On March 1st, 2018, I waited anxiously at the Fort Young Hotel for my long-time friend and tour guide, Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste**. The renowned birding specialist, who is also a retired forestry officer was taking me to the Freshwater Lake Trail, at the top of the Roseau Valley. After a year and a half away from Dominica, I was more than a little concerned that I might have lost my hiking capabilities after having lived at sea level “up north” for that length of time. Then there was the ‘Maria’ factor: I had no idea what to expect in terms of terrain challenges or altered vistas following the devastation of that catastrophic hurricane in September 2018.
As always, Birdy arrived punctually and greeted me like a long-lost friend. In his company, it has always been difficult to not laugh and joke around, which is part of the reason why outings with him are so enjoyable. And then there is his inordinate patience as I am “academically challenged” when it comes to remembering bird names and identifying plant life. I’ve been hitting the trails of Dominica with Dr. Birdy as my instructor since September 1997, and he hasn’t given up on me yet! In fact, I credit this highly knowledgeable and personable guide with teaching me more about the history, culture, geographical, botanical and ornithological features on Dominica than anyone else. So much so, that I was able to write a visitor guide to the Nature Island between 2003 and 2011 called Dominica: 100+ Things to Do, with this extraordinary person as my primary resource!
We drove up the Roseau Valley en route to the Freshwater Lake. During the 20 minute drive, Birdy updated me on his ‘Maria’ story. Like many others, his home had been severely damaged, and he recounted the terrifying events of that night, including flash flooding from the nearby river. He and his wife Nella lived to tell the tale, but it was enough terror for my friend, and he was in the early stages of building a new house at a higher elevation in a more sheltered area. Birdy was occupied with the planning and construction process while happily taking interested parties on tours and birding expeditions around Dominica whenever requested. I considered myself very lucky, as the tourist season was understandably slow following Hurricane Maria, and I was able to easily book four tours in March while I was on-island. Normally, I would have to schedule trips with him well in advance!
After about 20 minutes, we passed the junction of the Valley Road going on to the interior mountain village of Laudat. A heavy mist hung over the lush terrain as we continued along the Freshwater Lake Road, and the sun broke through intermittently as we neared the eco-site. Suddenly, Birdy pulled over, stopped the vehicle and opened the door. I followed his lead. As soon as we got out, Birdy excitedly exclaimed that he had just heard a Jaco Parrot. “Listen,” he instructed, “Do you hear it? There it goes again.” And then: “There it is! Right over there on that branch. Do you see it?” I was definitely rusty, but within a few moments I spotted the brightly coloured
parrot. Of course, all of the birds on-island had been traumatized by the storm, and had lost habitat. But Birdy was not discouraged on their behalf. He explained that there were some food sources such as wild tamarind in the higher elevations, and nooks in damaged trees where the parrots could shelter. It was not known how successfully they would breed at this time, as understandably these birds had undergone tremendous stress as a result of ‘Maria’. While there, we heard a Mountain Whistler, a shy bird that normally nestles in the tree-tops. I think Birdy actually saw it, if I recall correctly, but my eyes failed to spot the pretty bird, formally named a Rufous-Throated Solitaire. It was comforting to know that some birds had made it through that terrible storm. “Nature is resilient,” Birdy reassured me repeatedly over the course of my four tours with him this visit.
After waiting and watching for a few more minutes, we resumed our drive, while observing areas that had been more severely impacted by the cyclone, as compared to other sections that looked more intact. Birdy explained that Maria’s trajectory and resultant winds had directly struck some areas harder than others. It was easy to observe the stripped, barren mountainsides and then turn 180 degrees to look at greener, forested areas that showed much less damage.
When we arrived at the Visitor Centre, we met two men who were repairing the structure. I was very encouraged by their work, and remained hopeful that this conveniently situated and sheltered building would soon be fully operational again. I had always appreciated their facilities, which had included a snackette, covered porch, picnic tables, washrooms and an exhibit on the geological features of Dominica.
As we started out on the trail, we were completely shrouded in a chilling “fog,” which is commonplace at this lake at an elevation of 2,500 feet. With its eerie aura, it is no wonder that this inland body of water is reputed to have a monster in its depths! Despite the persistent drizzle at this eco-site, which is located in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Birdy and I commenced the climb on the southern side of the lake.
Along the route, we noted not only the devastation of the forest, but as Birdy quickly pointed out here, there and everywhere, the remarkable regrowth of trees and plants during these few short months after the hurricane. As always, Birdy trekked slightly
ahead of me, calling back cautions when he encountered a slippery wooden step, loose soil or slick mud. In the damp and saturated surroundings, it was necessary to tread carefully. Occasionally, he offered a hand if a step was missing and the leap was long for my short legs. There were also a few places where earth slippage revealed precipices much closer to the trail than previously. I have relied on one metal hiking pole for many years, and as before, have come to depend on it for balance and stability, thereby preventing many possible tumbles. However, we did proceed with caution and made note of any areas that could be considered treacherous to hikers.
One of the many blessings of a tour with Dr. Birdy is that it is never rushed and there is always something else to discover along the trail. As usual, Birdy pointed out absolutely everything that he observed, in terms of orchids, wildflowers and plant-life. I do not recall any bird sightings or sounds on this particular day. However, I was provided with so much information that I swore to Birdy that I would have to bring a notebook with me next time. The man is a veritable fountain of knowledge, when it comes to natural features in Dominica!
And there were always ample opportunities to catch our breath and marvel at the spectacular, dramatic views of the east coast (Atlantic side) from the highest points on the trail. As a result of Maria, I saw more villages, mountains and ocean views than ever before. With drastically reduced tree-lines, the landscape was much more exposed. Despite the devastation, the scenes were extraordinarily beautiful. I have learned that Dominica is a place where, regardless of circumstances, the Nature Island remains true to its self-proclaimed moniker, as it rebounds from the destruction caused by Maria.
In terms of my fears about having lost my hiking “feet,” I should not have wasted time with needless worry. On a tour with Birdy, the focus is on taking it all in, and enjoying the splendor of Dominica, in all manners, shapes and forms.
The colours of nature along /near the Freshwater Lake Trail:
After having spent a few hours on the Freshwater Lake Trail, covering all of it and discovering more under the tutelage of Dr. Birdy, I enthusiastically looked forward to the next adventure. In a week’s time, we would hike to Middleham Falls from Laudat and I felt ready to undertake this slightly more challenging trek. Until next time!
*Jaco Parrot was photographed on February 9, 2018 and is published with permission from Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In March, this Jaco and several others at the Parrot and Conservation Research Centre (Aviary) in the Botanic Gardens were transferred to the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP)’s facilities in Germany.
**Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste, a retired Forestry Officer in Dominica is a renowned and highly regarded local tour guide and birding specialist. He can be contacted at: (767) 245-4768 (WhatsApp, text or call) or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org