Posted on May 31, 2017
Up the Rio Charges
“Well, I absolutely cannot get up that river—I draw almost eight feet!”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.