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Fear of Heights

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Let's talk about fear. A little fear is good. A little fear keeps us on our toes, keeps us functioning above resting state. A lot of fear can be paralyzing.

We all have our monkeys. Mine are deep ocean water, tornadoes and heights. I mean, those are the major, environmental ones. Then there are clowns. But we won't talk about clowns here.

Pretty much every foreign trip has a moment that feels like Outward Bound for Zick. Maybe it's bargaining a vendor down in a crowded marketplace where nobody speaks English. Maybe it's getting everything I've bought back into my stanky suitcase for the ride home. Maybe it's just trying to make it through a day afield with dysentery. Or maybe it's having to cross narrow, swinging, slippery wet canopy walkways in an evening thunderstorm. Yeah, that's it. Crossing narrow, swinging, slippery wet canopy walkways in an evening thunderstorm.

At Atta Canopy Tower Camp, there is a system of walkways strung through the tops of forest giants, I don't know how many feet above the forest floor. It's way higher than our 42' tall birding tower, high enough to ensure that if you fell you'd be a spot of grease on the forest floor. I'd heard a lot about canopy tower walkways, but had never been on one. I'd never actually wanted to be on one. My time had come. Everybody else was going, so I did, too.

Erica tripped over them like a cat.
Mike was completely laden with optics and (eek!) tripod, but he gamely pressed on. He didn't enjoy it much more than I did, and I know I wouldn't have attempted it with that much luggage.
This is Weedon's I'mnothavingfunrightnow face. Nobody caught mine, thank goodness. Mike, I'm sorry. But I have so many good pictures of you I am shamelessly exploiting you without your consent. Hope that's OK.
Crossing canopy walkways is all in a day's work for Kevin Loughlin. Here he comes, relaxed as rain, and also toting much photographic gear in those giant vest pockets. He's a wonderful cheerleader for the timid. (and taking trips to Guyana with Wildside Nature Tours).
Ron Allicock was unfazed, but then he's a guide. This is what he does.
The guide in the foreground was a major designer and construction engineer of the walkway. He told me about shooting lines up into the trees, hoisting other lines, climbing with spikes and other gear, driving anchors into the trunks, all of it dangling perilously above the unforgiving earth. He walked those swinging paths with the nonchalance of a jaguar. He is made of much stronger stuff than I.

I figured out that the only way to get through it was as fast as I could, just taking one step forward at a time, then stringing those steps together into a journey. photo by Kevin Loughlin

The only way forward is straight ahead. But sometimes it is very difficult.

All told we made two forays to the canopy walkways. I wish I could say we saw loads of amazing birds from there--I understand that often one does--but it rained nearly the whole time we were there and things were comparatively quiet.
There were some very impressive pods, dangling like an interrupted phone call, which we'd never have seen from below.
Ron told me they suddenly pop open when they're ready to shed their seeds, and the seeds go flying in all directions. Ow! Bananas gone wild.
Far below, there were bits of giant exotic tree flowers, I knew not what sort.
There were bullet ants on the tree trunk. The bullet ant's sting is so painful that Makushi Indians use a bullet ant bite as part of a male initiation ceremony.
For painful initiation, crossing five swinging walkways, each one longer than the last, over dizzying dark leafy heights is plenty enough for the Science Chimp. I made it, twice over.
Photo by Kevin Loughlin

Posting from the Apple Store in Columbus, where my friendly geniuses have concluded that I have a major chip issue in my Mac PowerBook. It started in a downpour in Guyana and it hasn't gotten any better. She's been spontaneously shutting down and that, my friends, is a drag on the creative spirit. So I bid her adieu for five to seven days of under-warranty massage, and somehow cope with the old G-5 desktop that smells like burning wires and whines like a lonely hyena. Many thanks to Jaime and Kevin for handholding, cord-replacing (durn macaw!) and general good vibes. It's good to have Geniuses who read yer blog, especially as I descend into LAS (laptop separation anxiety).

If all goes well I will transport the semi-conscious, jetlagged carcass of Bill of the Birds from the airport safely home to Whipple this afternoon. Those of you who travel by air know how much is encoded in the phrase "if all goes well." Let's just say I left the kids with their grandparents. Could be a rough ride.


Oh, I am with you, Science Chimp. My toes curl when I watch someone on TV navigating heights.
And I am someone who grew up rock climbing, big rocks, and chimney stacking and all.
But I am proud of you--several trips back and forth high above the forest floor.

Now, what's this about clowns?

"Then there are clowns."
LOL, thanks for my GUFFAW of the day, if not week!
And this entire post was easily the most entertaining thing I've read today.

Clowns....shiver. Who the hell would ever want to be a clown?

You know, if you click on the photos of you crossing the bridge, you can almost make out the white knuckles.

Please post away! Who needs consent? Please show me in all my terrified agony (but I bet no one says I look cute, now...). But NEVER send in the clowns!
ps I wonder what would happen to the fear-tension if it started raining and more than one person was on the ropeway at a time...

Can't do it.

I repeat.


You would have had to leave me behind, as I would never have made it over that tiny spiderweb bridge.

You should have seen me climbing a 14ft ladder for a peep into a Barn Owl nest. I took off everything that dangled (camera, bins, fanny pack, name tag on a cord around my neck) to avoid being entangled in the splinters of the wooden ladder. Hauling all that gear through the treetops? No way!

Leave me to die from starvation, dehydration, ant bites and seed shrapnel. I ain't ever gonna do that climb.


Dang, didn't know so many of my friends were also afraid of clowns.

I am happy to report that Bill is home, tusslin' with Baker, kissing the kids, waiting for his spaghetti. Healthy and alive but very, very tired, he stayed awake all the way home yakking, and made me laugh a whole lot with his renditions of Filipino krokey.

Hey, I thought you looked a little greenish but OK, brave one. And you did it - s'what counts! Bill spent a long time brooding over the cable thickness and attachment hardware. And I was a dancer, loved it, loved it all up there in the trees with all the birds!

Well, you people have forced me to look up "fear of clowns" on the Web and of course it turns out there IS a name for it, "Coulrophobia."
Here's a wikipedia entry (there's a lot more info if you google it):

You people are NUTS! ;-)

Oh Julie, you done good....hiking over those tall, swinging footbridges. I'll climb a tree, a ladder or my TV antenna tower, but they're all stationery. High swinging bridges are definitely the stuff of nightmares for me.

Oh my goodness, I've been on something very similar but I could not imagine doing it during a thunderstorm. Wow. That would indeed be scary. (When I first stepped on to a canopy bridge, my immediate thought was, my mother could never do this.)

There are few things that could compel me to cross that bridge.
1) To save the lives of my husband, children, or dogs.
2) At gunpoint to save myself.
3) If I had a clown standing on my side of that bridge.

You are one brave soul. I am reeling just looking at the photographs.

Heights? I can't even look at that photo of you looking poised and confident without feeling sick. If there's a slippery canopy walkway in WV, count me out. I'd drop to my hands and knees and beg to be blindfolded.

I wish your Mac a quick recovery and Bill a safe homecoming.

I loved this post. Let's talk about clowns one day.

Now what would have really been entertaining is if clown showed up on one of the walkways...I bet you'd have made record time going across!

Cool post...

Congrats on facing your fears Julie. I guess I won't be seeing you any time soon at the Hocking Hills Canopy Tours, though? (Zip-lining through the tree tops near Logan? No? Okay, maybe birding by ear at the Wilds, then? That's a nice land-based activity that will keep you close to home!) Glad to hear Bill o' the Birds made it home safe and sound.

BTW, my word verification is "crawp." Did you utter something like that as you went over those bridges?




Clowns don't scare me.
Monkeys do.

I'm not big on heights myself ... but as for dysentery ... you just might try taking along some activated charcoal tablets. Just so you don't think I'm crazy, they use charcoal sluries in emerg for for drug ODs and poison ... the charcoal absorbs all the bad stuff and voila ... you are on your feet again. Check out your local health food store for some. Also good, made into a plaster for insect bites ... to draw out the poison.

Julie, I got the willies just looking at all your pictures of crossing that bridge. Not quite sure I could have done it! But the reward of crossing the bridge with you was worth it. The rest of your journey's photos were superb. I esp. liked the hanging pods, and your are truly gifted.

A day later and still love this post and all the comments, and seriously JZ, almost think there might be a little children's book in here about conquering one's fears (check with your agent).
Still LOL too that people are afraid of clowns (is that a female thing or what?!); there's gotta be a doctoral dissertation in that as well!
spiders -- yes!!
clowns -- huhhh??
Carry on...

Cyberthrush, I think, at least for me, it's the big slooby mouth that reminds me of overdone lipstick, the white face, and the exaggerated motions, and the thought that the clown might try to engage me in an exchange that would be embarrassing.

Heights are much more straightforward.

Has anyone checked out the link to the etrade Baby ad (click on the word clown in the text of the blog)? We are not alone.

The keyword here is "thunderstorm". Being part of the sky in a storm is not even sane. How you did that I can't even fathom! Brave girl!

If you go for a nightwalk in the canopy, watch out for paper wasps. They get disturbed by bright lights after dark- if you go up there with your headlamp, wasps may attack your face. They're even worse than clowns.

Now don't get me started on escalators!

But how about clowns on a canopy bridge doing Filipino karaoke?

I would jump off the bridge. Thanks for the Roastaroma tea on the screen, LOG.

OH. MY. GOD. Gimme the scary clowns over those crazy little walkways any day! My respect for you has just increased a trillion-fold. I would've been paralyzed, left behind with KatDoc to die.

And love love love "dangling like an interrupted phone call." You are a champion wordsmith. But then--you already knew that!

BTW, at a party the other night, a friend was talking about something or other and mentioned "this great great lady on NPR that does commentaries--Zicka something?" and was flabbergasted when I not only knew who you were but actually knew you. She said to pass along her love of your commentaries!

Some of our best birding in Costa Rica was on the canopy tour.

Bood luck with BOTB.

As a P.S. to my unseemly crowing about dancing on the bridges, I would absolutely brown my pants if I had to garden with copperheads.

As a badge-carrying acrophobe with an enourmous mistrust of clowns (ohhh the dark side of the human spirt) I loved this post. I think the canopy walk might have been ok as long as I was carried by four people. Canopy towers are another story. Once I get to the top - I really do believe I cannot get down and, more so, that some unseen force is pushing me from behind.

That looks like fun, Julie. I'm glad you braved it so you could share it with us. I have no problem with heights and think this would be loads of excitement.

Oh, and the bullet ants. That would be memorable, although not in a good way. I've read they climb all the way to the top of the canopy. I'm wondering if they ever pose a problem with the walkway system...

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