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Aggressive spiny devils! • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Galápagos in Puerto Rico? Part Four

Blood, sweat, but few tears

Note: This is one of a series of photo-memoirs about a 1964 expedition to Isla de Mona, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. Photos were taken from contact prints as no negatives or prints remain.

January 4, 1964

Michael Pauley, our fearless leader, woke us at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning with an accurate imitation of a bugle call. I crawled out of my sleeping bag when I smelled breakfast. Carl was already up gathering items for our planned overnight trek across the interior of the island.

We prepared a two-day pack (lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch) and canteens of water — there would be no fresh water until we reached the lighthouse, some seven miles away. We estimated we would be back in time for dinner on Sunday.

We would hike Los Caobos trail toward Punto Barrio Nuevo. The map indicated the trail turns inland before reaching the cape — we would not see the Atlantic.

The trail started easy but became a nightmare! • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

At first the “trail” was more of a dirt road than a path. We saw the Mona yellow-shouldered blackbirds [later listed as endangered by the ESA — US Endangered Species Act], pearly-eyed thrashers, flowering plants, huge bromelias and a dizzying variety of cacti.

Mike hoped to collect a few of the four terrestrial shells that are endemic to the island and other unique specimens. I wasn’t too keen about his interest in spiders, scorpions and centipedes, but I dutifully photographed the ones he found. We encountered snakeskin but (fortunately) none of the island’s three (non-venomous) species of snakes, not even the Mona Boa.

24 species of insects are endemic to Mona, (R.) An unidentified gecko • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

Near the end of the road, Mike spotted a tiny kid still wet from birth — the mother was nowhere in sight. Later a small curious herd gazed at us while we were having lunch!

The newborn kid • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

After the road ended, the trail was difficult to distinguish from the brush. We stopped to photograph orchids and unusual plants and to attempt a photo of the skittish Mona ground iguanas. For such large creatures they moved fast! [They are currently on the ESA Threatened list.]

A wild orchid • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

We did not move fast, however. We were seriously behind schedule. Mike’s compass was giving odd readings and we lost the trail. We plodded on for about a mile or so. At several points, Mike climbed a tree and sighted the top of the radar tower to get our bearings.

Some of Mona’s 4.35 square miles of cactus • Photos: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

We eventually found the trail — an overgrown path through nose-level brush, clumps of cactus, and small stands of the slippery, red-trunked, Roble de Mona and other trees— just to lose it again. Sighting the radar tower once again helped us — we were fortunate Mona was flat!

One particularly unfriendly-looking cactus • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle, 1964

We entered a shallow valley, probably an area where the limestone surface collapsed into caves eons ago. It was a cauldron of cacti. Their spines stuck to our jeans, penetrated our leather boots, and pricked our skin.

Outside of the “prick pit,” night was falling. We tried to pick up the trail with no success. We ended the difficult day — it took us 12 hours to travel an estimated four miles — more or less lost. Even a short foray with our flashlights yielded no hint of where we were.

There was no nearby wooded spot to camp, so we sacked out among the rocks. We were exhausted — but happy with our sightings, samples, and photography. Too tired to be hungry, we skipped dinner and slept under the stars.

In case you missed any of my Galápagos in Puerto Rico? stories, they can be found HERE. For my fiction, poetry and other writing, please browse HERE.

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