Arabella Chen and Annie Lee
The Things We Do for Cochas: Camping 101
We have spent a large chunk of our trip seeking, bushwhacking toward and sampling cochas. A cocha is a horseshoe-shaped lake that forms as the river shifts. Cochas are crucial to our Bass Connections project here in the Peruvian Amazon because a) they are partially isolated from the river, which means they might show historical mercury trends in the river and b) cochas are more anoxic than the main river due to less oxygenation and thus, we predict that they will have higher levels of methyl mercury.
Methyl mercury is a form of mercury that is toxic and bioavailable to organisms, therefore impacting the ecosystem and humans more than other forms of mercury. In low oxygen environments, the microbes that produce methyl mercury from other forms of mercury are more active, resulting in higher concentrations of this toxic form. At cochas, we have been taking sediment and water samples, measuring conductivity and pH, and filtering water for total suspended solids and chlorophyll content. We have also been following this same procedure along the main stem of the river, so that we can compare the data back at Duke.
While the sampling itself is fairly straightforward, getting to the cochas is easier said than done. We have sampled 19 cochas as of today, and they were all selected using satellite imagery from recent years. The images tell us when they were formed and approximately where they’re located – approximately being the key word because the riverbed is constantly moving and changing the distance to the cocha while some cochas are filling in with sediments and plants along the perimeter. So, when we arrive at the closest location to the cocha by boat, we actually find the cocha by traveling on foot.
For the first few cochas, we ended up bushwhacking through the extremely dense, insect-riddled rainforest, following the newly macheted trail created by our fearless boat driver, Pancho. While effective, it’s slow going; it can take upwards of an hour to bushwhack one kilometer, or 0.6 miles through the dense rain forest. After bushwhacking to a few cochas only to discover a wide motorcycle trail also leading to the cochas, we have learned our lesson and now ask locals if a trail exists (or we search fervently for a trail) before proceeding on our journey. We then take advantage of these forest trails created by loggers and plantation owners to get to our destination.
The point is, cocha hunting/trekking/sampling takes a lot of time. Even when we get up early, move fast on the trail and efficiently sample, we can only achieve a maximum of two cochas a day. Thus, instead of staying in hostels, we camp on beaches along the river so that we can minimize our travel time and maximize our sampling time.
So what does camping in the Amazon entail? Well, let us inform you. We proudly present Camping 101: Peruvian Amazon Edition.
Always, always, turn off the light when entering and leaving the tent. We cannot stress this enough…unless you want an entire colony of mosquitoes and sand flies in your tent. Sand flies, for our camping newbies, are tiny gnat-looking creatures that appear harmless but savagely attack you to suck your blood, leaving small red dots that last weeks. They are to be avoided at all costs.
P.S. Bug spray does not deter them, so please turn off your light. Red light is okay.
Avoid cooking rice and lentils. The local grocery store may or may not rip you off and tell you that you should cook a kilo of rice to feed eight people. A kilo of rice does not feed eight. It feeds an entire village. You do not want to be stuck eating day-old goopy rice that has been marinating in your Tupperware under the hot sun. No siree. Cook pasta instead.
Take a bathroom 101 course (coming soon to a blog post near you) before you go camping. Or don’t go to the bathroom at all and be severely constipated.
Make sure to check for animals before using the bathroom. We made eye contact with two caimans hanging out in the river in front of us.
Always bring your own toilet paper or be prepared to use a leaf.
When it’s dark, no one can see you – so everywhere becomes your bathroom. (Maybe take a few steps away from your tent, though).
There comes a time when you must choose between taking a shower after four days of sweaty cocha sampling or sacrificing your limbs to the whims of the insects waiting to attack you. It feels great to shower in the river; the water is cool and refreshing, and your hair feels like greased spaghetti so you really should shower. It just comes at a price. Be warned. May you move fast, dear camper.
Baby wipes! Bring about a million of them for nonshower days, a.k.a. most days. Great for wiping away mud, sweat and tears.
If possible, camp during a friaje (a cold front that follows rain during the dry season). You can wrap yourself in a blanket to stay warm AND keep the bugs away from your body. Amazing.
Don’t get sand stuck in your tent zipper. You want that sucker to close. Enough said.
We know the list above is a little daunting but no matter what, don’t abandon camping! Whether the camping is in the name of science or for leisure, once you get the hang of it, camping is really cool. You bond immediately with your camping mates. You see spectacular sunrises and sunsets. You get to practice your cooking skills because no matter how your food tastes, that’s all you have to eat.
In our case, camping got us amazing data from the cochas.
Our biggest tip is to be open-minded and flexible, because even with our comprehensive guide, your experience will still be unpredictable. Some days, you might stumble out of your tent at 5:00 a.m., bushwhack for two hours and find no cocha. Other days, you might see a lobo del rio (giant river otter) swimming near you at the cocha. All you can do is bring all the gear you think you’ll need and enjoy the ride! So, happy camping!
And one final tip: ALWAYS remember to look up at the stars.
The authors do not take responsibility for any bug bites incurred while following the above guide.