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Hunting the Hopping Fountain of Youth

By DAVID WALLIS

© St. Petersburg Times


My adventure in Dominica, a Caribbean island sandwiched between Martinique and Guadeloupe, kicked off at the Hummingbird Inn, in the city of Roseau. The doting innkeeper, Jeanne Finucane, wore flowery frocks, smiled broadly, and at breakfast would serve up warm bread, homemade star fruit jam, and unending tales of Dominica's wonders.

Jeanne told of the islanders' reverence for Mountain Chicken, also known as leptodactylus fallux to scientists, crapaud to Creole-speakers, and "real big frog" to the rest of us. Those who taste the Mountain Chicken live longer and feel stronger, Jeanne said.

I asked her for a taste of the frog, which can grow up to a foot in length. But she hadn't seen any in months. "Mountain Chicken is hard to come by," she told me. "They only come out at night, and live by the rivers. The hunters often eat their catch, because they don't want to share such a good thing." When they do appear at market, Jeanne said, each frog fetches $3 -- quite a sum for Dominicans, whose average wage is about $8 a day.

My interest piqued, I recalled what a pillar of journalism once advised: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." So I decided to confirm Jeanne's story with the island's prime minister at the time, Dame Eugenia Charles, also a fan of the frogs. "Eating crapaud gives you strength," she said. "My father loved it, and he lived to 107."

She added a warning: "But be careful how you hold them, because they will pee in your eye. It's a defense mechanism."

Blasts of frog urine would not deter me. I would dash off into the bush to find the elusive hopping fountain of youth. Realizing the necessity of making an exit from the jungle at some point, I hired a licensed guide, George Nanton, and drove two hours along the coast road to the town of Portsmouth to meet him. Clad in camouflage and wader boots, George introduced me to his hunting partner, "Rambo."

The pair were a study in contrasts: George, a construction worker by day, was solid muscle, bearded and silent. Rambo was lithe, perhaps 18, and laughed often at jokes that only he could hear.

We jumped into my rented Jeep and for 20 minutes lurched up a crude mountain track, stopping at a clearing in a cinnamon tree forest. George brought his pump-action shot gun, which seemed like a lot of firepower to stop even the toughest frog. But he cleared up the confusion, as he pointed to the gun's bloodstained handle. "This was last night's wild boar," he said, "You never know what you're going to find out here."

As evening approached, we scurried through the thick brush, which reminded me of Apocalypse Now. Rambo imitated a deafening, high-pitched mating call, and George used a powerful flashlight to watch for the critters. After an hour, our take was two grapefruits and a bunch of bananas.

"Should have had frogs by now," George complained. "They sing before and after the rain." Regardless of a recent storm, the frogs remained silent. Undaunted, we moved to the shallow banks of the Mile Long River. The water was fast and the grade steep. Jeans and plastic hiking booties restricted my speed, so I took up the rear as we climbed over slimy rocks and crawled under low branches. The beams of our flashlights crisscrossed through the surprisingly cool night. I spent most of my time not searching for frogs, but keeping an eye on my guides.

After three hours we were still frogless. I considered returning empty-handed, but George cut off debate: He had promised results and would deliver. A few minutes later, George and Rambo began frantically shouting; the decisive moment had arrived. Man versus beast.

The red eyes of the frog glowed in the night, as it sat motionless on a nearby rock. Rambo lunged but missed. The frog hopped madly toward me, and I positioned myself like an infielder waiting for a hot grounder. But the pesky critter slipped through my grasp. Rambo gave chase, arms outstretched, splashing through the water with an alligator's speed.

He pounced, and the black and green frog squirmed in the hunter's hands -- yelping like a wounded puppy. Rambo found some vine and deftly tied the frog's feet to his belt. Within minutes, our prisoner had visitors, as we seized two more hiding beneath a stone bridge. George looked over at me, and without speaking we called off the hunt.

Rambo tossed the croaking trio into a burlap sack. We returned to George's home, where he instructed me to tightly grasp each frog around its slimy underbelly and rinse them off in an iron pot of warm water to "relax them."

One by one they took their final lap, before George took them from my hands. He slammed each one against a butcher's block, then with an incision worthy of a surgeon, unwrapped their white bodies. He placed the meat in a plastic shopping bag, filled it with ice cubes and bid me "bon appetit."

The next morning, I presented my quarry to Jeanne. She informed me that Mountain Chicken stew would be served for dinner, after it had simmered all day.

I guessed that the meat would taste chicken, but it had a sweetness recalling rabbit, and was surprisingly tender. Just as Jeanne promised, soon after finishing the meal I felt a surge of new-found energy. Sleep would be impossible, so I ventured into Roseau to sample the local nightlife. But the city's streets and bars were empty.

It became apparent that frog hunting is the night life in Dominica. If you go

Reaching Dominica takes tenacity. American Airlines, (800) 433-7300, flies from Tampa to Dominica with a change of planes in San Juan. Reservations are a must at the 10-room Hummingbird, Morne Daniel, Rock-A-Way, P.O. Box 1901, Roseau, Dominica; (809) 449-1042. Rooms start at $70, based on double occupancy.

Owner Jeanne Finucane will make Mountain Chicken stew with advance notice. Mountain Chicken can also be sampled at La Robe Creole, a restaurant on Victoria Street in Roseau. David Wallis is a freelance writer living in New York.

Originally published June 1, 1997



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