Today is our first free day at La Selva Biological Station. It is also el Día de la Independencia de Costa Rica, so we spent the morning at the parade in nearby Puerto Viejo, Sarapiquí. Now we are back at the station, hiking out to the Canopy Towers. These towers were built so that scientists could study systems beyond those that occur on the ground or even within viewing distance of the ground, by giving access to the canopy above the rainforest. Two of the towers went down a week ago in a wind storm (no one was harmed), but the third is still standing, allowing us a glimpse into the upper levels of the primary forest. We arrive at the base of the tower, and as we are instructed on the use of the provided climbing gear, I’m struck by the height of the tower. I’m not usually afraid of heights, and even though they told us the height beforehand (around 30 meters), I’m still a little woozy looking up. That’s TALL. The first group ascends, slowly, and we can hear both their excited exclamations and bouts of nervous laughter as they near the top. We wait at the bottom, and my hands are nearly itching with anticipation. I’ve always found waiting to be the hardest part, especially if the task is of the sort that induces nervousness. Eventually, the first climbers make their way back and trade us their harnesses and helmets. I strap in, clip my carabiner to the central line that goes up to the top of the tower, and begin to climb.
I pause to glance down at our group as I round the stairwell, and see that everyone in my climbing group has begun their ascent. Jose Antonio, our TA, is taking candid photos of us as we climb and poke our heads out between the metal bars. Although we’ve only climbed up about a third of the way to the top of the canopy, I can already tell that the vegetation is changing. But really, it isn’t changing, just our perspective is: instead of looking at the undersides of the lowest trees growing near the forest floor, I’m starting to be able to see the tops of these low trees, and make out the larger trunks of taller trees standing thickly between them. These are the trees that make up the luscious canopy that provides shade for (or, depending on how you view it, greedily takes all the sunlight away from) the life below. It isn’t high enough for me to feel any effects of the height yet, although I think I’m well above the point at which I could comfortably stick the landing if I were to fall out – so I’m appreciative of the harnesses that they’ve provided us. Impatient to see the top, I keep climbing.
This time when I stop, it’s because I’m starting to get winded. Even though I’m still a good distance from the top, I’ve been climbing long enough to feel as though I’m nearly in the sky. The temperature is climbing as we approach the upper levels of the rainforest vegetation, since there are fewer and fewer trees above us to block out the hot tropical sun. Balancing against the increased sun exposure is the increased wind, buffeting against me and giving the tower a slightly unsettling sway in the strongest gusts. I can feel my palms sweating (although whether that’s from exertion or from the view is hard to say) as I firmly grab the metal lattice and look down to the ground, where my classmates have shrunk to the (clichéd) size of ants. I can still make out their features if I squint, though, so I’d say they’re closer to the size of bullet ants than leaf-cutters.
My view of the forest has definitely changed: I’m now level with many of the canopy trees. It’s intriguing to see the leaves from a sidelong or overhead angle rather from below, where they appear as shadows against a brightly illuminated sky. Many of the leaves are much bigger than their counterparts in the understory, spread like palms open to the heavens. The trees have flat tops rather than rounded ones as I’m used to from home, with leaves distributed to maximize sunlight absorption from the sun as it arcs directly overhead and reduce the chance that any leaf will block others from the same tree from receiving sunlight as well.
While I’ve been gawking at the flora, the next climber below me has nearly reached my level, so I hastily resume my ascent.
I’m surprised when I round yet another stairwell and realize that I’ve reached the top. I had become so focused on keeping a good grip on the slightly swaying tower that I hadn’t even realized I was so near the end of the climb. I cautiously make my way across the final platform and then lean a little over the railing to take in the remarkable view. I can’t even see the ground at this point, because of the thick cover of trees that shrouds the tower like a swaddling cloth. For as far as I can see, there is a sea of canopy tree tops, occasionally broken only by the emergent trees that stand significantly taller than those around them. To the left is the most impressive looking emergent, with a thick layer of epiphytic plants growing on top of its branches. Although I know we’re on the wrong continent, I have to wonder whether Tarzan has made his home somewhere in the tangle of vines and leaves.
Soon the rest of my cohort has reached the top platform, and we all stand quietly and listen to the forest’s breath and heartbeat. We’re all dripping sweat from the heat of the now direct sunlight, but this doesn’t stop us from taking a couple group pictures to document our accomplishment. After a few more minutes of taking in the view, we finally decide it’s time to give the next group a turn, and descend.
Jeanne, Mackenzie, Yocelin and me at the top.