Monday, August 1, 2011

Advance work in Kampankis

Before the biologists land in the field, we send in an advance team to build campsites, establish trails, and cut small heliports. The following is a report from Alvaro del Campo, our logistical guru, who masterminds the complicated process of reaching some extremely inaccessible places.

From Alvaro:

Advance team and the Peruvian National Police
Photo: A. del Campo

We began in Tarapoto in central Peru. All six advance team leaders (Italo Mesones, Guillermo Knell, Aldo Villanueva, Julio Grandez, Gonzalo Bullard and me) carefully spent time reviewing satellite maps with the pilots of the Peruvian National Police, before leaving for Puerto Galilea, one of more than 20 indigenous settlements along the Santiago River. 

Our flight, in the huge Russian MI-17 helicopter, took about an hour and a half. First we crossed the spectacular Cordillera Escalera, a protected mountain range located in the northern part of San Martín. After we passed the Cordillera, we flew over an immense green carpet of lowland rainforest, interrupted only by the occasional flight of a King Vulture down below, or colorful flocks of Blue-and-yellow Macaws who prefer the enormous Mauritia palm swamps. 

Illegal gold mining on the eastern side of the Kampankis
Photo: A. del Campo

When we reached the Marañón River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, we observed some illegal gold mining activity from the air, not too far from one of our inventory sites in the upper Quebrada Cangasa. From the air we also saw all the beauty of the impressive Pongo de Manseriche, a gorge that cuts through the Cordillera Kampankis. A long straight trench made for the Peruvian oil pipeline was also clearly visible from the air. On the way to Puerto Galilea we flew over three of our four inventory sites.

Pongo de Manseriche
Photo: A. del Campo

Getting cabled down into the forest
 We arrived in Puerto Galilea and met with the Comité, a committee formed by local authorities and leaders of local indigenous federations to help coordinate rapid inventory activities. The next morning our four advance teams took different paths. Guillermo and Julio left by boat, taking all of their gear and food supplies upstream on the Santiago River to the community of Papayacu. From here,  they, together with  20+ people team formed by local community allies, hiked a trail that the Awajun and Wampis use to cross the Kampankis mountains. After a four-hour hike they made it to the selected point and started building Camp 1 and the trail system. Half of the local group were porters who returned to Papayacu after carrying the numerous bags.

Using the MI-17, a trusted helicopter we have used several times in previous inventories thanks to a great collaboration with the Peruvian Aviation Police, the rest of the advance teams left for camps 2 and 3. Using a special harness, Aldo and two community members were cabled down one by one about 50 meters from the air to a narrow tributary of the Santiago. 

Aldo and his team cabling down to Camp 3
Photo: A. del Campo
They would spend the next week cutting one of four heliports and building a campsite and trails for the scientists. The rest of us flew to Camp 2 and since the river was wider at that point, rather than being lowered by cable, Italo and his two team members jumped down from the helicopter from about 1.5 meters to the white stones of the stream below.

Dropping equipment for Italo's team at Camp 2
Photo: A. del Campo
Darkness fell before Gonzalo and I could go to our campsite, so we spent the night in Puerto Galilea. The following morning we again flew in the helicopter and left the ten remaining participants in Camp 2. Before taking off, over the noisy engine of the MI-17 and through my ear plugs, I heard Italo’s voice asking for insect repellent. Fortunately I had an extra bottle that I found among my gear and was able to throw it to him last second before the helicopter left to my site on the other side of the mountain range. Ten Awajún participants from four communities of the Quebrada Cangasa had been waiting for us since the preceding day. From the site where the helicopter was able to almost land, I peeked at the top of the mountain before jumping down the door and I thought to myself that we were going to have to cut a very long trail to reach the top .

Clouds hugging the tops of the Kampankis mountains
Photo: A. del Campo

The first thing we did in our campsite was to mount an antenna and install our radio; each one of the teams had a radio to facilitate coordination among us. The pilots had access to a radio unit in Puerto Galilea to coordinate with us and to know exactly when they had to come pick us up from our sites. In addition I had an often frustrating—but useful after all—satellite phone unit to communicate with the pilots in Galilea. As we expected, the common denominator for all sites was the very difficult topography. Radio reception was mainly poor, but I was able to hear everyone’s worries about accessing the highest tops of the mountain range.

All team leaders had satellite images and elevation maps made by Mark Johnston and Jon Markel at The Field Museum. All four sites showed a “scary” red triangle, each carefully selected by botanist David Neill, a member of the biological team, on the very edge of the Cordillera in places that may have sandstone outcrops. That meant that the challenge for team leaders and locals was to create access to those remote points during advance work. 

Satellite image, showing campsite and
David Neill's red triangle at possible sandstone outcrops.
Map: J. Markel and M. Johnston

My team decided to build other, less steep trails to get in shape before attempting the final climb to our highest point. Others tried right away to reach those points to get them “out of the way.” Part of the problem was that in many cases the teams reached “dead ends” on their way to the tops and they had to start all over with renewed strength the following morning. After a few days, one by one proudly shouted over the radio “I made it”, “I reached the highest point”, so I told Gonzalo, “OK, now is our turn!”

Alvaro, Gonzalo, and their entire advance team.
Photo: A. del Campo
Strange creatures and voices on the mountain tops
 When I asked my squad who was going to go with us to the top, most of them looked to a different direction or talked quietly in Awajún. Something was going on. Rufino Chumpi, chief of the community of Chapis and a well-respected leader in the area told me that he and the other three apus (leaders) of the communities were going to lead the path for us. The ascent was very tough and steep across dense forest and wet/muddy terrain due to abundant rain from the day before (the reason why we had to postpone our climb for a day). We estimated that we were about half way, when we drank water in one of the last streams before the top.

Making "chive" in a small stream.
Photo: G. Bullard
The Awajún made chivé for us, a sort of local Gatorade made with dried manioc starch and brown sugar, mixed with water from the stream. When we reached the bottom of the last very steep mountain we were surrounded by very sharp, dangerous rocks that in some points looked like giant axes protruding from the ground. We tried to go around but soon we arrived at a dead end. The second climb lead us to the top of a single sharp hill, another dead end, so we had to head back. In our third attempt we had a feeling that we were finally going to make it, but due to darkness we had to camp at about 1,100 m above sea level (our main campsite was located at 240 meters high). During “dinner” (canned tuna and crackers), before going to our tents, we asked Rufino why the others did not want to climb to the top. He told us that they were worried because of the probable “unknown, strange creatures” that inhabit the mountain tops of Kampankis, and “voices in a strange language” that supposedly were heard in the past by locals that attempted to climb these hills. 

Rest stop on the way to the top of Kampankis
Photo: G. Bullard
The following morning, we climbed to the top of Kampankis in about one and a half hours from our improvised camp location. The GPS unit read 1,430 meters and the view of the other side of the mountain range was just magnificent: a thick mattress of white clouds was slowly emerging from the pristine landscape that surrounded the Rio Santiago’s watershed. Right in front of us: a mountain that much resembled the famous Huayna Picchu Mountain in Cusco!

View from the top of Kampankis towards the Santiago River
Photo: A. del Campo
 Heading home
Photo: G. Bullard
 After finishing all four campsites, Guillermo and Julio returned from Papayacu by boat, and the helicopter picked all the rest of us in one afternoon. After informing our activities to the Comité, we returned safely to Tarapoto, thinking that in just one week the mysterious mountains of Kampankis will unveil some of their secrets to our team of scientists.

Post by Alvaro del Campo, Conservation Biologist

1 comment:

  1. How exciting! I am eager to hear more about the team's work and your findings. Reading your site is my vicarious thrill as I prepare for my first semester as an assistant professor teaching environmental studies at a public university, after a few years leading field courses in Costa Rica. I miss the tropics. Hopefully I can work some of your findings into my courses this fall!