Preparing for the Field: Now vs. Last Year

As I am beginning to gather my gear for the upcoming field season I  have come to the realization that it was exactly a year ago today when I stepped foot in the Amazon rainforest for the first time. The weeks leading up to my first trip to Peru were not easy – my arms were constantly sore from the boat-load of required immunizations, and I found myself “preparing for the worst” by reading up on the dangers of traveling to the Amazon rainforest. But packing for my ten-week trip seemed to me the most stressful part of it all. The thought of forgetting to bring something that could be vital to my health left me packing everything under the sun. On top of all of that, the journey to the biological station journey is not a short one. It requires 4 flights, a 5hour boat taxi ride, and a 251-stair ascent up to the camp. All of this had me wondering: would this stress and long trip be worth it?

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A Google maps image of the biological station’s remote location.

Last year I was not confident that I would be cut out for field research. Before my first field season I had gone on two hikes in my entire life so it’s understandable why I had some trouble picturing myself trekking off-trail following troops of monkeys. In addition to this being a brand new experience for me, I was really looking for confirmation that pursuing a degree in primatology was what I wanted to do. With all of this pressure on my first research assistantship, my anxiety was at an all-time high.

So here I am today, one week before I head back to the Peruvian Amazon, and just the thought of being back on the trails is putting a smile on my face. Here’s what I learned during my ten weeks in the rainforest last summer that has completely changed my approach to the upcoming field season:

  1. We are really spoiled at this field station. At the Los Amigos Biological station, researchers get three freshly cooked meals a day, a roof over our heads, and mosquito nets to protect us from the bugs at night. The ~48-hour travel period required to get to the remote field station is well-worth it as it allows for you to observe eleven primate species, and you even share the trails with large mammals such as tapirs and jaguars. AND somehow we have Wi-Fi in the middle of rainforest! It is truly remarkable that we are provided all of these comforts out there that allow us to just focus on our research without worrying about food and shelter, and we still get to stay in touch with friend and family at home.
  2.  The Amazon rainforest is not a scary place. I feel safer hiking alone in the rainforest than I do wandering the streets of Boston. A lot of shows on the Discovery Channel like to play up how terrifying it is to travel outside of the comfort of the city to places dominated by nature. I wish more than anything that I could rid of this alarmist mentality. Of course there are venomous snakes, large insects, and big cats that live out there – but for the most part they want to be left alone. If you do get the chance to see a jaguar or an anaconda, consider yourself really, really lucky. I truly felt safer out there in the Amazon than I do here at home, and let it be known that a lot of the deadly animals out there want nothing to do with humans. You are honestly safer hiking in the rainforest than you are driving your car on the highway so if you’re considering a trip to the rainforest but your fear is holding you back..go for it!
  3.  The first time you observe an animal in the wild is something you will never forget. I have found observing animals in their natural habitat to be an extremely humbling experience, and I prefer to hike alone to follow animals on my own terms. One sighting really stands out in my mind because it was so surprising. On a solo hike a blonde capuchin (Cebus albifrons) peered out from behind the tree. It was close to the forest floor and alone, which was surprising to me since blonde capuchins are very elusive and tend to stay high in the forest canopy in large groups. We locked eyes and I was expecting it to immediately dart up the tree but instead it continued to forage, occasionally glancing over at me to make sure I wasn’t posing a threat. In that moment it felt as though the blonde capuchin had given me the silent approval to observe it as it carried on with its day, and it felt so special to be able to share that time with a wild monkey. After that I loved hiking alone, and I had many more run-ins like this with other primates and even some rarer finds such as a tamandua.

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    Scanning the canopy for monkeys during a hike.
  4. Once you let go of your fear you can really enjoy the adventure. This took me a week or so to fully do, but once I realized there was no reason to be tightly wound I was able to fully enjoy every moment. When I first arrived in the rainforest, I instinctively was startled by any movement in the trees or noises above me, and every mosquito bite had me worried I had either contracted Zika or had a bot fly egg larva in my skin. I am notoriously an extremely paranoid and neurotic person, but everyone can surprise themselves and I certainly was surprised by the relaxed (not to mention smelly and hairy) person I transformed into while in the Amazon.  I firmly believe that if you are doing what you love, your mind is at ease which allows you to fully enjoy the experience and I learned being out in the field really does that for me. I even ending up extending my time in Peru last year because I did not want to leave the rainforest and my anxiety-free state of mind.

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    My hairy “jungle” leg covered in fresh mosquito bites.
  5.  Learn how to use your camera before you get out in the field. Last year I bought a really nice camera to capture all of the wildlife I encountered. My second day in the rainforest I was face to face with a monkey and had no clue how to manually focus with my fancy new equipment. Don’t let a really awesome photo of a rare sighting pass you by because you don’t know how to work your camera – read the manual before you get there!
  6. Say yes to everything (when it comes to hikes and activities). In the rainforest I found myself fascinated by everything around me and I was so eager to see and learn as much as I could during my time there. You never know if or when you will be able to get back out into the field, so it is so important to make the most of your time there. Being tired is definitely not an excuse when you’re out in the rainforest – you can nap as much as you want when you get home. Last year I took any opportunity I could to go out on hikes with the hopes of seeing as much wildlife as possible. A few animals on my bucket list that I didn’t get to see last year are a giant armadillo, a sloth, and an anaconda. I’m willing to go on as many hikes and nighttime treks to the Pozo this field season if it means I’ll get to check these off of my list.

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    A 4 am wake-up call and 60 meter climb are well-worth it for  the chance to see a breathtaking sunrise above the rainforest canopy.

Having learned all of this last summer, my pre-departure preparations are no longer paired with the nerves and anxiety that I usually carry with me. This year I have a much better idea of what to bring along with me, and I even have a brand new Go Pro courtesy of my brother (thanks Thomas!). I am hoping to share videos of my hikes, and time lapses of the sunrises and sunsets over the rainforest canopy (if the Wi-Fi allows for it of course..).

So I invite you to follow me along on this adventure! I’m returning to the Peruvian Amazon on May 31st to continue work with FPI on their longitudinal research project on emperor and saddleback tamarins and I will try to post updates as much as I can. So thankful for everything I have learned in the past year and I cannot wait to see what this next field season has in store for me!

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