April 29 – May 5, 2021
We had been growing more and more skeptical that we would see any. During our previous thirteen months in Bocas del Toro, we had spotted one actual crocodile. It had disappeared quietly beneath the surface at Big Bight shortly after we jumped in the dinghy and we never saw it again.
Now, on our third day here at Rio Chagres, a crocodile was slowly swimming along the shoreline less than two hundred feet from where we stood on deck of Exit. We could clearly see its head and massive scutes lining the top of its tail above the surface. A big crocodile. We snapped some photos from on deck and hopped in the dinghy. By the time we approached, the croc had disappeared under the murky water. It appeared to have ducked into a small cove. Ever so slowly, we paddled into what seemed like a very enclosed area. Too enclosed.
Excited and super creeped out, we backed right the fuck out and returned to Exit after making a quick comparison of the length of the croc relative to the size of the bushes it was in front of when the photo was taken.
We estimated ten to twelve feet. Holy shit!
Later in the day we saw one more five to six footer in exactly the same spot. The following day, a small one to two foot baby up a small creek we were exploring in the dinghy. Kris saw a three footer the day after that while she was paddling on her SUP.
My own SUP paddles up small creeks no more than twenty feet wide and five feet deep revealed no lurking reptiles; but I do know an Autralian with a healthy respect for crocs who thought I was one hombre muy estupido. Small rubber inflatable craft… crocodile teeth… remote and restricted area… fair enough. What the fuck was I thinking?
Gatun Lake was formed in 1910 after a dam was built seven miles upriver from the mouth the Rio Chagres as part of the Panama Canal construction. Water from the lake is used in the process of raising and lowering the levels inside the system of locks inside the Canal. Vessels transiting the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side cross Gatun Lake after passing through the locks on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
Though the dam itself has made it impossible to access the Rio Chagres from Gatun Lake, this seven mile stretch of pure jungle is still accessible to sailboats who venture through the hundred foot wide mouth where the Rio Chagres feeds into the ocean.
For seven miles, the lazy river winds back and forth, cutting a track through a stunning swath of primitive Panama jungle. A number of smaller rivers and endless tiny creeks can be seen emerging from the trees and shoreline mangroves.
Any expectations that Rio Charges would be quite similar to the freshwater river Rio Dulce in Guatemala turned out only partially true.
The incredible density and diversity of intertwining trees, vines, plants, and foliage making up the lush green jungles surrounding both Rio Dulce and Rio Chagres is very comparable. Simply amazing.
While the Rio Dulce does have breathtakingly dramatic cliffs and elevations, it is primarily a brief transit between the town of Livingston at the river’s mouth and Lake Golfete. What I found much more memorable about the Chagres was that the river itself is the destination. We could drop anchor anywhere along the way and sit for as long as we like.
Another distinction was the difference in traffic. Compared to Rio Dulce’s constant stream of motored boat traffic as well as dozens of local dugout cayucas fishing around every corner, Rio Chagres was unbelievably devoid of people.
Not a single house (the entire river is inside a national park). No water taxis. Not really any tour boats. Maybe a couple of gringos in power boats a week. A half dozen or ten small local fishing boats or skiffs a day (maybe going both ways) would be an exceptionally busy day.
Everybody waves; Nobody stops.
Day after day, it was just us.
Yet, despite human traffic on Rio Chagres being very sparse, animal life in the area is abundant.
Howler and capuchin monkeys live all along the river, roaming constantly through the jungle’s canopy. Both are amazing to watch. Troops of six to a dozen monkeys, oftentimes seen with tiny, spindly babies gymnastically shadowing alongside or on top of their mother, venture right to the river’s edge.
The raucous vocalizations of the howler monkeys echoing across the jungle (announcing sunrise, sundown, approaching rain, or simply voicing an opinion it seems) are a stark contrast to the silence of the capuchins, whose presence may sometimes be revealed only by the swaying and crashing branches upon which they are moving.
Multiple species of toucans are numerous in the area. Despite their extremely unique profile and vivid colors, it is phenomenally difficult to spot these birds in the trees until they move. On the other hand, when in flight, the outline of their characteristic bill makes them instantly recognizable.
Also colorful parrots (squeak-beaks as we call them), almost always traveling in pairs, continually announce their presence as they noisily pass by overhead.
Every clear evening, the jungle would undergo an audible transformation from day to night. Birds, insects, frogs, and who knows exactly what else, all creating layer upon layer of a vast soundscape, filling the air with strange and overwhelming sounds that build and fade in volume as all of the participants compete to be heard.
In the morning, another stunning sunrise transforms the river’s banks back to amazing shades of green.
Aside from ourselves and the occasional passing boat, the only human sound we heard was a sort of thrumming hum that was generated by all of the activity, traffic, and machinery generated at the Panama Canal only a few miles away. The background noise came and went, seemingly dependent more on the wind direction than anything else, and was never obnoxious… only noticeable.
That, and air traffic. Planes passing a mile or more overhead… only noticeable. A helicopter traveling at high speed, following along the line of the river below mast height… not so cool. Military patrol? Drug runners? Tourists? Not sure, but we heard the Shelter Bay Marina owner likes to come and go via helicopter. Regardless, definitely not the bird you want your mast to be buzzed by.
On a less dramatic note, one of the really unique things we found about the Rio Chagres were the subtle, though strange, currents.
Over the course of the day we would experience an exceptionally gentle current flowing towards the ocean slow to a complete stop and eventually turn in the other direction, now moving “upstream” towards the dam.
If the lake is essentially at sea level, then I suppose the eighteen inch tide change could be enough to change the direction of the river’s flow. Furthermore, that direction shift must become very convoluted when stretched over the seven mile distance of the river.
We found ourselves very disoriented a number of times while sitting at anchor. In the rather narrow and symmetrical looking corridor of a river, after the current would reverse direction, we would spin around 180 degrees and be facing the opposite direction, all without us noticing!
Also, each time I tasted the water it was more salty than merely brackish. Not really even a fresh water river.
Nevertheless, Kris found it to be another perfect environment for a paddle on the SUP.
Rain or shine…
During our week on the Chagres, we saw only two other sailboats the entire time. One arrived a couple of days ahead of us and was farther upriver. We saw them only passing in the dinghy and spoke for thirty seconds as they motored past us on their way out. The second sailboat arrived a couple of days after we did, anchored one night in view on the same section of river, then picked up in a day and we only saw them again and spoke for thirty seconds as they motored past us on their way out. During more than half our stay, it appeared Exit was the only sailboat on the entire seven mile stretch of Rio Chagres.
Firefly Rescue Unit
Having spent most of our lives in places devoid of fireflies, we always find rare and random encounters with the creatures to be welcome and somewhat mystical events. The strange floating light produced when their butt transforms into a lantern always seems like a bit of magic. However, on the Rio Chagres, we encountered a completely new species of firefly.
We had seen them from a distance a number of evenings before and they seemed particularly bright, but we had not yet been close to any. On this evening, we watched as a firefly lit up and emerged from the dark shadows of the evening jungle. It flew out over the water, not a hundred feet from us.
The small, yet intense light meandered back and forth in a seemingly random manner until, at one point, it clearly hit the water and stopped dead. We watched for a few minutes as the light sat there and then began to flicker and slowly fade.
With very little background in the behavioral psychology of fireflies, it was hard to be sure; but it appeared to us that we were watching the aftermath of an air traffic accident.
I hopped into the dinghy, which was fortunately still in the water, went over and scooped up the firefly out of the water into my drink glass and returned to Exit.
The strange creature slowly crawled out of the glass and sat on the cockpit table, cleaning itself. Two small but very bright dots were continually illuminated on its back. Every now and then, its rear end would light up, like a more traditional firefly. Eventually, it seemed quite content simply walking around, exploring our arms and hands.
After a bit, we hopped back into the dinghy with our new friend and went over to the shore depositing it on one of the leaves of a tree branch hanging out over the river.
We’ll never know for sure, but the anthropomorphic conclusion to the story rests upon whether fireflies actually can or cannot swim.
If not, I can only imagine the following day the story started something like… so, after a near fatal crash on the water I was unbelievably rescued, resuscitated, and returned by some strange guardian angel on the river…
If, in fact, fireflies can swim the story may instead have sounded more like… you’re never gonna believe this, but after performing a textbook water landing I was abducted by aliens and temporarily taken aboard their ship for observation…
Author’s note: Subsequent research revealed that the insect we encountered was not a firefly. Rather, it was a type of click beetle, aptly called a headlight beetle (for the two distinct lights illuminated on its back).
This totally changes everything. Obviously, the story must have went: I can’t believe those stupid humans. Bad enough that they accost me… but to mistake me for a fucking fly... how indignant!
Twelve Hour Karma
Late in the afternoon on our seventh and final day, we received our only visitors during our stay on the Rio Chagres. Three local fishermen passing by in a small boat motoring “downstream” stopped at Exit. All three smiled, though only one spoke.
Not a word of English.
We tried to communicate with our limited Spanish, yet sometimes anything but the absolute most basic sentence can be misunderstood when spoken by someone with a limited grasp of the language.
POINT OF DISTRACTION: I recall once trying to ask a local fisherman in Spanish if he was having luck catching fish. He misunderstood me, thinking I was asking if he caught fish because they brought him good luck. With a very confused look on his face he replied, “No, the fish are to eat.” True story.
Anyway… after a bit of back and forth, I got hung up on a word I couldn’t identify. It sounded something like meshis.
Something about fuego meshis… fire something….
Finally, I realized it was not Spanish. He was trying for English. Duh.
Feeling stupid, I disappeared down the companionway, reappearing moments later with two books of matches. I handed them to the guy.
He smiled and said gracias. They disappeared around the bend and the sound of the boat engine slowly faded away.
A bit out of the ordinary, to be sure. But… really, just another strange moment in a rather ongoing sequence of the surreal.
The following morning, both Kris and I were jolted awake at 6am by what sounded like a tapping on the hull. Wtf?
“Hola”… came a voice along with another rap on the side of Exit.
“Hola. Buen dia… ” I replied as I stumbled into my boardies and climbed, bleary eyed, up into the cockpit.
I was greeted by what had to be nearly a ten pound red snapper! Dead – no doubt about that – but still staring me right in the face. Holding out the magnificent fish was none other than the guy I had given two matchbooks to the day before.
The same three fishermen in the same boat were now alongside Exit facing the opposite direction as yesterday, coming back from a night of fishing. I’m not sure how far they had travelled, maybe all the way outside to the reef, but it was obviously a very successful night. One of the three guys, sporting an ear to ear grin, lifted the lid of a huge plastic cooler that sat in the center of the small boat, revealing a stunning assortment of fish that filled the container clear to the top.
It appeared we were being offered the prime catch of the night, an incredibly generous gesture in return for us giving them some matches.
Even after a exhausting night of work, they made a point of stopping as they passed. They were definitely proud. They were definitely grateful.
Rarely am I early to wake. Yet today, for the first time ever at 6am, Kris brought me a knife and cutting board and I cleaned fresh snapper… on the transom of Exit… in a jungle shrouded with the morning’s low clouds… in Panama.