Odysseys for the Soul


How Far Must We Go?

by Frances Wood

National Geographic had recently declared the 150-mile road from La Paz in Bolivia, up and over the Andes to Rurrenabaque, as the worldís most dangerous, a fact that my husband Bill and I took seriously. On average, 220 people are killed yearly in vehicle accidents along that winding mountain road with its blind curves and gaping drop-offs. To avoid that deathtrap, we booked seats on an hour-long flight to Rurrenabaque, the first leg of a bird-watching adventure to Madidi National Park in the lowlands of the Amazon River in eastern Bolivia. The park bragged that it hosted 20 percent of all the bird species in the world. I couldnít wait.

Years earlier during a college ornithology course, I became utterly and hopelessly enamored with wild birds. When I met Bill in 1990, he embraced bird watching enthusiastically. As we became empty nesters, we also became avid birders. We scampered around several continents watching with pride as our life list of identified bird species grew. Some might have called us obsessed with, or even addicted to, our birding, but at the time I was carried away with the adventure, not thinking of the repercussions and unaware of the potential dangers of our actions.

While traveling, Frances sketches birds into her
watercolor journal. This Western Scrub-Jay inhabits
parts of the western United States and Mexico.

On the morning of our departure from La Paz, the cobalt blue sky sparked with energy as thunderheads hovered over the glacier-clad monolith of the Andes. Forty-five minutes into our flight, the pilot of the small, ten-passenger plane turned in his seat and shouted in Spanish that the Rurrenabaque airport was closed due to heavy rain. We would instead land at a town farther south called San Borja. Bill and I sensed no alarm in the statement, nor did the other five passengers, although the loud drone of the engines prevented conversation. We banked to the right, sliced through valleys between towering clouds, and then dropped toward the foothills.

Half an hour later we approached a grassy airfield and landed without incident. As I climbed out of the plane a blanket of hotter-than-hot humid air engulfed me. A smoky scent from a pile of burning rubbish mingled with the heavy, sweetly rich fragrance of lowland jungle. Inside the one-room airport, Bill and I gathered with our fellow waylaid passengers to figure out how we would continue to Rurrenabaque. Besides Bill and me, the group included an Irish backpacker, two Brits on their honeymoon, another young British adventure seeker, and one Argentinean businessman. We shed jackets, rolled up sleeves, and wiped sweat from our foreheads. The pilot, now acting as a representative of the airlines, joined us, and Bill translated our two options. Either wait for the Rurrenabaque airport to open, which no one expected would happen for at least a day or two (the town had been deluged with rain and a plane was stuck in the mud, closing down the runway). Or accept the airlineís offer to hire a bus for the five-hour drive.

The moment Bill translated the word “bus,” the rest of us winced. We all had heard horror stories about the dangerous Andean roads. Bill continued to translate that we would be traveling on a completely different road between San Borja and Rurrenabaque. This road, the pilot insisted, was level. “No es peligroso.” It isnít dangerous.

At five that afternoon, we boarded a worn-out, Japanese-made mini bus and headed north. As promised, the dirt road extended ahead, flat and straight as a railroad bed. Out the window to the right, the vast, thickly vegetated Amazon basin stretched east to a low horizon. On the left, gentle foothills, the final toeholds of the Andes, appeared benign. Huge dark and pregnant clouds obscured the Andesí peaks, a reminder of the power the weather holds over our best-laid plans. We bumped, jerked, and lunged along into the darkness. The engine lugged as we lumbered up a low hill, then the road leveled.

Suddenly, the bus jerked to the right, as if to avoid an unexpected obstacle. I gasped. Then I froze as the bus plunged off the road. It hung in mid air. Then banged, side over side down a cliff. I grabbed for Bill in the blackness, but felt only empty space. Bodies and luggage flew into the air and thudded against the bus frame. Windows smashed. A sharp smell of broken vegetation pierced my senses. I pleaded, “Dear God, save us!” My shoulder banged against something hard — probably the bus ceiling — and I instinctively raised my hand to protect my face. For a split second I thought of Phoebe Snetzinger, the first bird watcher ever to see over 8,000 different species. Phoebe survived cancer only to die 15 years later in a Madagascar bus accident.

With no tremendous impact, the bus eased to a halt on its side. Time stopped. An eerie silence flooded the darkness as countless years of dust which had accumulated in the busís nooks and crannies infiltrated my nostrils.

I was alive. I tried moving. Nothing seemed broken. I pushed my torso upright, still nothing hurt. I shouted, “Bill, are you all right?”

After an interminably long pause, I heard a muffled response from somewhere under the seats. “Iím okay, but I canít move.” I remembered my headlamp and switched it on. The beacon of light revealed Billís long legs inverted in front of me, running shoes in the air, the rest of him head down between two seats. The British woman who had been sitting in the seat behind had landed on top of him. I grabbed the womanís hands and pulled her up. Somehow we turned Billís tall, lanky frame upright.

The bus teetered with activity. “Get out quick!” mixed into a barrage of Spanish. The younger, stronger passengers rapidly hoisted themselves up and out the broken windows directly above us. Would the scrambling dislodge the bus and send it back into a tumble? Bill climbed out a window while the British woman and I, too short to follow his lead, scrambled over seats to escape through the driverís open door.

The last to leave the bus, I jumped out into thick brush. A line of fellow passengers offered their hands to assist me up the steep incline to the road. The last hands were Billís. We hugged tightly. When we eased apart, I gasped. The light from my headlamp spotlighted streams of blood dripping down his face from one cut above his right eye and two more on his balding scalp. The British honeymooner pulled some sanitized towelettes from her fanny pack and we mopped up the blood. In the dark we found and accounted for our group of seven, the driver, and his young son. Everyone was alive and Billís injury the worst.

Relieved that there were no fatalities or serious injuries, I sank to a rock on the side of the road. I looked down at my trembling hands and found that my whole body was shaking uncontrollably. I really needed to pee, but didnít think I could stand. Bill knelt down and engulfed me in his long arms. “Weíre alive. Weíre alive,” he repeated over and over. He sensed my shaking body and offered me a sip from his rum flask. “Baby, this will calm you.”

“First I have to pee!”

He pulled me up. I staggered down the road a few yards into the deep shadows and squatted. I returned to Bill, relieved but still shaking. The Argentinean businessman, whom Iíd not even spoken to, gave me a big bear hug.

“No funciona, no funciona,” the bus driver motioned that the steering wheel had stopped working, insisting it was mechanical failure, not his error, that caused the accident.

Back home, Frances creates paintings using watercolor
and ink and attempting to depict the life and energy of
the birds. This Marsh Wren is belting out its staccato song.

Everyone spoke at once: “A miracle!” Flashlights were pulled from backpacks, and the men returned to the bus to retrieve the groupís gear. We held our cameras high and used the flashes to illuminate the view down the ravine to the bus. It rested on one side, a gray, windowless, dead hulk, stopped by a lone, skinny tree. The light from the flashes couldnít penetrate any farther into the dark void.

About an hour later, a flota appeared from the direction we had come. We flagged down the large first-class bus, staggered aboard, and found empty seats at the back. Our band of seven survivors huddled together.

When we arrived in Rurrenabaque, Bill and I settled into our simple but comfortable 1950s-era Hotel Safari and I tended to Billís cuts, carefully cleaning, then closing, the gashes with butterfly Band Aids. Before crawling into bed, I downed two pain pills and a sleeping dram to dull the pain in my hand and shoulder and help me sleep. Still, my dreams churned and tumbled.

The next morning, chattering black and white swallows outside our screened window awakened us to a still, calm day, a welcome contrast to the prior evening. A message taped to our door the night before indicated that Alejandro, the birding guide from Chalalan Lodge, would meet us at breakfast to escort us on the five-hour boat ride, plus one-mile walk to the lodge.

Bill and I dressed, assembled our gear, and found our breakfast waiting outside under a palm-frond-covered palapa. We silently sipped strong local coffee. I picked at my black beans and scrambled eggs; Bill wolfed his down. I looked beyond Bill to the simple hotel gardens where lavender and orange flowers had taken on a surreal brilliance; even the green foliage shone unnaturally. It appeared to be some optical trick, reminding me of times when Iíd done watercolor painting. After several hours focused on the nuances of color and shading, my vision would play that same trick. Everything my eyes beheld became supersaturated like a TV screen with the color setting out of whack. Not only was my vision keenly ramped up but also the birds sang louder, and the perfume of summer flowers wafted through my senses like the smell of vanilla sugar cookies straight from the oven.

I felt so keenly aware of life. Iíd been spared and I dearly wanted to continue living. More than any other time in my life, I felt there was an undiscovered purpose awaiting me. Although my journal indicated November, today felt like Easter morning and Iíd been resurrected.

“Youíd better eat something.” Billís voice at first seemed miles away, but immediately pulled me back to our breakfast table. Our close call with death had crystallized what was important in my life. I yearned to call my sons to tell them I loved them. I reached for Billís hand, held it tightly.

“I want to cancel the rest of this trip. I want to go home,” I said soberly, thinking of Phoebe Snetzinger again. “I donít want to die looking for birds. It doesnít matter how many birds are at Madidi National Park ó it isnít worth the risk.”

Just then Alejandro, a black-haired, dark-skinned indigenous man in his midtwenties, arrived at our table and greeted us with a warm smile. Bill stood up to shake hands and I sat still, not wanting anything to do with this foreign angel of death.

Bill chatted with Alejandro, telling him about our horrendous accident. I barely heard Alejandro admit that the previous dayís rainstorm was the worst he could remember. Then he added, “The boat is waiting — are you ready?”

I madly searched my mind for a way to escape. I wished that I could beam myself back to my safe, familiar country. Soon their eyes rested on me, and Bill explained that I was fearful of continuing our trip.

“But now you are here,” encouraged Alejandro. “And Chalalan Lodge is very nice and very safe.” I looked up into Billís hopeful eyes and I knew he wanted to continue. A long pause hovered in the morning air while I gazed off toward the river, considering my options. Did I want to hole up at the Hotel Safari until the airport opened and allowed me a chance to escape back to La Paz, or continue to Chalalan Lodge? I hated to ask Bill to give up this long-planned and well-earned birding adventure.

As if on cue, bird song flooded the silence. The innocent melody sank deep into my consciousness and I began to relax, diluting the fear and flooding me with fresh energy. I looked again at Bill, forced a smile, then heaved my pack onto my back, wincing from my bruised shoulder. I reluctantly marched down the dirt road trailing ten steps behind like a traditional wife.

Iíll always remember that 20-minute walk down the dusty Rurrenabaque road. Like reaching the crest of a mountain range and looking out over a completely new watershed, I began to think differently about bird watching. I craved an answer to my questions: What was I really chasing? Where was my life headed? That short walk framed the beginning of my journey to discover a new way of relating to wild birds.

From the outside, the second half of our South American birding adventure didnít look very different. Bill and I continued birding in Bolivia and traveled through Ecuador. I awoke to birdsong in remote lodges and tallied up new species with glee. But inside, my life had taken a 180-degree turn. I had no idea what could substitute for the adventure and exhilaration of seeking new bird species, but I knew I could never chase birds in the same compulsive way again.

Shortly after returning from our South American trip, I discovered that the island where we lived in Puget Sound was prime breeding territory for a playful, endlessly entertaining species of seabird called the Pigeon Guillemot. Over 1,000 of these chunky, black-and-white birds with fire-engine-red legs gather into colonies to nest in burrows in the steep bluffs along our shores. They consume small fish and are considered an indicator species. Like a canary in the mineshaft, their success signals the health of the waters around Whidbey Island. Scientific studies of these birds had been conducted in California, British Columbia, and Alaska, but the Puget Sound populations had never been researched.

One day while finishing up a yearlong study of the breeding birds of Island County, I took my lunch to a beach to watch a group of 60 guillemots frolic in the waves, circle over the water, and disappear into high burrows. What was going on inside those burrows? What food was delivered to the newly hatched young? How did they manage to fledge from so high up on the cliff? Did the babies survive? Was the population viable? No one had any answers.

A month later I stood up at the local Audubon meeting and asked if anyone wanted to help me survey the guillemots. I gathered a team, trained volunteers, and we began an ongoing study of these seabirds. Each summer for two and one-half months, 50 dedicated volunteers create a community of citizen scientists who not only study the birds but also help educate the Whidbey community about “our birds.” Before this project began, few people on our island could identify this species. Now the guillemot is identified in community brochures and highlighted on outdoor signage. The Whidbey Audubon Society has changed their logo to include a pair of guillemots. A local winery features the bird on the label of one of their red blends. Weíve presented findings at international seabird conferences and contributed substantial data on this bird population. We now have answers to many of my questions about the birds.

And my personal questions? Iíve learned that researching the birds in my local community fulfills my search for finding meaning within my birding passion. Watching the guillemots return each spring brings a fresh vigor to the year. Anticipating the fledging of young keeps me walking the beaches and scanning the bluffs, and when we crunch the data at the end of the season I jump with joy when I learn that the population is still strong. Not all of Island Countyís 75,000 residents know the significance and the importance of the guillemots, but making sure that happens will be a big part of the second stage of my birding journey.

Bill and I still go birding and we still travel. When we see a new species we high five and later toast the species at happy hour. But weíve stopped what I call “self-indulgent birding.” Weíve even stopped keeping our life lists. Counting the guillemots and monitoring their lives offer up the kinds of adventure I now relish.

The three photos above of the Guillemots — (1) a Pigeon Guillemot swimming in the water near Whidbey Island, (2) a pair of guillemots in mating ritual, and (3) Guillemots returning in the spring — were taken by Craig Johnson.

Writer, painter, and naturalist Frances Wood has published four books including Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West. Her most recent book, Langley, was published by Arcadia Publishing in December 2012. Frances helped originate the radio series called BirdNote, which airs daily throughout the United States, and she has written over 100 on-air scripts. She recently began a series of watercolor paintings of the 150 common birds in the western United States. An avid naturalist, Frances coordinates a seabird research project of the 1,000 guillemots that breed on Whidbey Island, where she lives and enjoys nature.