Thursday, February 18, 2010


It was about five p.m. when my dad saw the ducks fly over the houses on the lake. There were two kinds of ducks that hung around...a common, black, inedible pato negro (black duck) and the pato real (royal duck), less common and highly coveted by my hunter father. My dad invited me to go along with him on the duck hunt and we quickly grabbed a machete, some drinking water, the shotgun and a few shells and off we went in our little canoe, named Castor y Polux.

Unlike the picture below (our house was the second from the top), it was rainy season and the jungle around the lake was completely flooded from the overflow of the nearby Guaviare River. In some places, the water rose 10 feet or more above the jungle floor. The ducks had headed towards the top of the picture there, so we pointed the canoe towards what we called the Nature Trail, a trail that my dad and the other missionaries had hacked out of the jungle on that end of the lake.

Laguna Pabón (Bass Lake).
Our family lived here for five years during the contact
of the Nukak tribe in the jungles of Colombia.
Eventually, the missionaries were able to move inland as the
Nukak became our friends. They were rather hostile for many years,
though, which is why the missionaries chose to build the houses
in the middle of this lake.

During dry season, we walked along the Nature Trail, but in rainy season, it was completely navigable by canoe. It was really neat to be able to go through the jungle in a canoe, but there were challenges...many vines and half-submerged logs...I remember getting dumped into the water on more than one occasion! Eventually, the Nature Trail reached a couple of smaller, marshy lagoons where we often saw many kinds of birds and animals, including alligators. One time, we startled a bird sitting on its egg on an old, dead tree. We felt so badly about that because the egg fell into the water and was lost, but since the bird was completely camouflaged as a broken-off branch we didn't even realize it was there!

But I dad and I followed the ducks further and further down the Nature Trail until we realized that we were traveling in circles. We kept coming back to the same tree marks he'd made with a machete earlier. So, not only were we not getting any ducks, we were lost as well! My dad was an excellent woodsman and knew the territory around the lake like the back of his hand, but since we were 10 feet or more above all of the usual landmarks, he was very confused as to where we were, exactly. We wandered around in the canoe for a while, and then my dad decided to hop over the side and wade around to see if he could get his bearings. The water was up to his chest and I shuddered to think of what kinds of animalitos (critturs) he might of my biggest fears is swimming or wading in murky water where I can't see what my feet are touching. I also have recurring nightmares of snakes in water...but anyway, it was getting dark and I think Dad was a bit desperate to get me home by nightfall.

The jungle was silent after he left and I wondered what would happen. I was beginning to realize that perhaps we might be spending the night out there after all and fervently hoped that my dad could find the trail again. But he didn't. He did find where a creek ran nearby during dry season, but he couldn't say for certain which direction would point towards home. Instead of getting us more lost, he made the decision to stay where we were and hope that we could find our bearings by the moon when it came up that night.

Our house on the lake (dry season).
Rainy season brought the water level nearly up to the house.

At this point, two things were very clear...1) we were very, very glad that we didn't bring my little sister, who was about 5 years old at the time (we almost did...), and 2) one should ALWAYS, ALWAYS take a compass when heading into the jungle! I was very thankful for the bit of drinking water we had, though. I'm pretty sure it was my Mom's idea to send it along with us.

When my Mom and our coworkers realized that we weren't making it back home, they began to fire a shotgun every 30 minutes or so, the idea being to let us know which direction to go. It was nearly impossible to tell from which direction the shots were coming from, however, since the water made the sound bounce all over. My dad fired his shotgun in return, however, at least to let them know we were still alive. They eventually gave up around midnight. The moon didn't help us much either, unfortunately, as it was a cloudy night. When it did finally peek out from behind the clouds for a while, it was directly overhead.

It was a long night. The mosquitoes were relentless and hovered in clouds. Sleeping was near impossible because the mosquitoes were biting us so viciously. My dad made switches out of branches and tried to shoo them away from me so I could sleep a little, but I could only sleep for a few minutes at a time. There were strange noises in the trees and I was scared. One scary noise sounded an awful lot like a jaguar call, even though my dad said it was just a bird. I didn't know if he was just telling me that to calm my fears or if it really was just a bird! Jaguars were probably what I feared the most, the flooded jungle wouldn't have deterred them much since they are excellent swimmers. And we were out of ammunition. (Anacondas would probably have been the biggest danger, though, so it was probably a good thing I didn't think about them...but now that I think about it, are they even out and about at night?)

My dad knew that at 6 a.m. the next morning, my Mom would be getting on the radio and letting everyone back at the base know that we were missing (embarrassing for him), so he was highly motivated to get us home by radio time! As soon as the darkness began to lighten a little, he was out of the canoe and back out searching for the way home. He soon found what he was looking for, we'd spent the night not 300 feet from the trail! And we made it home before Mom called out on the radio. I don't remember what Mom said about it all, but I'm pretty sure my Dad got an earful for getting me lost out there overnight!

I slept all day and it felt wonderful to be back home in my own bed under a mosquito net. A few weeks later, the inevitable malaria hit me and I was very sick for about a week. I had chills so badly the whole house shook!

Every time I had one of these "adventures" with my dad, I always swore I wouldn't ever go out hunting/fishing/exploring with him ever again, but I always did. Now I have a lot of good stories, though. I miss my dad, he died in 1999 of a heart attack at the age of 55. He was a good man.

If you enjoyed this story, you might like A snake in the window or Jaguar Hunt.


Cindy said...

that's a great story.
have you thought of journaling these stories for your kids?
mine have asked me to write down some things about my life and places I've been...its hard getting started but I like the idea. I bought a cheap journal and a pen... and wrote one story :)

Rebecca Conduff Aguirre said...

Oops, Cindy, I meant to comment here and the time got away from me. My kids are always begging for stories from when I was little and I do need to start writing them down in a more organized format! So far, they are only written here on my blog, I think. I'm after my Mom to write a book, too! :)