By Lauren Rissmeyer
I entered the dining room on BCI, exactly as I had for the past two nights. It was a few minutes after 6:30 and I walked in by myself. I immediately looked at our group's table to find several of my new friends eating, with their equipment beside them, completely ready for their night hike. Unsure of what to expect of the infamous Night Hike, I had my required gear: headlamp, pack, pants tightly tucked into socks and binoculars ready for whatever action I might be in for. Dinner went rather quickly with little talk of what to expect for the night. I looked out the window and noticed some lingering heavy clouds overhead. I also heard some members of our group opting out of the hike for fear of a storm. My adventurous spirit wouldn't allow me to back out of anything.
Before I knew it, my friends were pulling their headlamps over their foreheads and securing them in place. Mine looked very different from theirs and I immediately felt inadequate. I began questioning if I could make it, as pangs of uncertainty began resonating through my body. Simultaneously, everyone's packs were clicking secure, pants tucked in to inhibit chiggers: no place to turn back now, I thought. I counted 8 hikers in total. I felt secure with 8 people trekking off into the woods. Nerves settled, my mantra replayed in my head "If they can do it, I can do it" and we were off.
The night skies were completely black this evening, no moon or stars. We began walking towards trails I had been on before, and that made me feel relieved. I was familiar with the landscape and animals I had seen on these parts. There were no directives on how long we'd be out for (somehow I missed all the orientation talks), but I was feeling pretty certain that it would all be over soon enough.
I wanted to make the best of it, so I began experimenting with my headlamp. As I turned my head or body, the lamp turned also. Objects I intended to look at were now illuminated by my headlamp. I was pretty excited by this and wondered why I never tried this in New Jersey. As other lights mingled with mine, I was finding it difficult to see anything very clearly. I soon realized that I had much better luck trying to use someone else's light beam than my own, which was dim by comparison.
The final directive we were given explained that we needed to be silent in the woods, so as not to scare the animals before we see them. I guess this also referred to my nervous laugh. We took our first steps onto the trail that ascended up and up. It had rained earlier so there were wet cinder block steps, and raindrops dripping off every crevice in the forest. My headlamp was spotting many reflections back at me, and Jackie pointed out that the single bright "eye" reflections were spiders. It was becoming difficult to distinguish between raindrops and spider reflections, but I enjoyed the challenge and new experience. Awareness was beginning to set in, as we stepped each step deeper into the dense living forest.
I began remembering my childhood fears of the darkness, and former fears of haunted houses, ghosts, and all the unknown creatures that lurk in the shadows of the night. I've heard that imagination gets the best of us, and I was definitely its victim. My thoughts seemed completely irrational, that was until I peered behind me to check on the sole survivor who dared trek last in the group. It was Jackie, the long-haired, peacefully observant scientist who arranged this adventure to Panama several months prior. I saw her lamp off in the distance, but she wasn't close. Was I concerned for her? No, she's had 20 years of experience in these forests. I was concerned that now I was the last person in the hike. What types of animals were running behind my path taunting me and peering at me from their hidden forest spot? Realizing that if Jackie found anything interesting we wouldn't be able to hear her call, along with my fear of being last in the group, I passed along a message to Greg, our knowledgeable front-man, that we should wait up for Jackie. I heard some agreement and we soon stopped until she caught up. (Little did I know that Jackie wanted some space between her and the group so she could see the creatures who had frozen in fear as our noisy troop clumped by.)
The group concluded that there were little to no animals to be seen, but thousands of spiders. We laughed and were soon off again in silence. Moments after we began I noticed the immediately recognizable sound of a cicada bug on the upcoming path. Strangely, the sound began picking up pace and I heard a scream from Karen, directly in front of me. Apparently the bug flew straight into her light, which in turn was directly in her face. I was extremely concerned for her and wanted to help. After I realized she was fine, I chuckled in my head at the fact that she screamed about a bug. I wondered what the others thought about the scene, remembering we were instructed to be silent. Some luck! And we continued on.
I peered over my shoulder, only to find Jackie missing again. Ugh! What should I do? We just stopped only a few moments ago, I couldn't keep asking everyone to stop because of my fears. I sucked it up and continued walking. No sooner did I take 2 steps until I heard a second Cicada bug flying, very close to our group. He seemed to dodge everyone, weaving somewhat in and out of our line. I felt Karen tense up again, for fear of having her second bug in her face. But this one wasn't out for Karen. He was shooting for me, directly, non-stop, no holds barred. The next thing I knew I had the wings of the fluttering beast flitting in my eyes, head, neck, and nose. It seemed to be attacking me from every angle. Karen's scream seemed loud at the time, but nothing compared to mine. I was petrified of the creature without a face. He eventually gave me reprieve and continued on his merry way, obviously missing Jackie since there was no scream from the experienced scientist. My new friends, Karen and Fran, took great compassion to my horror and made sure I was coherent before heading on.
The next ten minutes seemed like something out of the Blair Witch Project. Jackie, was still off in the far distance. (Now I couldn't even distinguish her light on the trail, which I later learned was because she turned it off since she didn't like kamikazi cicadas either.) The forest was dark as I've ever seen, and bugs were all aware of who the scaredy-cat is in the group: so the torment began. Bats, another predator of the night, were geared up, cicada bugs ready. Go! Another cicada bug dodged all in the group, but me, as it darted straight into my face. Screaming to no end and swatting it away were the only ways to relieve myself of my uncontrolled fear. As that second bug left me alone, and friends cheered me up again, the bats began whipping past on either side of my shoulders, coming too close for comfort. Luckily Karen also felt the bats, and shared her discomfort with the whole event. Then I started hearing Cicada bugs all around me, and was clutching Karen's pack for dear life. I had no idea where we were on the trails, or how much longer we had. I knew there was no turning back, I just had to deal with it. I started covering my florescent light as I heard the wings flutter. No luck, a third cicada headed straight into my cheek. I felt as if they were dive-bombing me, laughing throughout the forest at the big human who is scared of the little, actually not so little, cicadas.
I insisted at that point that we wait for Jackie to catch up. There was some disagreement and grumbling at the suggestion of this idea, but I didn't care. I wasn't taking another step without someone else's light shining from behind me. Thankfully, we waited. As Jackie caught up, I felt a light scattering of rain on my head and shoulders. Before we knew it, the skies opened up. The night's events were exciting enough, but this was just purely inconceivable. It didn't just rain, it rained similar to the way you'd imagine a rain forest storm would hydrate its inhabitants. The drops were the width of quarters and landed on everything with precision. After less than a minute I was completely soaked, but on we trekked in silence. The sound of the rain landing on the canopy layer palm, Cecropia, Gustavia, and every other tree on the island created a sound that could rival the call of the howler monkeys at 6:30 in the morning. The feelings of fright had completely left me. Cicada bugs? Gone! Bats? Also gone! I had this overwhelming sense come over me that this was all on a hidden camera set up to have me as the victim. I was imagining all the ways the walk could have gotten worse, but this rain topped it! I began laughing, uncontrollably. Karen and Fran were concerned that I had completely lost my mind, and I agreed with them.
My night hike went from confronting my worst childhood fears to feeling like I had taken a drug that created the most perfect high a person could ever experience. The rain continued coming down in buckets, as did my laughing, and we continued trekking on. I was no longer looking for eye shine. I was no longer scared. I just laughed at the idea that we were nowhere close to our rooms and getting more and more wet as we walked deeper into the woods. There was no chance for salvation any time soon. We began descending some steps, new steps. I had never been on this part of the trail before. To my incredible disappointment, we were leaving the trail and were about to be reunited with some form of civilization. Night hike was officially over.
Rain still pounding, we found shelter under an arboretum that housed new seedlings. Not intentionally, the shelter also housed a group of tree frogs. We spent many moments photographing them as they perched in Jackie's hair and on her back. The rain slowed and tonight's excitement was over. In my personal journal I summarized, "Was it fun? Yeah, I guess. But I think it was more unbelievable than anything." To date, I'm still deliberating if I loved it or hated it. I think it was a combination of both, but surely unique and exhilarating.