The Boeri and Freshwater Lake Trails: Lovely Little Treks in Dominica’s Mountainous Interior

Gwendominica takes on the Boeri Lake Trail in Dominca's Morne Trois Pitons National Park.  Photo taken by Jenny.

Gwendominica takes on the Boeri Lake Trail in  Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Freshwater Lake appears in the upper left hand corner. Photo taken by Jenny.

With Dominica’s popular annual Hike Fest on the horizon, and my almost complete recovery from a bout of Chikungunya  about one year ago, I felt ready to tackle a couple of moderately challenging mountain trails. I had not been on a hike since my revisit to Middleham Falls in November 2014. At that outing, I still did feel some after-effects from my lingering tropical illness.  Therefore,  I let a few months pass, and filled them with other fun activities, including a memorable trip to Paris.

When I approached Jenny Spencer about a foray to the Freshwater Lake area in Morne Trois Pitons National Park  near the village of Laudat, she eagerly accepted.  In her profession as a herpetologist (amphibian researcher), she spends considerable time outdoors, no matter what country she is in.  It is obvious to me that she truly loves nature and wants to be immersed in it when possible. Her descriptions of searches for the elusive critically endangered Mountain Chicken (Crapaud) Frog with some of Dominica’s Forestry Officers indicate that she is able to tackle any type of terrain in any kind of tropical weather.  Therefore, I knew that this trek would be easy for her, and that if need be, I would have a good hiking coach!

I suggested that we start with the Boeri Lake trail, as it is (to me) a bit more challenging than the track around Freshwater Lake. Although the weather was cool, but “not too bad,” I laughingly recalled my last outing to this remote body of water. I told Jenny about how my brother Edwin and I slogged through mud, a landslide and very slippery rocks in torrential rain to reach the shore of this lake in February 2009.  When we arrived a good 45 minutes after our departure, we could not see the lake at all! It was completely covered in low clouds. ( I hope my bro will come back to tackle it again someday soon and we’ll hope for fine weather next time!)

Jenny is ready to  hike to Boeri Lake!

Jenny is ready to hike to Boeri Lake!

When Jenny and I arrived in the parking lot by the Freshwater Lake Visitor Centre,  in the shadow of

Plentiful rainwater run-off  in the Boeri Lake area is a source for  nearby hydorelectric power stations.

Plentiful rainwater run-off in the Boeri Lake area is a source for nearby hydro-electric power stations.

majestic Morne Micotrin , there was not another soul to be seen. While it was not raining, it definitely appeared to be imminent.  We donned our hiking gear and headed to the Boeri Lake Trail-head, a 15 minute walk away.  We did then encounter a pair of hikers who rushed past us on their way to the same destination.  Along the concreted road, we observed an abundant flow of water in the ditch, and marvelled at its force and the colour of the rocks beneath it.  This area forms part of Dominica’s hydro-electric power source, and the water flows to stations found in lower areas of the Roseau Valley.

We started off on the well maintained trail with the intention of taking our time and enjoying the beauty all around us. It would have been difficult not to pause along the early part of the track to admire the breathtaking views of Freshwater Lake to the south and the distant east coast.  I did huff and puff until my muscles warmed up:  I attributed that condition to the higher elevations and the low moist clouds all around us. Boeri Lake sits at 2,800 feet and at that

The Boeri Lake trail offers wonderful views of the mountains towards the east coast in the proximity of the village of Grand Fond.

The Boeri Lake trail offers wonderful views of the mountains towards the east coast in the proximity of the village of Grand Fond.

elevation is the highest body of water on the Nature Island. The going did get a little tricky when we reached the area of the trail made up of slippery rocks!  I stepped carefully and slowly, and balanced myself with the aid of my hiking pole.  A recent tailbone injury reminded me that I would not want to land ‘bottom down’ anytime soon!  Evidently, I fared well, and Jenny,  who patiently kept my pace by following behind me stayed upright due to her superb intrepid skills!  Admittedly, we both broke down and took off our boots when we traversed the Clarke’s  River.  No regrets about that – as the cool water refreshed our warmed up feet!

The rocky part of the Boeri Lake Trail requires patience and agility as those rocks are notoriously slippery!

The rocky part of the Boeri Lake Trail requires patience and agility as those rocks are notoriously slippery!

In this cooler, very humid tropical environment, moss grows easily on the trees.

In this cooler, very humid tropical environment, moss grows easily on the trees.

Jenny contemplates the removal of her hiking shoes before crossing the Clarke Hall River.  Yes, she did do it, and loved it!

Jenny contemplates the removal of her hiking shoes before crossing the shallow Clarke’s River. Yes, she did do it, and loved it!

I had not seen Boeri Lake in sunshine since 1999! I was overjoyed to see it 'in colour' instead of black and gray on my fourth trip!

I had not seen Boeri Lake in sunshine since 1999! I was overjoyed to see it ‘in colour’ instead of black and gray on my fourth trip there!

By the time we arrived at an old platform near the shoreline of this 4 acre lake, the sun actually broke through the clouds.  While snacking and relaxing seated on the boards, we quietly thrilled to the serenity all around us.  The predominant sound of silence was only broken by our sporadic conversation, occasional finch or mountain whistler calls or the wind  rustling leaves in the nearby trees. Over about half an hour, we observed clouds  constantly lifting and lowering, and misty shades of blue, green, gray and white enveloped us in this ethereal atmosphere.

The colours on and around Boeri Lake are constant changing - from moment to moment!

The colours on and around Boeri Lake are constantly changing – from moment to moment!

Suddenly, we noticed a very dark sky approaching from the east, so we moved off quickly and started the return journey as heavy rain fell from the heavens and dampened our clothes, but not our spirits! We emerged from the forest about one hour later, with high hopes of finding  hot chocolate to warm us up at the kiosk in the Visitor Reception Centre!

As it turned out, we were in luck, as the friendly attendant was able to grant our wish, even though she had just arrived to do a little maintenance and did not plan to stay long on this quiet Sunday. (For opening hours, contact Freshwater Lake Adventures at 767-245-7061)  While we sipped the sweetness and munched on other sustenance , the wind howled and torrents of rain pounded against the side of the building.  We were thankful to have sheltered only moments before this intense deluge.  However, we remained hopeful that the weather would soon change for the better so that we could continue with the second half of our agenda: a trek around Freshwater Lake. (It would be my first time back on this lovely trail since 2007, when my brother Edwin was also on-island.  I have  previously written about that wonderful outing here.)

Freshwater Lake is lovely from any vantage point.  It is a reservoir which is one of the sources for hydro-electric power stations on island.

Freshwater Lake is lovely from any vantage point. It is a reservoir which is one of the sources for hydro-electric power stations on island.

Wishes do come true, and after about half an hour, the worst of it was over.  We decided to chance it and were

Getting arounfd Freshwater Lake involves  a lot of ups and downs, as seen here.  Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

Getting around Freshwater Lake involves a lot of  dramatic ups and downs, as seen here. Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

duly rewarded for our efforts! The start of the trail was very steep and  some of the boards on the maintained steps were wet and slippery.  We proceeded with caution and stopped often to admire the gorgeous scenery in all directions.  While we never got a peek at the peak of Morne Micotrin, we acknowledged her powerful presence by frequently glancing at the changing clouds around this 4, 006′ massif. We were so captivated with the splendour that encompassed us that we never considered the possibility of  a monster lurking in the depths of this lake.  It was  earlier when we were seated by the shore of Boeri that Jenny had remarked about its similarity to a certain Scottish lake and its famous myth!

Plentiful bromiliads were attached to a mossy tree along the Freshwater Lake trail.

Plentiful bromeliads were attached to a mossy tree along the Freshwater Lake trail.

Nature enthusiast Jenny smiles after having discovered a large female grasshopper ( I call it a crack-crack bug) as she moved along the Freshwater Lake Trail.

Nature enthusiast Jenny smiles after having discovered a large female grasshopper ( I call it a ‘crack-crack’ bug) as she moved along the easterly side of the  Freshwater Lake Trail.

When Freshwater Lake looks like this, the possibility of monsters and myths comes to mind.

When Freshwater Lake looks like this, the possibility of monsters and myths come to mind.

From this easterly view point above Freshwater Lake, it is easy to understand why the Kalinago people named Dominica 'Waitukubuli', which means 'tall is her body'.

From this easterly view-point above Freshwater Lake, it is easy to understand why the Kalinago people named Dominica ‘Waitukubuli’, which means ‘tall is her body’.

Those east coast views, in the direction of Rosalie Bay and the village of Grand Fond in the foreground gave us plenty of reasons for pause.  Luckily, the rain held off and the sun made valiant attempts to come out of the dense cloud cover.  It didn’t matter to us.  We had both succumbed to numerous charms and multiple blessings of a day in a pristine place that epitomizes the essence of the Nature Island.  No wonder UNESCO has bestowed the

Jenny took plenty of photos as she carefully stepped along the Freshwater Lake circumferential trail.

Jenny took plenty of photos as she carefully stepped along the Freshwater Lake circumferential trail.

The hour or so hike around the heights of Freshwater Lake is not for the faint of heart.

The hour or so hike around the heights of Freshwater Lake is not for the faint of heart.

honour of World Heritage Site upon this remarkable park in the wilderness interior of Dominica.

After having spent several hours in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Jenny and I both felt refreshed and revitalized from our forays around Boeri and Freshwater lakes.   We agreed that time spent in this outstanding natural setting can only be good for the soul. Of that, we are certain!

Three Saturdays in May: Dominica’s Hike Fest 2013 – Part 3

Gwendominica hams it up for the camera on one of several crossings of the Layou River during Hike Fest's 3rd and final Saturday adventure in 2013.  Photo taken by Simon Walsh, professional photographer at Images Dominica.

Gwendominica hams it up for the camera on one of several crossings of the Layou River during Hike Fest’s 3rd and final Saturday adventure in 2013. Photo taken by Simon Walsh, professional photographer at Images Dominica.

When I arrived at the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association office to register Hike Fest participants at 7 a.m. on Saturday May 18th, I had no idea that all 77 of us would be spending more of this trek in the water than on land!  The “Maroon Heritage River Hike” would be the last of a number of outdoor adventures that were offered this year as part of  the annual Tourism Awareness Month   activities on the Nature Island.

The trail is well maintained and signs do point the way on land  - but the river is another matter!

The trail is well maintained and signs do point the way on land – but the river is another matter!

At about 9:30 a.m. on that dry day in paradise, we disembarked from four buses at the village of Bells, which is located in the  island’s interior, north of the Pond Cassé round-about.  Anticipation and expectations were high.  We listened to long-time Hike Fest organizer and professional photographer Simon Walsh , who outlined the details of this adventure and introduced our guides.

At the start of the hike, about 80 enthusiasts strolled down to the Layou River en route to Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats.

At the start of the hike, about 80 enthusiasts strolled down to the Layou River crossing en route to Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats.

We were in for a few surprises and a load of fun – but I won’t give it all away at the top of this post!  The main objective was to experience and observe a very significant, historic place deep in the forest and high above the Layou River.  Our foray would take us to  two nearby locales called Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats, which are named after a famous negre maron (maroon or escaped slave) chief named Jacko. He  hid there in an encampment with his supporters  in the late 1700’s, raided and plundered many plantations and avoided capture by the British for about 40 years!

What is quite ingenious about this maroon and his followers is that they cut over 100 steps into the stone so that they had a stairway down the 300 foot cliff to the river.  However, these cuttings are far from ordinary.  They are very narrow, extremely steep and excessively high, which would have made it very difficult for British troops to quickly and easily attack them. The maroons would have seen them first from their  high hiding places in the dense forest.  Furthermore, the remote location of Jacko’s camp  on a plateau (flat land) was far from accessible.  As we quickly found out, getting to and from this area involved crossing the powerful Layou River, not once, but several times, depending on the direction of one’s approach.   They were well protected on three sides, because of the winding river with its forceful current and the steep, heavily treed cliffs.  Jacko was  a brilliant strategist, in my humble opinion!

We soon found out how clever Jacko was as we forded the  river for the first (!) time

The first crossing of the Layou River was only knee-deep.  The worst (best?!?) was yet to come - for us, but my camera had already begun to fade out before it succumbed to the river...

The first crossing of the Layou River was only knee-deep. The worst (best?!?) was yet to come – for us, but my camera had already begun to fade out before it succumbed to the river…

Trudging through the plateau hig above the rive rwas relatively easy - until we met the  Jacko steps!

Trudging through the plateau high above the river was relatively easy – until we met the Jacko Steps!

We walked up a path which met the challenging steps. Then we cautiously climbed down them to meet the river again! It was increasingly easy to understand why Jacko’s band of maroons were relatively safe from capture for so long.  One would have had to have been very familiar with the terrain, accustomed to the climate and in top physical condition to safely and successfully negotiate those steps!

These hooks were put in place over a couple of centuries ago to assist with a cable mechanism to pull goods up and down the steep steps.

These hooks were put in place over a couple of centuries ago to help with a cable mechanism to haul goods up and down the steep incline at the steps.

David (r) is an incredible guide who moved with swiftness and strength and saved a number of us from trips or topples over treacherous terrain.

A section of the Jacko Steps. David (r) is an incredible guide who moved with swiftness and strength and saved a number of us from trips or topples over treacherous terrain – both on land and in the river!

The start of the descent seemed easy - but of course Jacko would have planned it that way!  It was the  bottom up that was almost impassable - with good reason!

The start of the descent seemed easy – but of course Jacko would have planned it that way! It was  from the bottom up that was almost impassable – with good reason!

We definitely treaded with caution on the treacherous descent to the river.

From there, we realized that although the sun was shining, this was not a day for dry clothes.  As we traversed the rushing river, we  slid over slippery rocks and were often caught off-balance by the thrust of the current as its waters coursed towards the sea. Even along the shorelines, large boulders and uneven ground put my weak ankles to the test.   I had switched to plastic sandals and was thinking about putting on my hiking boots again.   I had carried them over my shoulder until that point.  But when I traversed a powerful cascade,  I tipped over with the force of the water and my  boots fell into the turbulent waters and started to drift away.  Simon immediately came to my aid and quickly retrieved the boots.  “So much for your dry boots,” he chortled.  I laughed out loud in response. If it hadn’t been for his sharp reflexes, I would have lost a  good pair of  outdoor footwear.  Thanks Simon!!!

When I reached the shoreline after about the third crossing, I realized that while my boots had been saved, I had potentially lost some other possessions, thanks to Mother Nature.  Although I had tucked my loosely plastic-wrapped   camera and my cellphone into my sports bra, I had not fully anticipated that the fearsome Layou would be so high on a dry day.  But I did have a few moments in waters up to my neck, so you know what happened next.  The camera was already fading, after several years of good service.  And as for the cell phone, it is drying out in a container of rice (!) as recommended to me by several people.  We’ll see what happens… Now there is a lesson learned – for me  – and for you!

As further photos on my part were out of the question, we were fortunate that Simon brought along a sophisticated camera and managed to keep it dry.    To see his excellent photo journal of the day’s events, look at his business face book page for Images Dominica, of which he is a partner.

At about the midway point of the several river crossings, a powerful current and fairly high waters presented a major obstacle for many of us.  I credit our guides, particularly David and Roberta, for getting us safely across to the opposite shore.  I had a moment or two during that exercise when I felt  as if the river  were about to carry me away.  I was trying with all my might to resist it and I tensed every muscle.  Strong hands pulled me safely to the other side.  I sat down and trembled for a few moments.  It occurred to me that the challenging Boiling Lake trail was perhaps a better option for my style of hiking.  But after a while I changed my mind.  Some African drummers had brought their instruments and were restoring our energy through their rhythmic sounds.

The joy of hiking in Dominica is that each trek offers something different about the Nature Island.That is what makes every outing a memorable adventure!

By the time we had slogged to the sixth crossing, some of us opted to go overland, thereby eliminating at least one traverse before the grand finale.  We were more than waterlogged, to put it mildly  While a few people started ahead, I and a few others insisted that we wait for a guide.  As I have observed and heard, it is very easy to get lost in Dominica’s dense jungle and I was not going to be party to that!

Roberta guided us through scrub,  farmlands and a cow pasture. Suddenly, we were back at the river’s edge, where we waited for the water enthusiasts to catch up to us for that very last crossing.  Amazingly, a small puppy, picked up at the trail-head, finished the  entire journey with us.  I watched people  carry him safely through all the rough waters.  I was also astonished that a nine-year old boy and ten-year old girl made the trip with relative ease.  I was so delighted for them, although they acted as if it were nothing.  Next time, I hope they will bring all their friends!

During the last traverse across the Laurent River, which flows into the Layou ,I actually began to feel more at ease with the flow of these  forceful bodies of water.  I seemed to be able to make moves that matched their unpredictable rhythms.   As we walked down the main road through the village of Bells to relax at the nearby RiverStone Bar ‘n Grill, I thought about Jacko with the greatest of  admiration and respect.

My day was not quite over, as it was time to eat and then  listen to some cool’ jazz and creole’ music from live bands.  I’ll tell you all about it in the next post!

*Special thanks to the Hike Fest Organizing Committee, particularly Maxine, David and Simon.  A big up to the tourism and hospitality interns (Victoria and the other young lady) from the Dominica State College  who helped me with registration and provided much needed support.  The guides with whom I associated were very good and added to the quality of the experiences.  I had a blast and I think most others did too!

**  I am also grateful to those in my hiking ‘pod’, especially Liz, Christabel, Wendy and the faculty ladies from Ross University Medical School for their congenial company.  Didn’t we have fun!!!

*** DO NOT attempt the Jaco Flats/Steps Hike without a knowledgeable guide. The Layou River is well-known for its flash floods, so it is inadvisable to go there on a rainy day.  The river crossings are not obvious and the current can be very strong. Local guidance is essential.

REFERENCES:

Caribbean Sunseekers Dominica by Don Philpott.Chicago: Passport Books, 1995.

Dominica: Isle of Adventure by Lennox Honychurch. Second Edition. London: Macmillan, 1995.

The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Lennox Honychurch. London: Macmillan, 1995.