Pontianak to Sukadana: through the mangroves at high speed

It has been a while since I’ve written a new post.  Quite a bit has happened in the last few weeks, the key bit being that the position in Borneo has fallen apart on me unexpectedly shortly after arriving in Indonesia.

Despite the unexpected disappointment there was a lot to see and experience.  I last left off in Pontianak, a rough and tumble Indonesian city in West Kalimatan, a hardy workman’s city perched on the borders of one of the largest rivers in Borneo.  The name, Pontianak, refers to a specific type of vampire, a woman who died in childbirth, a somewhat strange thing to name a city after.

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

To get from Pontianak to Sukadana one may either take a round-about bus that runs over poorly maintained roads and may not make it during the rainy season, or a boat that races through broad channels in the mangrove swamp.  The slow boat takes more than a day and the speedboat takes between 5 and 6 hours, more if either of the two massive outboard engines are damaged by the numerous floating logs in the water or fouled by vegetation, old fishing nets, or garbage.

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

I had been expecting the boat to head out into the ocean and run down the coast.  I was pleasantly surprised that the route ran along the interior channels of the Kapuas River delta  instead.

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana.  Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana. Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Mangroves are one of the most mysterious and interesting ecosystems to me, perhaps because I have spent so little time in them and because there are so few intact mangrove forests left in the world.  In terms of carbon sequestration mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon storage.  Mangroves are the nursery for many species of fish and crustaceans, and protect coastal areas from storm surges and tsunamis.

The center for diversity of mangroves is in South East Asia where there are some 40 or so tree species from a variety of families that all have adopted the “mangrove” lifestyle.  Trees falling into the general category of mangroves share a number of features despite coming from different families; some form of air-breathing apparatus on the roots (stilts, knees, aerial roots, root spikes that lift above the mud, etc), high tolerance to salt, and floating fruits/seeds.

One of the more interesting plants in the mangrove forest is the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans).

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

This palm is unusual in several ways.  It often grows in areas where the trunk is completely submerged for long periods, making me wonder how it establishes itself in the first place.  This in and of itself is only mildly remarkable, what is truly odd is that the trunk is horizontal, growing underground, parallel to the surface, with all the greenery visible comprised of individual fronds acting as mini-trees growing from a single stalk.  In some ways the growth habit of this palm is more like that of a fern than a palm.

The fruits form in a large round mass, a little bigger than a basketball, divided into fist-sized floating seeds that break off and float away, sometimes germinating while still afloat.  The flower stalks are rich in sugar and this is one of the palms used to make palm sugar, a laborious process akin to making maple sugar, but limited to collecting sap from the flower stalks rather than tapping the tree.  Some studies indicate that this palm has a promising potential for biofuel production, but the process of cultivating or collecting enough to make this feasible would spell ecological devastation for immense regions of sensitive and already threatened habitat.

Mangrove forests are one of the most imperiled and under appreciated ecosystems in the world.  They are limited to tropical and near tropical regions.

Mangrove forest distribution from Charter Science

Many of the great tropical fisheries of the world owe their existence to mangrove forests; they provide nursery grounds for many aquatic species.  When mangrove forests are cleared to make room for development or for the shrimp farms that feed the developed nation’s voracious consumption of shrimp and prawns, these fish nurseries wither away, taking with them the tropical fisheries hundreds of millions of people rely on for their primary source of dietary protein.

Mangrove forests are found in low-lying, flat areas, areas subject to immense tidal run-ups, storm surges, and, in earthquake prone regions, areas where tsunamis can travel great distances inland.  The presence of mangroves acts as a buffer to these great movements of water, protecting both inland environments and human settlements.

In Southeast Asia the mangrove forests themselves provide a number of immediate resources for local people, including food, building supplies, medicines, and protected navigable waterways.

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

As in all areas people must make a living.  For some the only option is land clearing, whether for agriculture or timber.  In the Indonesian mangrove forests land is cleared for rice agriculture, aquaculture, and logging, primarily illegal.  Logging in this area is an enormous problem.  Large rafts of logs are often seen moored on the banks of the rivers and small-scale loggers carry short logs to local mills.

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

Nearly all the current logging in Indonesia is illegal.  The legal logging concessions have been cleared, in many cases converted to palm oil agriculture.  New land is legally cleared for palm oil, but current regulations prohibit the felled wood from being sold, thus this wood is often destroyed, resulting in an increased spread of illegal logging.

It is a cycle difficult to break.

In these areas dry land is a rare commodity and whole villages rest on stilts rising over the rivers and soggy ground.  Boats and motorcycles are the primary methods of transport, motorcycles being driven over narrow plank walkways with a casualness that makes the uninitiated cringe and wonder how many motorcycles lie in the mud at the bottom of the river.

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

The trip from Pontianak to Sukadana took a little more than 5 hours, an exhilarating 5 hours spent zipping through wide channels amongst one of the more interesting and briefly glimpsed ecosystems it has been my privilege to view first-hand.  I desperately want to go back to a diverse mangrove forest and spend months at a time clambering about, exploring and learning how it functions, but that will now have to wait until some undefined time in the future.

For this job in Indonesia I sold many of my things, put the rest in storage, spent a lot of money I would not have otherwise spent, and tossed my life in the blender with the assurance that the next step on my career path was well and firmly in hand.  Instead of an interesting and tasty life-shake emerging from the blender, the blender was casually and abruptly knocked off the counter, leaving my plans and work spread across the metaphorical floor in a sticky mess from which I am now attempting to salvage what I can.

Back to the job hunt, back to evaluating my life choices, back to laughing at the impracticality of my dreams.

Despite all, I had an opportunity few ever have and was able to see things most never even think about.  For that I am grateful.

Make the jump, take the risk.  If you make that leap you don’t know where you will land, but if you don’t nothing interesting will ever happen.


From Madrid to Kuching: new places, new sights, & oil palm plantations

I am nearly at my final destination. The little town of Sukadana in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is only two more hops away, either a flight or bus ride, followed by a speedboat ride down the west coast of Borneo, a ride that passes through mangrove swamps and over muddy sea water.

At the moment I am in the city of Kuching (Cat City), in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Indonesian border is to the south and east, not far way, hidden by mountains and clouds. The province takes its name from the slow moving Sarawak river that runs through Kuching. As you might imagine, this part of the world is heavily boat centered.

River boat on the Sarawak in Kuching, Malyasia

River boat on the Sarawak in Kuching, Malyasia

The trip from Madrid to Kuching was an extension of the now ludicrous collection of hiccups, trials, and frustrations that have ridden on my coat-tails ever since I was nearly prevented from boarding the plane from Los Angeles to Madrid. Fortunately, these obstructions have only added spice to an unexpectedly fantastic voyage so far, full of delightful surprises, wonderful people, excellent food, and meat for a rich assortment of unbelievable stories.

I took Qatar Airways from Madrid, paying more in baggage fees than for my ticket (moving over-seas has even more unexpected expenses than regular moves do), caught the sunset from 35,000 feet over North Africa, a glowing pink/purple-amber layer of clouds that swiftly fell into gray, then black, and changed planes in the Doha airport. The flight path dodged and jinked in order to stay out of, let’s say “difficult”, airspace.

Qatar Airways flight path from Madrid to Doha

Qatar Airways flight path from Madrid to Doha

From Doha to Kuala Limpur, through immigration, then on Malaysian Air to Kuching.

One of my first views of Malaysia was of the vast oil palm plantations surrounding the Kuala Limpur airport.

Oil palm plantations are increasingly wide-spread through South East Asia

Oil palm plantations are increasingly wide-spread through South East Asia

The world appetite for palm oil is vast and ever growing. China and India use it for cooking, the US and Europe use it in shampoos, hand lotions, and face creams. All over the world is is added to foods, often called “coconut oil”, an act of creative labeling.

Enormous regions of diverse tropical forests are logged, razed to the ground, and replanted in monoculture stands of oil palms, stands that reach to the horizon in many areas. As one might imagine, the once great biodiversity of these areas drops precipitously.

Processing oil from the oil palms is labor intensive, requiring machinery that locals cannot afford and the process is only effective at a large scale. Thus, any money that is made from the oil palm industry remains in the hands of the investors and wealthy, with a miniscule portion of it dripping down to the people whose homes and land have been taken and transformed.

This is one of the great conservation concerns for the well being of both the people and biodiversity of South East Asia.

The plane lifted swiftly from Kuala Limpur, hiding the oil palm plantations under a dense layer of clouds that thinned once over the waters of the South China Sea. Several hours later I had my first sight of Borneo, my new home.

Mt Santubong, a small coastal mountain in Sarawak

Mt Santubong, a small coastal mountain in Sarawak

Just near the small mountain of Santubong, lies a town, not unlike the town that will be my new home.

The small town of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak at the base of Mt Santubong

The small town of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak at the base of Mt Santubong

I avidly peered out the window of the plane, in that awkward combination of a hunch and twist that you are forced into to see out of the tiny, smudged plane windows.

The rivers fascinated me. This part of the world receives an astounding amount of rain and even short rivers are wide with tremendous volumes of flow. Enormous amounts of sediment are carried by the waters, turning the sea around much of Borneo the color of hot chocolate. Some of the rivers originate in the flat areas and are nearly back from tannins released by decomposing vegetation. Each of these rivers leaves a swirling mark where it enters the ocean, and all twist and meander on their way to the sea.

Deep meanders as the rivers approach the sea

Deep meanders as the rivers approach the sea

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the southernmost province of Malaysian Borneo. It is a low, wet city with rainfall approaching 4.5 meters a year (depending on what source you read). This makes it one of the wettest cities on the planet, this morning and last night the thunder was frequent, shaking the buildings, and the rain violent in its path to the ground.

The riverfront has a nice park with shade trees and wide walk-ways. The humidity and heat lends itself to a rich collection of plants, of which ferns are well represented. Most of the river-front trees have climbing ferns creeping up them, some trees are completely covered by them.

Climbing ferns covering a small tree on the Kuching waterfront

Climbing ferns covering a small tree on the Kuching waterfront

Ornamental stands of Lipstick Palm (Cyrtostachys renda) add color to the walkways.

Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are planted in small stands

Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are planted in small stands

Bronze river dragons guard the banks of the Sarawak.

River dragon

River dragon

And Chinese temples have their own collection of guardians as well.

Chinese dragon guarding a Buddhist temple

Chinese dragon guarding a Buddhist temple

The internet connection at my hotel is growing erratic, so I will pause here and continue with another entry later.

I will be in Kuching for several more days, then, if all goes well and there are no other complications, on to Indonesia for both work and language school.


Meeting Bears

I like bears.  I like a lot of animals, but bears are special and I have been fortunate enough to have a number of close encounters with bears in a great number of places.  Some of these encounters have been humorous and some exciting.  Mistaking a beaver carrying a log through the underbrush for a grizzly in interior Alaska in an area where grizzly encounters have been, well… grisly, was an occasion for much relieved laughter.  Waking up in the mountains of northern California to a black bear pawing my shoulder through the tent wall sent my pulse racing and elevated me into the small group of people who have actually punched a bear.  I briefly worked in Ecuador following and catching Spectacled Bears (Tremarctos ornatus) in the Andean cloud forests.  When I was little my nick-name was Little Bear due to my love of climbing trees and the immense amount of honey that I ate, and still eat to this day.

As I said, I like bears, they feel like family.

Spring has come to Vermont and all sorts of plants and animals are waking up.  The fields are green and full of flowers, and this greenery draws animals.  On Sunday I ran across a female black bear with a single cub in a field next to my house.  I was returning from buying groceries and she was eating hers, a mid-day salad of grass and dandelions.

Female black bear and cub

I pulled into my driveway, ran inside to grab my camera, and jogged back down the road to watch her.  Shortly after I arrived a car stopped on the road next to the field and the skylined car scared her.  She gathered her cub and retreated into the forest.  Roughly toward my house.

One of the secrets to following animals is to give them time.  If they are startled and you hurry after them they will run further.  It’s a little like when you meet someone you’re interested in, you can’t push too hard, people and animals need their space.

After lunch I strolled into the forest.  There are many ways of walking and many ways of looking.  My preferred way is to let my feet and subconscious carry me along at a slow, quiet pace.  Inevitably I wind up walking on subliminally visible game trails.  Frequent pauses to look, listen, and sniff the air set a broken rhythm that seems to set animals at their ease.

Every time I cross an environmental dividing line, an ecotone, I pause.  Standing in the shade of the trees before entering a field, for example, lets you and everything else adjust.

The little trail my feet had been following had a few piles of old bear scat and some odd little fresh tears in the duff layer… maybe from a playful cub?  The trail led to the edge of a small forested wetland and I paused, looking, listening, and smelling.

Momma bear in the woods

There she was.

Black Bears (Ursus americanus) are an amazingly successful species, despite all we have done to wipe them out over the years.  Bears in general are extremely successful, but black bears are apex generalists.  They are large and powerful enough that few animals will pester them, can eat everything from pine cones to grubs to freshly caught fish and small mammals.  If they find carrion they will happily eat that with no ill effects, and they are intelligent enough not just to raid our garbage cans, but to know what models of cars are easiest to break into and how to follow ropes to where they are tied when we hang food.  They are strong enough to tear logs apart and shatter car windows with a push, but delicate and dextrous enough to open clams they have dug up and tins of food they have stolen from humans.

They are faster than we are, can smell absurdly well, something like 7 times better than a bloodhound, but have poor vision.

This female knew I was nearby.  Her sharp ears picked up my sounds, but I was down-wind and she couldn’t see me clearly.  She looked for me, even climbing a short way up a hemlock tree to get a better view.

A protective mother looking for me

Eventually the wind shifted and she caught my scent.  She swiftly trundled off.

To me bears are the wild people of the woods.  Gentle, wise, powerful, and deliberate.

Often when we encounter bears it is in a context where we have invaded their space and they are turning their talents to adapt to the changes we have imposed on them.  In those contexts neither the bears, nor ourselves know the rules of interaction.  We are both caught wrong-footed and the reactions of both parties are not what they should be.

If you are fortunate enough to encounter bears in their own habitats, and if you are comfortable there, the interaction is something else entirely.  It is an interaction of mutual respect and wary curiosity, two potentially powerful creatures meeting, aware of each other’s strength, each wise enough to not push the issue.

When you meet a bear, it is a privilege.


North American porcupines specifically…  Erethizon dorsatum to be even more specific.

I like porcupines. They are large and slow-moving, meaning that when you find a live one in the woods you can often get a really good look.  Their defense is to turn their back, erect their spines while periodically slapping their tails, and give you dirty looks.  Usually you will encounter them in a rocky den or in a tree, positions from which they will not flee.  On the ground they will scurry to a place where they can present you with their spines while hiding their faces.

They have a very good reason for this strategy, two really.  One is that their back and tail are densely covered in long, loosely held, barbed harpoons that will gradually work their way deeply into any flesh they encounter.  Many a dog owner will unhappily tell you of traumatizing encounters their dogs have had with porcupines, often followed by either a compliment for their dog’s learning ability for avoiding porcupines from that point on, or with a disgusted expression of affection for their dog despite its incredible stupidity for not learning to avoid porcupines after the third or fourth encounter.

To actually catch and kill a porcupine with your teeth and claws is a dangerous, potentially fatal proposition.  This brings us to the second reason porcupines huddle rather than run.  Their primary predator in New England, and in much of northern America, is the fisher (Martes pennanti), a weasel of largish stature, by weasel standards.  Contrary to what the fisher’s name suggests they are primarily forest and tree-dwelling animals and the only non-bipedal North American animal that regularly, and successfully, hunts porcupines.

Weasels are fast.  They are meat eaters.  They are the sports cars of the animal world; energy to burn, but you have to fill them up often with costly fuels.  They do not hibernate.

Porcupines are the electric forklifts of the animals world.  They are slow and they are tough.  They also do not hibernate.

One of the things that amazes me about porcupines is that, despite the low quality, high volume food they eat and the virtual lack of fur under the posterior spines, they remain active all through the winter.  They are large, for a rodent, just a little smaller than a modern American beaver, but they are not all that big.  A porcupine has about the surface area of two basket balls and slightly less volume.  When it’s -20F that’s a bad surface area to volume ratio to have, and a rock crevice, boulder cave, or hollow tree is  poor shelter from the cold.  They are tough creatures.

Unchecked porcupines can reach densities that make foresters tear their hair and reach for their guns.  They are not gregarious animals, neither are they particularly territorial.  Like many animals their willingness to tolerate others is resource dependent, and, in the absence of predators, in an area with sufficient resources such as food and denning sites they will proliferate.

This happened in New England after fishers were hunted to local extinction for their rich fur.  It’s actually more complicated than that, as the spread, species composition, and variation in age of the trees in the New England Forest underwent dramatic changes as the land was converted from Native American land to simple American land.  Fishers were killed and porcupine numbers skyrocketed.

In Vermont the damage to the regrowing forests was so great that fishers were reintroduced to the state in the late 50s.  Vermont, like many New England states had been paying a bounty on porcupines for decades before fisher reintroduction.  The bounties started off at 5 cents an ear (per pair I’d assume) and eventually reached 25 cents an ear.  By the time fishers were reintroduced Vermont Fish & Wildlife reports that around $160,000 had been paid out in bounties.  Think about that… that’s a lot of small change.

In any event, by the 70s fisher reintroduction was considered to be a success and porcupine numbers to be manageable, except for the odd dog owner or two.

So, why do I like porcupines?  Well, they’re an animal you can track easily, get close to, and spend time next to really studying.  How long can you stand next to a rabbit, trout, bear, or deer out in the wild?  I’ve stood watching rabbits 20 feet away for perhaps 30 minutes, but nearly had to hold my breath while each tiny movement of mine made them twitch and prepare to bolt.  Most of the time spent watching rabbits has been spent trying to be invisible and not think of them roasted over an open fire stuffed with potatoes, bacon, and onions basted with a thick rosemary – Dijon mustard – black pepper paste.  Animals can tell when you are thinking of eating them, I am convinced of it.

Porcupines are probably pretty good eating, but they are so easy to catch that many native tribes had taboos about catching them for food.  They were food for hard times, last resort stuff after all the animals you had to work to catch were gone.  Save the easiest for last, good advice in many situations.

You can get up to petting distance of a porcupine and sneeze and it won’t go far.  They’re wary, perhaps even afraid, but they have an effective defense and they know it.  You will eventually go away and they can get back to eating tasty bark, twigs, hemlock needles, and basswood buds.  At least, I hope porcupines think their food is tasty.

Perhaps most importantly, porcupines are part of the environment.  They also live on this planet.  They are part of its ecology.

This is important; they are part of how the environment (the discrete things out there) relates to itself (ecology).  Relationships, as I think we can all agree are complicated, sometimes non-intuitive, and riddled with hidden depths and counter currents.  When I look at a porcupine track I think of bobcats, fishers, trees, geology, land use, history, and everything those touch.

Like everything else, porcupines are a window into a larger world, if you allow them to be.