The Panama Canal Review ... March 2, 1956

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If you like your monkey tied to organ grinders, your snakes in zoos, and your orchids in corsages, and if you think that a steep hill can be climbed only by a funicular, then Barro Colorado island is not for you.  But, if you thrill to the sight of shadowy shapes swinging through trees, if you don't flinch at a coral snake curled up in a patch of sunlight, if you can gape and enjoy gaping at thousands of air plants on towering trees, and if you have the fortitude - not to mention the wind - to climb 201 steep, narrow steps straight up an almost perpendicular hillside, then, by all means, try to visit Barro Colorado. Technically the island is known as the Canal Zone Biological Area.  It is under the jurisdiction of the Smithsonian Institution;   all arrangements to visit it must be made in advance through James Zetek (whose title is Research Specialist but who is really the Baron of Barro Colorado), or through his Girl Friday, Mrs. Adela Gomez.  The value of the island in the world of science is too well known to go into here.  But even the most amateur of naturalists cannot help but soak up some of the wonders of the jungle during a visit there.


The Canal Zone is so small, comparatively, that Barro Colorado is practically in everyone's backyard and the physical trip to the island in the middle of Gatun Lake is simple, once arrangements have been made.  Morning trains from either side of the Isthmus drop visitors at the Frijoles Station, only a few hundred feet from a landing where the launch Snook is waiting, its triangular pennant lettered C.Z.B.A. whipping from its staff in the stiff morning breeze.  Twenty minutes, and three and a half miles later, the Snook pulls into a lovely little shadowed inlet, set about with heliconia and bordered with plants which "like their feet wet."  As the launch ties up, the surrounding water is filled with hundreds of fish, of the perch family, waiting for their breakfast of bread.  They gulp down slice after slice, with more speed than manners.  From the head of the dock, the hill on top of which sit the laboratory's buildings seems to go straight heavenward.  The pampered baggage and supplies ride up aboard the single car of the Dock and Skyline Limited - a cableway - but the people walk - up, and up, and up. Novices take it fast, at first, Barro Colorado veterans lag behind so they can stop to puff and blow.  By the time everyone has reached the top of the steps, no one has enough breath to talk.  At the main building, overlooking the Canal channel and mile on mile of the Gatun Lake shoreline, there are rooms where visitors may change to slacks and sneakers before they set out along the island's trails.  Then, single file like a group of Indians, led by Fausto Bocanegra, who has been guiding parties around Barro Colorado for three years, they move into the jungle.  "Boca" carries a machete, but not for any defensive purposes.  He uses it to slash down the lianas and branches which have sprung across the trail since the last party went through a few days before.  And although his function is that of guide, the trails - each of which bears the name of scientists who helped Barro Colorado into being - are so well marked that a visitor has little chance of being lost should he stray away from his group.


The smell of the jungle, like thousands of hothouses rolled into one, is everywhere.   Every once in a while the hikers walk through patches of heavey, heady perfume.   Here and there the trail is snowy with tiny white petals, like those from a spiraea back home in Ohio or Kentucky; the tree from which they came is so tall and so grown about with brush that one cannot see its blossoms without glasses.  Occasionally the visitors have to step aside to avoid crushing a single file of bustling, leaf-cutting ants, each with its bright green parasol over its back.  The line winds on for hundreds of feet, ending in an underground nest where the leaves are stored away to become breeding beds for ant baby food.  A one-day visitor to the island, noisy on the trails, tramping on twigs, slithering through muddly spots, wil probably see very few animals, although there will be thousands of unseen wild eyes watching him.  An occasional bird will fly overhead, or a flock of parrots will set up a clatter at having their privacy disturbed.  Almost invariably, though, a visitor will hear a racket like a cageful of lions at feeding time.  Those will be the howler monkeys.   Someone, quick with his field glasses, may spot a few howlers in a tree well off the trail but before the others can get their binoculars into focus there is nothing to be seen but the swing of the branches where the monkeys are moving.  A few minutes later, someone else may see a white-face monkey, but again the others have to take his word for it.  On Gigante Peak, 537 feet above sea level and the island's highest spot, a little clearing provides a welcome stopping place for the duffers. The more athletic in the party can climb a 30-foot steel tower - at their own risk - to see what a jungle looks like from above.  Not far from the clearing the Paul Bunyan part of the jungle begins.  Here, ants an inch long roam the jungle floor.  Just off the trail huge old bolga trees with buttressed roots deep enough to conceal a grown man stretch almost a hundred feet into the air before they send out their first branches, covered with air plants.  A coral snake, coiled on a patch of sun-touched leaves, looks out of scale in his monstrous surroundings.  Much of the jungle is dark and photography, especially with color film, is difficult.  But there is sun around the big trees most of the year; some of the party obligingly slip into the pockets between the bolga roots so they cam be photographed before the camera fans start "panning' up and up the trees.  Hot showers at the main building - to wash off the onmipresent ticks and redbugs and a hot lunch, to provide energy for another few hours on the trails, are a welcome break for the sticky hikers.  But lunch is interrupted by a pair of peccaries and a gang of gato solos which have also answered the lunch bell. The peccaries are sedate and not particularly friendly, but the gato solos - coati mundis, if you prefer- are clowns and will do anything, even to walking a clothesline, to get a piece of bread.   Some visitors even accuse them of "mugging" when the cameras appear, as they invariabley do. After lunch and a brief rest; the island visitors start out again, this time on the opposite side of the island, and by the time they board the Snook to catch the evening trains back home most of the tenderfeet are just exactly that.


In one sense, the Canal Zone Biological Area was a baby of World War I. It came into being in 1923 under the sponsorship of the National Research Council which had been organized seven years before at the request of President Woodrow Wilson "as a measure of national preparedness."  When the Council's Dr. Thomas Barbour came to the Isthmus in 1922 seeking a site for a zoological research laboratory, he met James Zetek, who had dreamed of just such a plan for years.  Fresh out of the Univeristy of Illionois, Mr. Zetek had come to the Canal Zone in 1911 as entomologist for the Canal's Sanitary Department and had stayed on to serve, successively and in that same capacity, the Republic of Panama, the Board of Health Laboratory, and the United States Department of Agriculture.  They combed the Isthmus and finally decided that the largest island in Gatun Lake, almost uninhabited by humans but teeming with birds, bugs, and animals, was the most suitable site for a natural preserve.  The two pioneers were backed by a number of scientific societies, "terrifying enough to cause consternation to any bug that walks, flies or crawls," the Star & Herald reported in an early story on the Barro Colorado project.  On March 17, 1923, Gov. Jay J. Morrow proclaimed Barro Colorado a "natural park" and banned all hunting in its almost 4,000 acres.  Twenty-five years later this date was commemorated by a special Canal Zone stamp issue, the first local stamp to bear a picture of an animal.  Those 10-cent stamps today are worth 25 cents each, according to Scot's Catalogue.


The laboratory buildings came slow and hard.  At one time there were plans to set up scientific headquarters on a barge anchored in the inlet.  The first of the buildings was dedicated officially on March 20, 1924; today there is a cluster of 10 buildings including the kitchen, at the top of the long flight of steps.  The scientists did not wait until their creature comforts were provided for.  A few weeks after the Governor's proclamation, Dr. William Morton Wheeler of Harvard, Dr. Richard Strong of the Gorgas Memorial Institute, and Mr. Zetek were at work on the island.  Close on their heels came R.G. Shannon of the Bureau of Entomology; he built a small shelter and stayed on the island off and on for two moths studying blood-sucking flies.  A few months later Frank E. Lutz, Associate Curator of Museum of Natural History, spent five weeks on Barro Colorado, working with stingless bees. Close behind him was Dr. W.C. Allee, of Chicago University, who was the first scientist to occupy the still unfinished large laboratory building.  The roster of distinguished men who have worked, and are still working, at the Canal Zone Biological Area reads like a Who's Who of Science.  There have been Dr. David Fairchild, world-famed botanist; Dr. Frank Chapman who studied the island's birds year after year and whose "Tropical Air Castle" is one of the classics on the island; Dr. Alexander Wetmore, another internationally known ornithologist and former Secretary of the Smithsonian; Dr. Arthur Compton, who measured cosmic rays with balloons sent up from an island base and whose expedition was one of five such cosmic visitations; Prof. Alexander Petrunkeyitch and Dr. A.M. Chickering, both famous for their studies of spiders; Professor T.C.Schneirla, a foremost authority on army ants.   Barro Colorado's visitors have come from scores of colleges and universities and scientific societies and institutions, all over the world.  Recently there have been representatives from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, the University of Oslo in Norway, and the American Museum of Natural History. (The current guest book also contains the name of Davy Crockett, from the Wild Frontier!)


For many years Barro Colorado had heavy financial going.  At first it was financed almost entirely by gifts and by the "table contributions" of scientific institutions and universities; that is, each institution or university fincanced a laboratory table. Wealthy friends gave money, buildings, or equipment but still, and especially during the depression years, Mr. Zetek had to scrounge and stretch to make ends meet.  In 1940 Congress passed a bill "authorizing the setting aside of an area within the Canal Zone to preserve and conserve its natural features for scientific study," and authorized up to $10,000 a year for its support.  The act did guarantee the permanency of the Biological Area but Congress did not follow through with an appropriation. During the war years, when important work - much of it still secret - was done on Barro Colorado, funds came from several government agencies.  Finally, in 1946, the Canal Zone Biological Area became a Department of the Smithsonian Institution and its financial plight was somewhat eased.  Some support still comes from scientific groups and from universities, and small fees - just enough to cover board and lodging - are charged scientists and the day-to-day visitors.  Two of the important projects on Barro Colorado are what are called "continuing ones."  For many years Mr. Zetek has experimented with various types of treated wood to find some barrier against omnivorous termites.  He is too modest to admit it, but he is considered an outstanding authority on termites and their ways. The other continuing experiment is carried on by the Tropical Research Branch of Eastman Kodak.  In a special laboratory on the island, papers, film, lenses, glues, and other Eastman products re tested for the effects of the tropics, especially in connection with fungus and the effectiveness of various fungicides.  Because of a recent bout of ill health, Mr. Zetek is not making many visits to the island right now.  He runs its affairs from his Amador Road office in a building which was built from the shell of the old Culebra Post Office.  There he is ably assisted by Mrs. Gomez, who makes trips to the island at least once a week, assists scientists and visitors, and, between times, helps with the voluminous paper work any such job entails. Last June the Smithsonian Institution paid tribute to her efforts.   In the presence of more than 60 top scientists and officials of the Smithsonian, she was given a Certificate of Award for her "outstanding accomplishments in the administration of the Canal Zone Biological Area."

Submitted by CZAngel
Presented by CZBrats
October 4, 1998
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