Tod and Lisa’s Year of Adventure

Life on the Road to Central America

Turning Around March 17, 2008

Filed under: panama — todandlisa @ 9:29 am


Heading back north (or west actually in Panama) we have had to confront some difficult emotions. The loss of Taku still weighs heavy on us. Thanks to all of you for the warm outpouring of sympathy we received. Turning around has reminded us that our time is shorter now and we are wanting to make every experience count.



Camping in Panama City, where we spent two weeks, was a giant parking lot by the marina. The views of the canal and free Wifi were great but we’re wilderness campers at heart. During this time, while waiting for new brakes to be ordered and Taku’s cremation to be completed, we took a few days away to journey to the Caribbean coast, only an hour away. We left the city and followed the canal through the countryside, stopping to watch the giant ships as they passed through the locks.

I (Tod) had met a New York real estate developer on the flight back to Panama who had some acreage near Maria Chiquita and he was generous enough to offer for us to camp on the land. Finally, a place we could get away from the city and have some quiet time. It was not quite what we anticipated though as the only flat spot for camping was in front of the caretakers home. With five kids and the typical sense of hospitality we were greeted warmly and entertained throughout the weekend.

The family were Colombian natives who maintained the property in exchange for housing. The father hunted for meals and the land and sea there is so rich with life that he could feed his entire family with just three days of hunting. It’s not just subsistence living either as we were treated to a rich array of dishes such as octopus soup and other delicacies.



With Betty, we have the kids fighting to do the dishes!

The kids of course were enamored of Alli and we had to stop them from running her into the ground with constant play. Our first morning there, when I woke up and opened the van door, I was surprised to find three of the kids lined up watching the van, quietly and patiently waiting for Alli to come out to play. That day they took us down to the ocean where we swam and played to our hearts content.




The kids at play in the lagoon near the ocean

Back in Panama City we wrapped things up and headed to the mountains of Boquete which were a welcome relief and more of the isolation we were seeking. We found some camping across from a small rockclimbing site, near a river that reminded us of the camping back home. I even managed to hook up with some local climbers long enough to wear myself out (one hard climb was all it took!) Boquete is a popular tourist area and, like many places in Panama, NorteAmericanos and Euros are moving in quickly. It’s popularity is deserved, beautiful hikes through mountain forests and visits to the local animal sanctuary kept us there for four days.

Wild camping (and our laundry) in Boquete



Lisa finds a friend (a baby howler monkey) in the Boquete animal sanctuary

One of our motivations for making it to Panama in the first place was to visit our friends Kim and Mary in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. I had known Mary professionally in Hailey before she and her husband moved to Panama four years ago. She sent me pictures of the island life that I kept on my desktop at work as inspiration during our year of preparation. We were excited to see the place for ourselves and hear of their experiences as transplants.



The hammock I had promised myself last winter I was going to sit in

Pulling Betty off of the ferry into Bocastown, the main town in the island group, Lisa and I quickly became aware of a suspicious looking gringo taking photos of the van. Seasoned in the way of the scam artists that frequent tourist towns by now, I wasn’t surprised when he approached us with a friendly smile and handshake. Wants to sell us some photos, I was thinking. Lisa was quicker than I was though, probably because she had actually heard him introduce himself as Kim. Ohhhhh, Kim, Mary’s husband. We hadn’t met before and he was kind enough to unexpectedly greet us as the dock. We all got a good laugh out of that and were shortly off to a cafe to get acquainted.

A little background about Bocas del Toro. It was a banana plantation for the United Fruit company until a disease wiped out all the bananas and operations moved to the mainland in the early 20th century. For the next 60 years or so it remained a backwater, even by Panamanian standards, as it is and was pretty remote. In the last couple of decades, first adventurous backpackers, then more mainstream travelers and now retirees are discovering the beautiful islands for themselves. A boat is more useful than a car here and they’ve only had cell phone service for a few years. It’s the beaches and the climate that draw the attention. The bay has mild cooling breezes with no recorded history of hurricanes. The white sand beaches stretch out into the shallow coral reefs that ring all the islands. On the ocean side of the main island Colon, waves kick up to give surfers a rush and four miles away, on the lee side, the sea is so tranquil we snorkel around in our own tropical swimming pool.


Kim and Mary’s beautiful island home

Mary and Kim live on Solarte, a nearby island ten minutes by launch, where they are finishing up their new home. Living off the power grid as they are can be an adventure anywhere and requires some lifestyle adjustments. Their views peek through the high canopy around them to capture the bay and their boat dock. Small but spacious, the living room sprawls out of the house and onto the porch engaging with all the life and activity outdoors. In fact the dinner table is on the deck, so close to the busy hummingbird feeders that you have to get used to the hum of nearby wings as you dine. Lisa and I both have some experience with alternative homes and off the grid living and we agree that these two are doing it right.

It was great to get to spend a few days with them, learning about their new lives, the rewards of making a dramatic change as they have. The tropics have their own challenges, scorpions in the living room, the constant battle with the jungle trying to reclaim the home. These two have met the difficulties with grace and tenacity, we learned a lot from them.



With Mary and Kim in Bocastown

From Bocas we returned to the highlands of Cerro Punta, just on the otherside of the Volcan Baru from Boquete. Cerro Punta had a more pastoral feel with farms and horse pastures dotting the valleys and hillsides. We spent several days camped at a park entrance underneath a tree that hosted Quetzales each morning and evening. The property caretakers where a wonderful old couple who were quite friendly but also gave us our space which was greatly appreciated. We spent the days hiking the mountain trails in the two national parks that bracket the valley.

Mountainside potato field in Cerro Punta



Another Panamanian friend

From there we reentered Costa Rica and headed to Finca Bellavista (a finca is a farm), a new development Lisa had discovered one of her internet searches. The owners Matt and Erica are starting the world’s first treehouse development and have a beautiful jungle property six miles from the coast that is ribboned with spectacular rivers and waterfalls. All of the development is done as sustainably as possible with solar already in and hydropower being built. Wood is harvested on site and the properties will be connected by a series of ziplines to speed access through the jungle.


The platforms that will become Matt and Erica’s treehouse

The project is in it’s infancy still with Matt and Erica just starting on their own tree house as well as some ziplines and community structures. The excitement is contagious though and they’ve already sold out of their phase 1 lots. The project is well thought out and I expect it to be a big success. We were only able to stay one night but during that time hiked a chunk of the property and visited some amazing swimming holes. Check out the details on their site, there’s a link on our sidebar.


This will be their view from the living room!

Our rush leaving the finca was to get to revisit our friend Billy in the nearby mountains. He was heading off to the capital to take his citizenship exam after over 20 years in Costa Rica. He generously offered us his house for the days he’d be gone. We caught up with Billy and some of the changes he’d made to his beautiful property. Did I mention his 40 foot waterfall? Costa Rica truly has some stunning scenery. We’ve enjoyed spreading out the last few days, with hikes and swimming holes for Alli right out the door.

As next week is Semana Sanata (Easter week) here, our plan is to head back to BellaVista to hide out. In Central America this week is the busiest week for travel of the year and more than a million people will be leaving the capital of San Jose for the beaches and parks. Enjoying the hikes and pools of the finca without the crowds should be a great way to spend the holiday!


In Memoriam: The Land of Endless Lakes March 4, 2008

Filed under: panama,Stories — todandlisa @ 12:22 pm


How can I start this? What can I say other than that a being of profound compassion, kindness and wisdom has taken the journey to the Land of the Endless Lakes?

That is how I see Taku now – swimming in circles, splashing and barking as the currents guide him down a wide river, steel blue and strong, Taku swimming, strong as he hasn’t in four years. A wide open sky of dancing white clouds mirrored against his chocolate curly fur, resilient to the water and wind, those very forces which tear at each of us, reshaping us into who we ultimately become in this world.

If he looked back on his years, I think he would agree they were good ones. The time spent curled up at the base of rock climbs waiting patiently for his parents to return. The time spent fording rivers and hiking in the wilderness – be it southern Utah or western Canada or central Idaho. The time spent curled up on the lambswool carpet in front of the gas stove. The time spent riding around in a vehicle – any kind would suffice – to bark at the world as it went by. The time spent standing on my yoga mat while I tried to do postures around him. The time spent barking in sync with the start of the van, cheering that we were – finally – going somewhere.

When I first saw him he was six weeks old. Too young to take home, with a temporary name of Two Spot. He was brought to a small shed area outside and Nike, the Samoyed we were taking care of, was so unnerved by this tiny creature who quietly, fiercely, sat down in front of him and just stared at him.

You had that feeling with Taku. Like he came in remembering some great secrets the rest of us live our whole lives to learn. He could see through you, see into you, and he still stayed beside you. Willing to be present to whatever pain or joy you brought to the table.

But his joy…his joy was a quiet, piercing type, punctuated by bursts of energy and running or swimming. Fetching? Beneath his dignity. Siblings? Tolerable, but annoying. Playing with other dogs? Come on now, he didn’t think he was a dog.

However, someone should always be present to play with him. And, forget the backyards and fences – even as a four year old he was insulted by the boredom of living locked away from the action. He would routinely push down the three foot high fence of my house in Boise only to be discovered when I returned from work sitting on the front porch. Not going anywhere. The view though, the view was so much more interesting.

This was common of him. If you forgot what he was capable of, he would remind you. One day I was called out on an engine fire call in Garden Valley, Idaho. Not knowing how long I would be gone – 2 hours or 12 hours – I tied him to the picnic table so the other crews in the area could feed him if I was gone long. When I came back, an hour later, he had chewed through his leash and was sitting, paws over the edge, on TOP of the picnic table.

He didn’t like to be left. That same summer I had a month long detail on a hotshot crew that meant he had to stay with friends who graciously took care of him. To this day he hadn’t forgiven me. We would visit them and he would be uneasy, watching me, watching the car, not getting far from the door. Refusing to be left.

There was only a handful of times when he was truly left. One was a summer when Kevin was smokejumping and I was heli-rappelling. The girls taking care of him moved to eastern Oregon to work for a general store in the middle of nowhere. It was on a fire call with my helicopter crew, stopping for drinks at a general store in the middle of nowhere, where I rounded a corner and saw a brown I knew in my soul. At the same time, he turned and saw me. It was the kind of reunion where music should have punctuated the laughs and hugs and licks and tail whacks. Two minutes later the fire truck drove away, leaving a confused Taku staring at me as I sobbed in the front of the rig. Off to sit on a line miles away, waiting for a fire that wasn’t there.


In part, how this trip became this trip is a story of that too. We didn’t think Taku would make the trip with us. He was so old. And my parents, who had offered to care for him, at one point, decided that they couldn’t.

Their decision is one I am forever grateful for. Even though it changed what we could do – since he couldn’t walk far, no long hikes, no long tours of places – it meant giving him his favorite things: road trips, travel, new places whirring by, people to bark at, people to pat him, all within the comfort of a casa rodante (rolling home).

Sometimes I wonder if this trip was on HIS agenda and he psychically talked us into it. To not be left alone for eight straight months was his idea of a world in right order.

He’s been to Alaska, Canada, all the states in the Western US, eastern Canada and Maryland and for the last eight months – Mexico and Central America. He’s traveled more than most people ever will.

Time blurs. With arthritis and old age, I must dig deep to find the young Taku. He was mesmerized by horses when he first met them. He would follow them into a bright green pasture, then try his hand at chewing up the tall, thin leaves. It left him perplexed.

In the north end of Boise he loved walking to Hyde Park…proud to be off leash, sitting in a café at my feet, or outside the door…where his only act of rebellion was to choose to lie down in a spot two feet from the one I had left him.

Running – whether the trails were in the Sierra Nevadas outside Truckee or through Hull’s Gulch in Boise – he would pace alongside as the best dog, even when I had decided running on a summer’s midday in 100 degree heat without water was a good idea.


Then there was his foray in the world of budget rental cars. Driving across five states, the tiny two-seater was so small that Taku banged his forehead against the windshield in rhythmic harmony to my driving.

As a puppy, Oslo, a friend’s dog, mothered (aka, harassed) him until he hid under the coffee table…where her paws could not reach him. When he thought it was safe to come out, his tail neatly cut in two a thick Mexican water glass. The title – “Taku – The Tail of Doom” became one of his many nicknames, in addition to Buddha, Bubba and The Great Brown One among others.

His name – Taku – comes from a river and glacier in southeast Alaska. In the native Tlingit language it means “strong and brave winds”. It was the place I arrived after hitchhiking from San Francisco to Los Angeles one dark night, all for a plane to take me to the wilds of Alaska for a rendezvous with a passionate, dark-haired man who would someday become my husband.

Taku was my gift from him, during the days when being a biologist researching endangered species was not only unpopular, but dangerous. Taku was to be my protector, my guide on those forays.

He lived up to this task with his threateningly deep baritone bark. His size helped, all eighty five pounds of him. And when people came to the door, his response was to body-block them. I always felt safe with him because of that.imgp0844.jpg

But he was not all bravery. There were many occasions when he shirked that responsibility and asked me to pick up the slack.

In Quebec, when the rustling outside the wall tent ended up being raccoons. He refused to open the door and peek, preferring the sleeping bags.

Or in Grand Gulch, where we left some of Kevin’s ashes. I brought only a bivy sack which we ended up sharing because he refused to sleep outside.

The best was when Sasquatch (Big Foot) came by our yurt in northern Idaho. Not a true believer before, the eerie musky smell made both of our hair stand on end and the captive wolf pack agitated. With the guys all gone, it was Taku, me and the trusty shotgun waiting to see if whatever it was would go away. He huddled next to me, behind me, watching the door with those golden eyes. We sat together, waiting, until the smell left as suddenly as it had arrived.

The shotgun. The same shotgun I kept fully loaded when we lived down on the river. As a puppy six months old we lived in a wall tent next to a tributary of the Payette River. The heavy winter littered the area with elk and deer carcasses. This was heaven to a pup who would wake up, eat breakfast, saunter over to the raw expanse of an elk ribcage and roll around inside. Upon return to the tent, he would get tossed in the river, learning to swim and cleaning up simultaneously. It was here that he learned to swim in circles and splash, because the cold, cold water was too much for me to join him.

And that was how he grew up. Learning on rust carpet that stairs are not the precipice at the end of the world. Tearing away from vets in front of a forty foot span of windows, watching terrified as I left him for the first time at seven months. Loving to chase things until “The Great Rabbit Incident” – where I chased him around a field for twenty-five minutes while he chased a rabbit for twenty-five minutes until I caught him and gave him holy hell in the Monks-of-New-Skete-Way. Getting priority over all boyfriends…even Tod got the ultimatum early on that the dogs were allowed on the bed in my house. If he didn’t like it, he could leave…that was just the way it was. And Taku become so entwined with Tod that as Taku aged, it was he who gave Taku the “skycrane”…the lift and transfer that got him into the bed he could no longer leap onto.


While I trained him, he did his fair share of training me. First and foremost was not to be left alone. Most vacations saw him coming along and you’ve read enough to see what I mean. Even as a puppy, he also trained me out of crate training…he hated it and would whine and whine until he broke me and I let him out. He would resume his rightful place, turning his blue eyes in on himself, curling into a little ball on my pillow and falling fast asleep. Then there was the rule about never eating human food. I was eventually converted to the joys of having a bio-vac (short for bio-vacuum); he was the only dog I know who ate broccoli stems, baked squash and leftover steak with equal fervor.

Orofino…where Taku was born in northern Idaho. An “accident” where Kevin showed up to look for wolves, talked with the local biologist who looked like hell, then found out the reason she looked like that – a new litter of Chessies was born the night before.

Fast forward all those years, when the coyotes tried to bait him away from camp for their own meal, to swimming with seals on Stinson Beach in California, from the trail time, the time living in trucks and garages and basements and houses, the straw of the strawbale house sticking out the side of his mouth during construction.

To the night before Kevin’s death, with Kevin in a coma that left Taku terrified. He refused to be in the room with him. So we took him into the house, and when I finally came in to sleep on the sofa, he wouldn’t sleep anywhere but on top of me. An eighty-five pound dog desperate to hold me down in my physical body, to keep me here in this world, when he saw Kevin leaving his body as the dying are said to do.

After Kevin died, it was Taku who got me through it. In the days and nights of great despair and sadness, he was always at my side. Those big golden eyes looking into mine and waiting, patiently, for me to cry myself empty. I could just start to whimper and he would come and find me, give me a lick and then curl up next to me.

I used to think it was me just needing him, needing some creature who could witness my pain without trying to fix it or me. But over time I came to realize that he needed me too. Together we had gone through that terrible time. Together we had healed. And as he got older, I felt him asking me to keep showing up and not shove him off and ignore him. To take him on hikes even if he could only go a quarter mile. To leave him tied up to a tree with water and a sign saying “my parents will come back…I just can’t walk far but hate to be left behind”.

And with that, he wasn’t left behind. In the Land of the Endless Lakes he can swim, chase rocks, hike again…all alongside Kevin and Nike and Annie.


At the end he was getting recurrent respiratory infections, lumps on his throat that were starting to restrict his breathing, and the medications for arthritis didn’t work as well. It was a woman in a restaurant who saw him and gestured at me the Universal sign for sleep – head tilted with hands together – saying he wants to sleep now.

His eyes, without infection in the days before he finally slept, emitted a thin, clear liquid that looked like tumbling tears. Do dogs cry? They reminded me of the tears Kevin’s eyes shed from deep within a coma the night before he died. The hospice nurse reassured me, “They don’t want to leave their loved ones either”. Maybe it was the same for Taku.

When he was helped to his final sleep, by a kind vet who did it in the van so he wouldn’t have to leave it, I was shocked to see how quickly and deeply he became relaxed. It was as if the tension he was holding to stay in this life left and he was truly free again.

He was Taku, my heart-brother and best friend, companion through the deepest joys and travails of my life, my mentor, my son and the world’s best dog.

You are missed. You are loved. Thank you for the time…the journey of a well-lived life, traveled together.

November 14, 1993 – February 19, 2008
Born: Orofino, Idaho Died: Panama City, Panama