A ship passes Gamboa on its way to Panama City;
the one-lane bridge into Gamboa is in the foreground - Gamboa 1983
During the 1983 games, when I was there, soldiers stopped us to ask if we had seen any jeeps up ahead. It was sometimes hard to keep a straight face, as we did not take it as seriously as they did. But since the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, perhaps I should have taken it more seriously. Helicopters and planes and boats zipped up and down the canal for ten days. Some of the BCI researchers who were in boats in Gatun Lake said they were harassed during the games. Peter, a fellow researcher in Gamboa, was harassed by a couple army guys while he was watching orioles near the bridge. They thought he was an enemy spy. We were glad when they left. I'm not sure who won that year.
The Panama Canal was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1904 to 1914. The French had started the effort in the late 1880s, but gave up after thousands of workers died of yellow fever and landslides kept hampering their progress. The U.S. took over the effort; President Teddy Roosevelt helped move the project along in the early 1900s. The canal passes over the Continental Divide and is 85 feet higher in Gatun Lake than at sea level--at each end of the canal. This required the construction of three locks and dams to lift up boats and then lower them back down as they moved through the canal. No wonder civil engineers call this one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The Continental Divide is located just south of Gamboa. The excavation of this ridge, which is called the Culebra Cut, is the narrowest part of the canal, such that only one ship can pass through at a time. Where the canal is wider, ships can easily pass each other.
The Culebra Cut along the Panama Canal, 1983
Two ships pass each other in Gatun Lake,
as seen from Barro Colorado Island in 1983
Map of Panama Canal from Wikipedia
(attributed to Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data)
The pace of progress though is encroaching on the lowland tropical forests that harbor all those wonderful creatures that we witnessed in 1983. In 1952, 80% of the canal watershed was forested, by the late 1980s it was only 47% forested. Each ship through the canal requires 50 million gallons of water--to raise it up and lower it down as it moves through the lock systems. People began to realize that maintaining a forested, undeveloped watershed was critical to replenishing the vast amounts of water needed to run the canal system. Mature tropical trees take up, store, and slowly release hundreds of gallons of water--water that would otherwise runoff and cause erosion, if the trees were removed. So protecting the lowland forests is important for the diversity of life and for the viability of the canal, which is a huge economic engine for Panama.
If you plan a trip to Panama, I recommend a visit to Gamboa. Birding along Pipeline Road is some of the best in the world. A new resort--the Gamboa Rainforest Resort--has been built in Gamboa with some guidance from tropical researchers to attract ecotourists. It is much more plush than our apartment or our camp at Limbo Hunt Club, but might be worth the extra expense to see a cool part of the Panama Canal and its environs.