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Father and son paddle Panama Canal

By Christopher Roberson

Lynnfield resident Robert Miller always wanted to see the Panama Canal ever since he learned about it in his sixth grade geography class – last month he got his chance when he and his son, Timothy, kayaked 55 miles through the waterway. “I am now in my 50s, so that’s been a dream for a while,” said Miller. “As an engineer, I’ve been fascinated by the sheer scale of this project, and as a member of the Lynnfield Economy Club, I’ve been in awe of how much of the world’s goods physically pass through this narrow waterway.”

To travel through the canal from the Pacific Ocean, Miller said, vessels pass through the Miraflores Locks, Miraflores Lake, the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Culebra Cut, which flows into Gatun Lake and ultimately the Caribbean Sea. Since kayaks are not permitted through the locks or the Culebra Cut, Miller and Timothy began their four-day odyssey in the mountains at the source of Gatun Lake. “We started our adventure in the bush,” said Miller.

However, just reaching the starting point was an adventure in itself. Miller said it began with a three-hour car ride from Panama City and then moving all their gear into a “beefed up” four-wheel drive vehicle. “This was one of the most extreme four-wheel drive rides I’ve experienced,” he said. “What we traversed could barely be called a trail – we went through jungle, mud, rivers, over rocks and over a mountain for two hours until we could go no farther.”

At that point, Miller said, adventure outfitter Aventuras Panama had arranged for some of the country’s native people to bring in horses to assist. “We roped our boats and gear to the horses and hiked another two hours through the jungle and over another mountain to the headwaters of the Piedras River, which flows into the Chagres River, which fills Gatun Lake,” said Miller. “From there, the only way out was down the river; this was a real thrill.”

Miller said he and Timothy spent the next five hours paddling through whitewater conditions with no one else around. “From the time we put in, we did not see a single human being – not a structure, wire or fence,” he said. “We were followed by vultures the entire time.”

However, they eventually came upon another group of natives, who were waiting for them with a 30-foot canoe. “This was something to see: It was completely carved out of a single tree,” said Miller. “Its one concession to modernity was that it had a gasoline engine. We lashed all our gear onto their canoe, and they took us several miles downstream to their village, where we spent the night.”

Despite their desolate surroundings and paddling for “five to six” hours every day, Miller said, personnel from Aventuras Panama always knew where they were by using GPS.

Miller said that prior to the trip, he was concerned about getting caught in the wake of the ships that routinely pass through the canal. However, that fear was short-lived. “We were never closer than two miles from the ships on Gatun Lake,” he said. “In fact, we navigated a course where we dashed from island to island, so we felt more like we were on a river than on a huge lake.”

Miller said he was also worried about mosquitos, as they are known to carry malaria in that part of the world. However, that was not a problem either, as there was always a breeze. While the mosquitos stayed away, Miller said they were replaced by ants. “While we were setting up camp, I walked over a piece of ground probably five times without incident, but on the sixth time the spot was covered with fire ants, which quickly covered me,” he said. “In just a few seconds, I knew exactly why they were called fire ants and I was running for the water to extinguish the burning.”

Although the crocodiles in the canal’s watershed would not attack a kayak, Miller said, he and Timothy needed to be vigilant as they approached the Caribbean Sea. This was the neighborhood of saltwater crocodiles, which are far more aggressive. “They wouldn’t hesitate for a second to grab lunch wrapped in plastic,” said Miller.

He said the screams of howler monkeys could be heard at night. “If you did not know what they were, the sound would be absolutely terrifying,” he said.

“You have to be careful because there is so much you don’t know if you are in Panama and you come from Lynnfield – things can happen, let’s say, arbitrarily.”

Looking back, Miller said he enjoyed “every single second” of the trip and spending time with Timothy, who, at the age of 25, now lives in New York City. “Being with my son in such a unspoiled, unpopulated area, being able to completely set our own pace and enjoying all kinds of wildlife, including the occasional flying fish – every moment was to savor,” he said.

Miller said his family has enjoyed kayaking and canoeing since they moved to Massachusetts from southern California. “It is such a blessing to have groundwater here,” he said, adding that the closest river or lake in southern California would be hours away. “Here we have the Ipswich River just 20 minutes away, the Concord just 30 minutes away and even Pillings Pond is a fun place to be on the water.”

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