Tuesday, March 26, 2013

It's Called Basic Science for a Reason!

How many times have you come across a news story on the results of a new study, have scrolled down to the Comments section, and have read these bright gems of opinion:

[WARNING: Actually reading the Comments section of any science news article may cause headaches, nausea, gastrointestinal cramping, the urge to bang your head repeatedly against your desk, and your morning beverage to be involuntarily spewed onto your computer screen in disbelief.]

Theme: "Why is our government wasting money on studies like this when Political Scoring Point X needs attention?" 
Quoted Example: "How can you expect people to live on mars when they can't even live traditionaly [sic] on earth"

Theme: "The study of X has been going on for how long? Damn free-loading, lazy scientists!"
Quoted Example 1: "Close it, log it, burn it, pave it . . . whatever it takes to ensure two more generations of civil servants and government funded "researchers," don't live a life on easy street on my tax dollar. Don't you think that since 1968, just about everything we need to know or study about a few lakes has been studied, re-studied and studied again??"
Quoted Example 2: "this area is of no concern to the public,its just a paid vacation for a bunch of freeloading scientists"
Story: Experimental Lakes Area uncertain future met with mixed reaction

Theme: "This study has no benefit to society! What a stupid study!"
Quoted Example 1: "How about a study that studies the stupidity of those who want to conduct these kind of stupid studies? How about giving that $400G back to the people, because that's a better use of our money and we are better custodians of it than this government can hope to be."
Quoted Example 2: "Does this go through Congress for approval? We need names of any Congress members that vote for this garbage!"

[I would have added more, but reading these Comments had a serious harshing effect on my mellow.]
That, my friends, is the vehement battle-cry of the staunch Science Rejector (and here's the link that will shamelessly take you to my post on "Public Encounters of the Pleasant and Frustrating Kind"), a personality type that cannot (or will not) acknowledge the value of science that does not immediately increase the ease of their existence.

These comments do not speak well of either the intelligence or the mental stability of the Commenter. Scientists study stupid and pointless subjects. Scientists waste time and money on research that could be used to feed the homeless or cure cancer. Scientists conspire to trick you out of your money because they are too lazy to raise the funds elsewhere. Do these sound like the opinions of a well-balanced individual, or like the temper-tantrum of someone who needs a laxative and a nap? Or, are they lashing out at something which they do not understand, because admitting that lack of understanding is just too darn scary to consider? To be fair, many of the Science Rejectors are harshly criticized by their fellow Commenters, which means that there is a portion of our society that supports the continuation of basic science.

What is basic science? Basic science asks the fundamental questions, and then finds out the answers. The answers to those fundamental questions are what leads to the science that we, as a society, seem to have no problem understanding: the applied sciences. Discoveries are basic science. Treatments and innovations are applied science. Some basic science studies are short and targeted, while others need decades of running and experimentation to obtain the data.

Want to know how to treat and prevent Lyme disease? Hopefully a scientist has documented how the metabolism works of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease in North America, Borrelia burgdorferi. Hopefully a scientist has documented how B. burgdorferi is transmitted. Hopefully a team of scientists spent many seasons in the bush documenting the life cycle of the Ixodes scapularis so that you know which sex is transmitting the disease and at what time of year people are most likely to contract it. Treating and preventing Lyme disease is an application of all of the information gathered when discovering the answers to those basic science questions.

But what about duck sex? Why do we need to know how ducks reproduce unless we are breeding them for commercial purposes? People who ask those questions (and they came up a great deal in the much-loathed Comments section of the Fox News article above) confuse basic science with applied science. Carl Zimmer on National Geographic's Phenomena discusses the importance of duck sex research despite the cultural backlash, and why these basic biological studies on animals are essential to scientific progress. If the Canadian government truly wants to believe that "science powers commerce", they have to stop tearing down their capacity to do basic science, otherwise they will keep re-inventing the same tired ol' wheel.

From where does this inability to appreciate basic science originate? I can only speak from an anecdotal perspective, but I think it starts early in our education. I was a science nut in elementary and high-school, especially in biology. I was fortunate in having an exceptionally good Biology 10 teacher. He introduced us to the differences between natural selection and Lamarckism, and how the data is collected for evolutionary biology studies. We did population counts of pond water biota over several days to see how time and certain environmental conditions control relative abundances of flora and fauna. We subjected bacterial streak plates to different environmental conditions. We then discussed how all of this information could be used for future studies. I came out of Biology 10 with a fairly firm grasp of the differences between basic and applied sciences.

Fast forward to me teaching introductory biology labs. We show the students how to set up a basic experiment. We explain the difference between a null and a working hypothesis. We show the students how to record data and present their results in an unambiguous and (hopefully) legible manner. Then we turn them loose on the "Discussion" section of the lab report. Part of the Discussion section asks the students to find three papers from the primary literature (i.e. scientific journals) and describe how their lab experiment relates to the results of these papers.

This is where the wheels fell off for many students. Some could not make the connection that one small study, like that on a bacterial streak plate, could be the basis for a future study, or be related to a different study on a different bacteria that showed similar results, or that what happened on that streak plate could be the basis for a future treatment against that strain of bacteria. To some, the lab exercise was just another assignment, a stand-alone pile of paper that counted for 10% of their final lab grade.

I hoped that I only had to (figuratively) lead the students by the hand until they saw the right path, and then I could turn them loose to mentally explore that path. My reasoning was "I can't think for them. I'll give them clues, I'll give them hints, I'll make them think for themselves", but I forgot that my students may not have had the same grounding that I did on the importance of basic science. The students went into this exercise not knowing the difference between basic and applied science, or why you cannot have applied science without first knowing the basics. I wish I could re-teach those labs.

The necessity of basic science is something that we need to elaborate on in our education system. I would argue that at the post-secondary level we are already too late: not everyone goes to college or university, but everyone is a member of society, and that society decides who gets elected into public office. Society chooses the people who make decisions with our tax dollars, such as whether free science communication is important, and whether research programs such as the Experimental Lakes Area are supported. The necessity of basic science needs to be emphasized in the elementary and high-school years. All it takes is an instructor to get the students to think and discuss questions such as "Why do you think it is important to document the number of frogs around a lake each year?" or "What can we learn by studying photosynthesis?"

I hope that the recent outcry on the vote against supporting the Experimental Lakes Area, and the apparent outrage at using federal money to study duck penises, will spur more scientists than ever to increase their outreach activities at public schools. Contact your schools and organize just one guest lecture where you talk to the kids about your basic science, the basic science of your colleagues, and why that science is important. Explain how a basic study in your field led to an applied benefit, even though no one thought of that benefit at the time of the study. When the kids ask questions, make sure to emphasize that "Well, we never would have figure it out if someone hadn't done this basic study back in 1980/1908/1898." Kids are naturally curious and are natural explorers: why not show them early on in their educational years how and why basic science is done? 

On a different note, should ducks now be the mascot of Basic Science? Why not!

"Choose me for your mascot! Look at how handsome I am! My nether regions are well studied." Northern Pintail (Anas acutus). Image: Ducks Unlimited.

Until next time, QUACK!


UPDATE 05/07/2013

Just when I thought that the Conservative majority government couldn't be more ignorant about science and how scientific progresses are achieved, they went and hit an all new low. The National Research Council, once the major funding powerhouse for both student and academic researchers (think the Canadian version of the NSF) has been "retooled".  "The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. It will be customer pull." according to Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear.

No, there is nothing wrong with funding innovation-based projects, but this should not happen at the expense of basic research, which is in danger of being abandoned or given a lower priority.

I don't know how many different ways people of this profit-driven mindset have to be told that, if you kneecap basic science, you are also kneecapping your path to innovation. You can't build the cart and expect the horse to pull it if the horse starved to death in its stable. An inelegant metaphor, but it's the best I can do on short notice.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hot Science, Cold Feelings

I had thought that my first post after my laser eye surgery was going to be a cringe-worthy yet successful story of the procedure, but I had to write this post first. Do you ever encounter those moments when you think "There is no way that I will ever hear something more illogical and ridiculous than what I have just heard"? Unfortunately, these past couple of weeks contain incidents that enter the realms of the Perpetual Facepalm and the Everlasting Head-Desk.

First, my own country has essentially flipped science, scientific exchange, and support for research stations, specifically the Experimental Lakes Area Research Station, the big fat Bird. The ELA station was firmly centered in the government sniper cross-hairs, despite efforts of other political parties and scientists lobbying to keep the research station (operating for almost half a century) open. Then, Vote No. 631 in the House of Commons was sponsored by Kennedy Stewart (NDP), which stated, and I quote:

"That, in the opinion of the House: (a) public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making; (b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public; and (c) the federal government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program."

Here's where a logical person will think "Who would possibly vote against this?" Logic and reason did not win the day. This vote was negatived, despite the fact that the Liberal, NDP, Green, Independent, and Bloc Quebecois parties all voted Yea. You see, we have a Conservative majority, and not one Conservative voted Yea.

Not. A. One.

You tried, Mr. Stewart. You All tried. For All who voted Yea, scientists thank You. I thank You. We are just sorry it was not enough. This will essentially continue the gag order on all federal scientists, forcing them to obtain government permission before discussing any of their findings with the public, and giving government the ability to tell a federal scientist what they can and cannot submit for publication.

I did not mean for this to turn into a political post, but I am sad, angry, and ashamed of this decision on behalf of my country. I am worried about the future of Canadian science and research. I needed to vent.

That was the Everlasting Head-Desk from my country. Prior to that, the People of the Internet provided a Perpetual Facepalm. It apparently took the People of the Internet by surprise when the administrator of the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science posted a link to her Twitter profile that included her picture. The part that surprised the People of the Internet was the "her" part.

Some people were amazed that only one person managed the IFLS page: the volume and diversity of the cool new science posts is amazing! However, because many who have a wireless connection and a keyboard also come with their Relevant and Appropriate Dialog Filters disabled, more comments than I believed possible followed these themes:

1) I'm completely surprised you're a woman!
2) You're hot!

...and my favorite combination...

3) Wow! You're hot and smart!

We meet again, Tired Old Stereotypes!

The Tired Old Stereotype #1 of the a) public perception and b) the lower numbers of women active in the STEM fields is annoying, but it is an issue that is being addressed.

The stereotypes that perplexed me are the ones related to physical appearance and science. One can infer the assumptions that led to the comments:

A) Women scientists (or women interested in science) are not attractive, and
B) Attractive women are not interested in science.

Here is where I was going to have fun with Venn Diagrams and show how illogical it is to assume that all scientists are unattractive, but then the realization dawned. I had also been trapped by the sneaky assumption that:

C) How a person (specifically, how a woman) looks is relevant.

Trying to combat assumptions A and B by promoting "Hot Fashionable Women Scientists" leads to public relations disasters, such as the original video (here's a link and a shameless redirection to one of my previous posts) for the European Commission's "Science: It's a Girl Thing!" campaign. The EC took the critiques of their original campaign seriously, and now has a page that actually profiles real women in science.

This question comes screaming into my mind:

Who gives a Flying Spaghetti Monster what a person who is interested in science looks like?!?

Yes, we are primates with complex visual processors, and the first aspect we notice about someone is the physical aspect. Yes, a portion of the population is biologically programmed to assess members of the opposite sex as potential mates. Yes, scientists are people who do not exist in a vacuum away from society (no matter how tempting this may be on the days when Everlasting Head-Desk events are encountered) and are also subjected to whatever standards society sets on appearance.

This has nothing to do with the scientific world. Scientists do not send in mug shots when they submit their research papers. Women researchers do not have to complete a special form that asks them to detail their chest-waist-hip measurements during the online paper submission process. If a new hypothesis is a great hypothesis, it will still be a great hypothesis even once you find out the researcher responsible for it has two heads and three arms, and is the worst dressed sentient being in the known Universe.

The knee-jerk reaction when meeting and greeting a woman is to compliment her on her appearance. This can range from the innocuous "You look nice" to the more insulting-yet-simultaneously-laughable comments.  We're trained to do this, and women are trained to receive these compliments as a normal part of social interactions. We're trained at an early age: Lisa Bloom's article on "How to Talk to Little Girls" highlights that using compliments on appearance as a socially acceptable icebreaker teaches girls that "...their appearance is the first thing you notice [and] tells them that looks are more important than anything." Conversations with women peers revealed that this even happens at scientific conferences. I don't think this happens among male colleagues. If it does, let me know! I'd love to hear some examples. Heck, for a good laugh I'd like to hear some awkward compliment stories from female researchers.

Barnum Brown was hot. Seriously, his core body temperature was likely slightly above normal when doing fieldwork whilst wearing his fur coat. http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/~alroy/lefa/BBrown.html

So, a woman who is interested in science, and who operates a great social media page promoting science in all of its awesome glory, received the digital version of walking past the archetypical construction site once the People of the Internet found out her appearance. In a sad and awkward attempt to say something complimentary, they fell back on their basic social icebreaker training and produced a completely irrelevant and pathetic Facebook comment. Social programming fail.

What keeps this incident from being classified as an Everlasting Head-Desk is the amount of fun that was poked at the people who could think of nothing better to say other than "You're female" and "You're hot". I thoroughly enjoyed Dean Burnett's article in the Guardian on how women should know their place in science. Also, many of the comments did fall into the "Thanks for a great site!" and "Nice to meet you!" thread (as well as incredulity at the annoying comments). It is a thoroughly ridiculous idea that a person's gender and/or appearance should matter when it comes to science. Great discoveries do not need to be draped across models like clothes or makeup to convince people they are great discoveries. Science is hot in of itself.

I couldn't resist at least one Venn Diagram.

Until next time,

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Finish this sentence: I would rather be be caught naked in a crowded lecture hall than X.

With what creature, object, or concept did you substitute for X? To be fair, a great many people would use "being caught naked in a crowded lecture hall" as their X. I can't blame you: those halls are cold!

We all have a phobia. Some of us have several. Some have very specific phobias, while others are more general. Some phobias are understandable from the point of view of the non-sufferer, such as the fear of heights (acrophobia), while other phobias sound as though someone just made them up (again, from the perspective of the non-sufferer), such as the fear of otters (lutraphobia).

This Giant River Otter is disappointed that you crapped your pants at the mere sight of him. Photo: National Geographic Animals.
No matter how illogical (such as the fear of knowledge, or gnosiophobia) or just plain odd (forget Valentine's Day if you have anthophobia, a fear of flowers), phobias are very real to the afflicted, and have very real physiological consequences. MedlinePlus describes phobias as "a type of anxiety disorder....a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger." I think most people can reason that many phobias were, at one time in our evolutionary history, quite rational. It was better to avoid that black and orange slithery thing because everyone you knew who received a bite from it died. Maybe all long slithery things can kill! However, when these fears start interfering with our day-to-day lives they become disruptive and disadvantageous. Does that fear of balloons (globophobia) reduce you to a nervous wreck anytime someone in your office has a birthday party? Or how about a fear of food (cibophobia), which can be quite dangerous for a person's health if it is taken to an extreme. One of the benefits of the Internet is that you can find not only a myriad of phobias, but online support groups for phobias that you probably didn't even know existed.

There are several things for which I have no fond feelings. Take clowns for example: I think they are creepy, but the sight of one does not hit my primal panic button. I find a writhing mass of maggots or worms visually unappealing. The twang of country music grates against my aural sense of decorum. These are low-key aversions and preferences rather than actual phobias (coulrophobia, scoleciphobia, and cacophonophobia, respectively).

I do have an aversion serious enough to be classified as a phobia. I am afraid of spiders. I have Arachnophobia.

This is where my brain splits into the dual personalities of Practical Me and Timid Me. My practical, logical side knows that A) spiders, especially where I live, pose no serious risk to me, B) all spiders are of great importance to the ecosystem as both predators and prey, C) spiders are fascinating in their diversity and adaptations, and D) my fear is completely irrational given the fact that I am a biologist and thoroughly understand Points A through C. Timid Me hold the trump card with Point E: despite all the biology training and fascination, I would rather walk naked down the street singing country music than willingly hold a large spider.

I am painfully aware of how irrational my fear is of spiders. Spider are great. Watch the video below of the male Peacock Jumping Spider's mating dance and then tell me that spiders have no redeeming qualities.

How cool is that? Here is a tiny 4mm long spider with flamboyant coloration engaging in the arachnid version of flag semaphore! This is my favorite spider.

No matter how I rationalize it, or berate myself for being the world's largest wimp, I cannot control my automatic physiological response when confronted with a spider larger than my pinkie nail: my heart rate increases, I feel "crawly" and ill, I become hypersensitive to touch, and I'm sure to vocalize my displeasure. There is something about the eight legs and the way those legs move in their rhythmically deliberate yet surprisingly speedy pattern that sends chills up my spine and urine into my pants (figuratively, of course). Merely thinking about spiders to write this post has made me extremely twitchy: I've flinched at my own hair tickling my neck several times.

I know I am not alone in my phobia: the Internet is chock-full of imagery designed with the arachnophobe in mind. Go ahead and Google "spider in/on toilet paper". What I expected to see was that classic image of the ginormous brown spider sitting on the roll, daring the viewer to try to take a square. I was not expecting the bulk of what my search revealed. You can look for yourself. I may never use the toilet in the middle of the night again without first beating the living hell out of the roll with a mop handle. A completely irrational reaction, but I'm not going to be the one who wipes with spider. 

One of the ways people deal with fears and phobias is to identify the moment the phobia was established. I have no problem pinpointing the onset of my arachnophobia. This stems from a childhood encounter.

That ascending scale on the harp that you hear in the background is the signal for a childhood flashback. Cue the sepia tone of memory. It is actually the neon pink, lime green, and Jellies shoes of the 1980s, but I think you appreciate my attempts to set the scene.

I was four and a half years old. It was a hot, cloudless summer day in rural southern British Columbia. I was bombing around my parents' acreage pretending who-knows-what: one day I would be riding my imaginary talking horse Shadow, the next I would attempt to construct a crude bow and arrow and be a questing knight. Given the amount of running around I did that morning, I'm sure I was on an adventure with Shadow.

Being four years old and rather daffy, I refused to listen to Mom's orders to take a break, drink the water I was given, and wear a hat. Instead, I gave my water to Shadow, used the hat as a Frisbee and tore around like a lunatic. Meanwhile, Dad was repairing some loose boards on the fence next to our house. Something popped into my heat-addled brain that I needed to tell Dad about right away, so I ran around the corner of the house at top speed, and was stopped dead in my tracks by what I saw.

Now comes the part where I have to tell two versions of the same story: what really happened, and what I thought happened. First, I'll describe what really happened. While Dad was working a large spider, very likely one of the cat-faced spiders that are common in southern B.C., lowered itself from the eaves and was dangling over Dad's head. Dad, not wanting it to land on him, took a couple of swats at the spider with his hammer. Pretty dull, right?

Here's how I remember the scene (brought to you by Heat ExhaustionTM). Dad was trapped under a spider at least three meters in diameter. It was brown and spotted, with a cluster of gleaming black eyes and thick brown hairs protruding from its tree branch sized legs. It was hanging from a rope as thick as a mooring line for a huge ship. It was writhing its legs and wriggling its chelicerae. Dad was wildly swinging his hammer to fend off the hellish creature with one hand while holding up his other arm in defense. Gargantu-Spider bobbed a couple of times and then shot straight up on its line, disappearing from sight.

As soon as Gargantu-Spider vanished I fully intending to run to the house and get Mom (what she would have been able to do against a giant spider, I have no idea). The first thing I saw when I turned around was a small cat-faced spider mere centimeters from my face, dangling from the apple tree. This is where my heat-addled brain snapped. I do not remember what happened after that. Talking with Mom years later, she does remember me coming inside (without my hat), looking pale and babbling something unintelligible about large spiders and Dad, and then sitting down to read or color. I didn't venture outside for the rest of the day, which for me was odd.

I do not remember being terrified of spiders before that day, but after this incident the crippling fear followed me through elementary and high school. I couldn't steel myself to walk past a wall with a spider on it because I was convinced the spider would leap out at me. A spider in my room meant the room had to be thoroughly inspected before I would fall asleep. Finding a spider crawling on me? Cue the hysterics.

Over the years I've had to train myself not to give in to my primal reactions when I encounter a spider. I spend a lot of time in the field, which means I come into contact with spiders on a regular basis. The wolf spiders in the sub-alpine of northeast B.C. are particularly large and impressive, and they like to hunt and hide under the rocks I need to turn over when looking for fossils. Spiders cover our tents in the summer. Spiders fall in my hair when I hike in the woods. The lead hiker is called the Spider Sweeper because they clear all the webs off of the trail that have been constructed by industrious spiders. I either deal with spiders in a non-disruptive manner or become paranoid every time I set foot in spider territory.

I have conditioned myself to let small spiders crawl on me, and to not react if I find a small spider on my arm or leg, but if they catch me off guard I will still freak out. My field colleagues and crew are familiar with my Spider Dance. I have even touched a wolf spider. This is as far as I've gone with facing my fear. Finding a large spider on me still sends me into panic mode. I have no desire whatsoever to touch a tarantula, no matter how many times people assure me they are perfectly harmless. It is not even the fear of being bit by a spider that makes me nervous: it's the sensation (or, more precisely, the concept of the sensation) of all of those legs crawling on me.

Brr! Now I am thoroughly creeped out. It is time for a relaxing cup of tea. Have an phobia story? Have a spider story? Please share!

Strange Woman out.

Dedicated to all the spiders that met their untimely demise from my panicked flailing.

Jazz Hands! (Darlington's Peacock Spider, image modified from Otto and Hill, 2012)

Take a Bow! (Darlington's Peacock Spider, image modified from Otto and Hill, 2012)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Creepy Camping

Hello, Dear Readers! I have been neglecting my poor blog as of late: sometimes the last thing you want to do after writing all day is to open up the computer and write more. On the other hand, it is nice to give my short-attention span brain a mental walk through the woods and think about something other than revamping my M.Sc. for actual publication. I'm trying to get this particular manuscript ready to submit prior to my corrective laser eye surgery in early March. I am both excited and anxious about this procedure.

I was inspired to write this particular post from two sources. Brian Switek wrote about a rather hair-raising evening that he spent having his tent guarded by two dogs (that weren't his). Another source came from cleaning out my field gear and finding odds and ends: a crumpled leaf, a granola bar wrapper, a used bear-banger cartridge. These items bring to mind some of the more interesting adventures we've had in the wilderness of northeast B.C.

I am completely comfortable (although careful - I am a klutz, after all) in the wilderness. I would rather walk through a forested area alone without any light than do the same in an urban area. In fact, after I had left a local Halloween party one year, on hearing a lot of drunken male hooting and hollering occurring on the street, I left the beaten paths and made my way home through one of the many green belts around town. It was bliss. I encountered one White-tailed Deer and one fox, both of which just observed my passage and continued on with their regular activities.

Needless to say, I realize that not everyone shares in my comfort of a dark forest. We've trained ourselves as a society to be leery of the deep dark woods. Most of our childhood myths and stories contain at least one creepy beastie that lives in the haunted forest and wants to eat young children. We spend less time outside at night, and create for ourselves an artificially extended daytime. There is a part of our psyche that is still afraid of the dark.

One of the great joys of palaeontology field work for me is the amazing amount of time I get to spend outside. Working on our hadrosaur excavation requires several weeks of camping in the same location in the woods. If you set up a more-or-less semi-permanent camp in the wild, you either attract the attention of local fauna, or the local fauna becomes so used to your presence that it treats you and your camp as an addition to the ecosystem. One year we had a young Black Bear who was too curious for its own good about our colorful tents: it belly flopped on two and made a huge rip in another. We set up noisemakers and other deterrents to scare the bear out of camp when we weren't around. We also knew that once we were asleep, Mrs. Bear (she had a cub the next year) would find a chewy human surprise if she wanted to ransack our tents.

We often have volunteers assist us with the excavation, although many are just day-trippers. Unless they are seasoned campers, our volunteers are not too enthusiastic to spend a night at camp. Or, more precisely, they are enthusiastic until the sun goes down.  Only a few have done an overnight or two at camp.  Our good friend Charissa decided to come for an overnight the same year we had the bear encounters. She didn't have a tent of her own, so our field assistant set her up with a bivy sack.

Have you every slept in a bivy sack? Here's what they look like:

Not my exact bivy sack (mine is a little more worn), but I use an Outdoor Research brand bivy sack like the one pictured here. Image from Mountain Equipment Co-Op, www.mec.ca.

It's essentially the tent version of a body bag. They're light and quick to set up, and if you are striking out from base camp for a day of prospecting, it's nice to be able to set up camp after 10km and not have to worry about making it back to the base that evening. I find them extremely comfortable. I've used mine in the pouring rain and have had a great night's sleep. Fortunately the one used by Charissa did have a little more room than a conventional bivy, but it was still close quarters.

The night we retired turned out to be a busy night in terms of local wildlife. First, coyotes began serenading in the distance. Coyotes can be lovely to listen to when you are sitting on your porch in the evening, but they take on an eerie tone when all you have separating you from the eldritch howls is a bit of polyester.

The serenade was followed by complete silence. Then, a barking, wheezing coughing noise shot out from the dark, only a few hundred meters from camp. Rich and I got out to investigate, but we could not find the source of the unnerving sound. We suspect it was a call of one of our local ungulates (moose or elk), but knowing that did not make it sound any less creepy. The night continued with the usual scurryings, gnawing, rustlings, and creaking of the forest.

How did Charissa enjoy all of this activity? Here is how the evening unfolded for her. It was a warm evening, so she had started off outside of her sleeping bag. She was also feeling a bit claustrophobic from the fabric of the bivy sack draping a mere centimeters from her face, but knew this would pass once she fell asleep. She dealt with the coyote serenade like a trooper; however, the coughing ungulate (which she named The Asthmatic Coyote) was too much. Charissa transitioned from feeling slightly uncomfortable to "I did this voluntarily?!?" in a matter of seconds. The bivy sack began to feel like that clueless person at a party who refuses to acknowledge the sanctity of Personal Space. After the excitement the Asthmatic Coyote (who might also prove to be quite hungry), the evening cooled off. So did Charissa. Uncomfortably so. She attempted to move into the sleeping bag, but the smothering embrace of the bivy made the fabric hiss and crackle loudly. Loud enough to attract the attention of the ravenous Asthmatic Coyote...and anything else that might be lurking out there. Was that rustling in the leaves a mouse...or something larger? What if it was the bear who liked to investigate tents? With her claws?!? No matter how Charissa contorted herself, there was no way she was getting into her sleeping bag without alerting creatures great and small that she was trapped in a convenient take-away burrito wrapping. Her apparent choice was to either ring the dinner bell or attempt to sleep with a corner of the sleeping bag covering a foot. She chose the latter.

Charissa (and the rest of us) did survive the night. The encounter with the Asthmatic Coyote did inspire her to purchase a two person tent with plenty of room for stealthy maneuvering, and did join us at camp the following year, now a seasoned veteran of the Noises of the Night.

This turned into someone else's Creepy Camping story, and I'm sure I will remember one or two of  mine once I'm not in paper submission mode. In the meantime, share your creepy camping stories, even if they turn out to be not creepy (and rather amusing) in the end!

Until next time,