A little story about a little sloth

by Kim on November 7, 2012 · 28 comments

On our third day in the Amazon we boarded a tiny wooden boat and puttered along a small, muddy tributary of the Rio Madre de Dios. We’d set out to go fishing with tree branch poles and to do a little wildlife watching.

Fishing in the jungle

As we floated our way down the river we came upon a baby sloth, soaking wet, lying on the edge of the riverbank. We surmised that he must have fallen from his perch in a tree into the river. He had managed, somehow, to get himself to shore, a small miracle, but now he was stranded on the muddy bank, exposed to his predators.

Sloth on the riverbank

If you’ve ever seen a sloth move then you know that everything it does is sloooow. Even the turn of the head is sleepy and sluggish. This sloth’s moves were deliberate and even graceful but we could see it would take him a week to climb from the bank of the river to the protective canopy of trees twenty-five feet away.

We watched from the boat as the sloth tried to move himself closer to the forest. He’d extend his long arm sloooowly in front of him, sink his three clawed toes into the mud and pull. But his efforts were fruitless. The mud was too loose to hold him and he’d slip back to right where he’d started. 

So our guide climbed from the boat and extended a wooden paddle towards the soggy creature. The sloth grabbed on and our guide touched the paddle to a nearby tree. The sloth hooked onto a branch and pulled himself up.

Our guide extends the paddle

From the boat we watched for an hour as the sloth climbed upward in his newfound tree, testing branches, trying to find a sturdy limb to climb.

From our perspective we could see that the tree he was in wouldn’t work for him. The branches were too thin and the tree wasn’t tall enough to offer protection. He would have to leave this tree and find another.  The sloth didn’t know, of course, so he tried one upward route after another, searching for the way that would lead to safety. Sometimes the branch he was on would break and he would tumble downward. Other times he’d climb high before reaching a dead-end, forced to turn around. 

The sloth testing his options

We left the sloth as he climbed down the tree, realizing, finally, that he’d have to find another. Good luck, we said to him, as our boat pulled away.

Isn’t this just like life, I thought. We find ourselves in a hopeless situation and then, suddenly, someone extends a paddle. And we grab on, we take it. That paddle, it isn’t a total fix. It isn’t a winning lottery ticket or a magic wish, it’s just a little help, a reprieve. The hard work is still in front of us.

Sometimes, even, the paddle takes us to the wrong tree and we have to work like hell to find another. We curse our bad luck and the exhausting effort ahead of us, without really seeing how lucky we were to find that paddle. What matters is the paddle. It’s a lifesaver, when we take it.

The sloth climbs the wrong tree- but at least he’s in a tree!

It got me thinking about all of the paddles I’ve grabbed onto in my own life, the seemingly hopeless situations that have catapulted me into bigger and better versions of myself. The niggling thoughts and the chance encounters and the new friends and the right words just when I needed them.

Where does the paddle come from? Where do the thoughts and hopes and dreams and the damn, looking back I’m so glad that happened experiences come from?  I don’t quite know the answer, but I’m ever so grateful for each time I’ve grabbed on.



{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey November 7, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Excuse me while I take in the absolute adorable that is the sloth. You’re so lucky to have been able to see it so close, and to be a part of helping it survive. The paddle metaphor is a strong one, and I’m eternally grateful for all the times paddles have been reached out to me and those I love. Beautifully phrased 🙂


Kim November 8, 2012 at 7:17 am

I know, is that little guy cute or what? It was so close seeing him up close!


Jan November 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm

What an incredible experience fishing with sticks and watching the sloth rescue. It’s wonderful to be able to take an experience like this an apply it to life – I agree completely!


Kim November 8, 2012 at 7:18 am

It really struck me as we watched the sloth from the boat how he probably had *no* idea what was going on, he was just grabbing that paddle with the faith that it had to be better than what his current situation was. He was right!


Viviana - Downfromthisdoor November 8, 2012 at 12:16 am

Oh, this was such a sweet tale! Sloths are lovely and I’m glad to hear this one got the help he needed! 🙂


Kim November 8, 2012 at 7:19 am

I was glad we came across him on the riverbank 🙂


Hannah November 8, 2012 at 3:39 am

I love this story and the beautiful metaphor you wove into it.I had an incredibly similar experience in Costa Rica a few years ago, when a sloth somehow got washed up on the shore of the tiny beach town I was volunteering in. We managed to roll him onto a tarpaulin and carry him up the beach to safety, where we placed him at the bottom of a tree. Slowly but surely, he made his way up, and hung around for several days as he took time to dry out and recover 🙂


Kim November 8, 2012 at 7:20 am

Ah, I love that this has *also* happened to you! Such a cool experience 🙂


Amy November 8, 2012 at 4:28 am

I know this really isn’t the point of the post – but how cute is that sloth? There’s something so fascinating about those animals; they’re like creatures from another world. I don’t know if I’m more jealous of that fact that you got so close to a baby sloth, or that Brian got to hold a monkey on his lap!


Kim November 8, 2012 at 7:21 am

If you like that photo of Brian holding the monkey on his lap just wait until my next post!

It was an incredible experience seeing that sloth up close.


Anne November 8, 2012 at 9:08 am

I always feel a bit more inspired and a bit more grateful after reading your posts. They’re like little Nutella-dipped pretzels appearing in my inbox- delish. Thank you for your personal, heartwarming angle on travel writing and thanks to adorable Mr. Sloth for his perseverance.


Carmel November 8, 2012 at 9:41 am

I thought about your metaphor last night when talking to my mom. Yep, sometimes we all need a paddle…even if it won’t solve anything outright for you, it’s usually the push we need to get moving in the right direction.

And Kristen Bell would freak out about this story. You should look up her name and sloth on YouTube if you haven’t seen the video…


Kim November 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

Kristen Bell the actress? Now I’m curious!!! XO


Tracy November 8, 2012 at 10:26 am

I love the metaphor! I kinda can’t believe that the sloth understood that the paddle was there to help, that’s amazing it just went right for the paddle.


Kim November 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

I know, Tracy, I couldn’t believe it either! I think he took the paddle because he really had no other choice.


Dawn Grimaldi-Lynch November 9, 2012 at 5:49 am

What a great story! Really enjoyed reading this! You are right, sometimes that paddle comes at just the right time, but it is only the beginning….


Kim November 9, 2012 at 7:15 am

Yes, it is always just the beginning. But where would we be without the crucial first step?


Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) November 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Hurrah for little sloths everywhere! I’m so glad you guys intervened and offered him a paddle… I know some people refuse to dabble with nature and let things run their course, but I think we’ve all been that sloth (as you know all to well!) and can use a little help every now and then.

(Also: how cool! You are IN THE AMAZON!!!)


Kim November 11, 2012 at 7:29 am

Yeah, I’m torn on the dabbling with nature thing but I do think that this was the right thing to do and I”m glad our guide did it.

And, I know, THE AMAZON!!!!! Simply amazing.


Bama November 11, 2012 at 5:21 am

Such a beautiful and touching metaphor, Kim. To me, sometimes I feel like I always chose the difficult path. But years later, I always ended up grateful that I took that tougher way because it only made me stronger.


Kim November 11, 2012 at 7:29 am

I know the feeling Bama 🙂 But, yes, the hard times do make us stronger (and more interesting!)


Fran November 12, 2012 at 8:58 am

Great post! And oh so true!!!


Kim November 12, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Thanks Fran!


Montecristo Travels (Sonja) November 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm

All too often we grab the paddle and don’t even take a moment to feel grateful. We often need more time and distance to even realize it was there. This post (cute sloth and all) has made me ponder those moments and made me wonder why we don’t see the paddle as clearly as we should. I know that I shall make a concerted effort to be more aware. Thanks for this post.


Kim November 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Yes, agreed, too often we don’t stop to appreciate the paddle.


Nico November 28, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Sloths are pretty great, I spent a day with them in Iquitos in Peru and they a just as cute as they look. Admittedly your one looks a bit like a wet cat and slightly forlorn until it got into the tree.


Lela January 1, 2013 at 8:15 am

That’s so sweet of your guide! I almost cried looking at the soaking wet sloth. Good lesson learnt for all of us 😉


Kim January 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm

It was a wonderful moment.


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