Adventures with Dr. Birdy*: Emerald Pool After Hurricane Maria

 

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An exposed Emerald Pool in multiple shades of green on March 15, 2018.

After my more challenging hikes of the past two weeks, to Freshwater Lake and Middleham Falls, I didn’t even bother with boots during my next adventure with Dr. Birdy. This time, we were heading to the Emerald Pool, another renowned eco-site in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, in the heart of Dominica. I anticipated that my all-terrain sandals would be suitable for our shorter “walk”on this popular track

Although not a challenging trek in my estimation, our day would be a full one.  We were going to visit with longtime friend Mark Steele of Castle Bruce on the east coast. He is the proprietor of the former Beau Rive Boutique Hotel which had sadly been destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

As we were heading up the Imperial Road to cross the interior of the island, I chose to meet Dr. Birdy  at the  convenient location of the National Bank of Dominica “on the flat” at Canefield. He is the most punctual person I know on Dominica, so I left my apartment extra early to make sure that I would be on-time for our rendez-vous.  I caught a bus to Canefield from Roseau and was at our meeting point well ahead of schedule.  Or so I thought. I had no sooner left the bus and situated myself in the shade of the bank’s entrance than who should drive up but the man himself!  As I entered Birdy’s vehicle, we  laughed openly about being early as we didn’t want the other to wait!

We were still chuckling when we commenced our climb in to the mountains along the Imperial Road.  Birdy explained that he had found a nail in his tire and had taken it  to a shop first thing  for the repair.  It was fixed right away. Hence, his reason for the early arrival. I told him that I  feared lateness, and could never do that to my friend who has always been ready to roll right on time for all adventures in Dominica over the past 21 years!

As we continued in to the higher elevations, I noted that the road was good in most places, with the exception of the Antrim area (below Springfield), which had become increasingly problematic over the years. The rest was relatively smooth and the views of mountains both north and south were simply gorgeous.

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Northerly view from the Imperial Road, near Pond Casse. Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak is in the distance. There is a Jaco Parrot in the tree on the left.  Can you spot it?

It was a perfect day in paradise, and  there were occasional moments when it was almost possible to forget that a category 5 hurricane had demolished the entire country six months earlier.  But there were constant reminders: scenes of my beloved Springfield Plantation in a now dilapidated state; broken bridges; bent guard rails; eroded pavement; and ubiquitous landslides in the higher elevations brought it all home to me.  Nevertheless, I was thankful to be on the Nature Island once again, and to appreciate Birdy’s repetitive affirmation that: “Nature is resilient.”

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Morne Trois Pitons from the Pond Casse round-about on March 15, 2018. Dr. Birdy chats with a man  who is waiting for a ride . Birdy’s tour bus is parked on the left.

As we headed in a southeasterly direction from Pond Cassé and then turned east (left) at the junction of the Castle Bruce Road, we noted once again the extreme destruction of the forest caused by Hurricane Maria.  Some areas looked to be “burnt” but it was more likely that the trees were stripped and the ground was very exposed without dense tree coverage.  As well, it was evident that Maria’s catastrophic winds wiped out some ridges and valleys, while on the opposite hills, the devastation was not quite as extreme.

When we arrived at the Emerald Pool parking lot and Visitor Centre, it seemed that no one else was there yet.    After a little snack, we proceeded on the trail, noting portions that were stilled closed as they had either not yet been cleared of debris or fallen trees or had experienced landslides.

In the stillness of the morning, Birdy did hear Jacos but we did not actually see any at this time. In this portion of Dominica’s wilderness, the extensive damage caused by Maria was clearly evident.  Massive trees, especially stately Chatannayé (sha-tan-ney) with expansive buttresses but shallow roots felled, broken branches everywhere, spindly saplings, plentiful vines,  lack of canopy, regrowth at ground level, varying shades of green at the now-exposed Emerald Pool made it hard to believe that I was at the same site that I had visited dozens of times over my almost 20 years on Dominica.

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Emerald Pool’s open exposure from the Viewing Platform offers more than one shade of green for the visitor’s pleasure six months after Hurricane Maria.

As we neared the viewpoint for the cascade, Birdy spotted a Rufus Throated Solitaire and I actually saw a Plumbeous Warbler, once he had pointed it out to me.  These sightings prompted Birdy to go  back to his vehicle to get his binoculars. Meanwhile, I sat on a bench overlooking the Emerald Pool, and poked around the area nearby.  The distant view of Morne Neg Mawon (aka Laurent) took my breath away, as I had never seen it so clearly from this vantage point.  But at the same time, I was saddened by the stripped foliage and barren tree trunks wrapped in climbing vines, even though their altered appearance offered a changed beauty.

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Morne Neg Mawon, aka Laurent as seen from the Emerald Pool Trail on March 15, 2018.

When Birdy returned, we paused for a while directly in front of the Emerald Pool on the well-worn stone path nearby.  For about 20 minutes, we watched a Purple-Throated

Purple Throated Carib Humming bird Photo Credit
Purple Throated Carib Hummingbird. Photo Credit:  Charles J Sharp.

Carib Hummingbird flit about the rocky “wall” to the left and just above the pretty cascade.  Birdy said that it was foraging for food for its fledgling (juvenile), that must have been nestled in a crevice on the ledge.

Then we continued on the section of the trail that is known as an ancient “Carib Trace.”  It also intersects there with Segment 5 of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT), which was not cleared at that time. There had been landslides and rock slides along this section, so we proceeded carefully, admiring the distant vistas as we gently ascended the damaged pathway.  After a few minutes, we stopped at a covered picnic table to have a snack.  While there, Birdy pointed out a huge ‘Day-Flying Moth’ that was not readily visible in the shadow of the wooden beams of the shelter’s roof.  It took me a few minutes to see it, with Birdy laughingly and patiently waiting for me to spot it.  He definitely has the visual acuity of a bird!

The trees in the Emerald Pool area were no match for Hurricane Maria. Photos taken about six months after the catastrophic storm:

After our refreshments in the forest, we carried on to the second look-off: it took in the Belle Fille River Valley and opposite slope from our vantage point.  Hurricane Maria had certainly wreaked havoc there.  The trees were broken and seemingly leafless, but according to Birdy, in time, the exposed saplings beneath the dead wood would certainly rise and the verdant forest would be born again.

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The upper Belle Fille valley, as seen from the look-off at the Emerald Pool on March 15, 2018.

A short distance further along the trail, we arrived at the third look-off and my favourite view of the area: in the distance, to the east, St. David’s Bay on the Atlantic and the Castle Bruce environs were waiting to welcome us!

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The distant Atlantic, St. David’s Bay and the Castle Bruce area as seen from the look-off at the Emerald Pool on March 15, 2018.

As we drove away to reunite with our mutual friend Mark Steele and spend an afternoon in his  congenial company on the east coast, I felt so grateful to experience another of Dominica’s stunning sites.  Not even a hurricane could destroy my passion for the extraordinary Nature Island!

*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: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm

 

 

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Adventures with Dr. Birdy: A Trek to Middleham Falls in March 2018

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Middleham Falls, at about 275 feet, is one of the tallest cascades on Dominica. As seen on March 8, 2018.

 

A cruise ship was in port at the Roseau Cruise Ship Berth when Dr. Birdy (Bertrand Jno Baptiste)** drove through the congested streets of the capital to pick me up for our hike to Middleham Falls on March 8, 2018.  When he stopped for me at the ‘Fort Young Round-About’, we almost simultaneously exclaimed that we were really tired. Birdy had driven for more than an hour through heavy traffic from his temporary home in Picard, near Portsmouth, Dominica.  He had been having occasional trouble sleeping, and like most people on-island, was still recovering from the trauma inflicted by Hurricane Maria. I wasn’t feeling one hundred per cent, but did not explain why until we reached our destination later that day. “Never mind,” I said to reassure Birdy, “We’ll feel better once we are in the forest!”

This time, our drive up the Roseau Valley was hindered by reconstruction and road works around the turn-off to the Middleham Falls trail, near Laudat.  A worker advised us that the road would be closed for a few hours, so we would not be able to exit from the interior.  However, we were not deterred, as we knew we would take our time and likely not return until it reopened anyway.

As soon as we arrived at the Visitor Centre, I took advantage of the washroom facilities, donned my hiking boots and drank some coconut water that I had brought along with me.

We were not even out of the parking lot when Birdy suddenly stopped: “Look over there!”  “Where exactly?” I asked.  Birdy pointed and remarked excitedly, ” Follow my finger. Right on that limb just above that big branch and over to your left.  It’s a Thrasher!”  Finally, I caught a glimpse of it, to the satisfaction of my teacher, and we headed off on the trail.

My legs really felt wobbly, but I hadn’t mentioned this to Birdy yet.  We had to cross the Providence River,  fast-flowing but shallow.  Plenty of slippery rocks.  Admittedly, there had been other trips here when I had taken off those boots, and then put them back on once I reached the other side.  But I could not get away with that timid approach with Birdy. “Look,” he coached, “You’ll be fine.  Just follow me and step where I put my feet, go slowly, use your pole for balance.” I took a deep breath, and did exactly that.

Miraculously, I made it across without incident and was absolutely thrilled about it.  But when I paused on the opposite bank, took a drink of water and stepped forward, my feet went out from under me. I am still not sure what happened – a loose stone or stepping on an unstable rock – but I went down for about two seconds.  I quickly bounced up, while Birdy laughingly exclaimed: “What happened to you?” My  legs trembled  slightly but I was not going to admit it. “I dunno. A loose rock and I stepped on it wrong, I guess.”

We continued along and I paused frequently to drink water and take in the very exposed track and the diminished rainforest, so different from my numerous excursions on this once-familiar trail. I have written several posts about Middleham, my favourite waterfall in Dominica on my blog Ti Domnik Tales.  You can read about those memorable outings here.

Without that canopy, I was thankful that it was a cloudy day. I was somewhat “woozy” and really didn’t  feel up to direct sunlight on my head. This pristine area, part of Morne Trois Pitons National Park was really “smashed up”, as a result of Maria. Tall trees were the exception now, as opposed to the norm.  However, the trail itself was well cleared and easy to follow, thanks to Dominica’s Forestry Division workers and helping hands from a Cuban group of volunteers.

This time, I did see the endemic blue-headed hummingbird as it whizzed by my head at the same time that Birdy noted it.  But when it perched on a nearby bough,

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Blue-Headed Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

my eyes could not locate it. However, Birdy studied it with pleasure.

A few other birds such as Bull-finches and Plumbeous Warblers  flitted about. Sometimes Birdy even called to them by mimicking their sounds.  After more than 20 years of intensive study, he definitely knows what to do!

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Dr. Birdy details a sighting of the Blue Headed Hummingbird and other forest facts during our trek to Middleham Falls on March 8, 2018.

Again, the changed terrain, downed trees and exposed trail made me wonder at times if I were really on the same track that I once knew so well. It was fairly easy-going as we ascended into the forest.  By the time we reached the junction with the Cochrane side of the trail, which also intersects with Segment 4 of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT) I was astounded by its new unfamiliarity.  Those tracks had not yet been cleared (the Cochrane one is open as of July 2018) and it looked like never-ending brush and

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The picnic shelter and interpretive sign are located near the junction to the Cochrane end of the trail. It also intersects with Segment 4 of the WNT. I could only see brush and broken trees at that time.

broken trees for as far as I could see into the forest.

From there, the trail to the falls went off to the left – and it was all downhill from there!

I was rather fatigued, but distracted myself by distant views, as well as taking in Birdy’s thorough descriptions of everything along the way. (Although I really must record him next time!)

Seemingly suddenly, the terrain changed, and large, sometimes slippery boulders demanded skill and agility to cross over them.  In the distance, the gentle roar of the falls became apparent.  Although feeling unwell, I concentrated on Birdy’s words and setting my feet where he had placed his.  Occasionally , he offered a hand. I was tempted to tell him that I couldn’t go any farther that day.  I was just out-of-sorts.  But I said not a word, and continued to carefully maneuver my body over the huge rocks.  Within a few minutes, we were there!

A new viewing platform had recently been erected, and I exclaimed to Birdy that its location was not what I recalled from previous visits in 2014 and 2015.  In fact, there had been no structure for several years, and on other treks with friends, we simply settled ourselves on nearby boulders to admire the towering cascade.  To me, the approach seemed more difficult, but Birdy explained that because of persistent rains and perpetual dampness, the rocks were more slick than at other times.

And the waterfall really did look different.  Birdy felt that landslides, blockages and torrential rains associated with Maria might have diverted the courses of some of the water sources that used to flow into the cascade.  The torrent of water did seem diminished to me, but not for lack of rainfall!  This was in March, but January and February, normally drier months were extremely wet this year (2018).

As I guzzled my juice and inhaled my sandwich, I started to feel much better. A light mist  further moistened my already damp clothing and I inhaled deeply of the pure fresh air emanating from the flow of the falls. “Birdy, I am really sorry,” I confessed,” I’ve had the “loosey-gooseys” (diarrhea) for a few days and I really wasn’t very strong this morning. I almost told you I couldn’t go over those big rocks, but I just listened to you and followed your steps, and I made it!” Birdy smiled as he said, “I had no idea.  But you know, with hiking, sometimes it is as much mental as it is a physical effort.  If you psyche yourself to do it, then you can!”  Truer words were ne’er spoken!

While we rested and ate lunch  overlooking this sensational site, a visitor from China came along.  She appeared to have been running, and when we made her acquaintance, she admitted to being an athlete.  She really enjoyed the trail, but only stayed for a few minutes at the falls while Birdy and I took pictures of her (at her request, on her camera) as she posed like a model with the falls as her backdrop.  Then our guest was off, with me cautioning her to “be careful!”  We did not see her again, so she must have run the entire way back as well!

The different moods of Middleham Falls:

                   Left: November 2014;    Centre: May 2015;     Right: March 2018.

The return journey was much easier for me.  I really felt rejuvenated and re-energized at the falls: a total tonic for what had ailed me!  We refilled our water bottles at a spring not far from the falls and I drank deeply of this pure water, high in the mountains of Dominica.   Along the way back, I bounced over the steps, chatted merrily and seemed to have found my old self in these sensational surroundings.  But the lessons never stopped – and Birdy continually pointed out many natural wonders – birds, trees, plants and fruits of the forest while we appreciated the changed, but constantly amazing beauty of the Nature Island.

After this amazing journey, I was more than ready for the next one in a week’s time:  the stunning  Emerald Pool!

“Nature is resilient,” according to Dr. Birdy, and as evidenced by these plants and flowers in regrowth on the Middleham Falls trail in March 2018:

**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: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm