Charting the uncharted – one of earth’s most naturally beautiful and dangerous rainforests

At the ripe age of 22 (when you think you know everything then eventually hit 30 and realize you didn’t know anything – I hear this cycle continues) I was blessed with the experience of a lifetime… I just didn’t realize its impact and importance in my life until recently (I’m 32).



Winter – 2007 in Kent, Ohio:


Cold. Snow. Clouds. Meteorology isn’t the most difficult task during Northeastern Ohio winters. And for a guy like me (I enjoy the beach and warm weather), all this time indoors affords one an opportunity to think about their future and, more importantly, what they want out of life.


Me? I wanted warmer weather. And because neither the economy nor my professional connection list was too hot at the time, grad school seemed like the place to gain some knowledge and buy some time for things to pick back up.


I considered schools like UNC Wilmington, Duke, Nova Southeastern, FGCU, and I think I even sent an application to a school in the Bahamas. Some of these shared the same consideration in me and others were less forthcoming… I had pretty good grades and test scores but some of these programs were very highly regarded and were looking for someone with a pedigree behind them.


It reminded me of getting recruited to play football in college


One afternoon I sat across the table from an assistant coach at Princeton about 1 year before the national signing day with him saying, “You have to commit now if you want to have a chance at us getting you in.” – I had a 3.97 and good test scores. They just weren’t the absolute best.


As far as the recruiting for grad school, there were a few schools showing serious interest, but the number continued to dwindle up to graduation. After weighing the program options, and choosing between the M.S. and the Ph.D. programs, I had narrowed my list to 2 southeastern coastal schools and was ready to make the move.


Then someone changed my life’s course with 5 words



Dr. Rocha (Oscar), is a Costa Rican raised scientist that works in the fields of botany, genetics, tropical ecology, …, and conservation. We had built up a decent relationship during my undergrad coursework and he had even offered me a job in his lab as a technician to help out with processing samples for his various research projects. It was a great opportunity for experience under a well-respected professor, and it paid, heck yea I accepted.


“Why don’t you stay here?” He asked me one day. Having never considered the option, I looked at him and forcefully held back a chuckle. Our conversation continued and eventually, he let me in on the fact that he needed someone to work in Kent part-time, then down in Costa Rica for the rest of the year.


Which part of the year in Costa Rica, you ask? The winter!!


We talked about research ideas and a few days later I submitted my application. A month after that I accepted a paid graduate assistant position. They offered to cover the cost of tuition and actually pay me a small ‘salary,’ as well.


The day after I accepted my position in Dr. Rocha’s lab, the professor from my previous #1 school called to tell me that his funding had fallen through and that he didn’t have a spot available. I couldn’t help but think that Oscar’s offer was part of a bigger plan.


So, for the next few months, we immersed ourselves in research, budgets, and proposals for funding so that this Costa Rican research could actually happen.


Immediately following Christmas, 2008, I headed south for 3 months with an option to extend longer, if needed. I know this isn’t a scientific forum but here’s a snip-it from my Thesis to give you an idea of where I was headed (I removed the citations for a smoother read – science nerds please feel free to email for the complete list):


…These seven Central American nations (Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama) comprise about 1% of the world’s exposed terrestrial land and are home to 7-10 % of all known species worldwide. One of the most biologically diverse of these countries is Costa Rica which possesses greater richness values than five of the other Central American countries in birds, amphibians, and fishes, and has the greatest number of known plant species as of the year 2000. This tremendous wealth of diversity has motivated numerous studies throughout the country’s many unique landmasses from the highlands above 3300 m. to the lowland tropical forests like those found in the Osa Peninsula…


…As one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, the Osa peninsula has been long classified as a biological ‘hot spot,’ with significant levels of endemism among species present there. Given that the Osa Peninsula encompasses some of the most significant remaining lowland Pacific tropical rainforest habitat present in Central America, it has been identified as Costa Rica’s last Wildland Frontier and a vital portion of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor which connects national parks and protected areas from Columbia to Mexico. Further, because of Osa’s great wealth of ecosystem types and biologically diverse areas, Gilbert (1999) argues that the peninsula is especially conducive to the development of new species. For these and other reasons, nearly 40% of the peninsula falls within a protected biological reserve, Corcovado National Park. The national park was established by the Costa Rican government in 1975 in an effort to preserve the forested areas and the great wealth of species there. Yet, this has never been an easy task to accomplish.


(The scientific portion of this post stops here…) A few reasons the Osa Peninsula has been so hard to study and protect are:


  • It’s isolation from civilization. With no roads (and in some cases trails) connecting significant portions of the peninsula to inhabited areas, this terrain can be incredibly difficult to traverse.
  • My mother-in-law was watching a Bear Grylls episode in which he traveled to Osa. In the episode, he said, “This is one of the most naturally dangerous places on earth!” Then he proceeded to trek for a few days and exfiltrate. She saw that episode a few weeks into my first trip
  • There were unconfirmed reports of drug/weapons smuggling and trafficking waypoints on the westernmost point of the peninsula. I never saw it happen, but I did hear about it quite a bit. 
  • Venomous snakes, big cats, and jagged cliff faces, just to name a few…


Pit viper




All of these points further intensified my desire to make this research trip happen. I heard your challenge, Osa… And I was so ready to explore you… Over a total of about 5-months in-country, 2 friends and I circumnavigated the peninsula sampling streams for fish species. We relied on all we could carry on our backs, and with the longest uninterrupted trip lasting about 3 weeks, that meant we came up short on food a few times. The bottle of rum (Ron Rico!!) always made the trip, though…


As stated above, this trip taught me more about life than I could realize at the time. But with some clarity and perspective, I’ve written a few main points down below. These were observations from an isolated experience but I believe they can be extrapolated for life. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.



1) You don’t need an abundance of things




As a matter of fact, we realized the cost of having too many things. On this trip, that would’ve meant dehydration, maybe heat stroke, and an overall breakdown of your body after carrying too much on the beach and over mountains in 99-degree weather with 90% humidity (tropical rain forest – really lived up to the name). Every item that made the trip for me was considered at least 3 times for necessity. We needed fishing and sampling gear, tents, cookware, (minimal) hygiene items, food, water, a change of socks, machetes, knives, first-aid gear, flashlights, and the bottle of rum.


I had a big pack on my back and a small backpack on my chest. This kept my hands free and allowed me to carry all necessary gear in the easiest way possible. The good news was that as we ran out of food, our gear got lighter…


The point is that we didn’t have much of anything, but we had more than enough to survive in difficult conditions for 3 weeks. We were able to replenish water at field stations and the occasional stream, but otherwise, we had what we could carry, and we realized that was enough.



2) Having money doesn’t always help you


This picture is from when Justin and I hiked 5 hours for a 6-pack, then drank it on the way back and told stories filled with exaggerations – Justin wasn’t buying this story…


In the middle of the rainforest about 2.5 weeks into the trip, and as we were nearing the end of our food supply, the $250 in my bag couldn’t buy us any food or supplies. There wasn’t a corner store or supermarket to stop at. And, on top of that we were in a nationally protected park – so we couldn’t kill our dinner, either. 


This forced us to use our minds and will power to find sources of energy and to limit our intake of the rice and beans we had left. Even though we were using massive amounts of calories during the day, we made it through on fewer and fewer calories in as the trips went on. As an aside – it wasn’t that we massively missed on calculating how much food to bring… There was only so much space to occupy in our packs. 


Do you know what didn’t cost anything and was readily available? Coconut milk… Makes me shake my head when I see it here in stores selling for $8 per container. Oh, the good ‘ole days.



3) Take a calculated risk


Justin, my friend that was also in graduate school (Bryan was a local Costa Rican still high-school aged), and I had a few ‘real talk’ moments before we set out on these trips. We both knew there was a great deal of risk involved. There was no cell coverage, and even if there was, we didn’t have a cell phone. And if someone would’ve been bitten by a venomous snake or a crocodile, we would not have had enough time to call, get a boat to come find us, and get to a ‘nearby’ hospital in time. That process could’ve taken half a day, at best.


Neither of us was ever in the military, but we both recognized the danger and made sure to tell our loved ones how we felt before we set off. I even wrote a letter, should something terrible have happened. The amazing thing about it, though? Both of us would sign up again if offered the same opportunity at that time in our lives. We learned more about ourselves, our limits, and had more fun on that trip than we may care to admit. 



4) Marvel at the world’s beauty and let go





The pictures I took during these trips still occupy the majority of my (non-family) screen backgrounds. I had never seen sunsets and nature so pure. And the stars… Man was that a sight. It would’ve been easy to focus only on the job at hand, but we made time to take in the beauty, and those pictures only add clarity to the amazing memories. 


Another thing – things are simple in the wilderness and in survival situations. There are only so many goals. Find food, get to shelter before night time, drink water, and get your job done. There wasn’t a cell phone constantly buzzing or a 3-page to-do list to drive me crazy. There were 3 guys, some heavy packs, and a job to do. 



5) If a great mentor presents him/herself – utilize


I had my sights set on a graduate school next to a body of water with some advisor I’d never met, and honestly, didn’t know that well. Oscar offering me the position in his lab changed the entire course of my life. We fostered a great relationship during my time as a graduate student and I came to see him as a like-minded and secondary father-figure. 


Oscar gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, then supported my growth at every opportunity. He showed me what a great mentor can do for someone, and I try to emulate that whenever possible in my life now. 


Oh, and one more thing – he kept me at Kent State which is where Monica and I met a few months later. And for all of this, I will be forever grateful.



6) After this trip, I knew what true love felt like


Back to Monica. We met 3 weeks before my first 3-month trip. No cell phones, no email, just the heart and the mind doing their things… I thought to myself many times during that and subsequent trips, “If she’s still around when I get back, we may have something serious here.” Well… That was 9 years ago. 


MonicaFINAL 0013


In the first 2.5 years of our relationship, I was either in Costa Rica or the Gulf of Mexico for a total of 1.3-1.5 years. I missed that girl like crazy but the conversations and experiences we shared during those times really forged our relationship into the great bond we have today, and I wouldn’t change a thing.


7) Having a couple of great friends can make all the difference




3 months with 2 grad students and 1 guy that spoke about 20 words of English at the time. We got really close, learned a whole heap about each other, and Justin and I got much better at Spanish. That was tough work but having those two with me the whole way made for one of the best experiences in my life.


[bctt tweet=”It’s not what you do that brings happiness, it’s who you can share it with.” username=”RealMikedUp”]


8) Sometimes crocodiles ride waves, too


Yea, true story. We got to a beach at one point in a trip. We set up camp, started a fire, and like any 3 guys that stink, love the water, and love a good time – we went body surfing. It was a glorious 30 minutes!


About 45 minutes later, we’re cooking dinner over the fire and watching the sun set over the ocean. Enter Justin. “Woah, there’s a log floating out in the water.”


Bryan – “Mae. No es arbol, es un cocodrilo.” translation – “Bro/man/buddy, That’s not a tree, that’s a crocodile.”


We made sure to be much more aware of our surroundings in the future. There was another story that didn’t make the cut that would’ve been titled – “Venomous snakes aren’t restricted to the ground, streams, or rocks, they also like to chill on huge leaves that hang at eye level. The snakes can also be green in color.”


I feel like the title says it all.


9) Have a plan for water


99 degrees with 90% humidity lead to a huge need for freshwater. I carried 3, 3-liter bottles with me throughout the trips that I filled completely every morning I could. The 3 kilograms or 6.6 pounds were no factor. What was an issue, though, was when those bottles weighed in at 0.


If I were to head out on a trip like this today, I would’ve had a better system for cleaning stream water to drink. As it was on the trips I’ve been writing about – if we weren’t at a field station, I considered the options and where the streams originated and flowed through, then drank the stream water on a few occasions.


The risk paid off every time, but I’d rather eliminate the risk, if possible.


10) Overcoming a HUGE challenge is euphoric


At the end of our 3-week trip (meaning – as soon as we reached civilization), the three of us sat at a cafe and we all ordered large meals and cold beers. After sitting there for a couple of hours, we were completely exhausted but had an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. We had physically made the trip, we hadn’t starved, we collected a ton of data for our research, we had pushed the physical limits every day, but most importantly we had come through it all – together. I couldn’t help but reflect back on our accomplishments and smile at what we had just done. 


That feeling isn’t manufactured – it’s earned. 



Thanks for reading!


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I’m glad you’re here. Thanks again and talk soon!


– Mike
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