Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Thank You Costa Rica

The people of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica were extraordinarily helpful in the many months I have been there. Especially the miners, the Park Rangers of Corcovado National Park and others who make their living in the forest, as well as the OIJ and local police.

Traveling the trails with them I learned about the animals, the plants, the trees, and the geography. I made more than twenty trips into the forest over the course of two years, spending several weeks camping there. We saw many terciopelo, otherwise known as the fer-de-lance, and eyelash palm pit-vipers.

Rarely did any of these people travel off-trail and when they did, they used their machete to clear a path, both to uncover possible snakes and to leave a path to follow back as it is easy to get lost, especially in Corcovado's mountainous "Las Quebraditas".

I travelled with one local Tico man whose father had died in two hours from the bite of a terciopelo; another  Tico whose brother died from the bite of a bushmaster.

Others told me of men killed by falling trees. In fact, I myself witnessed two huge tree falls -- trees over 150 feet tall that crashed in the forest. Falling tropical hardwood crowns can be lethal if they strike the unwary, and knowing when and where they fall is impossible to predict.

Tree falls are like the avalanches of the rainforest, only worse. There is no equivalent to digging a pit to test for stability, no courses to take or books to read to predict what leads to their likelihood of toppling, other than wind and rainstorms

I was always especially fearful during rainstorms when wet dead wood fell with heavy epiphyte burdens.

At least five times I have witnessed enormous but otherwise healthy trees fall.

In the late 1990s a famous California tree climber and I made a traverse between two redwood trees each 300 feet tall. The following year I returned to find that one of the 300 foot tall trees had toppled, leaving its six foot top speared into the forest floor.

In Borneo's Imbak Canyon we climbed to the top of a 75 m Dipterocarp tree, returning the next day to find it toppled.

Another time along Sabah's Kinabatangan River I watched a large mango tree split in two and slowly peel away next to a river house, but was able to warn the inhabitants only minutes before the tree split and ripped the wall off their house exposing the room inside.

In 2015 near Dos Brazos we watched during a storm as the winds toppled over twenty trees, some up to two feet across.

The steep mountains of Corcovado also are very active with landslides, particularly in the wet season. These range from small sloughs to entire hillsides.

I am very grateful to the rangers and miners and others I walked through the forest with. I was very impressed with their willingness to expose themselves to these dangers as well as the discomfort of the 100% humidity in the forest, the high heat, the strong, surprisingly cold downpours, the chiggers and biting insects, especially when camping at night.

Many from the OIJ and another Tico from the American Embassy were particularly impressive to me, as these were men and one woman who generally spend time behind a desk, but came out and struggled with us in and out of canyons, up and down waterfalls, off trail and on, sometimes trapped by darkness and walking down the middle of creeks to stay protected from snakes.

While many Osa locals accused certain other local Osa Ticos of being involved with our son's disappearance, I did not at first believe them.

The details of the Gringo seen with these locals -- with only a few possibly bad people involved -- simply did not fit what I knew of our son or his plans.

However, ultimately the local Ticos themselves convinced me that local Tico troublemakers were involved.

I had thought for the first six weeks that Cody Roman was injured, lost, or  dead in the jungle. Local people tried to convince me otherwise, local people said he was the victim of foul play. And when my wife suggested that also, then I was ready to accept it.

But it looks like all of us, Ticos and Gringos alike, were wrong.

It's easy looking back to see things clearly. Much harder when looking forward.

I thank the Costa Rican people of the Osa for their empathy.

I consider them family.

And I thank them for their sacrifices and diligence, particularly in January, March and May of 2016 when the National Geographic sponsored investigation was finished, and the real generosity and helpfulness of Costa Ricans emerged.

Similarly in the early days, when two dozen Red Cross volunteers, local police, and Park Rangers risked the snakes, the falling trees, the landslides and flooding rivers to look for a foreigner.

Costa Rica is indeed a beautiful place, and nearly all of its people are both beautiful inside and out, with big, beautiful hearts.

Thank you Costa Rica.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Prayer Flags

The words in the previous post are close to a story I told on May 11 at Arctic Entries.

I'd gone to Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula first to find him alive, maybe lost and injured. Later to find out what happened. Then I wanted justice as I'd been convinced foul play had been perpetrated.

But now it looks like maybe the stories of Roman walking with a thieving drug dealer may be just that, after all: stories.

Amazingly on May 17,  a miner found Roman's things, including his passport and money, deep in the jungle, within one kilometer of where I'd spent many nights camped while looking hard. Looking hard near the place where the only persons I believed had really seen him had described seeing him eating breakfast. They talked to him on a remote miner's trail where they'd never seen a gringo around the time of the World Cup final in 2014.

It was hours from the nearest tourist route, off-trail above a deep canyon and below a narrow arete.

In a month or so the Costa Rican authorities will tell Peggy and me whether our blood's DNA matches that of the DNA in the skeleton found next to his backpack, his shoes, his headlamp, foam-pad, his compass and other things I recognized.

Remarkably,  that day a miner had found these things I'd hung Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags Roman and I brought back from Bhutan between the two tallest trees in our yard over our house.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

There’re a lot of stories I’d rather tell than this one, but this one’s the only one that really matters.

Our son, Cody Roman Dial, disappeared on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula in 2014.

Cody Roman was conceived in a tent in the Brooks Range and born in February in Fairbanks. When he was six we walked across Umnak, a remote Aleutian Island, just the two of us, sixty miles in a week.

After that trip he went by his middle name, Roman.

In grade school with his mom Peggy and sister Jazz we traveled to rain forests and coral reefs and deserts all over the world. In high school he helped me with my research. He, Jazz, and I skied around the Harding Icefield for a week counting ice worms. The next year Roman took two months off school while we studied the rain forest canopy in Borneo.

While he was in high-school and college we packrafted rivers and creeks all over Alaska, in Australia, Malaysia, even the Grand Canyon.                                

The last time I saw him was in Veracruz, Mexico, January 2014 where we packrafted waterfalls.

Roman had just started a seven month tour of Latin America. After Veracruz he wrote us emails about monarch butterflies in the Sierra Madre, nesting sea turtles on the Pacific, swimming with whale sharks in the Caribbean.

He wrote me about his plans to walk solo 200 km in ten days across the Peten, the wilderness border of Guatemala and Mexico to see remote Mayan ruins.

I wrote him back:  “Don’t do it, It’s too dangerous,” offering up what looked like a safer route from Google Earth.

But I deleted that email. Instead I wrote him back to be careful with his machete and watch out for snakes.

After that he wrote a six-thousand word story of his adventure that I sent to friends who’d watched him grow up.

We’d hear from him every couple weeks.                                     

He’d write and say, Here’s where I am going. Then come back and write, I’m out and then another, longer, And here’s what happened.

Seven months into his trip he wrote from Costa Rica. He asked about topo maps.

I went on my own trip in early July to the Talkeetnas, came back and went straight to the Kenai to dipnet.

I didn’t check my emails.

Peggy and I worried about how long it’d been since we’d heard from Roman. It was strange not to hear from him for so long. One day we were shopping and she got nauseous for no reason.                

We went home and I opened the email thread “Topo Maps” to find plans for his next trip -- five days across Corcovado National Park. Off-trail and alone, a traverse of the wild Osa Peninsula. His route was specific.

He closed with “I’ll be bound by a trail to the west and coast everywhere else It. should be difficult to get lost forever.”

The email was two weeks old. He was ten days overdue.

I immediately called the American Embassy, emailed Corocvado Park, asked my friend Thai Verzone to drop everything and come with me.

I planned to be back in ten days.

I stayed forty. 

Our first night there we found the hostel where Roman stayed, the gear he’d left behind. A few days later we found a group of miners who’d met Roman in the jungle cooking breakfast over a Jet Boil.                                                        

The authorities wouldn’t let me into the Park, so we snuck in to search for him on our own.

It was hot and wet and dangerous. Thai stepped over a log waist high with a coiled green viper on top. He didn’t even see it.

Thai went back to his family. Other friends came down to help.

More snakes. More dangers.

Flash floods in green slot canyons filled with waterfalls that we rapelled looking for Roman -- maybe he’d slipped in and couldn’t get out. One night a 150 foot tree fell and landed a dozen feet from one of our tents with three people inside.

The mountains of the Osa look smooth but they’re not. They’re like a folded maze.

As I climbed the narrow ridges and stumbled down steep creeks I called out “ROMAN!”, “ROMAN!!”

But nothing.   No sign.          

Peggy came down and we retraced the route Roman laid out in his last email.

Walking the beach in the dark, Peggy said, He’s not in the jungle. Someone took him.

There’d been this persistent rumor. Roman had crossed the Osa with a known thief and drug dealer. The details didn’t quite add up but we needed a real investigator, an American who spoke Spanish and could push people’s buttons to get answers.

I picked out this guy, Carson, who’d retired from the DEA agent after 25 years in Latin America. He was like eight feet tall, muscled and tattooed-up, bald and intimidating, the kind of guy who sniffs out criminals, and gets them to talk.

I spent seven weeks in Costa Rica with Carson last year, getting close to violent men. Sitting down with suspects. Drinking beer with them. Offering them reward money. It was surreal and sickening.

This past January deep in the jungle with cadaver dogs and Costa Rican investigators, I found the only real piece of physical evidence.

It was a piece of sleeping pad I’d given Roman in Mexico after we’d been packrafting. It was under a miner’s black plastic tarp.

The miner had lived with the mother of the primary suspect. The Costa Rican authorities said it’d be months before forensics confirms the pad as evidence.

It took a year to get our son’s case elevated from missing person to homicide. It’ll be another year, if ever, before an arrest.

In Costa Rica there’s no crime without a body.

I’ve spent six months of the last year and a half searching the Osa Peninsula. 

I’m tired, exhausted.  I don’t want to go down there again, but I will. Because without our presence, nothing seems to happen.

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