Men’s Travel—Bronze: Gut Check on the Reef Bay Trail

by Scott Crawford

Rocks make a hollow sound when tumbled together underwater. I heard this now as the rushing torrent passed inches from my boots, throwing spray against my bare shins. And I began to question the wisdom of this outing.

An aerial view, had it been possible through the clouds, would have revealed a lone and somewhat indecisive character standing on the bank of a swollen stream located between a clunker of a jeep, parked on a road a mile back and 600 vertical feet above, and the Caribbean Sea, another mile and a half ahead and 300 feet below. My own view was somewhat more restricted, and included a foaming river about ten feet wide and of unknown depth, a stick I had just picked up off the ground and now cradled hesitantly in my hand, and a small swath of dripping jungle disappearing into an impenetrable mist.

I leaned a little weight on the stick. It held.

“That waterfall better be running,” I muttered, and plunged into the stream.

***

It was the third day of a three-day rain, and all of St. John’s tourists were safely cooped up in hotel rooms or bellied up to the bar. “Perfect hiking weather,” I called it, donning my rain gear and heading out. My destination: the Reef Bay Trail, the most popular trail in the Virgin Islands National Park.

The Reef Bay Trail starts in the middle of the island and drops nearly a thousand feet through a steep, verdant valley on its way to St. John’s southern shore, two and a half miles distant. As a local schoolteacher, I had a long relationship with this trail. A descent along its course is a lesson in island history, and I had trekked it countless times. In centuries past, colonial plantations populated the valley, and ruins still feature prominently in the landscape. Crumbled walls, circular horse mills, and buildings constructed of native stone, brick and coral greet hikers along the trail: a reminder of how different the valley would have looked years ago when the choking junglenow overgrown and slowly reclaiming the ruinsgave way to orchards, terraced fields, pastures and outbuildings catering to the sugar trade.

Fascinating stuff, but for me the trail’s attraction was an older history still: one of a vanished people who came before.

Over 2,000 years ago, a group of migrants left their homes in South America’s Orinoco River valley, making their way in dugout canoes up the Caribbean archipelagothe original island hoppers, if you will. Many would settle throughout the Greater Antilles, developing into a culture we today call Taino: the peaceful, agricultural people who gave the world the hammock and, as such, should have been revered as heroes, yet who also had the great misfortune of greeting Columbus when he arrived and would, therefore, instead cease to exist. That the Tainos called St. John home is indisputable thanks to recent park excavations conducted at Cinnamon Bay, a postcard beach on St. John’s north shore, but another site had all but confirmed their presence years earlier: the Petroglyph Pool, a dreamy, tropical grotto hidden deep within the Reef Bay valley.

There, at the base of a forty-foot waterfall overhung with jungle trees and twisting vines, the Tainos carved a mystery into the rock. Their petroglyphs, consisting of geometric symbols, spirals and what I can only describe as cute, cartoony faces, hover just above the waterline of a poola sort of secondary basin just beyond the waterfall’s plunge poolwhere they reflect in double for visitors to the grotto. It is by any reckoning a magical place, where one can sit for hours without moving. Particularly if one has brought along a good sandwich.

There exists only one problem with this idyllic scene: the waterfall is usually bone dry.

St. John, despite being a tropical island, has a bit of a fresh water problemas in it has no fresh water. Over-cultivation during plantation days depleted the aquifers, while massive clear cutting ensured they would not be replenished. Today, with no alternative, residents get water from the sky, capturing rain on rooftops to be stored in cisterns. On an island receiving only 45 or so inches of rain per yearand most of this during a few months in the rainy seasonthe presence of water is never something to be taken for granted. Unlike rum, which is always plentiful.

This dryness can be shocking to visitors, most of whom arrive with a preconceived notion of what a tropical paradise should look like: an image dominated by lush greenery, swaying palm trees, and hibiscus blossoms lining every path. This image rarely includes cactus, the most prolific plant on my own island property, or a goat kicking up dust as it gnaws on a dry, thorny shrub, a common sight along any St. John roadway. And few things strike amusement like seeing a touristespecially one paying several thousand dollars to stay in a gorgeous villa overlooking the seareact to the house manager’s request to “please only flush after number two.”

For locals the dry months become an accepted state of existence, albeit one that takes its toll. Not only does one worry about cistern levels, lengths of showers, or how long it will be before laundry can be done, the lack of fresh water tugs at one’s very soul, as if the body senses the absence of a critical element from the landscape. At one point or another, every resident finds himself gazing out over the azure expanse of surrounding sea and quoting that ancient mariner: “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”

Never is this sense of dryness more acuteor more out of placethan at the Reef Bay waterfall, where the rocks, overhanging vegetation and standing pool seem to demand lushness. Indeed, it is the type of place one expects to find an exotic goddess bathing in the waters while advertising sunscreen. Yet, in all my trips to the Petroglyph Pool, I had never seen the waterfall flowing more than a pathetic trickle. Most often it was completely dry: a bare rock face towering above a stagnant pool of reddish water, echoing with the drone of dragonflies and bounded by dried-up shrubs. And even then the beauty was striking.

Imagine, then, my excitement to see the grotto after three days of rain.

***

“Eee-yiii!” I exclaimedor something similarly eloquentas cold water closed around my ankles and poured into my boots. The current tugged at my legs, but my stick helped to keep me upright. A few wobbly steps and I was safely out of the stream, pulling myself up the bank on the other side.

By this point, I had been hiking for thirty minutes, taking my time down the steep path. The dripping canopy had bathed the scene in greenish light, while the gathering stream, much less threatening near the top, had gurgled happily in the normally dry drainage channela “gut” on St. Johnrunning parallel to the trail.

At the higher elevations, trees tower above the footpath, offering hikers shade on normal days. Today they had provided a slight break from the rain. Instead of a steady drizzle, large drops had dripped off the saturated leaves, plopping onto the path as I descended through the tropical forest: past locusts, kapoks, genips and mangoes, bay rums with their spice-scented leaves, and turpentine trees with their flaking red bark. Typically, I take time to linger over these specimens, but today their presence had barely registered. My attention had been wholly focused on the water coursing through the gut beside the trail, its novelty making it seem like the mighty Amazon itself to my drought-stricken mind. Switchbacking down into the valley, the trail frequently passed through the gut, which flowed with greater volume and more ferocity at each crossing. For a while I had kept my feet dry by hopping from rock to rock, but soon resorted to slogging through, though the water remained well below my ankles.

And then I had come to the rushing stream, giving me pause for the first time on the hike. Watching the frothing water and being unable to gauge its depth, I had seized upon absurd, improbable scenarios, such as what it might feel like to be swept up in the current, bashed against rocks for a mile or so, before being deposited, bloody and quite humbled, into the shark infested waters of Reef Bay. “At least I’ll have a stick,” I’d thought. But then I had plunged in, and besides the shock of the cold water the crossing hadn’t been bad. In fact, it’d been fun. Just what I needed to get my confidence level up past “indecisive” and into the realm of “dangerously stupid”.

Naturally, I had not passed another soul on the hike, nor would I. I did, however, startle a wild pigferal descendant of plantation daysrooting along the muddy trail shortly after I crossed the stream. As I rounded a bend about thirty yards away, he stared at me uncertainly down his long, mud-caked snout before crashing off into the bush. Further down, a mongoose darted into the path, a product of one of the more ill-advised moves in the annals of St. John history. Introduced in the 19th century, the mongoose was supposed to protect sugarcane crops by controlling the tree rat populationa brilliant plan except for the inconvenient facts that tree rats are nocturnal and live in trees. Mongoose, on the other hand, hunt in the day and climb trees about as well as a cow. Needless to say, St. John still has plenty of tree rats today and even more mongoose. The latter have carved out their niche on the island, preying off everything from endangered turtle eggs to tourist picnics with equal abandon. Sizing me up, this mongoose darted back into the bush, undoubtedly sensing that anyone crazy enough to be out today was probably not worth the trouble.

Finally reaching the valley floor, I turned off the main path onto a spur trail leading to the petroglyphs. By this point, I had forded the gut several more times, with water advancing past my knees on the most recent crossing, but now I seemed to be in the clear. The Petroglyph Trail is less than a half-mile long and almost completely flat. I could practically hear the waterfall in the distance. Picking up my pace, I trotted along the path through the wet, impossibly green jungleand then stopped short.

“Oh, yeah, that,” I whispered, surveying the site at my feet.

The main trail parallels the Reef Bay Gut, the stream I had been following and crossing on my hike thus far. The waterfall, however, is fed by the Living Gut, a separate drainage altogether, and I had forgotten that, in order to access the petroglyphs, the spur trail crosses this gut below the waterfall. On most days this is not a problem. The gut, being completely dry, is hardly distinguishable from the rest of the path. Today it was a thirty-foot wide swath of whitewater.

“Well, it appears the waterfall’s running,” I told myself, looking dubiously at rapids that would make even John Wesley Powell pack an extra pair of underpants before crossing.

Taking in the scene, I noted a fallen tree jutting into the torrent just upstream creating a calm eddy suitable for entry. Slowly, I eased myself into the water and began shuffling along the length of the trunk. By the time I reached its end ten feet into the stream, the water was up to my waist, its pull growing stronger. Tentatively I reached a leg out beyond the log into the unrestrained current.

I’ve never actually attempted to hold back an oncoming bus with a single appendage, but if I ever do I would expect the effort to be about as effective as my effort now to get a footing in the stream. The impact of the water spun me around, sending me into a dance move that started with flailing arms accompanied by a high pitched squeal and ended with me clinging to the fallen tree wearing an expression not unlike Kramer after three café lattes. I retreated to the bank to reassess the situation.

It’s fair to say I thought about turning back. The roar of the stream combined with the thud of rocks tumbling along the gut floor certainly had my attention, but beyond these I thought I heard something elsea dull, steady roar that spoke of awesome power: the waterfall. I was less than a hundred yards away.

And so I hatched Plan B. Low branches overhung the gut downstream, meaning that, by going a little out of my way, I could make the entire crossing without ever losing hold of some stationary objecteven though my entire lower half would be in the water, and even though that stationary object would be a flimsy branch. Such was my plan, andto my genuine surpriseit worked. The branches, alive with foliage, proved plenty strong to hold my weight and had enough flexibility to bend with me whenever I lost my footing and went in for another dance move. Also, the current seemed less here, probably because there was no tree funneling the stream down to two-thirds size. Thus, I inched my way across, and before long, stood safely on the far bank quite pleased with myself, and with no further obstacles between me and my goal. Without hesitation, I continued up the trail, prepared to see the waterfall in its full glory.

The Petroglyph Trail is cleverly done, though I imagine nature is more to thank here than the park service. The final stretch parallels the Living Gut, but brings hikers in below the waterfall, so that rocks and trees obscure any view of what lies ahead. A final scramble up a rocky ascent and around a curve brings one suddenly into the grotto in a most unexpected, typically breathtaking way. It is for this reason and this reason alone that I had the courage to enter the grotto. I simply couldn’t see what was coming.

The moment I rounded the corner a wall of spray hit my face. As I spluttered about clearing my eyes, I became aware of the noise. Since crossing the Living Gut, I had been conscious of a dull roar, but it had been impossible to tell how much was coming from the gut and how much from the nearby waterfall. Here, now, the sound was deafening, and it was 100 percent waterfall.

The waterfall was not flowing; it was erupting. Forty feet above, water shot over the rock in ridiculous volume and with such force as to clear the normal plunge pool at the base, landing instead in the Petroglyph Pool beyond. The petroglyphs themselves were completely obscured by the wall of water and the foam and spray thrown up by the force of the impact. Nowhere could one stand to escape the fury of the event.

I clung to a tree, squinting at the scene in awe, marveling at how three days of rain could transform a landscape so wholly, so absolutely. This was not the tranquil scene I’d expected. This was the apocalypse. On the way down, I had harbored visions of sitting on the rocks to enjoy a calming moment next to the ancient carvings and finally flowing waterfall, perhaps even have a profound thought, something along the lines of how the Grand Canyon or Zion Canyon or at least waterwheels suddenly made sense, but now it was clear that any meditative sit-down on the rocks today would be accompanied by a good, old-fashioned pummeling. And my only profound thought, when it came, was this:

“It’s still raining.”

And it was. Worse, it was coming down harder now than ever, meaning that all the water I’d passed through on the way down was still rising.

Suddenly, I had a strong desire to be in my jeep.

Bidding goodbye to the Tainos, I ran down the trail, arriving at the Living Gut within seconds. Crossing was a blur, and to the best of my recollection involved monkey feats called up from some primordial yesteryear that I could not repeat today with a gun to my head. Shortly thereafter, I arrived back at the main trail, where my fears were confirmed. The trail was gone, replaced by an ankle deep stream. Re-donning my Kramer expression, I plunged in, splashing against the current until the trail had climbed enough to be dry again. And then I kept running. Never have I so desired for high ground.

After three or four crossings, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be swept downhill and out to sea by a wall of water. I began to relax a little, though the thought of stopping never crossed my mind. By the time I reached the top, the rain had noticeably slackened, and I could finally smile a bit about what I had witnessed in the valley. Driving home, the rain stopped altogether, and I found myself laughingpartly out of relief, but mostly at my own absurdity. I should have never been down there alone in these conditions. Not for a minute.

“I bet it’ll be perfect tomorrow,” I said.

A friend hiked to the pool the next day. It was.

***

I’ve been back to Reef Bay many times since and have now seen the waterfall at about every stage possible. A day of rain in the dry season won’t get it going. A week of pretty consistent rain through the wet season is perfectthough a visit at just about anytime will prove well worth the effort. But if adventure is what you want, hike the trail on the third day of a three-day downpour.

Just take a friend…and some rope…and a change of underpants.

And don’t expect to sit and enjoy your sandwich.


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