With our ranger-guides dressed in their forest green in front of us, we pushed the sheet of old-growth to the side and slipped onto the Brillante. The old trail wove through elfin forest for something close to four kilometers, and had not been walked in several weeks. Our guides— Juan and Alvaro— told us that rangers from the Reserve walk the trail once a month for half the year, and for half the year it remains undisturbed. Effectively, the way was thick and overgrown when we dipped below the ventana and made our way out onto the ridge-line of the continental divide.
Exposed and vulnerable to the high winds that sweep up from the Atlantic slope, the forest on the ridge-line was stunted — the trees that we moved through were only three or five meters high at most, a far cry from the giants reaching for the sky at the lower elevations just a few minutes walk back the way we’d come. As we moved down the slope and out onto the ridge, I glanced back up at the wooden platform that I had stood on many times to squint into the dense and unrelenting mist to try to make out a sign or marker for the trail that I knew had, many years ago, followed the ridge-line into the home of the Golden Toad. Back then, I had not known what name to call this trail, but now I did. I watched the mist creep in to obscure the ventana and then I pushed aside the mossy branches to move further up the trail.
We walked through the elfin forest on the high ridge for several minutes, Juan and Alvaro chopping out a path in front of us. The way was flanked by bromeliads just beginning to flower, and the bright red-and-orange petals might have been emergent Golden Toads, had we walked this path thirty years ago. It had rained the night before and so the way was muddy and water dripped from the epiphytes that grew in ribbons on the low tree branches. We walked along the spine of the divide, whipped by the wind coming up from the Atlantic slope, through a habitat that had once been home to one of the most unique species on the planet. Whatever lived here now, in the wake of the Golden Toad’s extinction, kept a lower profile; we did not see much as we made our way through mist and rain and fog.
After several minutes, we came to a fork in the trail, and the rangers indicated that we would follow the thin path to the left; it would take us down into the valley and eventually loop back up to return us to the place we stood. We took a minute to share some water, to kick the mud in clots from the bottoms of our rubber boots; Juan and Alvaro cleaned their machetes and then set off again down, down into the hidden valley. We left the continental divide and followed in their wake.
The path down the Atlantic slope was slick and muddy, and Pri and I took turns balancing between trees and stones to keep from losing our footing. These were the same paths that Jay Savage had walked with Jerry James before first describing the Golden Toad in 1964; the same trails that Wolf Guindon had led Marty Crump along on rainy mornings to begin her research on the species; and the same forest Alan Pounds and Karen Masters had studied to link the Golden Toad’s extinction to global climate change. But if their bootprints had ever been here, they were long gone now — I probably destroyed them as I slipped and slid down the steep embankments with Pri following carefully behind.
As we moved down into the valley, the wind slowed and the mist began to dissipate; little by little, the trail was leveling out. We moved through the heliconias and toward the low sound of moving water somewhere up ahead. Juan and Alvaro had disappeared, but it was easy to follow in their muddy bootprints; Pri and I took our time moving through the valley, where sunlight slipped through in patches and lit the iridescent wings of butterflies dancing through the flowers. Eventually, the forest thinned and we dropped down to walk along the bank of a small river that wound like a boa through the shady forest; the cool, clear water moved over polished stones, running down from headwaters of origin unknown. In the distance we could hear bird songs and the low buzz of insects, but aside from the ambiance of the forest, the scene was still and quiet. Juan and Alvaro were sitting on the muddy slope on the far bank, and we crossed the river to approach them.
Sitting there in a pool of warm sunlight that had found its way through the thick canopy high above, Juan and Alvaro told us of the Golden Toads that the rangers had often encountered in this very spot now more than thirty years in the past; hundreds of the yellow-orange amphibians had appeared back then, emerging from their burrows underground to make their way to the ephemeral breeding pools not far from this riverbank. The rangers had never been surprised to encounter these enormous groups; they appeared here every year, and would probably appear forever, as far as anyone could tell.
Juan leaned back and squinted up the river, perhaps into a recollected past that only he could see. He told us about one year when the rangers had walked down from the divide to discover just a handful of Golden Toads around the breeding pools; the following season, there was only one male — alone and unsure of what had happened to the rest. The next year, there were none — and not a single toad had been seen on the Brillante since. Juan shrugged his shoulders and pushed the tip of his machete absentmindedly into the forest floor. “Entonces, nada mas,” he said. They had watched the Golden Toad disappear.
I put my camera on my shoulder and walked up the river for a few minutes, stopping here and there to take a closer look among the rocks and rubble for any sign of eggs or tadpoles that might have been the remnant generations of the Golden Toad, but I did not find much. Slowly, the soft conversation on the banks behind me faded out, and all that I could hear was the river and the wind that rocked the canopy a hundred feet above. Soon, the way became impassable; I turned and walked back with the current to the group.
We sat there by the river for a while longer, listening to the lullaby of running water, and each of us imagined the way the spot had used to look, thirty years ago or more when hundreds of the otherworldly toads danced among the undergrowth like bits of gold unearthed from the muddy world that lay beneath the cloud forest. Then the vision dissolved back into mist, and we picked up our packs and began the long trek back up the muddy slopes, and out of the Brillante.