You’ve Gatun be kidding me

We’ve seen a lot during our short time in Panama including lethargic sloths, flamboyant toucans, a small caiman (allegedly), but today we got our first taste of one of Panama’s most spectacular and iconic landmarks, the Panama Canal.

Our home base in Gamboa, Panama is situated on one leg of the Canal and immense and humbling container ships occasionally trudge by, an impressive event that I’m certain very few of my classmates give its due reverence. After our kayak tour today, that would all change…

6:30 AM, crack of dawn, the birds haven’t even started chirping and we are dragging ourselves out of bed and into the dining room for a hearty breakfast of hard boiled eggs, fresh papaya, Sailor Sammy brand sugar cereal (which bears a shocking resemblance to another nautically named cereal), black coffee, and hojaldres -a crisp fried dough eaten for breakfast in Panama. After breakfast, we begin the 20 minute walk, including traversing a narrow walkway on the edge of a one lane bridge constructed over 100 years ago to meet our Kayak guide, Ian. He is enthusiastic and eager to share whatever knowledge he has whenever he can.

As he set us up in our kayaks and launched us out into Lake Gatun, there are many species of heron, countless wattled jacanas calling, and the muffled growls of distant howler monkeys. We are warned by Ian of crocodiles in the area and the possibility to spot the rare manatee, while we warn one another of our group lore; we believe that a curse and misfortune follows one who took more than they could finish at one of our group meals. I knew Ian would be taking us on a trip down the Chagres, but what I didn’t know was that Ian would be taking us on a trip back in time.

Lake Gatun was formed in 1913 when the Chagres River was dammed to form a reservoir to feed the Panama Canal; however, the Chagres was important long before that, as Ian would inform us.  The Chagres was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and he was awestruck at the amount of and the size of the American Crocodiles which would have been far more abundant in his day. The river would become an important route of transportation for the Spanish. It was the main constituent of the Las Cruces Trail, a transportation network colloquially referred to as the treasure trail –a major route for the export of precious metals and other goods from the Spanish colonies to the major port of Panama City for further trade.  Famous Welsh privateer, Henry Morgan (Yes the captain associated with the modern rum) would use the Chagres to raid and destroy Panama City in 1671.

Ian informed us that the Chagres also was important during the California Gold Rush as it was a crucial component of a route west that involved sailing up the Chagres, walking or taking a train to the pacific coast and sailing the remainder. The Chagres was even discovered to contain gold itself and is still panned to this day. Today, such a route is made even more convenient by the presence of the Canal.

Finally, the Chagres would become impassible to trade with its damming and creation of Lake Gatun to feed the Panama Canal. As we paddled, we passed many stumps rising from the water that stood anchored in the ground, remnants of trees that occupied the area that was flooded to create Lake Gatun.  We also paddled by a village of the indigenous Enberra people, a group that circumvented the US military ban on people living in the Canal Zone who were not employees of the Canal because they were contracted to teach jungle survival techniques to the US military . As we traveled up and down the Chagres and Lake Gatun it was truly captivating to learn the rich history of the region, and I cannot wait to learn more about this important Panamanian monument.

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