Researchers and Adventurers
Herpetologist and SMr Adventurer
I am a biologist and educator. My job as a field biologist, studying amphibians and reptiles and their conservation, affords me opportunity to travel for work. Much of my field work has been focused on Southeast Asia, Thailand and Borneo in particular. Going to "work" in the field means long days, and even longer nights, of working to catalog the diversity of Southeast Asia's forests, where I trek along rocky streams, climb cascading waterfalls, and hike along lush forest trails. Working across cultural, religious, and political boundaries has changed my world view and I am thrilled that I get to introduce students to the same life-changing opportunities. I love what I do! Field work, however, has its pitfalls- especially field work in the tropical regions where I work. I am nearly always wet and that is true for my gear, as well. After a summer with my Nubé system in the forests of Borneo, I am a believer and I don't know that I'll ever go back to tent camping again! Thanks for keeping me dry, comfortable, and productive in the field! Thanks for your part in helping me to explore, understand, and conserve this marvelous and diverse creation!
Nature Enthusiast and James Madison University Biology Graduate
After being confined to the library for the better part of 3 years to receive a Biology degree at JMU, I jumped at the chance to conduct field research in Borneo, with a group of other undergrads, lead by Dr. David S. McLeod. The subject of our foray: reptiles and amphibians- even better! As soon as I found out I was one of the students selected, I rummaged through my gear and found the Pares hammock and Nubé system I had purchased a few years earlier for a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. On that trip, though it rained virtually the entire time, we all remained remarkably dry. This was definitely the type of gear I would need for work in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia! With my bags packed and my Chivey-green Pares and Nubé secured tightly to my Osprey pack, I only had to complete a few more things before I could embark on my dream trip- take the MCAT, finish my research thesis, oh and graduate of course, to name a few!
Not all Classrooms Have Four Walls
13 May 2016
Apparently knives are not allowed on planes in Qatar...but Nubé stakes are!
With Dulles Airport fading slowly away from beneath our planes' wheels, I repositioned my pack beneath my seat and fiddled with the straps securing my Nubé and Pares hammock. I spent the next 13 hours switching off between daydreaming about pitching my hammock over a river while falling asleep to the sound of water tumbling over rocks slick with green Borneo algae, and binge-watching highly-edited movies. Once we reached Qatar, our first of many pit-stops, I slung my pack on my back and headed to security. Miraculously, my pack, which was crammed with Epic and Lara bars and strapped with a menagerie of gear, was waved through. As I went to collect it after a body scan, the security officer said, "Hold on a second." She then had me painstakingly take everything off and out. There, in my water bottle side pocket, was my lucky Appalachian Trail knife. My heart immediately sank. I knew what this meant. Another officer grabbed a trashcan and brought it over. Hesitantly, I dropped my lucky knife in and gathered up my other gear that had been strewn pell-mell. After I stuffed, crammed, wedged and squashed all my gear back into my pack I noticed a few Nubé stakes peaking out of their pocket. With a sheepish glance around, I quickly jammed them in my pack and high-tailed it right to my next gate. Luckily, Thailand and Brunei's security officers were forgiving and I made it to Brunei without losing a single stake!
17 May 2016
Ornamental palm trees make terrible hammocking trees
After a few days in Thailand enjoying the vibrancy of its culture, we made it to the campus of the University of Brunei- Darussalam, where we would meet our Brunei counterparts before heading into the wilds of the rainforest. While enjoying a laid back evening on campus, I decided to test my Pares hammock between two small palm trees ornamenting the campus's quad. I speedily set my EZSlings and attached my hammock to the two support 'biners. The setup was flawless. I grabbed my laptop for a Netflix binge-watching session and plopped into the hammock with a few other students. Slowly, then speedily, the hammock eased all the way to the ground as both palm trees were effectively uprooted. In hindsight, I realized how sandy and loose the dirt in Brunei was. Unruffled, despite our rears grazing the ground, we were all surprisingly comfy and just eased back to continue our show!
Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre
18 May 2016
Several boat rides later…
The day began with a 2.5 hour ride in, what the locals affectionately call, a coffin boat. Why a coffin? Because if it sinks that’s exactly what you’ll be in! After we weighed the boat down to a questionable level in the water with our field equipment, we all piled in and bid adieu to Bandar Seri Begawan, our home away from home, and the closest vestige of civilization. After arriving at yet another dock, we got onto a bus and wound our way through the deep, desolate and remarkably stunning forests of Brunei's Temburong district- to yet another dock, this one stocked with traditional long boats.
There is a trick to loading a long boat, one that we learned early on and never forgot. You scramble on single-file and plop down onto the nearest seat as fast as humanly possible. If haste is not made, and you step just to the side of the exact middle, your boat may capsize! After stowing our voluminous gear, we all managed to load the long boats without causing a minor maritime disaster. Following an exhilarating ride on the Belalong river, we made it to our destination: the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre deep in the heart of the Ulu Temburong National Park. We were there for two weeks of pure bliss to a biologist. Our nights were filled with "herping" expeditions (finding and catching reptiles and amphibians along lush riverbanks), and our days were filled with exploring upriver, processing specimens, sneaking obscene amounts of Nutella from the kitchen and playing, often times excessively violent, games of spoons and Pounce.
Dr. David S. McLeod
20 May 2016
A brief introduction to hammocks and ants
“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” (Proverbs 6:6 ESV) This proverb is an admonition about our work ethic, ants are industrious, work in teams, and are resourceful. As I napped in my SMr Solo hammock at the bank of the Belalong River in the Ulu Temburong National Park of Brunei, however, this proverb took on another meaning. We had some down time during an afternoon of our field course and I thought I’d use it to hang my hammock for the first time and catch up on some rest. It may come as a surprise, but in tropical forests it is really difficult to find good trees to hang a hammock on. There is often a lot of thorny shrub vegetation on the forest floor and trees grow quite close to one another as they compete in their upward race to the sky. Some trees have toxins in their leaves that will cause burns on your skin. Most trees are homes for ants, termites, and centipedes.
This day, however, it was the ants that got the better of me. I located a couple of trees, with as few under-hammock hazards as possible, and hooked in one end. I was looping the EZSling around the second when I noticed a line of large red ants along the back side of the tree, that I had missed in my scouting. Wanting rest, I took the gamble that the ants would continue with their mission up and down the tree and might ignore my intrusion across their path. It seemed to work and the ants resumed their march across the webbing. I climbed in, relaxed, and drifted off into an afternoon nap with the sounds of the river and forest surrounding me. Some time later a small but painful bite jolted me awake. Ants had decided to check out my resting place, but not the large red ants from the tree. A curious line of small black ants had made their way along the EZSling and down my hammock from the opposite end of the red ants. The first soldier in line was tasked with checking me out and so he did, painfully I might add. It was my cue to get up and back to work. It was also my reminder to setup my Nubé for protection from pesky pests, especially before napping in the tropics!
28 May 2016
Ready, set, relax….
The day would end with our final and most industrious expedition into the Temburong Rainforest. Our sage leader, Dr. David McLeod, had wisely advised us to rest up during the heat of the day in order to have the energy for the excursion. Naturally, I immediately decided to arduously trek upriver and set up my hammock ten feet above the cacophonous waters and between a pair of sturdy, buttress-root trees. After fighting the current to the far shore of the river, I clambered up the steep slope and set my Chivey-green Pares hammock, marveling at how perfectly situated it was amongst the verdant leaves and snaking vines of the jungle undergrowth. Only then did I realize my mistake- how would I get into my hammock?! Only after ashamedly trekking back to the field station and enlisting the aid of a chuckling Dr. McLeod, could I finally relax before undertaking our final expedition. I read a book while listening to the gentle notes of the forest and the crashing timpani of the river commingle into a single symphony of sound. It was quite a refreshing ten minutes!
Dr. David S. McLeod
30 May 2016
Quiet frogs, Noisy crickets, and a snail eating snake
Had I stuck around the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Center for the night I would have missed out on so much. It was the last evening of our three-week field course and several of us decided to camp in the forest. It was raining lightly as we arranged camp before sunset. As we were setting up, the song of the aptly named ‘giant noisy cricket’ rose up from under our hammocks and joined the cacophony of the forest at dusk. This cricket lives in burrows and calls with a deafening trill. It moves along its mud-walled tunnel until it finds just the right spot where the resonance is perfect. We wondered if this was a sign of a long and sleepless night to come. During dinner back at the station, the rains intensified and we considered calling off our overnighter. Ariel and I were in separate SMr Nubé systems, and another two were in a tent- our concern was for the tenters. To our delight, the rains quit and we hiked up to our site.
Along the way we found a lizard, Gonocephalus bornensis, asleep on a branch at the side of the trail, head pointed towards the trunk of the shrub, as they nearly always are. At camp, we got our things settled and then went out to look around and see who our neighbors were for the night. A snail-eating snake, Aplopeltura boa, was moving slowly through the branches in search of prey. In the three weeks we’d been at the station this was our first encounter with this slender and beautiful snake!
Up the trail, Ariel found luminescent fungi and as we stood in the dark watching the mushrooms glow I heard the faintest sound- what sounded like a wet foot squeakily slipping on sandals. She left and I stood, just admiring the forest at night. Then the sound came again, but this time no one was there to make the sound. Sweeping my headlamp around in the direction of the quiet call, I found a tiny frog sitting on a wet leaf at the base of a buttress root from a very large tree. The calling male, a yellow-spotted narrow-mouthed frog, Chaperina fusca, had bright yellow spots on its belly and a brown color on its back. Most interestingly, the yellow spots rub off when you handle the frog! We found more of these frogs in a basin of water formed from the roots of the tree and were able to record their call — possibly the first recording of it ever! Going back to camp and getting settled in, we chatted between our hammocks about the amazing things we’d seen and heard. The rains started to fall again and the patter of water on the fly lulled us to sleep.
30 May 2016
If my Pares wasn't so comfy, I might have cared there was a wild pig rooting around my camp...
After exploring around our camp and stumbling upon several unique critters, we all retired to our respective shelters. My Nubé was situated parallel to the West side of camp, with the trail curving around a large buttress-root tree. After stashing my gear in the mercifully-dry gear stash, I settled back into my voluminous Pares hammock and cracked my book for a few minutes of pleasant reading in the light of my headlamp. Within 5 minutes I was out cold. At around 2 a.m, I was awakened by a musky scent wafting up from beneath my hammock and the sounds of a medium-sized animal rooting around. I heard several soft snorts and the silky, swishing sound of something prodding around outside my Nubé. Ordinarily, this might bother me but knowing I was a few feet off the ground and completely enclosed in my Nubé, I wasn't phased at all. I snuggled deeper into my Pares and fell heavily asleep again.
Dr. David S. McLeod
4 June 2016
“What kind of hammock do you use?”
A couple months ago I wouldn’t have had an answer for this, but recently, when I was posed this question by a fellow ex-pat in Brunei, I had an answer: “A Solo hammock and Nubé system from Sierra Madre Research.” This conversation could have happened anywhere at any time, but the timing of this one was perfect. I’d just spent three weeks teaching a tropical field biology course in Brunei’s Ulu Temburong, one of the best forests in the Heart of Borneo — beautiful primary forest, clear running rivers, a daily cacophony of insects, and remarkable biodiversity. Ulu Temburong is a chance to catch a glimpse of what the Bornean forests were like before the logging and palm oil industries cut into Brunei’s neighboring lands.
I had also just spent my first night in my hammock and Nubé system. I had wanted to try it out before my next couple weeks of fieldwork in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) when I’d sleep in it daily. I had purchased the system only days before leaving for Borneo and, frankly, I was a little skeptical. I had spent many uncomfortable nights in a hammock in the forests of Thailand, but I was impressed by the thoughtful design of the SMr system and I had heard some pretty remarkable reviews on it. In the tropics, the biggest advantage of a hammock over traditional tents is that you are off the ground, which is often wet . . . not to mention home to lots of ants, leeches, and other stinging, biting, and blood sucking beasties.
I couldn’t have picked a better “test” night! It was raining when we set it up and yet it was dry inside when I got in. Late at night when I finally called it quits for the day, it was often hot and humid but the airflow through the Nubé was surprisingly good. It rained through the night, and I was still dry in the morning, not to mention well rested (much to my surprise!). Though the forest was full of ants, none came to join me for the evening. All in all I had a really great "dry" run! I’m really glad I had an answer to his question.
7 June 2016
Ascent into clouds on "jungle stairs"
After we finished up our research and Dr. McLeod headed to the Crocker Range, I decided to climb the highest mountain in Borneo- Mt Kinabalu. I had planned on pitching my Nubé and Pares at base camp to rest up for the next leg of the journey. I meticulously packed each article onto my pack, knowing that each ounce would weigh me down more with each step into higher elevation. After checking my straps multiple times, I fell asleep at my hostel, the Fat Rhino in Kota Kinabalu, to the sounds of truly atrocious Alannis Morissette karaoke outside my window. A bus met me and another climber-a lively Belgian named Andreas- early the next morning for the trek to Mt. Kinabalu. At the permit station, we met with our guide Safrey, and began our ascent to base camp from the Timpohon Gate. Here I met my nemesis: jungle stairs wet and slick from heinous Borneo slime. As we gained elevation, breathing became increasingly difficult and each step was a slippery death struggle. Eventually, we slid into a rhythmic amble and were distracted from the arduousness of the trek by the glow of camaraderie forming between our group and another, comprised of an Australian couple and a young Dutch woman.
By the time we reached 2,500 meters elevation, I was seriously looking forward to a nap in my hammock but noticed something off about the vegetation. What started out as lush rainforest, had gradually eased into low-growing scrub trees, bent and gnarled by the constant torment of wind. Uh-oh. Disheartened, I realized that my hammock-nap was out of the question and trudged the rest of the way to the Low's Peak base camp, Laban Rata. Once there I shared victory cokes with my team and led a multi-national assortment of climbers in a round of yoga before bed.
8 June 2016
The struggle for an epic sunrise
After a sleepless night in creaky bunk-beds, we all struggled downstairs at 2 am to begin our final ascent to Low's Peak. The start of the trail seemed promising- a dirt path surrounded by low scrub trees. Soon enough though, I met my ancient nemesis yet again. In the light of my headlamp, the jungle stairs looked even more treacherous- covered in mosses and moist from the early morning condensation. I took each step cautiously, verbally walking myself through it until I noticed the members of my group casting concerned, sidelong glances in my direction.
Dizzy from altitude sickness, I followed Andreas and just managed to keep pace, but only by the grace of Kit-Kats- which he coaxed me on with whenever I would pause too long. After ascending a stretch of jungle stairs that lasted an eternity, I bumped headfirst into my Belgian friend, who was staring in awe at the sky. I too glanced up and was startled by the clearest night sky I'd ever seen. I could see every single star in pinprick relief to an arresting indigo backdrop. On one hand, I can count the times something has made me stand in slack-jawed awe. At this scene, I was in full guffaw for a solid fifteen minutes. Reluctantly, I moved on. Two kilometers later, while ascending a particularly treacherous vertical rock face, I noticed large slabs of granite, out of place in discordant piles, and asked Safrey about them.
On June 5, 2015, almost exactly a year before my trek, a 6.0 earthquake shook Sabah and 18 people were killed on Mt. Kinabalu from rock slides. Of the casualties, four guides were killed protecting their climbers. I was shocked at this revelation and stood a moment reflecting on the tenuousness of human endeavor. Many people don't truly appreciate the power of our natural world. We venture into the unknown in the hopes of achieving a novel feat that we can immortalize on film. Unfortunately for some, our adventures can lead us into peril and cost the ultimate price. With this in mind, I tentatively made my way toward Low's Peak, having gained a new respect for the mountain.
Racing a sprinting sun, the last few meters of unforgiving granite finally came into view. Officially out of Kit-Kats, I had to pause for breath. The last few hundred meters had been a challenge, my oxygen-deprived muscles aching with every step. Stubbornly, I trudged on. Finally, with the summit plaque to my left and a victorious sun crossing the finish line of the horizon, I kneeled down and enjoyed the spectacular view.
Crocker Range National Park
Dr. David S. McLeod
12 June 2016
Crocker Range Leeches
As darkness comes on they emerge from their shadowy lair and crawl up the grassy vegetation. Perched at the tip of a blade, they waive their striped bodies insidiously as they await their prey. Unfortunately, I am that prey. Leeches. They shouldn't bother me, but they do. They aren't vectors for human disease, but they can be a nuisance. In the tropical forests of Borneo, terrestrial leeches are common and abundant. In Sabah's Crocker Range National Park I encountered too many of them. Long ago, I realized that it didn't matter how I wore my pants, or whether I used leech gaiters, I was going to attract leeches. I suppose I just accepted it. One night, as I got back to camp, I picked several Tiger Leeches off my clothes. Blood stained my pants where the leeches had made it under my clothing and secured themselves to my legs. The anticoagulant in their saliva causes you to bleed freely without clotting so that they can gorge themselves (it also makes you itch for days afterwards!).
During my cold post-work shower, I found several more by the light of my headlamp (generator is off most of the time). Thinking I was leech free, I settled into my hammock for the night. In the early morning light I awoke to what can only be described as a murder scene. Blood streaked clothing . . . blood on my hammock... blood on the Nubé. The horror! Unfortunately, I had missed a leech that had hidden itself away inconspicuously in a crevice of my body that I consider off limits to most things, especially leeches. A little sleuthing led me to the body, but it wasn't my own. The leech had gotten his fill of me and was moving on to new pastures when he was squashed. In a strange twist of fate, his balloon like body burst but it was my blood that was shed. Leeches . . . they shouldn't bother me, but they do and did I have a mess to clean up!
Dr. David S. McLeod
12 June 2016
In the heart of Borneo
I love to be in the forest! It is that simple. As a biologist and educator, I’ve managed to find a career that lets me work with people and chase frogs around in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It is a good life for sure! Nothing is without drawbacks though, especially tropical fieldwork where conditions are warm, humid, and downright dank at times. Most of the time I find myself working at research facilities, but occasionally . . . on good days . . . I find myself sleeping out in the forest in a tent or hammock. Tents get wet on the bottom and put you right on top of a lot of biting insects and blood sucking leeches (Grr). Hammocks, on the other hand, keep you off the forest floor, out of the way of (most) ants, leeches, and other critters but, in my experience, have been uncomfortable places to sleep. This year, during my trip to Sabah, I tried hammocks again with a new Sierra Madre Research Solo hammock and Nubé system. For the 7 nights of our expedition into the Crocker Range National Park I slept out in my hammock. After years of tent camping I can truly say that I got the best nights of outdoor sleep ever. EVER. I was unbelievably comfortable. No tossing and turning. No rocky lumps in the back when you forget to fully clear the site. No mosquitos. No wet gear. No extra poles or gear to hump in. Just a tiny stuff sack that packed a great week of sleep.
Sunset over the rainforest
As I look back through my adventures in Borneo, I can't shake the feeling that I simply need to do more exploring and that I need to take my daughter with me to see and experience the wonders of the rainforest, before they are gone. On our expeditions at the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre, the students in Dr. McLeod's research group catalogued the diversity of reptile and amphibian species indigenous to that area. Although extremely useful, our endeavors could never fully document the rich diversity of flora and fauna thriving in every square meter. Once the rainforest is gone, it can never be recreated with the same richness of variety it housed before. The only way to capture the true essence of our natural world is to immerse ourselves in it and seek to protect it. To this end I explore. I thank people like Dr. David McLeod, and companies like SMr, for making exploration possible and for allowing me to safely and comfortably experience full immersion, in places like the rainforests of Borneo, without leaving a single trace behind; so that the rainforest can remain a thriving, ever-evolving and living wonder of the world.
"Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn." -Ralph Waldo Emerson
SMr Camping Gear Used During This Adventure:
Borneo , Nubé, JMU, Dr. David S. McLeod, Pares, Appalachian Trail, Osprey, Qatar, Epic, Lara bars, Brunei, University of Brunei- Darussalam, EZSlings, 'biners, Parks and Rec, Bandar Seri Begawan, Temburong district, Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre, Ulu Temburong National Park, SMr, Solo, Ulu Temburong National Park, Temburong Rainforest, Kuala Belalong Field Studies Center, gear stash, Solo, Nubé, Sierra Madre Research, palm oil industries, Sabah, Crocker Range, Mt Kinabalu, Fat Rhino, Kota Kinabalu, Timpohon Gate, Low's Peak, Laban Rata, June 5, 2015, Crocker Range National Park, hammock, SMr.