilight.
It is now time for a night hike in the jungle, where we continue our discussions. The three of us troop down the trail in Parque Nacional Corcovado and a pair of green eyes from the jungle floor stares back. I’m thinking snake, but there is a halo on the leaf litter. A bug about two inches long walks toward a tree heavily buttressed at the roots. We switch our headlights off and the bug is within a stage light of its own making. Bugs are now plugging in! We dub it the LED Cockroach, but later learn it is a Jamaican Click Beatle. Purple land crabs scurry away beneath our feet. Brian belts out a holler when he retires to his hammock. “Somehow” a crab found its way in there.
Brian and crab
Every conversation with a park ranger was difficult. They speak Spanish, and I Spanglish. I wait to dissect the words and analyze the context before I attempt a response. When I do respond, it is just as often I receive a blank look as I get to disseminate another sentence. “Clearly this man is an idiot,” they seem to laugh under their breath. But I am wrong about that, as the hospitality and patience expressed by the Ticos, the popular name for Costa Ricans, is inspiring.
I could, however, read the warning on the sign in front of the river outlet: Peligro: No se bañe en el Rio! In a short conversation with Maria, El Jefe Parque guarda, she told me a three meter croc lived there and may return from the sea any day now. I don’t need a bath anyway.
There are four rivers that drain the Playa Sirena area. A generous supply of sand shoals up the breaks throughout the year and the surf goes on seemingly forever. We landed here easily a couple days ago. There was a sneak route to which we had no previous knowledge. Barely got my hair wet. Scott and I rode in on the backs, while Brian surfed in. I don’t like surfing loaded boats in the middle of nowhere. I don’t like getting pummeled by surf in the middle of nowhere, either. But now we must leave and I spy the rip running out along the end of the beach along a small point. It looks like the easiest way out.
I’m the last off the beach and watch Scott and Brian pop over a reef and paddle hard over a small set. So far we have no problems. Brian chose his line far to our right. Scott and I are a wavelength or two apart, but in the area of the rip. A large wave explodes in front of Brian and then another steepens menacingly. The last one he makes it over just fine. Scott and I ride over a couple of haystacks, wait out another and then glide to the open blue water. Our Feathercrafts are very tough boats, but I do not want to find their limits.
It’s not always been that easy here. Our first day on the water we had to paddle down sixteen miles of jungle and mangrove river in high heat and one hundred percent humidity. A crocodile dove into the water in front of our boats and a closer inspection of the river bank revealed dozens of croc caves per mile. Of the five river bars along the Sierpe, we chose the bar next to the roughest bar on the coast, Boca Guaramal. We chose it for its isolation and scenic potential. Locals avoid it as it’s rough, though some said it was calmer. Only Boca Zacate a mile to the north would the breaks be impossible for us to get out of, three fourths of a mile of breakers offshore; whitewater to the horizon. At Guaramal we sat on the berm separating the river from the sea and watched the breakers. At low tide it looked like a festival of pain and severe hydration.
Ninety minutes past low water the breaks level out. We stick our helmets over our nervous smiles and ride the current out into the first of them. Brian, in his hand built folding kayak, is a wavelength or two in front and Scott a wavelength or two behind me. After popping over foam piles and reformed greenish white water we reach the cutting board, the place where the big green swells break with the most violence. Brian appears vertical on the face of an eight footer and the wave breaks and washes over him. He lands upside down on the back of the wave. A quick roll and he sprints further out. We spend several minutes fighting and timing. I would love to photograph this, but quite frankly I don’t have the stones to take my hands off the paddle. All of us are nervous but we seem to be completely outside until a large set makes the shoals we are over fire off again. After twenty minutes in whitewater we chase the sun down to Isla Violín to set up camp in the only coastal cutout we dare to ride in on.
There are no problems landing despite a crux move necessary to avoid harpooning a cliff. The next day we screw up what would have been a clean exit from the beach at high water and it isn’t until after ninety minutes past high water we get away into a breaking maelstrom of growing surf and closeout faces. The shoaling from a southerly branch of the Rio Sierpe flowing out to half a mile away has caused chaotic low water surf action.
Brian is off the beach first and I have his camera. It is odd that he put a half pound climber’s Karabiner with three feet of webbing on the housing. I let it ride unsecured in my sea sock as my deck bag has no room for it. I am off the beach next but I hear Scott yelling at me from behind with an alarmed tone. Unfortunately, I remove my eyes from the wave in front of me half expecting catastrophe. All I see is him trying to tell me something but I cannot hear him. The wave pitches me rearward and when the stern punches into the sand I go over and have to heave a hundred and thirty pounds of kayak off me to free myself from being pinned in the sand. If there are any Chinese readers of this site, please be on the lookout for a Canon digital in an underwater housing distinguished by a half pound karabiner and nylon webbing. It will be riding very low, but is sure to arrive in your waters soon.
Brian at Camp 1
When the light is dying there is only one thing to do: make sure your hammock is up and that which you need for the night is easily accessible. We arrived at the beach on Isla Violín and found a small cut out in the shoreline revealing a clean path into the forest. The trees were at respectable intervals to hang the hammocks. Wet things were hung to dry and evening clothes put on. I dropped into the hammock and sunk until I bounced off the coconuts and leaves on the forest floor. I retied the lines and a column of pissed off ants walked off their branch and marched up my arm demanding a retreat from there. They died from the permethrin impregnated in my clothes before they reached my shoulder.
At the San Pedrillo ranger station the rough jungle setting was replaced by a perfect beach backdrop. The coconut trees served as a perfect hitch for the hammocks. We unleashed our machetes on the plentiful green coconuts for drink mix and seasoning for the fish the ranger lady brought by. Brian just likes to eat the coconuts. Scott and I like to mix the milk in our rum. Camping on the Osa peninsula offers a great mix of primitive beach and jungle camps or back country ranger station sites. Any camping within the park must be at a station.
Scott at the hammocks
Along the Playa Sirena region, we tour up the Rio Sirena for the day, alternating between paddling and dragging the kayaks over the shallows. Monkey’s skim through the tree limbs, wailing and howling. A flock of Scarlet Macaws cruise overhead. I can think of no noisier species, but their shocking red, yellow and blue plumage is unbelievable against a deep blue sky. We spot a small crocodile and a caiman further on up the river. On our return to the river mouth one of the crocs along the bank dives into the water literally just in front of my bow. The river channel is barely big enough for both of us. I hear a laugh coming from Scott:
“Hey Rob, he’s hungry!”
I back paddle a few strokes waiting for Scott to come alongside, effectively increasing my odds to fifty-fifty.
In Full View of Others:
The La Leona ranger station sits behind Playa Madrigal. A vicious dumping break guards the beach from seaward and while we wait offshore counting periods and sets, a small crowd gathers on shore. A ranger and her interns plus a set of sweaty backpackers look out to sea as the kayak gringos prepare to land. I hate launching and landing on dumpy beaches and now we have an audience.
The wave backs are three to four feet and there is only one break, so we cannot see the face. The whole wave face a hundred and fifty yards wide dumps at once, launching a geyser several feet high. It creates its own winds. Several seconds later another wave forms and another geyser pops. Every minute or so, a lull of just a few seconds occurs. I slip over the back of the wave and pop over the foam pile to freedom. In less than a minute I’m on the beach and pulling Brian in to shore. As I wave for Scott to follow; he looks back to the sea and quickly applies a few back paddle strokes. But it’s too late for Scott. I watch the water draw Scott up the face, how small he looks. The face closes and for a moment we see just the maelstrom. A moment later Scott is trying to roll up on the cutting board, but a follow up wave applies the coup de grâce. Scott either is ripped out or he swam out, but nonetheless as the bow is pointing shoreward he crawls up the stern and hops into the cockpit paddling like hell for shore in the flooded boat.
Scott at the Cape
The following morning there are more campers and beach strollers gathered on the hill watching for potential carnage. The break is as big as yesterday and we space ourselves fifty yards apart. There is only one wave and one lull to watch for. When the wave breaks it appears to come over a deeper channel than what the wave broke over. The foam pile becomes quite weak and we can get close to the wave face without getting hammered. It is only in this area where there is a risk of collision with each other, but it is of short duration and the lull, theoretically, should allow us all out quickly. But I look back on the hill and am wondering if they will be witness to a train wreck. I do not like testing theories out in full view of others. We rise up the foam pile and there is a wave building behind the one about to crash. We rise above and it is still not yet time to sprint. We rise above once more and I can see it is clean beyond. It is a short fast sprint over the next wave beginning to form but there is no more to trouble ourselves over. We hoot a farewell to those above and paddle down the coast towards Cabo Matapalo, the sentinel to Golfo Dulce.
Rob at Cabo Matapalo
Beyond the rock promontory and the offshore islet a gaggle of surfers line up on a world famous point break. We ride the six foot swells around the cape and into the gardens wracked with foam and aquamarine water. After landing we swim, relax in the sun, and watch the parade of Macaws fly along the shore, as well as the monkeys tearing through the top limbs of the trees. Watching the surfing action from the board surfers is good; as Scott and I prep for dinner, Brian joins them on the break.
We have had an ongoing discussion about surfing our boats for fun in a roadless wilderness. The themes of the discussion are: how will you fix your boat and with what? How well do you know the beach? How do we fix you? It is one thing to launch and land every day in it, and another thing to just go out and surf. However, there are now roads and no more than 20 miles to walk or hitch hike or drag an improvised stretcher into Puerto Jimenez, the only town with a bus to the rest of Costa Rica. Through the binoculars I can now see Brian paddle hard to catch a wave. Ironically, he chose this particular break right in front of a beautiful woman he was admiring through these glasses a short time before. He is surfed forward and goes level on his back deck trying to keep from pearling. He cannot escape the wave or its rocky destination. As the wave breaks, he pearls onto rocks and clatters to a scratching, thudding halt. He turns over, rolls up as a pair of deck fittings are ripped from his kayak. His solar panel, long rendered useless by corroded fittings flops into the water. The woman on the beach seeing Brian rise, claps and says:
“That was great.”
My sweat index rises exponentially once the temperature and humidity go above ninety. The big hat helps as does the long sleeve nylon shirt. Brian has a huge floppy hat and when he puts his helmet over it we get a good chuckle, a veritable extra from the homeless rendition of Star Wars. He’s also lost his sunglasses and I give him my extra pair. Scott gives him a pair of gloves to keep the sunburn from frying his Nordic skin. I’m partly Hispanic and though speaking Spanish is unfortunately not genetically acquired, my skin does a bit better down here. The SPF 45 helps, too.
Despite the nearly gallon of fluids we drink there are no pee breaks. I couldn’t impress my friends with my sculling high brace pee maneuver. The liquids go in but only come out from sweat. The sweat stings my eyes and a rolled bandana over the brow does wonders for temporarily keeping the sweat out of them. Drinking warm water or Gatorade becomes tedious.
While cruising along the rocks and reefs of Punta Llorona, the extreme west tip of the Osa peninsula, we are enjoying our review of last night’s events. The sky is cloudy, warm and the air thick with the smell of wet jungle and warm, salty seas. The conditions are calm so we ride in close. It’s already ninety degrees at eight o’clock in the morning. But I’m happy as it is probably sideways rain and forty back in Seattle. I love a cool wet garment that catches the slightest breeze and delivers results. Last night it was a different story.
It’s usually too hot to sleep well. The sweats pour out over the skin, beading up on the nylon hammock behind my arms and ribs. I feel like I’m riding on the Slip and Slide in my childhood backyard, but a sea breeze comes in and delivers the soft, sweet breath of cool sleep. The crack and boom of the skies precede by seconds the thick drops splashing off the fly on my hammock. A tiny trickle seeps in as I’ve done a bad job of setting the fly, but I try to ignore it.
The skies crack open again and the rain falls hard. In the other hammocks the guys start to moan. I look up and through the screen remember they are sleeping without the flies attached.
“Bummer to be you dudes!” I yell out with a laugh.
Scott tumbles out the bottom of his hammock first and fumbles in vain for his fly. He cannot find it. It’s probably still in his kayak. Brian emerges from his hammock now turned tropical fish aquarium completely buck nekkid. I can’t stop laughing. I readjusted my canopy and plop satisfactorily back into my dry cocoon. A few minutes later the “fish tank boys” have added the canopies and try to sleep through the wet and chill. The breeze picks up and for the first time in a week I curl into the thin sleeping bag liner I use on such trips. The fish tank boys are freezing, tossing and turning, praying for the great light of dawn and another long, hot day. The frogs erupt like applause in the pond behind our tents. Through the rain and the breeze and the frogs I slept like a baby.
Story by Rob Gibbert, photo’s by Scott Hagerty and Rob Gibbert - 2005