When I began my career as a wilderness guide, for the first time in my life I encountered people who were constantly seeking the newest piece of gear, anything from a titanium drinking cup to a sleeping bag which had arms and legs. Being an unschooled vagabond living in my truck and prostituting my wilderness skills out to the highest bidders throughout Idaho, Montana, and Colorado, I made do with the simplest and minimalist accoutrements. I’ve always looked at my gear as sacred; I easily signed over the title of my 1994 Ford Explorer to my friend John, but you could only wrench my MSR backpacker stove out of my cold dead hands. While I was working as a logistics coordinator for the Trailhead Wilderness School, I was often called the “Road Worrier” due to the mental effort I put into packing for a trip. I have protected and cherished my gear throughout the years. For the next year I will be living in a small village without most modern day amenities. Tomorrow everything is going in storage, today I need to pack my gear for Costa Rica.
The journey to Yorkín, the Bribrí village in the Talamancan Mountains along the border with Panama where I would be working with a locally conceived ecotourism project called Estibrawpa and conducting my research, begins in Puerto Viejo, a surfer/alternative lifestyle/international small town on the coast which was first settled by black Caribbeans. You catch a bus early in the morning to the town of Bribrí, the main town in the Talamancan Indigenous Reserve. From there you take an old yellow school bus to Bambu, which is nothing but a small general store and a few houses. There you meet one of the Yorkín boat captains who pilots a dugout canoe with an outboard motor up the Yorkín River to the village. From there it is a half hour slog along muddy trails to the Estibrawpa headquarters. Obviously, you cannot simply arrive at your living quarters in a car or bus and unload your belongings. I knew from my experience of the previous summer that I would have to be able to carry all of my personal belongings on my person.
In order to be able to carry all of my belongings, I decided on a large backpack (a Kelty 75th anniversary hybrid 7000 in.³, which I had purchased eleven years prior as a 40th birthday present to myself) instead of a full size dry bag with shoulder straps. In addition, I would bring two daypacks which I could carry one in each hand, and a soft briefcase which I could sling over my shoulder. I had considered bringing the full size dry bag because of its ability to keep moisture away from some of my other gear. However, the dry bag does not have as much internal space and is not as comfortable to carry over long distances as the Kelty pack. After some deliberation, I concluded that I would rather have the Kelty pack and purchase 5 gallon buckets or something similar on my first excursion out of the village either to Bambu, Bribrí, or Puerto Viejo, depending on where I could procure something useful in keeping pests and moisture out of my food and belongings.
When I first began guiding, there was an older more experienced guide (he made his own clothing, something I was always impressed with) who told me, “Take care of your feet first, they are your most important tool.” I took this advice to heart, and own leather boots with vibram soles for travel over terrain, military style bunny boots for the winter, a solid pair of Chaco sandals with the hiking sole for on rafts or kayaks and crossing rivers, and a pair of mukluks for lounging around camp at night. For this trip I knew I would need a pair of what are known in western Colorado as irrigation boots. These are just-below-knee-high rubber boots with good tread, good for mucking livestock stalls and irrigating fields in Colorado or keeping your feet dry and offering (hopefully) protection from a variety of venomous plants, insects, amphibians and reptiles (Costa Rica is home to the fer-de-lance, a snake feared for its aggressiveness and deadly venom) while in the rain forest. On my previous visit to Yorkín, I purchased a pair of boots, and knee-high socks, from a hardware store outside of Puerto Viejo. As I was leaving the village after my stay, I gave those boots to Julio Morales, in whose wife’s house I resided during my visit and with whom I spent my days while he served as guide for the visitors to the village. While still in Tuscaloosa, I perused websites and finally decided on buying a pair of Servus boots from the Campmor catalogue. I knew these would be slightly different boots from those worn by the villagers (green not black for example) and I accepted the fact that these boots would set me apart, reinforcing the fact that I was an outsider, from somewhere else, and somewhat different. These boots would mark me; people would see my boots on the stair steps leading up to a house, and think, “Gregorio esta aqui.”
In addition to the boots I decided to also pack a pair of Chaco sandals and a pair of Skechers tennis shoes. The tennis shoes I would wear while traveling through airports and on buses, the Chaco’s can be worn around the house, and the boots would be my main footwear worn while walking around the village and assisting the guides of Estibrawpa while they led visitors throughout the village. While I was studying tracking with Tom Brown in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, he told me how his grandfather, an Apache shaman, had taught him that there were four sacred priorities: Shelter, water, fire, and food. He told me that the first and most important form of shelter is your clothing. Along with my footwear, I chose to bring two pairs of cotton socks, one pair of wool socks, and one pair of knee high socks. The knee-high socks are important to wear with the knee-high rubber boots to avoid chafing. I only owned one pair of knee high socks, so I decided I would simply buy two or three more pairs once I got to Puerto Viejo. For pants I chose to bring three pairs of nylon travel pants with the zip-off legs, a pair of shorts, and a lightweight pair of Carhart’s. I decided to bring the Carhart’s because it was quite likely that I would be lending a hand for various construction projects, and nothing is better than a pair of Carhart’s for construction work. I also brought three button up nylon shirts, one with long sleeves, as well as a T-shirt and two tank tops. I packed a pair of fleece bottoms, a fleece hoodie, and a flannel button-up; because I was going to be spending two months in the mountains of New Mexico before flying from Albuquerque to Costa Rica, I knew I would need some warm clothing. I also figured I would need some warm clothing if I ever chose to leave Costa Rica during my fieldwork to visit the United States, which most likely would be in one of the mountain states where it would be cold. I also packed a rain jacket and my U.S. Army rubber poncho, which can be used as a shelter, a bivouac bag, or simply as a poncho. To round out my clothing I brought a sun hat, a beanie, two bandanas, and my sarong.
In addition to my clothing, I had to decide which gear to bring and what could remain in storage. In keeping with the sacred priorities I brought only two cotton sheets to go along with my army poncho as shelter material. I knew that I would either be staying in my own little bungalow or with a family while in Yorkín. A roof over my head, a bed, and mosquito netting would be provided. So the next order of business would have to do with the procurement and storage of water. I packed one, 32 ounce Nalgene which were serve as my main water bottle. In addition to iodine tablets which I placed in my first aid kit, I also packed my Pur backpacker’s water filter. Even though while I was in Yorkín the previous summer I drank the water straight out of the taps with no ill effects, I could not be certain that everywhere I would be would have safe drinking water. In addition to my tools for water purification, I also brought my “water chicken.” a 2 gallon nylon bag with a pour spout, for water storage.
After feeling confident that I had safe drinking water storage and procurement taking care of, I next focused on fire. I decided to box up my MSR International Backpacker Stove (which can run off of pretty much any type of liquid fuel) along with six lighters and mail them to Puerto Viejo. On a trip to Baja California in January 2012, just a few months after 9/11, I had a backpacking stove removed for my luggage by TSA, and didn’t want to run that risk again. I decided to throw in several Bic lighters because you can’t take them on the plane and I’ve found the lighters throughout Latin America are not as dependable as a Bic.
Now that I had shelter, water, and fire taking care of, I could think about food. I would be purchasing food in Puerto Viejo and carrying it in my packs to Yorkín. I brought a small saucepan with a lid and handle for cooking, a Tupperware bowl with a lid, a thermal coffee cup, and a spoon. On my previous trip to Yorkín I noticed several good-sized trout swimming in the stream that forms the northern border of the village. At that moment I decided I would definitely bring my fishing gear along with me next time I came down. I packed my spin rod, an Ugly Stick pole that breaks down into four pieces and fits into my pack nicely, several lures, some swivels, and a little extra line.
Now that I had the four sacred priorities taking care of I could focus on personal items and first aid. I bought a single blade safety razor along with 50 extra blades for the trip. Along with three bars of Kirk’s Castile biodegradable soap and a toothbrush, this would make up my toiletries. For my first aid kit I packed a roll of athletic tape, Band-Aids, a large bottle of aspirin, a large quantity of bismuth, a nail clipper, baking soda (which has many uses- tooth cleanser, antacid, etc.) and a box of Emergen-C packets to use for oral rehydration. I also packed a bunch of AA and AAA batteries, my compass, GPS, sunglasses, and my Swiss Army knife. These items completed my gear inventory (I planned to buy a hammock and a machete in Puerto Viejo) and all I had left to think about were school supplies.
I decided to bring both my laptop and tablet, so I could have a backup in case one of them went down. These will mostly be used for typing up fieldnotes and data analysis. My plan was to leave the village once a month and get a room in Puerto Viejo where I could access Internet. I decided to bring my phone, even though I would be shutting my service off. I was unsure at the time whether or not the camera function, along with some other functions, would still work even though I turned my service off. I planned on mostly using the phone camera because in my opinion it takes pretty good pictures, but I also brought a very small basic digital camera as a backup. I packed two digital voice recorders along with four Rite-in-the-Rain field notebooks and several pencils. I packed a Costa Rica travel guide, a Costa Rica map, a rain forest plant identification book, and a small book written about the Bribrí who live in the Kokoldi indigenous reserve. Finally, I packed a good supply of various sizes of Ziploc baggies and a bunch of trashbags, which will be used to keep things dry. The very last thing I packed was a gift for Julio, who served as my guide and mentor on my last trip. Julio served as the main guide for Estibrawpa and only had one of those small book bags with the shoulder straps made of cord which are so popular on college campuses. I decided to bring him a good day pack that was larger and had padded shoulder straps.
Now that I had my gear ready, I was excited to get down to Yorkín. I only had a few loose ends to wrap up (IRB among others) before heading out. I cracked open a Tecate Light and squeezed in some lime. Like we say the first night in camp on a backpack trip “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it.”