A TV team for an adventure channel goes in search of scary footage. Unfortunately, they find it. 3,502 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
And there I was.
The point of this exercise was about as stupid as it sounds when you say it out loud. I was standing knee-deep in a river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat me. At night. We were launching two rubber boats so we could head out into the warm murky water and shoot dramatic footage in the dark with our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. Yeah. In rubber boats. Jesus.
Yes, I just took the Lord’s name in vain. Sorry if you are offended. I am a bad man. But not bad enough, as you may soon see from the confessions I list. Why should I fear hell? Some of it was right here. At the moment, we had some huge real-life demons to deal with.
Confession #1: I absolutely hate this particular species.
You’ll get none of that noble carnivore crap from me. In India and Africa these evil mutants have been known to devour small children and old women. They are killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching in editing rooms. Which is where I usually was. Not now. With the extra camera, I would catch another angle for editing purposes. I was the writer-slash-producer-slash-director of this show.
My job title was not as glamorous as it sounded. In TV, if you write it, you usually have to produce it and direct it, to see that it’s done right, and that can mean shooting footage, or editing, or even narrating the piece. If you managed to read those tiny credits at the end, while the channel was promoting the next program coming up, you might have seen my name fly by.
Granted, it was kind of exciting to be out here near them in the open. But the creatures we were hunting? I detested them almost as much as I feared them. I have my reasons.
Why couldn’t I be like most of the men I grew up with in the Deep South, and settle for chasing timid little deer or ducks? When I got older, I heard the real reason that men went hunting was to get away from their women. I got the impression that men stood around in cold swampy water, in rubber waders, drinking whiskey, saying, “Well, at least she ain’t here.”
That much was true for me now. Fannie, as I used to call her, was long gone. And here, tonight, the water was warm and pleasant. No swamp, this was a lush sweet-smelling jungle. Howler monkeys sounded off every time we made any loud noises. They sounded to me like dogs barking run backwards, a loop going, “Owowowowowow…”
“What happens if one thrashes around and accidently bites the boat?” I asked my Coast Rican associate.
“It is best not to think about that,” Juan said, in perfect English. He had degrees in biology from the University of Miami. “Please try not to make big splashes,” he added. “That attracts them.”
I made an effort to slide silently over the side into the front of the boat, which was basically a long yellow raft with an outboard motor. I was careful not to splash or drop my camera, as Juan tried to crank the old Evinrude bolted to the stern. It was a 9.9 horsepower model, the same kind Pappaw, my grandfather, used to keep in the trunk of his car. It was much easier to rent a boat from a local fish camp in his day if you had your own motor. In my day, after a couple of tugs from Juan, the little two-cycle engine roared to life. The familiar smell of mixed oil and gasoline fumes in the air almost made me feel a little more comfortable sitting there in the dark, in wet jeans and soggy shoes. Under a black vest that promoted our show, I was wearing my white lucky Pappaw T-shirt.
But this wasn’t Lake Marion where my family once had a little cabin in Eutawville, South Carolina, it was the Rio Negro, on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And we weren’t hunting large mouth bass.
Next to us, the other Cost Rican biologist assigned to help us, named Jesus, cranked the motor on the second boat. With him were Grady and Dave, our cameraman. The plan was to go down river, cut the motors, and drift near the banks where the big ones hung out. Earlier in the day we had seen them, stretched out like giant logs on the banks enjoying the afternoon sun. In the night’s cooler air, they would take to the water, and likely, not stray very far. We hoped.
Our boat would maneuver next to Grady’s as he tried to catch some with a long stick with a loop on the end of it. Seriously. He has done this a few times before.
“All right, Frank, let’s do it!” Grady shouted to me, from the middle seat of the other boat. Grady gave me a grin and an eager thumbs up as both boats went into reverse and we slowly backed away from the shore.
With a miner’s light on his forehead, and his tacky khaki Jungle Jim safari outfit, and his fake blonde hair, he sure did look goofy. Back at our headquarters in Washington, DC, that would be the big challenge in the editing room: to keep Grady from looking goofy. Head-on, his bowl-cut bangs created an albino version of Moe from The Three Stooges. Grady was our channel’s answer to one of the Discovery Channel’s most popular stars. Unlike the Discovery guy, however, Dr. Grady Jackson was actually a real expert, a herpetologist with a PhD. So I hoped I could make him appear a little more dignified with profile shots.
I never could decide if he was fearless or simply foolish. Once the cameras were rolling, we usually just let Grady be Grady. His childlike enthusiasm for anything that crawled, slithered, or swam was the driving force in every story we did with him. He would pick up or wrestle with almost any kind of living thing he encountered that interested him. And as documentary makers found out years ago, big things with big teeth that can eat you equal big ratings.
From the bow of his boat, Dave had a front row seat, facing backwards. I looked over at him and wordlessly pointed to my camera. He nodded and spun his finger to let me know that he was rolling. Once we were out a few feet, our guides adjusted the gear levers on the outboards, sending us forward, and we chug-chugged around in a wide arc to the right and followed the current at a lazy pace. I turned on the little Sony on my shoulder and the tiny stun-gun news light clamped on top of it, and aimed it at the other boat. Ours had a camera light and Juan’s powerful flashlight. The other boat had Grady.
After a few minutes we were about half a mile downriver from where we put in. Both guides cut their motors and Grady stood up. He put his finger to his lips to keep us silent and we sat there for a moment. Turning his head, Grady scanned the water around us. The light from his forehead picked up something on the other side of his boat. At first, I couldn’t tell if what we saw were merely bubbles floating on the surface of the water. When Grady began to throw raw chicken parts over the side,
I knew then some of those green dots we saw out there were eyes. The eyes of hungry predators. Slowly, a few of them came forward.
After he teased them with the bait, Grady stooped slowly to pick up his favorite tool, the pole with a wide noose on one end, with his right hand. With his left hand, he picked up a very long fishing rod rigged with a small chunk of chicken dangling on a short line. This was the trick.
I held my breath and braced the camera on my elbows steadied on my knees. There were two rules: we would all be quiet so the camera microphones would only pick up Grady’s whooping and hollering when he caught something, and Grady would try to remember not to curse. Because sometimes his redneck roots would show and he would forget about the cameras and say something like, “Holy Shit! Did you see the size of that sumbitch?” In the editing room, this could be replaced with a more appropriate, “Gosh, look at that big rascal.”
I could hear snapping and chomping in the water on the other side of Grady’s boat. But I concentrated on keeping Grady and his two poles in the frame. I knew Dave would be getting the close-up footage. Carefully, with his left arm, Grady lowered the fishing rig’s chicken into the water. He trailed it playfully on the surface and brought it around in a circle, over the back of the boat, until it was between us.
Keeping my eye to the viewfinder, I hoped the swirling motion I heard was just Juan using a paddle to keep us in position across from Grady. The expression on Grady’s face told me otherwise. I peeked over the side. With the chicken on the fishing rod, Grady was leading a huge shadow in the water alongside our boat.
I hurriedly zoomed out for a wider shot. Grady was keeping the bait slightly ahead of the creature. Then he stopped. He waited. First, only the head surfaced. It was more than a yard long. God only knew what the rest of it looked like. I glanced over to see if Dave was getting this. He was. So I followed Grady, wide.
Just when it was going to hit the chicken, Grady pulled the old switcheroo. With his other pole, he quickly ran the loop over the creature’s long snout, right up to its eyes. Instantly, the eyes closed. Grady twisted the loop tight. The water exploded. Grady dropped the chicken pole and leaned back to get leverage for the coming battle.
“Oh, man! This is a big one!” Grady yelled. “I’m guessing 14 feet.” He had his legs wedged against the edge of the boat, both hands gripping the pole. He wasn’t going anywhere, but his boat was. It bumped against mine as it went by. Juan used his paddle to push our boat out of the way as Grady’s angry adversary took him, Dave, and Jesus and headed for the middle of river. This reminded me of the advice Juan had given all of us earlier. Along with the ‘no splashing’ warning, he said if, for any reason, your boat sinks, you should hold your breath and swim under the surface, for the shore. And pray for survival along the way.
Now, those guys were too far out for them to possibly swim to safety underwater if it bit the boat and sank it out there.
Holding the pole tight, Grady grunted, “Crank it, Jesus. Take us to the bank.” Jesus got the motor running. They were already about 40 feet from us and they were still moving away. Grady’s voice carried over the water. “Please! Put it in reverse so we can pull it up on land. Otherwise, we could be out here all night.”
Juan wasted no time retrieving the bait rod from the river. I guess he didn’t want to see what else might eat the chicken. “You want to go where they are, Frank?” he asked me.
“No. Let’s go over there.” I told him, pointing to the closest sandbar. “Could you drive the boat up on the ground? I want to get out fast so I can shoot them from there when they come over.” A big part of telling any story with a camera is only a matter of getting ahead of everyone else or being the last to leave. Other than sound bites, a lot of our footage is just people coming and going.
Plus, I wanted to see how they were going to get that big bastard up on dry land.
With his large flashlight, Juan signaled Jesus, Grady, and Dave over to us. Then he stepped back to give me a clear camera shot. “Woo-hoo!” Grady shouted, as they coasted in. No doubt he was hoping to set a world record here.
We all were about to get a good view of it in shallow water. Grady motioned for Juan and Jesus to come help while he maintained his two-handed grip on the pole. At the water’s edge, Dave bent low from the waist and panned along the length of our trophy with his camera as the three of them dragged the beast up on the sand.
When he was sure Juan and Jesus had it pinned with the noose on the pole, Grady jumped on top of it. This was his signature move, and he always loved getting it on video.
He held tight to its jaws as Juan helped secure them with a roll of duct tape. Turning to me, Grady smiled for the camera. “This is just one of the many we’ve seen tonight, here in the Negro River in Costa Rica,” he said. I asked him to try it again with the Spanish name. He turned on his 100-watt smile again. “OK… One of the many we’ve seen here in Costa Rica’s Rios Negro,” he ad-libbed.
Confession #2: Their mighty jaws can crush you, but they aren’t so strong when it comes to opening them.
That’s how Grady does the piggyback stunt and lives to tell about it. Now that the animal was unable to bite us, Grady slid back from the head and sat behind it and stayed on its jagged back while Dave moved to the other end to get a long shot. “Watch out for the tail,” Grady warned him. Then to Jesus, “Got that tape measure?”
Our prey turned out to be only 12 feet and five inches long, so Grady was disappointed. “I think it’s pretty tired after that little rodeo,” he said. “Let’s turn it over now, fellows.”
It took all five of us to pull it onto its back. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that strange wet smell. Was it mud, urine, or fear? Fear because an unlucky one caught in the wild is assaulted. Like an alien abduction, it sees bright lights, strange beings, unusual technology, and then it gets the big probe.
As Juan and Jesus held the lower claws back, Grady searched for a small vertical slit at the base of its scaly abdomen. Then he poked his fingers into it and found what looked like a small pink valve. “This one’s a boy,” Grady announced. “Unfortunately, this is the only way to determine the sex of one on sight,” he said to the cameras, We are recording all of our data as part of a joint study with the Costa Rican government’s natural science agency, and along with an estimation of size, we want to know everything we can about it.”
Thank god we weren’t studying its diet. I knew exactly what that involved. – jamming PVC pipes down the throat, flushing the stomach with a garden hose, and trying not to vomit after seeing what that brought up. This had been Grady’s college dissertation, a paper on the creatures’ eating habits. In other countries, and in post production, I had supervised the editing on those segments. In the out takes, even Grady got sick sometimes.
When we had more angles than we needed — with close-ups of the eyes, the claws, a few other details, and the wiggling tail — we turned it over again and Grady climbed on its back again while Juan and Jesus helped him remove the tape around its jaws. Then Grady jumped away and we got a shot of it crawling back into the water to its home.
Grady still had his heart set on capturing a giant. “Come on, guys,” he pleaded. “Let’s do it one more time.”
We all looked at each other. Standing there on the sand by the river’s edge, we felt like a team – not not just because all of us were wearing matching black baseball caps with the channel’s logo on them for on-camera unity, in case we ended up in any of the footage. Costa Ricans are generally easy-going people and I could sense that Juan and Jesus truly wanted to please. As the producer, I figured I was the official team leader. I shrugged.
“OK,” he said. He wasn’t thrilled, but in addition to being one of the best cameramen I knew, he was also a pretty easy-going. I guess we wanted our star to be happy.
Out on the river, we made our way in the two boats back to the same place we’d seen the first one. By my estimation, it was about nine o’clock local time. Dave and I quietly changed batteries and loaded fresh cassettes into our cameras as Grady stood in his boat and peered out into the darkness. He wasn’t in a hurry. He asked Jesus to paddle very gently. When Grady started throwing out the chicken, I figured he had spotted one. Dave turned away to face them. I rolled tape on Grady.
He pulled the same teasing around-the-boat-maneuver with the fishing pole and the chicken to be sure it would be into view for both cameras. However, this time what came up near us looked like a small one. Then I realized that was just the head. This thing was much, much bigger. It was enormous. A monster.
Before Grady could swap the chicken pole for the noose pole, it suddenly attacked the bait. Grady used that quick second it started to chew to slip the loop on its massive snout. But this didn’t give him enough time to brace himself for the reaction. When the colossal creature churned the water between the two boats, it pulled Grady with him. He tried to hang on to the boat with his other arm, but it was not going away without a fight.
The tail slapped the side of my boat. The next surge yanked Grady completely out of the boat and into the river. He must have released the pole, because he didn’t go completely under. In a desperate attempt to reach him, Juan leaned over the side of the boat as far as he could to hand Grady the end of his paddle. I dove for the rear of the boat trying to get to the motor, but I fell over the middle seat and only managed to reach the gear lever.
Straining to stretch as far as I could, on my second attempt I found the handle and pulled the crank. As soon as the motor caught, I realized I had accidently already thrown the boat in gear and we were now going forward in a big hurry. Juan screamed. I turned. Grady’s foot was hooked over the side of our boat, to my great relief. I started pulling him in by his leg. His head was underwater. We were running wide open across the river. Then Juan took command of the Evinrude, got the throttle under control, and put it in neutral so we could focus on saving Grady.
He had swallowed quite a bit of the river during our high-speed rescue. After we got him in the boat, after he stopped gagging and coughing and making awful choking sounds, Grady said, “Praise the Lord. Hallelujah!” Then he spit over the side.
“I see you met one of my exes,” I responded. “Kind of likes to have her way, doesn’t she?”
Grady nodded. “Now I see why your other wives called her ‘The Beast.’ I think I need a drink. And maybe a hooker.”
He turned to Juan. “Es posible?”
Juan laughed. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. “Mas facil,” Juan said. “It will be very easy for us to find someone much smaller and prettier to wrestle with tonight.”
Completely soaked, spread out on the bottom of the rubber boat, he looked like a drowned rat. But Grady was smiling. And he winked at me. Now that Grady was safe, a song kept running through my head, "Stranded In The Jungle" by the cadets: “I crashed into the jungle while trying to keep a date / With my little girl who was a back in the States / I was stranded in the jungle afraid, alone / Trying to figure a way to get a message back home.”
Confession #3: I thought, well, I was wearing my lucky Pappaw T-shirt…
Then I noticed that our boat was deflating and sinking into the river. I tried to sound calm. “We need to get to the shore. Now.”