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Messing Around in Boats in Quest of Endangered Trees

“Believe me my young friend, There is nothing absolutely nothing worth half so much doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

Sunken boat
Planked boat at rest on edge of Nakai Reservoir, Laos

Our team is waiting, while someone else is doing the messing about with our boat, and it does not half feel worth it. Our team of botanists, ecologists,wildlife specialists and entourage of guides, rangers and forestry representatives are perched at the edge of the Nakai Reservoir waiting to cross to the remote regions of the Annamite Mountains of Laos to find and describe the rare Chinese swamp cypress tree.

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Boatmen repair engine from sunken boat, preparing to transport our team

After a week of meetings, provisioning and making additions to our international team, we are ready for the field, but we are missing a boat.  The first boat is loaded and ready and the scientists are anxious to enter the mountains, but first we must cross the lake. The waterline of the narrow native craft sinks beneath piles of provisions, camping gear and mounds of scientific sampling equipment until a scant few inches peek above the waterline. We impatiently search the choppy lake for the second, but there is no sign.

Crew in boat
Loading provisions and people for our National Geographic Explorer’s expedition Laos. Photo David McGuire

We have driven as far as roads allow and must reach the inland wilderness by boat in quest of the Asian swamp cypress tree (Glyptostrobus pensilis). Called the Mai Heng Sam by the Laotian (Lao) locals, the swamp cypress has been drastically reduced through over harvest, habitat loss from agriculture, and by poachers. We now rely on the locally-built, wood-planked boats to transport us across the lake and upriver to the remote mountains where the trees might still exist. “Where is the second boat?” we ask.

Boatman
A simpler time. Boatman rows across river with Annamite Mountains as backdrop. Photo David McGuire

“It sank,” laughs Veo, our guide and translator from the Department of Forestry, who finds life amusing, and is unburdened by schedules and stress. His boss told him yesterday he would be accompanying our team for two weeks and nonplussed, Veo joined us.
It seems our boat hit a submerged tree, a daily hazard when navigating over the submerged forest created by the Nam Theun II Dam. The boatman has salvaged the motor and is taking it apart. Once reassembled, the motor will be transferred into another boat. “No problem,” Veo chuckles optimistically. “We will make it.”

Dead Tree
Submerged Chinese Swamp Cypress tree top projects from the surface of the NK2 Dam, Laos Photo David McGuire

Sharing this sentiment, most Laotians are true water people. Many live in houses above the water in the wet season or in small huts above submerged rice paddies. Most villages use boats as their lifeline, connecting them to trade and services. Aside from the few major arteries traveling through the lowlands, good roads are scarce in Laos and nearly absent in the mountains. Pavement quickly turns to gravel and then to rutted dirt. In the rainy season the red clays quickly transform into a sticky muck, making land travel nearly impossible. Only the sturdy Tok Tok, a modified tractor that is kind of a mechanical water buffalo can travel the steep and slippery roads of the mountains.

The solution to navigating the shallow waters is the long tail boat. A propellor is attached to 3 meter shaft on a single-stroke gas motor and is steered by a tiller. The propellor is lowered inches below the surface, easily avoiding the many snags and obstacles. The boatman can swing the whole shaft forward to reverse or quickly maneuver the boat.

Robin and Ghost Trees
Piloting around and over the submerged tree tops can be a hazard. Team member Robin Hunter keeps an eye out. Photo David McGuire

This comes in handy as our team passes corpses of trees stretching dead branches above the surface, the trunks rooted fifty feet below. The swamp cypress is hydrophytic and lives in high mountain bogs and wetlands, the base completely inundated at times. The wood of the cypress is tight grained, fairly light when dried and extremely rot resistant. This characteristic makes it useful for building houses sidings and roofs and for boats. Adapted to a narrow range, this species was likely never abundant, and is now absent in Southern China, with a remnant population among the coffee plantations in Vietnam.

The population is so limited that the International conifer specialist group (including our team member Dr. Phillip Thomas) placed this tree on the IUCN red list as critically endangered in 2006. Another unknown is the ecological importance of this tree, which has complex root systems and stretches fifty meters high providing canopy and habitat for threatened species of birds like Brown Hornbills and Red-shanked Douc Monkeys.

Heading upriver on Longtail boats Laos
Longtail boats heading through submerged forest enroute to east mountains of Laos. Photo David McGuire

We are finally on our way heading upriver, with Veo and the others laughing without care as the keel speeds over gravel bars barely inches beneath the bottom.

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Stranded boat awaits refueling. Team Leader Dr. Gretchen Coffman (white cap) practicing patience the Laos way. Photo David McGuire

Once safely ashore, we will be traveling by Tok Tok, and then take long treks over slippery ridges and down into swampy valleys in hopes of discovering more forests of this enigmatic tree.  Lets hope the boat keeps afloat.

Read All Posts From the 2015 Chinese Cypress Expedition