Ecuador: Forest flight

Connor McGovern helps to save the Ecuadorian cloud forest — by zip-lining through it

Tuesday, March 27, 2018,
By Connor McGovern

That's it. My feet have come away from the ledge. I'm now at the mercy of a contraption I became familiar with just minutes ago. I'm still alive; I haven't plummeted through the canopy beneath me to a leafy demise. In fact, I'm now surging through the Ecuadorian treetops, dangling from a wire like a worm from a rod, bright flashes as palm tree race below me, around me, behind me; some of their slender leaves within touching distance. The green and blue of forest and sky flicker past like a zoetrope and I'm reminded of all the exotic beasts that roam the scenes around me: pumas, jaguars, spectacled bears. But there's no time for daydreaming; the landing platform is rapidly looming into view. My memory fails me. I can't remember — is it the brake or the harness I grab first? Too late; I collide with the platform with considerable force. I'm probably not a natural at zip-lining. Nonetheless, it's fun finding out.

My guide, Inty Arcos, follows suit, and with far more proficiency than me. He's showing me the ropes at Tucanopy, his family-run zip-line course that zigzags through the trees in this corner of the Intillacta Reserve. But the zip-lines are just part of the deal here; they help fund the family's mission to protect and conserve the cloud forest reserve. Revenue from the hair-rising rides through the trees goes to help preserve the pristine, endangered environment and educate locals and visitors on its ecological worth.

"Do you see them?" he asks as we meander along the ferny floor. "The cows?" He points through the trees to a small herd chomping away in a glade. "We had an invasion of an African grass here that was killing off lots of local trees and grasses, so we introduced these cows to help keep the native plants alive." I ask how effective a lawnmower the bovines have been. "Very successful," he smiles. "It was a gamble, but the numbers have reduced significantly. And the cows are a lot quieter than a lawnmower."

Our next path looks clear: another zip-line — almost a mile long, I'm told — to a ledge at the top of a tree. This time, I land on the ledge with relative grace — by my standards.

"Sometimes I like to come up here on my own and enjoy the sounds," says Inty once he joins me, surveying the sea of vivid green like a king. But what sounds? There's the occasional caw of a far-off toucan, but otherwise there's nothing; the air is thick, with not even the lightest breeze to caress the leaves. I tell him I hear very little. "Exactly."

Attention turns to the tree we find ourselves perched within. "You see these," he says, tugging one of the cord-like vines that cover the trunk, "these are lianas. They start off at the very bottom of the tree, and come up from the soil, using the tree as a support to climb to the top. There, they take the tree's sunlight and water and finally, eventually, the tree dies. Un árbol estrangulado. Strangled tree."

It seems this even this silent plant kingdom has a menacing side.

"It's not always this quiet up here," he says. "Sometimes the capuchins and the howlers come up here and have a fiesta." Smiling wryly, he cups his hands around his mouth and cries out, sending a series of howls rippling through the forest. We wait briefly, his finger poised for me to keep schtum. Alas, nothing.

"Not this time," he smiles. "Sleeping off the hangover."

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