“I can’t believe it’s something I’ve actually done”: NESA’s World Explorers share details of their experience

Photo courtesy of Josh Slavin

To get to Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS), one of the most remote scientific research stations in the world, you must first get to a rural area called Tumbaco, just outside Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

From there, you can catch a short flight to Coca, a city in eastern Ecuador located inside the Amazon rainforest.

From Coca, you hop on a motorized canoe for about a 2-hour ride up the Napo River.

You’re now officially in the middle of nowhere, but you’re not even close to your destination.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Burke

After clearing a security checkpoint, you hop on a bus for another 2-hour ride, then you’re back in another motorized canoe.

Then, finally, you arrive at TBS, deep inside the rainforest, in the middle of the one of the most ecologically diverse areas known to man.

And then, if you’re Eagle Scouts Josh Slavin and Trevor Burke, the real adventure begins.

Josh and Trevor spent a week at TBS last summer as part of the National Eagle Scout Association’s (NESA) World Explorer program, directed by Distinguished Eagle Scout, chief medical advisor for crisis response at the Greater Washington Board of Trade and NESA vice president Michael Manyak. They got to work hand-in-hand with researchers from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito on a variety of environmental-related projects.

The World Explorer program, which is operated separately from the BSA’s youth programs, pairs Eagle Scouts ages 18 to 27 with cutting-edge researchers at exotic, exciting sites around the world. All activities are supervised by qualified, trustworthy adults.

“It’s an opportunity that very few people in the world will ever have,” Josh says, “to experience the rainforest and work alongside really intelligent people who are doing important work.”

One of the TBS trails. Photo courtesy of Josh Slavin

A unique opportunity

TBS was established in 1994 by Universidad San Francisco de Quito in collaboration with Boston University. It sits on around 1,500 acres of lowland rainforest on the Tiputini River.

Its primary purpose is to help scientists and students learn more about the surrounding rainforest so they can expertly recommend the best conservation strategies possible.

Because the water level of the Tiputini varies greatly depending on the time of year — and sometimes the time of day — the station is built high up on a rock formation overlooking the river’s north bank.

“They did a good job of straddling the line of being a permanent establishment, but also consciously making design choices to minimize its impact so it doesn’t carve away a piece of the jungle,” says Trevor.

While there are some actual buildings — including sleeping quarters, showers, kitchen and of course a research center — much of the property consists of trails leading to a variety of areas of interest within the forest.

“You really feel like you’re a part of the jungle,” says Trevor. “It’s pushing in all around you.”

The rainforest is full of surprises. Photo courtesy of Josh Slavin

Work to be done

During their weeklong stay, Trevor and Josh worked primarily on three different research projects.

One involved maintaining a series of camera “traps” strategically placed off the trails to capture photos of wildlife in their natural habitat.

“We basically inventoried all of the camera technologies,” Josh says, “combing through all the footage looking for sightings of mammals and birds.”

Lot of things can go wrong when you leave a camera in the jungle for days and weeks at a time. The Eagle Scouts had to trudge through mud up to their knees just to reach some of the cameras.

“Sometimes the memory card fills up or the camera gets knocked over or the battery will die,” says Josh.

Another project involved studying the Tiputini’s pink river dolphin population using technology that captures the sounds they make to communicate.

And the third project involved the river’s population of turtles.

“Since the river moves up and down very quickly, it’s hard for turtles to lay their eggs in the perfect spot that’s high enough to keep them from drowning but low enough to keep them from getting baked in sun,” says Trevor.

Trevor (left) and Josh take a dip in the Tiputini River. Photo courtesy of Josh Slavin

Being prepared

The rainforest is a harsh environment. Temperatures regularly creep into the 90s, which might not sound all that bad until you factor in the near-constant 100% humidity.

TBS has showers and comfortable sleeping quarters, but they only turn on the electricity for a few hours in the mornings and evenings.

Because of the constant moisture and intense sunlight, plants grow better there than almost anywhere else. With plants come all kinds of other challenges, such as bugs and snakes.

“I was blown away by the ecological diversity of it,” says Trevor. “By the size of everything, and how much more there was of everything.

“There is literally stuff growing everywhere. It just blew me away, seeing that in person.”

The Eagle Scouts did get some down time, highlighted by a swim in the river, but even that came with warnings of parasitic fish that you really don’t want to mess with.

It took all of their Scout skills to stay comfortable throughout their stay, but it was also an experience they will never forget.

“There are a lot of different things that can happen, so we had to Be Prepared for a lot of different kinds of occurrences,” says Josh.

“But it was an absolutely amazing experience. Looking back, I can’t believe it’s something I’ve actually done.”

NESA hopes to offer another World Explorer experience to Eagle Scouts in the future. The application process usually involves submitting an essay detailing why you should be accepted. Follow NESA’s website for updates.

About Aaron Derr 418 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.