By Steve Hubrecht

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Invermere teenager, Jack Grant, was back in the Columbia Valley just before the Christmas holidays, returning from an extended stay in Panama that encompassed a unique volunteer experience, learning about biodiversity and ecology, and working on a film documenting his travels.

Grant graduated from David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS) last year. He spent last summer working in the forestry industry, then took off a bit of time hiking and backpacking in the Columbia Valley’s great outdoors. By the time mid-fall rolled around, he was set to take his keen interest in environmental sciences and studies a step further, and headed down to Central America. 

He spent several weeks there, volunteering deep in the rainforest in the Mamoni Valley with the nongovernment organization, Fundacion Geoversity, some time in teeming Panama City, and then another several weeks on a sailboat with renowned marine biologist, Howard Dryden.

Grant spoke with Pioneer shortly after arriving home in the Columbia Valley.

“It (Panama) is an incredibly interesting place,” said Grant. “It’s one of only three carbon neutral countries in the world and has vowed to conserve 40 per cent of its land in parks or other protected areas.”

Grant was amazed by the diversity of species and the cultural and social diversity among people.

“You see immense wealth and then see people living right next door in shacks and shanties,” he said. “One thing that really struck me was how rich the culture was. People were fantastic – they are quick to smile too, and are often wearing very colourful clothing. As a nation, there is good appreciation for and recognition of the importance of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous presence is higher in Panama than in a lot of countries — I believe it something around 10 per cent of the total population.”

In contrast to many Canadians’ stereotypes of Central America being completely mired in poverty, Panama actually does have a significant level of development, much of it stemming from the Panama Canal and its shipping industry, explained Grant, although he was quick to add the fruits of this industry are spread unevenly among Panamanians.

“You’ll be walking through the city, among huge skyscrapers, surrounded by great infrastructure. Then two blocks away, that all suddenly disappears,” he said.

In the Mamoni Valley, Grant was stationed at Geoversity’s main campus, which is essentially a collection of open, elevated pavilions constructed out of bamboo.

“There are no walls at all. There’s a roof, but no walls and no rooms. You have a bug net over your bed and that’s all. You can hear frogs and howler monkeys in the rainforest which is right out there, just beyond the edge of the building, but not really separated from it. It’s kind of like the ultimate in open concept living,” said Grant. “The flora and fauna are almost overwhelming. There are such beautiful colours on the plants, and huge old growth trees with very dense canopies… it’s gorgeous.” 

Not surprisingly, given the intimate quarters with nature, Grant quickly developed a keen sense of Mamoni’s climate, which he wryly noted is very different from Invermere’s.

“It’s very humid. It always feels wet, even when the rain is not hammering down. All your stuff gets wet all the time. You just have to get used to it,” he said.

During his time with Dryden on the sailboat, Grant was participating in deep ocean water sampling (“For the most part, it was pretty clean,”) and picking Dryden’s brain. 

The 42-foot yacht was plying waters on the Atlantic (north) side of Panama, including near the famous Bocas del Toro islands.

“He (Dryden) has a lot of interesting ideas. For instance, he believes climate change is caused by the collapse of biodiversity, not the other way around, as most people think,” explained Grant.

The ocean itself was mostly calm, said Jack. “There was not much wind, and just gently rolling waves. We did get one squall, which was exciting. We went from a bluebird day to the wind suddenly tripling into gale force speed with rain pounding down. It was remarkable, and it had the boat tilting at 30 degrees.”

Everywhere Grant went in Panama, he carried his camera gear. He’s an avid amateur filmmaker and plans to compile all the footage he took into a film depicting his time in Panama.

“It (the film) will look at a lot of topics — pollution, climate change, and the importance of Indigenous Peoples when it comes to taking care of biodiversity,” he said. “But it will also be an outlook on travelling as a 19 year old. I feel you see a lot of documentares from the perspective of people in their 30s or 50s, but I think younger people have something to contribute too.”

Grant got into filmmaking as he was growing up. It started with he and his buddies making videos of their exploits skateboarding, skiing, mountain biking and rock climbing, and then it grew from there.

“It was a way of telling stories, essentially about how much fun we were having in nature,” said Grant. “And that, I guess, is what I want to do with my (Panama) film: tell stories about how much fun we all, as a species, can have in nature, if we learn to appreciate it and take care of it.”