“Let’s make like horse crap and hit the trail!”
Gary Morgan chuckles to himself as we trek into the jungle of the Osa Peninsula, a tiny strip of land dangling off the southwest coast of Costa Rica. Our guide, Adonis—just Adonis—leads us into a primary rainforest, pristine land unmarked by human activity. The canopy, 150 to 200 feet high, is lush and full, providing a home for the scarlet macaws, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and three-toed brown-throated sloths rustling overhead, as well as a blanket of shade for the poison dart frogs, collared peccaries, jaguars, and us, slinking below. After jumping into a small waterfall, we navigate a tiny creek so clean and clear you can drink the water straight from your hands.
Gary, the eldest of the four sibling owners of Morgan’s Outdoor Adventures, lives part of the year on the Osa. It’s the offseason for the Morgan’s liveries back in Ft. Ancient and Brookville, Indiana, but well into the summer season in Central America. Adonis, who is one of the many ticos (locals) employed by the family, is a jungle version of Paul Bunyan, a native Costa Rican born in the rainforest. I’m doing this hike in a pair of $110 amphibious Chacos I bought at REI a week earlier, trying my best not to faceplant into the rock bed. Adonis is doing it barefoot, while brandishing a razor-sharp machete in one hand. His guide skills are preternatural. He’ll be walking along, deep in conversation, swaying the machete back and forth like a shopping bag, and suddenly stop mid-sentence to point out a frog the size of a stick of gum balancing on a leaf, or to identify a bird by its chirping, or to catch a whiff of wild peccary.
Gary and I are now knee-deep in water, pushing upstream through the creek as Adonis navigates the rocky terrain just above to get a better view. As Gary reminisces about his many Costa Rican jaunts through the wilderness, Adonis interrupts, shouting down in his thick Central American accent.
“Gareee, I don’t think you want to go that way.”
We stop. “Why not?”
“There’s a giant featherneck in the way.”
Gary’s eyes widen.
“What’s a featherneck?” I ask.
“Fer-de-lance,” says Gary, softly. “Snake.”
The two of us drift over to the creek bank as Adonis helps hoist us up to where he’s standing. “Where is it?” asks Gary. Adonis walks a few feet to a bend in the ridge and leans over. “I’ll let you see if you can spot it first,” he says, a grin plastered across his face. Gary and I look down, not 15 yards ahead of where we were walking, scanning the maze of rocks and leaves. Nothing.
“See that stick, laying in the creek?” says Adonis. We both nod. “Follow it to the end.”
There, coiled amongst a cluster of rocks protruding just above the stream, is the fer-de-lance, its various shades of brown forming an argyle pattern on its skin that acts as superior camouflage. Roughly two meters long and the circumference of a soup can, its head is just barely poking out, tongue flickering. Often referred to as the “ultimate pit viper,” the fer-de-lance is extremely venomous and easily the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica. Gary has never come across one in the wild like this—as far as he’s aware. And he’d know if he had. “It bite you, five, six times in one second,” says Adonis, still smiling for some reason, as he continues on.
It’s impossible to understate how difficult it was to locate this snake in the creek bed. Needle in a haystack doesn’t do it justice. It was like spotting the indistinguishable poison strand of hay in a haystack.
“Man, that guy is worth every penny, huh? It was right there in our path,” says Gary, shaking his head. “You get a good picture?”
The howler monkeys wake you up with the sun, unleashing a torrent of roars that register somewhere between that of a pissed-off lion and the Incredible Hulk. (Steven Spielberg actually used recordings of howlers as one component of the dinosaur screeches in Jurassic Park.)
Gary is waiting for me on the beach with a cup of coffee as the sun lurches above the gulf. Tanned, clean-shaven, and with just enough hair to tuck behind his ears, he looks at home in the tropical location and much younger than someone pushing 60—not to mention a dead ringer for the Harvest Moon–era Neil Young. “Not bad, right?” he says, motioning out toward the view. “If we’re lucky, we might spot a dolphin.”
It’s late March 2015. The day before I landed at the Puerto Jiménez airstrip via a 45-minute flight on a “puddle hopper” propeller plane from the capital city of San Jose. We climbed in Gary’s rental car and navigated the crumbling streets—past the lone supermarket, a few small businesses, and rows of dilapidated houses, dodging locals on motorbikes and stray dogs—onto the gravel road that led out of town.
Morgan’s Jungle Lodge sits on a 10-acre plot of land just off the shores of the Golfo Dulce on the Osa Peninsula, a few kilometers outside of Puerto Jiménez. Known as La Finca Guanabana by locals because of the numerous guanabana fruit trees on the property, the area hasn’t yet been dug for electricity, so it’s completely off the grid. A group of 20 or so high schoolers from the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver—one of the many American education programs that travel down to the Morgan’s Costa Rican oasis every year to experience and study life in the jungle—had arrived at the lodge a couple days before me.
The lodge’s main cabin is really more of a shelter, with a corrugated-metal roof atop wooden walls that house four bedrooms, bathrooms, and a propane-fueled kitchen. The cabin connects to a covered-patio great room, and beyond that is a courtyard with a dozen hammocks, flanked by eight platform-tent cabinas with beds and nightstands. It’s maybe 25 yards from the edge of the patio to the shoreline. The land is one of three parcels that make up the Corcovado Botanical Garden, an experimental jungle region dedicated to science and conservation, which allows the lodge closer proximity to the ocean. “Our property is considered secondary coastal rainforest, meaning it’s only been logged one time,” says Gary.
We sit and chat for a few minutes as the encroaching rays turn the sky from pink to bright blue. Gary’s youngest brother, Randy, walks out to join us. He’s also tan with long hair and currently rocking a tie-dye tank top, and the two brothers get right down to entertaining me with tales from their nearly 20-year history at the lodge—like the time the Coast Guard busted a drug boat a few miles off their shore in the dead of night, spotlights swooping, or the time they had to lure a pack of capuchin monkeys off the patio with a sack of bananas. It doesn’t take long to recognize that the Morgans are storytellers, each of them delivering enthralling monologues chock-full of details.
As we head to the patio to discuss our plans for the day’s beach hike over breakfast—fried eggs, chorizo, and chunks of papaya and mango ripe enough to ruin you for all other fruit—the students begin to stir. In the late 1990s, after nearly three decades of owning and operating liveries in the Cincinnati area, and roughly a decade after Gary had first traveled down to Costa Rica to serve as a river guide, the Morgan family purchased this property in the hopes of making it an offseason getaway and eco-tourism business. But following a few slow years and some so-so experiences with visitors, they realized their location and resources might be better suited to an educational experience, so Gary began approaching schools about organizing annual outings. The brothers take shifts staying at the lodge from late November to early April to manage and facilitate everything.
The educational concept has taken off, but it was less an innovation than an evolution of the family business back home in Cincinnati. “We’re still exposing people to the fun aspects of water sports and conservation,” says Gary. “But it’s more of a slap in the face in Costa Rica, because it’s so damn beautiful. People realize how important and delicate it is, and that they can do something about that.”
The journey began in the late 1950s with Canoe Trails, which were the summer trips Bob Morgan organized for local kids, mostly wealthy, privileged boys ages 14–18 from Indian Hill and Madeira; a young Rob Portman and the Gregory boys of Montgomery Inn fame were participants. Bob would lead them out for two or three weeks at a time to traverse the New and Gauley Rivers in West Virginia or the Buffalo River in Tennessee, or fly pontoon planes up into the Canadian bush and canoe more than 200 miles down the Spanish River. By 1965, Bob and his wife June had five boys of their own—Gary, Greg, Rob, Dirk, and Randy—all of whom went along on these trips at one point or another, sometimes when they were as young as 3 years old, falling asleep on packs in the center of their father’s canoe and getting woken up by a playful push into the river.
“It was a young life lived outdoors,” says Rob. “I spent a lot of time as a kid in tents and living out of a pack.”
These were no summer camp paddles across Caesar Creek Lake. They were legit wilderness excursions—waking up at dawn to break camp, portaging a canoe for miles at a time, nights spent around the campfire—and Bob Morgan had to know you could handle it. A larger-than-life personality, he was the type of outdoorsman who would pull nails out of lumber and straighten them out to use again later. He was a natural leader with a strong work ethic, and he expected the same out of others. “These were boys-to-men trips,” says Randy. “And as Dad liked to say, it only takes one piece of bad meat to spoil the stew.”
When the family moved out to their farm in Warren County near Ft. Ancient in 1964, they started hosting weekend retreats for first-time groups a few weeks before their trip to serve as a trial run. The kids would be dropped off on Friday night and have to set up a campsite back in the woods. The boys would wake up obnoxiously early to the smell of campfire coffee the next morning, and they’d hit the Little Miami River, Bob teaching them how to paddle safely and spot rapids. On Sunday, they would get their eagle feather—actually a white chicken feather—qualifying them for a voyage.
“To go out and be taught to canoe and fish and cook and face challenges like that, a lot of us really learned a tremendous amount about our abilities,” says Paul Breuer, who worked for the family and attended a number of the summer Canoe Trails outings in the ’60s, including a 500-mile trip into James Bay in Canada. He went on to start Mountain River Tours in West Virginia in 1972. “Bob was the leader in terms of getting me outdoors and getting me into this life. He just inspired people.”
Before long, word got out about the retreats. Families who weren’t necessarily interested in the three-week expeditions started asking about the weekend camp-outs and trips down the Little Miami. There was nothing else like it at the time. The Morgans began offering their services and river access out on the farm on weekends, and the business was born. By 1969, Bob quit his job teaching industrial arts and woodworking at Sycamore High School and built Morgan’s Canoe Livery at Ft. Ancient—making them the first family of river sports in the state of Ohio.
The Morgan boys began working at the livery as soon as humanly possible. They’d start out picking up trash in the parking lot for candy bars before graduating to scraping gum off of canoes for a few bucks an hour and eventually driving vans to drop-off points and leading groups down the river. They’d draft friends to help them staple, fold, and stamp the handwritten newsletters the family would send out. “Weekends and summers were tricky for us,” remembers Randy. “That was our busy time. Everyone was excited about being off school, but the Morgan boys were like, Oh shit. We’re about to get our butts handed to us again. You loved a rainy day.”
Business was good. There’s plenty of competition now—nearly a dozen different liveries line the local riverbanks in the southwestern corner of Ohio—but back then, Morgan’s was the only game in town. Their name was synonymous with outdoor sports, and their canoe livery was used as a model nationally, with Bob and June paid to consult upstarts across the country. At one point, they operated four different locations; these days the family runs just two—the original livery at Ft. Ancient and another on the Whitewater River in Brookville, Indiana, which opened in 1971. They also manage a handful of events throughout the year, including a bi-annual triathlon at Ft. Ancient in June and October (now in its 37th year), a trail run in May, a kayak race on the Fourth of July, and a mud gauntlet in September.
“They’ve done a wonderful job introducing a lot of people to the sport. That’s spilled over into the marketplace and presented the opportunity for us to do what we do,” says Mark Bersani, who owns and operates Loveland Canoe & Kayak on the Little Miami River. “Their name has great recognition across the market place. We have people once a week who ask if we’re Morgans when they come to our place. They never ask about any other outfitters. That’s a testament to the wonderful job the family has done creating a brand for themselves.”
As small family operations go, it’s been a fun one to run but also a fickle one, constantly at the mercy of Mother Nature. Bob and June encouraged—insisted even—that each of their boys step away after high school to go to college or explore new ventures. (Dirk became a certified deep-sea diver, copper helmet and all.) But eventually, each came back, purchasing ownership in the company and allowing their parents to retire and travel. Today, Gary, Dirk, Rob, and Randy are all equal partners. (Greg, who is Gary’s twin brother, left the business after their mother passed away in 2006 and is no longer involved.) But despite all those summers braving the open waters across Canada and America’s Heartland, the Morgans grew restless in their Cincinnati bubble. They were forced to cut back on personal travel once the business went full-time, and found themselves longing for a new adventure. Bob especially was always searching for a new frontier, and he found it in Costa Rica.
Gary, who studied aquatic biology at Wittenberg University, raved about the beauty and diversity of the country’s ecosystem after traveling there in the mid-1980s to be a river guide, an invitation tourism bureaus and nature conservancies often extended to outdoor recreationalists in the winter months in an effort to entice American businesses. When Bob and June’s snowbird spot in the Everglades started getting too crowded in the late 1990s, the entire family took a 10-day trip down to the Osa, living in a hut on the beach. They were sold.
“A trip down the Little Miami—it’s fun, it’s exciting—but it’s easy,” says Randy. “We receded into something comfortable and stable, and I think we realized, This isn’t how we want to be remembered. It reminded us we have a little more inside than this. A chance to get back to our roots.”
After breakfast at the lodge (and a day before our encounter with the fer-de-lance), Adonis is leading Gary and I on a beach hike along the Pacific side of the Osa. As we follow the Rio Piro up into the primary rainforest, Gary happily tells me about a hike a year earlier with a group of middle schoolers in which they nearly walked right into a herd of about 300 peccaries—animals not known for their civility, especially in large numbers. Gary, Randy, and Adonis surrounded the kids and drew their machetes. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen Adonis with a scared look on his face,” Gary giggles. Fortunately, they were able to divert the wild hogs.
Peccaries aside, it’s obvious once you’re in the jungle why any adventurous, environmentally-inclined person would be smitten with the surroundings. “It’s paradise,” says Randy. “It’s like the Garden of Eden.”
The Osa Peninsula is home to 2.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, in large part due to Corcovado National Park, which spans 164 of the Osa’s 700 square miles. It contains more than 600 animal, 500 tree, and 6,000 insect species. The park was established by executive decree in 1975 in order to prevent international logging operations. That, along with the help of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and environmental activists over the years, has helped to prevent the type of outside development and deforestation that has hobbled other parts of Costa Rica.
It makes for a nice field trip, too. When the Morgan family bought the lodge in the late 1990s, they could not have known how popular eco-tourism would become today. They might have more success with it now, but the educational trips have provided them a more focused mission. “Students were a good match for us,” says Gary. “They’re resilient. They can appreciate living off the grid.”
Xavier University was the first school Gary convinced to come down, around 2000. Since then the family has hosted a caravan of local schools, including St. Mary Middle School, Clark Montessori, Walnut Hills High School, University of Cincinnati, and Miami University. (Rocky Mountain is the only “far-flung” school to make regular trips, but their executive director, Chad Burns, hails from the Cincinnati area.)
“Gary certainly sold us on the idea,” says George Farnsworth, an associate professor of biology and environmental science at Xavier University who has taken students down the past nine years. “It’s a great peninsula with an abundance of wildlife. The access to animals is really amazing. You can’t get those experiences in a lot of places.”
The model also continues an established history of activism and conservation for the Morgan family. Bob and June were integral to the early stages of Little Miami, Inc. back in 1967 (known today as the Little Miami Conservancy) which was responsible for cleaning up the river and earning it the designation of Ohio’s first State Wild and Scenic River in 1969; it later became part of the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1973.
June, in addition to handling the financial side of the business and wrangling five boys, was an activist at heart. “She was a great spokesperson for the river, and she tended to put the soft edge on Bob,” says Eric Partee, executive director of the LMC. “Together they were a great team. Fortunately, they raised their kids to carry on the tradition.”
It’s a legacy that has endeared the Morgan boys to many around Cincinnati and the Osa. “They are loved people,” says Ifigenia Garita Canet. A native of Costa Rica, she runs a conservation and education NGO out of Puerto Jiménez called ASCONA. “Their way of acting is inclusive to everybody,” Canet adds. “They have totally obtained the love and respect they deserve.”
ASCONA has worked hard to educate locals and stave off environmentally debilitating development, and the Morgans have done their part to help. They work with regional guides for jungle hikes, bird-watching expeditions, and boat trips into the Golfo Dulce mangroves, and Canet helps coordinate humanitarian outreach. Many of the school groups will bring along materials that are far more costly or unattainable on the Osa—everything from clothing to art supplies to yoga mats—and then spend part of their trip painting a school in the indigenous village of the Ngobe Indians or playing a game of soccer with local kids. One group even brought a defibrillator down for the medical clinic in Puerto Jiménez a few years back.
“In a tropical environment, there’s always people trying to come in and do something in the quickest, easiest way,” says Gary. “We try to be user-friendly to the country and the community. We’ve agreed to become this platform for education, and we try to do the best we can with what’s been given to us.”
“I’ve always enjoyed their attitude,” says Canet. “They not only bring people to learn about nature, but also to reach out and touch people, communities. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Gary often mentions the phrase pura vida, which means “pure life.” It’s the unofficial motto of Costa Rica, uttered by tourists and locals alike, splashed on T-shirts and signs all over the place, including one at the entrance of Morgan’s Jungle Lodge. Often meant to evoke the natural beauty of the country, it’s come to represent a lifestyle, one of optimism as well as respect for and an embrace of the environment. It’s a cultural paradigm the Morgans are constantly striving for, and if you allow yourself, you can feel it—wading in the cool waters of the Golfo Dulce, jumping into a natural waterfall in the rainforest, or drifting to sleep in a hammock as the howler monkeys climb overhead and Halloween crabs scurry below. Or by giving just a little bit back to your surroundings.
“It’s funny, everyone ends up coming around down on the Osa,” says Gary. “They realize that nothing is going to hurt them, that we are there to look out for them. Then their confidence starts to show, and their anxieties start to leave, and the pura vida comes when they feel the real essence of beauty working into their soul. Then they blossom.”
Randy likes to tell a story from a few years back about a family—mom, dad, two boys—who were driving up to Ft. Ancient to take a trip down the Little Miami one weekend. Traffic was backed up on I-71, so they were late getting there. Dad was visibly honked off, though he apologized for missing their scheduled time; Randy could tell the mom and the kids were feeling his frustration. So he told them not to worry about it, that he had their canoes all ready and that he would drive them out to the drop-off point himself. A few hours later, as the sky began to lose daylight, Randy started to worry a little bit. The family was the last boat on the river, and there was no sign of them yet, so he walked down to wait by the pullout. Before long, he heard rhythmic drumming and chanting, and paddles banging against the sides of the canoes. As they came around the bend, the family started calling out to Randy. Dad and the boys had clay smeared across their faces, mom a wildflower crown on her head. “Dad gets out of the canoe and gives me a hug like we’re old friends,” says Randy. “You could tell, this guy had been working his ass off and just wanted to do something real with his kids, and they had an amazing day.
“That’s why people come out here,” he says. “That’s the bit of magic they needed, the medicine you can’t go to the clinic for.”
Gary and I are canoeing our way down the Whitewater River out near the Brookville livery. It’s the middle of June, last summer, a few months after I traveled down to the Osa. The water is high from the recent rain, but today is perfect—mid-80s, sunny, a slight breeze—the type of Cincinnati day there are far too few of. It’s no Golfo Dulce, but it’s a pretty remarkable setting for less than an hour drive outside the city.
Gary has lofty ambitions for the Costa Rican lodge—organizing an architectural competition between universities to design and build sustainable homes; creating a taxonomy of the vascular plants on their 10-acre property—but he also understands that the two American liveries and all the events they manage are the main components of what they do. And there’s always work to be done: Randy heading out on the river at 5 a.m. to clear a logjam with a chainsaw in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other; Gary pushing flyers for their next event outside of the new Oakley Kroger.
“People come out to the livery and ask, Hey, is ‘Morgan’ still alive?” says Dirk. “And I’m like, yeah, I’m Morgan. I’m driving your bus.”
No business is perfect—there are down seasons, occasional in-fighting among the brothers, and competitors who say they can be standoffish at times—but it’s also more than just a business. They lost their mother a few years ago; their father is in poor health, suffering from dementia. The Morgan name and what it conjures in this region is their legacy, and one the children aspire to pass on to the next generation.
“I hope I’m not overstating this, but in this city, our family is kind of an outdoor institution,” says Rob. “We’ve introduced thousands of people to nature, and I think that’s shaped this community, the way people appreciate nature and their parks and rivers. I feel like our shared experience has helped to deepen it, and I’m really proud to be a part of that.”
As Gary and I finish up our five-mile trip down the Whitewater, there’s a young couple on the bank, preparing to push off on an adventure of their own. Gary hops out of the canoe and walks over, introduces himself.
“Did you get a briefing up at the lodge?” he asks as he helps position their canoe along the bank. The two of them nod, but a little apprehensively. Gary pretends not to pick up on it.
“Perfect, you’re going to have a great time,” he says. “Let me give you a couple quick pointers, just things to watch for during the trip. Here, take my life jacket, it’s a little nicer than yours. Man, what a gorgeous day, huh?”