Up the Rio Charges

“Well, I absolutely cannot get up that river—I draw almost eight feet!”

The terrifying river entrance

The terrifying river entrance

Fort San Lorenzo, at the mouth of the Chagres

Fort San Lorenzo, at the mouth of the Chagres

We heard so many reports from people adamant about the dangers of crossing into the Chagres River—that only catamarans can go, that the bar at the mouth of the river is only six feet—that we’d decided to skip it. The entrance is fringed by reefs, and can be turbulent; to run aground there might really put the boat in peril. The morning of our departure from Shelter Bay, we planned to head to Portobelo—until we talked to the catamaran at the end of E dock. They were just there, and never saw below twelve feet; they were planning to return that afternoon; would we like to follow them in? That gave us just the confidence we needed. We followed our friends’ advice about the entrance, and stuck religiously to the charts in our essential Bauhaus guide. We never saw less than fourteen feet.

Early morning swinging on the main halyard

Early morning swinging on the main halyard

Dense.

Dense.

The Chagres is the biggest river in the Panama Canal watershed, and is dammed twice to form Gatun Lake and Lake Alajuela. The water from these lakes powers the Canal itself. The river, over here on the Caribbean side, is entirely surrounded by protected, dense tropical rainforest. As for depth in the river—we’ve not seen less than 25 feet, and it’s generally been more like 40.

Kairos, our river buddies, on their way to the Canal

Kairos, our river buddies, on their way to the Canal

Our friends from E dock found us right around the first bend in the river, and our kids got to spend a few days playing with their kids and attempting to understand a bit of Norwegian. It is difficult to describe the dissonance of singing along to an acoustic version of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK as performed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, projected on the screen in the cockpit of a large catamaran—accompanied by toucans and surrounded by dense tropical rainforest…DSCF2034

Blue morpho butterfly

Blue morpho butterfly

We’ve seen monkeys. We’ve seen coatis. We’ve seen a northern tamandua. 75% of us are 98% sure we’ve seen a crocodile; the other 25% has only seen stick-o-diles. We’ve seen toucans (keel-billed and choco, including one that landed on our boat), parrots, harriers, herons, kingfishers, egrets, and macaws. Princeton’s Birds of Mexico and Central America is always out, the binoculars always at hand. Still hoping to see a Harpey Eagle and a sloth…. The best move, I’ve found, is to sit quietly in the cockpit with a book until you catch, out of the corner of your eye, movement in the branches where there is no wind. Most likely a monkey, spider or howler, contorting itself to grab some fruit.DSCF2111

We followed these blue markers for a while, but I'm not really sure it was a trail.

We followed these blue markers for a while, but I’m not really sure it was a trail.

Somewhere in this wild jungle, there is an observation tower (really a giant crane) that’s maintained by the Smithsonian as part of their tropical research station. Despite having the latitude and longitude, we couldn’t find it; after several hours of tramping through mud and scrambling over deadfall, being attacked by ants and narrowly avoiding a hive of mud wasps and at least one spider the size of my open hand, we gave up. You’d think it’d be impossible to miss a 50-meter crane in the wilderness, but you would be very wrong.

Do you actually know where you're going, mom?

Do you actually know where you’re going, mom?

Crane? Trail? Anyone?

Crane? Trail? Anyone?

Enthusiasm being the better part of valor...and mud.

Enthusiasm being the better part of valor…and mud.

Euphoria at being out of the woods.

Euphoria at being out of the woods.

Sneaking up on the wildlife

Sneaking up on the wildlife

Places where we can’t take the big boat, we’ve taken the dinghy—up to the dam that makes Lake Gatun; up tributary rivers and streams, alternating between using the outboard and paddling silently (more or less) to try and sneak up on unsuspecting megafauna. By the time this missive hits the airwaves, we’ll be back in civilization, getting ready for our transit; but for now, we’re marveling in this immense wilderness, so outside our regular experience. The Wisconsin River, this ain’t.

Up by the dam that forms Lake Gatun

Up by the dam that forms Lake Gatun

DSCF2033

DSC_2161

4 Comments on “Up the Rio Charges

  1. What a wonderful report – I know Daniel would be agog at all the wonderful animals (he loves NatGeoWild). Your river cruise looks astounding, but gosh, why don’t you think it looks like the Wisconsin River? LOL! We finally have barrier coats on the boat, but it’s raining again… a very rainy May has slowed everything down here. Sigh. We had a short cruise planned for this weekend that won’t happen. We’ll just continue to enjoy your travels. *The B-Ds wave!*

    • Lee–ww saw pics of the boat on Facebook; she looks great! I’m sure you’ll be on the water soon. Your kids’ oragami dragons are still decorating our saloon.
      –Deb

  2. Deb, we three linehandlers are cheap!!! I promise you!! 😉 We are just so excited about the transit and getting to fish in Gatun Lake. Hopefully we can catch supper that evening, or at least the following morning, catch you supper for the next night!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *