School's Out For Summer
At first it seemed the beast was deliberately antagonizing me, with its mocking howls echoing for miles. Suddenly, I spotted his full head, which appeared with a surprised expression. I was thrilled to meet my ancient cousin. And, just when I thought I had reached the height of wildlife-spotting fortune, the clownish grin of a three-toed sloth came into view; the "lazy animal" (his nickname amongst the indigenous people) only leaves the top of his canopy perch for a weekly defecation ceremony.
High Energy Adventure
While it may not have been a thoroughly relaxing trip, it was just the perfect tempo for an energetic family like ours.
In fact, I was in Central America to teach photography along with my father for Tauck Bridges- a fun-filled, family-focused program run by a high-end, luxury tour company (You can watch my photo/video presentation about the trip here- http://bit.ly/ontJsd). With my mom an accomplished writer, and my dad an award-winning travel journalist, I have been part of a creative and artistic family since birth. Becoming a photographer was a natural path and seemed an obvious progression that was bound to happen. I got into the art young, having always been transfixed by my father's work.
The Adventure Continues
The end of our one-week Tauck adventure wasn't really the end of our Central American exploration, it was more like an introduction. Continuing our journey through Costa Rica, we made a luxurious two-day "pit stop" at the Tabacon Resort and Spa. Situated near Arenal Volcano, this dreamlike lodge hosts an array of luxuriant lava-fed hot spring pools and waterfalls deep within the rain forest.
On To Nicaragua
After several soaks, I had the realization that we were only five hours away from another intriguing nation--- a melting pot of indigenous Latin culture--- Nicaragua. I looked north towards the horizon, longing to experience a new nation.
But the next morning, like out of a Biblical passage, it became so. My parents arranged a vehicle that whooshed us north beyond the borders of customs and immigration, and toward fabled Lake Nicaragua. We passed the jade-colored waters of the only freshwater lake in the world that sharks inhabit, before arriving at the colorful lakeside town of Granada.
"The rocking chair capital of the world," my dad proclaimed, as he observed the presence of that swaying furniture on every residential stoop. I watched as elderly ladies consumed their dinners while rocking away in the doorways of their simple homes. A palpable energy pervaded the nearby market, chock-a-block with live fowl, spicy fragrance, narrow alleyways and frantic hubbub. Straddling the equator, tropical daylight here seems far too short, and this day was becoming shorter and darker as a violent storm ripped across the sky. We had to make the voyage toward the center of Lake Nicaragua in a small boat. As we made our journey across a windswept bay, a waterfall of rain doused our heads and poured on top of the vessel. We finally chugged our way to a Shangri-La--- the only lit island on the horizon of this monstrous lake.
Jicaro Ecolodge is a magical and hidden paradise in the middle of a spectacular volcano-dotted lake. Jicaro was the perfect, relaxing escape from the crowds of the city and the now cascading deluge. That night, the sounds of chirping insects and gulping frogs enveloped us as we indulged in a mouth-watering feast of local cuisine in Jicaro’s open-air dining room. The next morning I acknowledged the sad truth: we had only one day left. But in the Guttman family, no hour goes to waste. So we tried to cram yet more adventures into the trip.
The Powerful Masaya Volcano
On our last day, we kayaked to a secluded area of the lake, where through a small opening in the marsh grass, we were permitted access to a secret hot spring. In that small cove, we swam and relaxed before hiking the winding trails in search of wildlife. To finish off the afternoon, we got up close and personal with the active, belching, powerful Masaya Volcano. As night approached, we descended beneath the edges of Masaya’s crater and trekked through a forbidding bat cave. Our footsteps moved closer to the edge of the pitch-dark cavern and like a scene cut from a horror movie, thousands of bats screamed out of the cave and flew right at me. Crashing into my hardhat, the vampire bats flooded the air and caused the others around me to scream. To make matters scarier, another torrential downpour suddenly began. We managed to dodge a porcupine and get away from the cave, but we still had to somehow get down from atop the crater in the dark.
Beyond The Lava
As we reached our car, the visibility dwindled down to zero. The rain had mixed with steaming lava to create a thick sulphuric whiteout fog. It was so bad that our guide had to direct the car down the road on foot in the middle of the raging lightning storm. Save the bolts lighting the slopes, I could see nothing. All I heard was our guide and driver screaming frantically in Spanish as we slowly crept our way down the mountain. Suddenly, we hit a big bump and I heard a loud thump. Everyone had a shocked expression across their faces. My heart rocketed out of my body as I thought we had fallen off the cliff edge into a chasm of lava. My dad opened the door to double check. It seemed we were still firmly on the road and okay. After playing hide and seek with Mother Nature we finally made it to the bottom. Safe.
Back at home, I had a chance to reflect. School may be just around the corner again, but as Mark Twain once said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Chase Guttman is a passionate and talented photographer, political junkie, intrepid explorer, and world traveler. Chase visited more than 35 countries, 45 U.S. states, and 8 Canadian provinces by the time he was 12. All photographs that accompany this story are his. Find out more at www.ChaseGuttman.com.
For many families, summer is a time of transition. Family schedules and structures take on new shapes and sizes. When September rolls around, will there be more school supplies to buy? Or will the nest soon be emptying? This year, the warm summer breeze reminds me of an adventure we experienced years ago.
Not far down the sandy bank, I could see my 18-year-old son Alex rhythmically casting his fly into the Salmon River, intent on luring a trout. He was tanned and relaxed. His smile came easily as his angling efforts paid off.
I was looking for some uncomplicated time with my middle son before he went off to college. Perhaps selfishly, I wanted his full attention. Not those moments diluted by phone calls or text messages, the lure of the evening’s social activities or side glances to catch the latest on ESPN. So off to the wilderness we went.
Our backcountry choice was the Salmon River, referred to as the River of No Return by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. What we found in Central Idaho was a river corridor of exceptional beauty meandering through two million acres of wilderness, exciting whitewater, calm river pools, white sand beaches, and traces of American history not likely found in any other river valley in North America.
I was more than willing to share our time on the water with my youngest son Ted, who was about to miss his older brother as much as I would. From Boise, we climbed aboard a plane so small it felt like a bathtub toy. And we seemingly floated into Salmon, Idaho after enjoying up close and exhilarating views of the rugged mountain wilderness near Stanley and Sun Valley.
We were met by our charming host Wayne Johnson, owner of Salmon River Rafting, who would eventually impress us as a jack of all river trades. He informed, organized and otherwise herded us from our Salmon hotel to the water’s edge.
We were in the good company of a father, his son and two grandsons from Michigan, a couple from Minneapolis and our guides Wayne, Steve and Megan. Once afloat, our group of ten was dispersed among two kayaks, a rubber raft and the swift boat that carried our supplies down river.
Some of us were eager for the extra challenge (and exercise) provided by the kayaks. Others were just as content to relax in the boat, enjoying the near perfect weather and the surrounding Frank Church Wilderness. That is until we heard the rumble of rushing water ahead.
From the beginning, our guides carefully coached us to take the white water seriously and keep our feet first and down river should we end up in the drink. And it was a good thing!
Over the course of five days, rapid after rapid, we screamed, splashed, strategized and steered our way in and around giant boulders, swirling holes, and foamy waves that crashed over our heads.
My kayak partner Mark and I high-fived in pride for having stayed right side up more often than my two muscular teens traveling in tandem.
Evenings were spent enjoying hearty food prepared by Wayne and his capable crew, then stories and poems around the campfire, and the company of our fellow adventurers. The biggest decision of the day was whether to assemble the tent or enjoy a peaceful night under the stars.
Wayne Johnson is a veteran of the river, having spent most of his adult life guiding through this wilderness corridor. His love for the flowing water, the natural surroundings and the significant history provides tremendous added value to the trip. As travelers on the Main Salmon River we found ourselves immersed in an historical gold mine with Wayne as our guide, telling tales of hermits and homesteaders, while leading us past grave markers and abandoned log cabins. We saw Indian pictographs and happily immersed ourselves in hot springs considered medicinal by the early Indian settlers.
On our final afternoon, Alex and I headed up a small creek from our campsite and spent the afternoon gleefully catching the most colorful trout either of us had ever seen. It was one of those magical afternoons, suspended in time, only the wilderness can provide.