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Up and Down the Kapok Trees

Kapok By Jack Ewing

Every forest has its old timers, trees that stand out from the rest because of their size, form and distinguishing characteristics. Many, because of their advanced age, have rotted on the inside, leaving them partially or completely hollow, often with gaping holes to the outside. This is why old-growth forests are so important for the maintenance of biodiversity and the ecological balance. The younger trees of a secondary forest don’t provide the nesting holes so necessary for the proliferation of many of the rainforest birds such as the larger parrots, toucans and macaws among others. Also, mammals such as the kinkajou, olingo, tayra, several varieties of opossum and, of course, the many different species of bats covet the dark hollow chambers as roosting sites. Iguanas and ctentosaurs love the hollow portions of the old trees where they often take refuge when alarmed. Untold multitudes of insects lurk in every nook and cranny of the interior shells of the old stalwarts of the jungle: scorpions, millipedes, beetles galore, termites and spiders, to name a few. These old grandfathers of the forest become worlds unto themselves as they gradually move into the final stages of their existence.

Hacienda Baru

The most noteworthy old tree of Hacienda Barú that has passed on during my time here was an enormous ceibo tree (Ceiba pentandra) — known as the kapok or silk cotton tree in English — that dominated the skies between what are today the Hacienda Barú Restaurant and the El Ceibo Service Station. Its familiar form, tall straight trunk and distinctive umbrella shaped top, was a well known landmark in the area. The parcel of tillable land surrounding it was known to rice farmers as the ceibo lot. Though it stood about half a kilometer from the beach, it was clearly visible for several kilometers out to sea. The local fisherman used to determine their positions relative to this tallest, most distinctive fixed point while fishing in the vicinity of Barú and Guápil Beaches. The wood storks roosted in the umbrella-shaped crown of the ceibo for a few nights each year on their annual migration. Barn owls frequented the inner chambers often calling loudly in the night even to the point of disturbing the neighbors’ sleep. Chestnut mandibled toucans made their nests there and at least one variety of bats resided in the darker recesses. Clouds of the small furry mammals poured from a gaping hole in the trunk about 20 meters (65 feet) above ground every evening at dusk.

Today the remains of the old ceibo, whose trunk once measured more than 2.5 meters (8 feet) in diameter, have been broken down by natural processes and recycled by the secondary forest and the cacao plants that now occupy the area around its former base. During the early morning hours of May 11, 1989, three months prior to the inauguration of Bomba El Ceibo, it reached a point in its existence when the once strong fibers of the stem, now weakened with age and natural processes, finally let go. The tree came crashing to earth, falling exactly down the rows of cacao, barely fitting between two lines of trees spaced at 3 meters apart, and not damaging a single one. Sleeping neighbors as far as one kilometer away were awakened by the loud crack when the thick trunk snapped. Three of the old ceibo’s progeny, one near the Hacienda Barú Restaurant and two near Bomba El Ceibo gas station, remain in remembrance of the old patriarch who once dominated the skies.

Four enormous old ceibos located in the highland rainforest of Hacienda Barú still tower over the surrounding trees. Though big and mature, these monsters show no sign of age deterioration and will be around a long time eliciting exclamations of admiration from visitors to Hacienda Barú. The largest of these we call “el abuelo,” or grandfather. This was the first tree we climbed at Hacienda Barú 19 years ago, when we decided to offer canopy exploration as an extraordinary ecological experience for our visitors. El abuelo, though tremendous in girth, is less than 40 meters high (130 feet,) not particularly tall for a ceibo. Possibly its crown was once damaged by lightening because it consists of only one tier of branches rather than two or three tiers so typical of the kapoks. Since there are no higher branches where a climbing rope may be fixed, ropes must be tied to the lowest branches, and it isn’t practical to climb up onto the branch to sit. For this reason, we never took Hacienda Barú visitors into the crown of this magnificent tree, but our first guides, including myself, learned to climb there. Pioneer tree climber and author of Above the Forest Floor, Dr. Donald Perry was our instructor.

Less than 200 meters from el abuelo are two more enormous kapoks. Though slightly smaller in diameter, these are at least 10 meters taller than el abuelo, and both have three layers of branches in the crown. One of these kapoks, is ideal for climbing and is the first tree where we took our visitors. Two of the climbing ropes were attached to a branch in the middle of the crown and the third was attached to a branch near the top. This meant we could climb past the first branches, and swing over to sit on them. This was the tree where we inaugurated the “Tree Climb Tour.”

At this point, you may be wondering how we got into the crown to attach the climbing ropes. Actually, it isn’t as difficult as it seems. With a cross bow we shot a fishing line over one of the branches. With the fishing line we pulled a nylon cord over the branch and with the nylon cord we pulled a ½ inch climbing rope, over the branch. Tree climbing rope is thicker and stronger than rock climbing rope. The rope for the initial climb must be more than twice as long as the tree is tall, because the end must be pulled over the branch and all the way back to the ground and anchored to the base of a neighboring tree. Then we climb the other end and fix the ropes that will be climbed by guides and visitors, securely in the upper branches.

The idea of scaling a rope 40 meters (130 feet) into the crown of a rainforest tree seems like a formidable task to the uninitiated, but with special equipment and technique, the feat isn’t so bad as you might imagine. The main pieces of equipment are a harness, a pair of stirrups, a pair of devices called ascenders for climbing, and a figure eight for descending. The weakest piece of equipment has a breaking strength of about two tons, and the rope will hold three tons. Straps are used to attach the ascenders to you, the upper ascender to the harness and the lower one to the stirrups. Ascenders will slide up a rope, but not down. After attaching the ascenders to the rope, and sliding the upper one as high as possible, you sit. From this position you lift your feet while at the same time raising the lower ascender. Then you stand in the stirrups while raising the upper ascender. Again you sit, and the process is repeated. Your legs do most of the work. Once you get the hang of it, you go right up the rope. I’m not trying to tell you it is easy, only that with a little effort, most normal healthy people can do it. I will warn you though, tree climbing is addictive.

Climbing into the crown of a mature kapok is an overwhelming experience. Though you might think climbing is dominated by fear, I haven’t found this to be the case either with myself of with visitors to Hacienda Barú. I have heard it said that people are afraid of edges rather than heights. In other words, looking down over the edge of a building while standing on the top at 40 meters (130 feet) above the sidewalk, may scare you half to death. However, dangling from a rope at the same height doesn’t seem to have the same effect. I remember the first time I climbed the kapok. I felt no fear, even at 40 meters (130 feet) up, until I sat on one of the branches. My fear was totally irrational. Dangling from a rope, I felt fine, but when I sat on a branch, still attached to the same rope, I felt fear. It wasn’t a flimsy little branch either; it was close to a meter thick, too big to straddle. I had to sit with my legs straight out. I tried to think through my fear. I was afraid of falling off the branch, yet my mind knew that I was still attached to the rope. The difference must have been that dangling on the rope there is no edge to look over. In ten years of guiding people into the rainforest canopy, I never had anyone panic on the tree climbing tour. A couple of people did get nervous at some point and tell me that they would like to go down. But afterwards, back on solid earth, everyone, even those who never went all the way to the top, commented about what an extraordinary experience it had been.

Speaking of coming down, you are probably wondering how we do that. Actually, coming down is a piece of cake. When you are ready to descend, the guide puts the figure eight on the rope between the two ascenders and attaches it to your harness with a strap. Then he removes the ascenders one at a time, leaving you hanging from the figure eight. You then rappel down, just like those special forces guys who jump out of helicopters. For safety sake a guide on the ground can stop you or slow you down by simply pulling on your rope.

We no longer climb the big kapok because we were worried about compacting the soil around the roots and causing damage to the tree. After a couple of years we moved on to a different tree. We have climbed several different lechoso trees (Brosimum utile) and are now climbing a large camerón (Licania operculipetala.) We also have a relatively young kapok near the Hacienda Barú restaurant where we can take people for a quick climb up about 25 meters (82 feet.)

Though I have climbed hundreds of times, every time I go into the canopy I see something I have never seen before. Come to think of it, that happens to me every time I go into the rainforest. You should try it.

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