No Exit

“Hell is other people” – or so said French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  Sometimes I can’t help but think Sartre must have been working as a field biologist when he wrote that.

Sartre’s quote is frequently misinterpreted: he wasn’t saying that other people are terrible beings who should be avoided at all costs.  Rather (at least, as I understand it), he meant that hell is always being in the presence of other people – inescapably watched, and therefore inevitably judged, by those other people.

Most people who have worked at remote field sites would recognize that claustrophobic feeling, at least to some extent.  When you’re in the field, you put in 14 hour days with your co-workers – only to go home, have dinner with them, and then hang out together until it’s time for bed.  When you wake up in the morning, you do the whole thing over again.  There’s no escape: you work, live, and sleep with the same people.  No matter how fantastic those people are, it gets wearing.

And of course, when you are always with the same people, it is inevitable that some of their habits will rub you the wrong way.  At first, it might just be a minor annoyance – a bit like the slightly irritating tag in your jeans that you keep meaning to cut off.  But when you’re in the position of wearing those jeans all day, every day, for months on end, that slightly irritating tag eventually becomes almost intolerable.

After many field seasons at many different sites, I can definitely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of interpersonal drama.  For example, one of my field jobs involved working at an isolated field station, which I shared with only five other people.  A group of six people doesn’t provide all that many conversational options under the best of circumstances – but things get a whole lot more awkward when three of those people aren’t speaking to the other three.

You don’t really know someone until you’ve spent hours sitting in a 2 m-squared blind with them, waiting to catch trap-shy birds.

But despite the interpersonal drama that is almost always part and parcel of the experience, I maintain that other people are often the best part of field work.  I’ve heard it said that only your siblings can understand your family’s unique brand of craziness; in the same way, only people you make it through a field season with can really understand the insanity you both survived.  Adversity has a way of creating strong bonds, and most field seasons involve enough adversity to produce some pretty robust adhesive!   Your field colleagues are the ones who bang on your door at 4 am when your alarm doesn’t go off, and the people who share your bouts of hysterical laughter about something (or nothing) when too little sleep and too much stress take their toll.

Too many early mornings are more tolerable when you have someone to complain with!

But it’s more than that.  My blog posts for Dispatches frequently focus on the importance of place – but most of the time, it’s the people who make a place.  My memories of the amazing places I’ve worked are inextricably intertwined with the amazing people that I shared those places with.  And while I’d love the chance to go back to visit some of those field sites, I know they wouldn’t be the same.

Ultimately, the people you share a field season with are the ones who experience in all the frustrations and triumphs of that field season right along with you.  And as we all know, both frustration and triumph are so much better when shared.

And hey – if all else fails, your field colleagues at least provide a measure of protection against bears…as long as you can run faster than them.  🙂

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Seeing the forest AND the trees

Within half an hour of starting my new job, I knew I was in trouble.

I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck driven by my new boss, travelling down an Alberta highway at 110 kilometers per hour.  Every few minutes, without taking his eyes off the road, he would randomly (at least, so it appeared to me) toss out the name of another bird species.

“Hooded merganser.”

“Blue-winged teal.”

“Black tern.”

Most of these species were only names to me.  Given a good bird book, a pair of binoculars, and at least a full minute with a clear view of the bird, I would probably be able to ID them.  But IDing them based on a silhouette glimpsed for a second out the window of a moving truck…it didn’t take me long to conclude that my boss had to be superhuman.  And also that my tenure at this job might be a great deal shorter than I had originally hoped.

 

Having (finally) finished my PhD this past winter, I’m now in the painful stage of figuring out what exactly I want to do with it.  So when I was offered a job as a field tech for a wildlife consulting company in Calgary, I jumped at the chance.  I figured that a decade of doing fieldwork for various degrees would equip me well for the job.  Shows how much I know….

As a grad student, I spent all my time in the field completely focused on my study species (whatever that happened to be at the time).  I’ve put in endless hours catching and banding individual birds, recording their behaviour, and monitoring their reproductive success.  For me, fieldwork has always been narrow in scope, focused on learning every single detail about one very small part of the ecosystem.

Working as a consultant is pretty much the exact opposite: the focus is broad.  No one is interested in the details of each individual bird; what clients want is the big picture.  So instead of spending all my time identifying colour banded individuals, instead I’ve been frantically trying to learn to identify dozens of species by both sight and sound.  (Given that more than 750 bird species breed in North America, you can imagine that the learning curve is pretty steep.)

And the broad focus of consulting extends beyond simply identifying species.  In fact, perhaps the best example of the differences between grad school and consulting is an activity common to both: nest searching.

Grad students studying birds frequently have to find nests in order to measure individuals’ reproductive success.  They need to know who an individual mates with, how many eggs it has, when those eggs hatch, how often (and what) the parents feed the nestlings, and how many of the babies survive and make it out of the nest.

Nest searching is also a common activity for consultants, but with an entirely different focus.  Under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, companies undertaking construction activities during the breeding season are required by law to take steps to avoid disturbing bird nests.  To do so, they hire consultants to map out the location of those nests, so they can be avoided during construction.

But finding a nest – particularly a grassland bird nest – can often take hours and hours of careful observation, lying in the grass and waiting for the birds to get so accustomed to your presence that they’ll bring food to the nestlings even though you’re close enough to see where they land.  Often you’ll be sure that you have the nest pinpointed – but when you leap to your feet and peer into the suspect patch of grass, you’ll find nothing, and have to start from the beginning again.  It can be an incredibly frustrating process, but it’s accepted as par for the course when you’re a grad student.  And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally part the grasses and see the gaping mouths of baby birds begging for food makes it all worth it.

The problem is, in the real world, it’s usually not possible to spend a whole day finding one nest.  As a consultant, you have a given area to search, and a hard deadline: at some point, construction will start, and you need to know where the nests are before then.  So instead of pinpointing nest locations, you’re on the lookout for any sign of breeding in the birds you see – then you watch them for just as long as it takes to approximate the general location of the nest.

When I first started doing nest sweeps as a consultant, I found this incredibly frustrating.  After many years of grad school, I’m used to taking my time, and discovering as much as possible about the birds (and nests) I encounter.  Having to approximate nest location (not to mention the stage of the nest) and then move on immediately to the next one drove me nuts.

But the more I do this job, the more I realize that it’s a trade-off.  I may not know every single detail about the birds I observe, but I’m also learning to recognize many species that I’ve never paid much attention to before.  I can’t tell you exactly where each nest is or how many eggs it has, but I can make an educated guess about how many species are nesting in a given area.  In fact, the more time I spend as a consultant, the more I like it.  The work is challenging, but it’s making me a better birder and a better naturalist.

I can’t deny that I do still miss the detail-oriented focus of graduate fieldwork.  But every once in a while, when it becomes necessary to know exactly where a nest is, I get to use those skills.  And when I do, the moment of discovery is just as satisfying as ever.

Aha! Baby savannah sparrows peering up from their hidden nest.

Morning has broken (me)

When the repetitive beeping of my alarm rouses me, it seems like the punchline of an exceptionally cruel joke.  The room is pitch black; the glowing red numbers on the clock read 3:00 am.  I know I need to get out of bed if I’m going to make it to the field site for sunrise… but the sheets feel like they’re made of Velcro, pulling me back down every time I make a move to get up.

When I finally do manage to put my feet on the floor and stand upright, I’m as uncoordinated as drunk toddler.  I stumble around my room with my eyes half closed.  Despite the fact that I always lay my clothes out neatly the night before, getting dressed seems to take twice as long as it should.  I drop items of clothing, tie my hiking boot laces wrong, and even occasionally try to put both my feet into the same pant leg.

It doesn’t get any easier when I finally get myself out the door.  The world is eerily quiet and still at 3 am.  The occasional person I do encounter looks startled to see me, and often avoids my eyes.  It’s very clear that anyone with any sense is sleeping, and it’s hard not to let my thoughts drift back to the warmth and comfort of my covers.  I aim myself directly towards the nearest source of caffeine – but as I move farther away from my bed, I can feel myself getting crankier.

 

People who know me often ask why I choose to work with birds.  After all, I’m the first to admit that I am the opposite of a morning person.  So what on earth possessed me to study animals that start their day long before the sun has properly risen – and even have the gall to greet the dawn with a song?

It’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer.  And it’s been on my mind a lot this summer, because I’m back in the field for the first time in several years.  Each day, as I drag myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, every cell in my body resisting, I find myself seriously questioning my life choices.  (In my defence, I’m not sure being a morning person would make a difference, because frankly 3 am can’t be considered ‘morning’.)

But over the past few weeks, I’ve realized something.  I can’t deny that I really hate getting out of bed before the sun.  But I also can’t deny that once I’m up, I’m glad to be awake.

The day has a very different feel first thing in the morning.  The world is new and fresh, and there’s a sense of infinite possibility.  The entire day stretches ahead like a blank canvas, as yet unmarred by the small disappointments and frustrations that inevitably pile up over the hours.  As I drink my coffee and watch the sun peek over the horizon, I feel like I can do almost anything.  It’s exhilarating…and perhaps even worth the struggle it takes to get myself there each day.

Nevertheless: on my days off, I’m more than happy to let the sun win the race!

Careful queries

“Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully.  And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 -David Quammen

Having spent more than a decade doing fieldwork all over North America, you might think I would have learned by now how to see beauty anywhere – how to look past the surface of a place to the awe-inspiring intricate connections beneath.  But last week’s guest post about the beauty of the tallgrass prairie got me thinking about my own experience in the prairies last fall.

In October, I took a trip out west with my father, who is a big fan of Canada’s national park system and wanted to see some of the western parks and historic sites.  We originally planned the trip as my ‘thesis submission celebration’.  (Of course, as any grad student knows, thesis submission dates are slippery things, very prone to change.  So when the time came to leave, my thesis was decidedly unsubmitted – but lucky for me, we decided to go anyway.)

When we sat down to finalize our itinerary, we discovered that we disagreed fairly substantially.  My father’s top priority was to visit Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan.  But to be honest, I just wasn’t that excited by the thought of an endless flat plain.  No, if I was going out west, my top priority was to see some mountains.

I’ve been fascinated by mountains since my first trip to Alberta with my family, when I was only six.  Even now, I find the dramatic landscape of the Rocky Mountains enthralling and iconic.  Despite growing up in Ontario, when I think of the Canadian wilderness, I picture the snowy peaks, mysterious green valleys, and jewel-bright lakes of the Rockies.

My dad was considerably less enchanted by the mountains than I was, but eventually agreed to add Waterton Lakes National Park to our schedule.  Waterton Lakes, in southwestern Alberta, lies at the point where “the prairies of Alberta meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains”.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place than Waterton Lakes National Park on a sunny fall day.

If you look the park up on Google Images, the pictures that pop up are so perfectly gorgeous that they seem almost unreal.  But as amazing as those pictures are, they don’t begin to the do park justice.  We visited on a sunny, crisp fall day.  The wind was so strong it almost felt like an assault, and the sheer majesty of the sun reflecting off the snow-covered peaks took my breath away.

We spent three wonderful days in the shadow of the mountains before starting our long drive east to Grasslands.  Not feeling all that inspired by the second part of our trip, I was reluctant to leave, and the seemingly endless drive across the flattest part of Canada didn’t increase my enthusiasm at all.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Rumpled, tired, and cranky in the way that can only result from spending a day in the car, we arrived at our accommodation, right on the edge of the park, just as the sun was going down.  As I stepped gratefully out into the fresh air and gazed over the sea of grass stretching from right in front of us all the way to the horizon, I felt the first faint stirrings of interest in this park.

First thing the next morning, we set off to explore.  My dad was single-minded in pursuit of his main goal: to see a buffalo.  I had visions of us roaming for hours, searching fruitlessly.  But within a few minutes of entering the park, we spotted one of the massive animals standing not far from the road, gazing haughtily into the distance.  As my dad pulled out his camera, I noticed a flash of movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned to investigate – and realized that on the other side of the road was a busy prairie dog colony.  Hundreds of the chubby rodents bustled around their burrows, often coming within a few feet of me.

Face to face with a curious prairie dog.

It was slowly dawning on me that, although this park lacked the obvious, dramatic majesty of Waterton Lakes and the other mountain parks, it had a quiet splendour all its own.  We’d been in the park only a few minutes, and already we’d had two up close and personal encounters with wildlife.  That night, as I stared up at one of the most phenomenal night skies I’ve ever seen, I realized that Grasslands was something special.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the experience was that we had the park essentially to ourselves.  During the three days we spent there, I don’t think we saw more than ten other visitors.  When I got home, I looked up the stats.  Between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017, Grasslands had just over 13,000 visitors.  In comparison, Waterton Lakes recorded more than 500,000 visitors over the same time period, and Banff recorded more than 4 million.  Apparently I am not the only person who prefers the mountains to the plains.

I can’t deny that having an entire national park to ourselves was mind-blowing, and part of what made our time in Grasslands so special.  There’s something about being the only car on the road – the only people within sight – that allows you to become truly immersed in the landscape.

But I also can’t help but think the vast difference in visitor numbers between Grasslands and Waterton Lakes may be indicative of a larger problem.  Many people – whether consciously or unconsciously – equate ‘nature’ with those grand, awe-inspiring mountain vistas that we are all so fond of.  And I can’t deny that those vistas are amazing, certainly well worth a visit.

However, a single-minded focus on majestic and dramatic landscapes can cause us to miss the more subtle beauty found in less obvious places – whether it be the muddy edges of a marsh, the vast grasslands of the North American plains, or even our own backyards.

And so the main thing I learned from my trip was to put a bit more time and effort into making those ‘careful queries’ that David Quammen advocates.  Less obvious landscapes may demand a bit more of us, but they have so much to teach.

Looking out over the badlands at Grasslands National Park.

 

The things we do…

My advisor has always maintained that a field crew runs on its stomach.  In other words, well-fed field assistants are much happier and much more productive – not to mention much less likely to mutiny.

There is no doubt that this is true.  Trying to run a field crew without an adequate supply of coffee, chocolate, or wine is an enterprise doomed to failure.  But – at the risk of disagreeing with my advisor – I would argue that food alone is not enough.

Spending time in the field often leads to awe-inspiring experiences, like the moment when you come face to face with a lynx or watch a fierce lightning storm at sea from the safety of a remote island.  But in between those moments, if we’re being honest, field work can be pretty tedious.

And if it’s tedious as a graduate student – when your entire thesis depends on the data you collect – it’s a hundred times more tedious for your assistants.  Field assistants are expected to work long hours, rain or shine, for weeks on end without a break.  So as a boss, keeping morale up can be a huge challenge, and when you have a chance to provide some fun for your assistants, you really have to take it.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I ended up lugging a dead beaver up a mountain.

 

Let’s back up a step, so I can set the scene.  It was the first field season of my PhD, and my field assistant and I had spent half of January driving across a large chunk of the continent, ending up at an old, somewhat isolated house in the southern Okanagan Valley.  The house was large, drafty, and empty, and our days were spent trekking through the snow and waiting around in the cold in a (largely futile) attempt to catch bluebirds.  Every night, we came home, made dinner, and then went to sleep.  It was not the kind of field work you write home about.

Our cozy field home in the Okanagan.

But my field assistant – being a nature-loving type – was prepared to make his own fun.  He had brought with him a game camera, which he intended to mount on a tree to take automatic motion capture pictures of the local wildlife.  During our first week in BC, he trekked up the mountain behind our house and spent hours looking for the perfect spot to leave it – hoping to capture a black bear or maybe even an elusive mountain lion.

Unfortunately, when he went back a week later, the camera had not taken a single photo.  Undaunted, he decided that the logical course of action was to use bait.  At first, he contented himself with scraps from our kitchen, hiking up the mountain regularly to drop them in front of the camera.  And indeed, the camera did capture photos of the occasional crow or raven checking out his offerings.  But no bear or cougar appeared, much to his disappointment.  He started talking about finding something better to bait the camera with.

And then – lo and behold – as we returned home one grey winter afternoon, he spotted the ‘perfect’ bait.  A dead beaver lay at the side of the road right beside our driveway, the clear victim of a fast-moving vehicle.

My field assistant was completely ecstatic, but I wasn’t entirely convinced: I couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden appearance of a beaver halfway up a mountain, several kilometers away from any water, might be more puzzling than enticing for any lurking bears or cougars.

But then I thought about how limited opportunities for fun had been so far.  And I thought about how excited he was.  And – against my better judgement – I found myself offering to help him lug the beaver up to his camera.

The first step was to wrestle the body into a garbage bag, to facilitate transport.  But this was not a small beaver, and coaxing it into the bag was…challenging.  By the time all of its limbs had been stuffed inside, I was sweating – and starting to regret my offer.

Then we started up the hill, each grasping one end of the bag.  It rapidly became apparent that beavers are not particularly light animals.  We staggered along, panting, the thin plastic slipping out of our awkward grasp frequently.

We hadn’t made it more than a few hundred yards before we concluded that another approach was required.  We decided the best approach was to take turns dragging the beaver.  Of course, the side of a mountain isn’t known for smooth passage, and the garbage bag – never particularly sturdy – became progressively more torn and tattered as we struggled towards our destination.  A paw appeared out one corner; a glimpse of tail was visible through another rip.

In the end, our gruesome task took us almost two hours.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to drop something as I was to let go of that bag when we finally reached the camera.

And the result of all this work?  Well, as far as I can remember (although to be honest, I’ve tried pretty hard to block the memory out), the camera failed to capture a single animal coming to check out the beaver; indeed, when my assistant climbed the mountain a week later, the body was still completely undisturbed.

But hey.  At least I got to feel like a good boss.

Beggars can’t be choosers

My supervisor has always told me that a good field crew runs on its stomach.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a veteran of many field seasons in many different places, I personally have to agree with her.  When I’m in the field, an excessive amount of my time is spent thinking about lunch or dinner.

When it comes to eating in the field, you have to take the good with bad.  On the plus side, fieldwork makes food taste abnormally good.  When you’re exhausted and stressed, just sitting down to dinner is a treat, and almost anything tastes fantastic.  I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in the field.

I especially enjoy the days when, after working late and returning home worn out and grimy, you succumb to weariness, suspect the normal dinner rules, and take the easy way out.  For example, one day near the end of my second field season in BC, my field assistant and I decided to test the theory we’d been hearing from vineyard workers all summer: that the smooth, buttery taste of Chardonnay goes beautifully with popcorn.  That night, our dinner consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn and half a bottle of local Chardonnay each, and we discovered two things.  First, Chardonnay actually does go extremely well with popcorn.  Second, early mornings are considerably more difficult after a dinner of popcorn and wine.

On the minus side, sometimes fieldwork means finding yourself in remote areas where access to food is extremely limited.  In these places, as you sit down to your fourteenth meal of rice and beans in as many days, you often find yourself engaging in an activity that one of my field assistants dubbed “food porn”: daydreaming about what you’d really like to eat, and what you’re planning to eat as soon as you get out of the field.

But in the meantime, you’re stuck with what you have with you…which sometimes means eating things that you would not otherwise touch.  For example, about seven weeks into my second field season on Sable Island, we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel with respect to food.  About all we had left was potatoes, pasta, and some mayo.  In a moment of desperation, we decided to see whether you could make potato salad with just mayonnaise and potatoes.  After all, we reasoned, those are definitely the most important ingredients.  Who needs all that other stuff?

As it turns out, all that other stuff is quite important.  No matter how hungry you are, facing a container of mayo-encrusted potato pieces for lunch can kill your appetite.

But perhaps my most epic field food fail happened during my time in Alaska.  There were six of us living in a small, lonely cabin in the middle of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.  The station was actually incredibly well stocked when we arrived, but with six people eating, supplies dwindled quickly.  Unfortunately, as our grocery ‘wish list’ grew, it became increasingly apparent that getting restocked was going to be an issue.

The field station was run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they were responsible for dropping off supplies on a regular basis.  In the winter, this was relatively easy, as ski planes could land on the iced-over lake beside the cabin.  In the summer, supplies arrived by float plane.  But in the spring, when the ice was just melted enough to be unstable, but not melted enough to leave any patches of open water, the cabin was essentially inaccessible.  USFWS was reduced to doing low-altitude fly-overs, during which they would drop our mail or some small supplies out of the plane on to our ‘front lawn’.

Unfortunately, there are some things you simply cannot drop out of a plane window.  Eggs, for example, do not tolerate a 50 foot drop well.  And thus begins the story of the brownies.

We had been in the field for about a month, and had eaten our way through just about every treat in the cabin.  But when bad weather trapped us in the house for a day, we all found ourselves on the hunt for snacks.  After a great deal of rummaging, someone unearthed a box of brownie from the back of the cupboard.

We were all thrilled.  After all, there aren’t many snacks that can beat a warm, gooey pan of brownies.  We wiped the dust off the top of the box, skimmed the instructions on the back and quickly determined that we had almost all of the required ingredients.  Water? Check.  Oil? Check. Package of brownie mix? Check.  Eggs? Oh.

Now, you would think that eggs are one of the few ingredients that it’s almost impossible to find a substitute for.  So we were briefly stymied.  But we were very, very determined to have those brownies…and after a few minutes of staring blankly into the fridge, someone quietly observed, “You know, mayonnaise is made with eggs.”

That was all it took – before we had time to really think things through, we had emptied the brownie mix into a bowl and added the oil and water.  There was a brief pause, as we all stared at the container of Hellman’s, but then we screwed up our determination and scooped up a large glob of mayo – which we then dropped unceremoniously into the mix.

Of course, no one knew just how much mayo would be needed to replace three eggs.  So we just kept adding it until the consistency seemed about right.  Then we emptied the mixture into a baking pan, popped it in the oven, and sat back to wait, already anticipating the first decadent, chocolatey bite.

By the time the timer went off, the rich smell of chocolate filled the small kitchen and we were practically drooling.  As we opened the oven and slid the brownies out, we all crowded around in excitement – only to recoil as we got a good look at the pan.

Our initial view of the brownies was obscured by the thick layer of oil that filled the pan almost to the top.  Underneath lay a charred and crispy block of something that resembled brownies only in the vaguest form.

The oh-so-appetizing results of our brownie experiment…

It is a measure of just how desperate we were that even considered eating the brownies anyway.  However, when we approached our creation to try to cut it, we met with what felt like a block of cement underneath the knife.  After considerable hacking, we managed to prise the block out of the pan – but no one could figure out how to cut it up.  It didn’t matter anyway; no one was brave enough to venture a bite.

At last we had to admit defeat: there were no brownies for us that day.  But only a few days later, the ice cleared off the lake, the float plane arrived, and our cupboards were well-stocked once more.  The evening after we received our supplies, we sat down to a warm, gooey tray of brownies.  And I can honestly say that I’ve never had better-tasting brownies, before or since.

A quiet night

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away

“Nightswimming”, R.E.M.

Full confession: I am not a particularly audacious person.  I invariably choose Truth over Dare, and I’m probably one of the few people over the age of 18 who can play Never Have I Ever and be virtually sober at the end.

However, on those rare occasions when I play Never Have I Ever, I usually get to have at least one drink – because there’s one question that almost always comes up: “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping”.

In one of my first posts on Dispatches, I mentioned that my first summer in the field was also the first time I ever went skinny dipping.  In fact, that is one of my favourite memories of that summer.  Skinny dipping is something of a tradition at the Queen’s Biology Station, where evening parties more often than not end with the last few party-goers relaxing on the lake shore.  Inevitably, someone will suggest that the next logical step is for everyone to strip and jump off the diving board.

The first time I went skinny-dipping was just such an evening.  I vividly remember the giggles, sidelong glances, and excitement as we all shed our clothes, and the rush to get into the water as fast as possible.  It was a perfect summer evening: the night air was soft and scented, rife with anticipation and sexual tension.  I remember lazily treading water in a circle with half a dozen others, feeling exposed but also sheltered by the dark water.

There have been many, many skinny dipping experiences since that first time, in lakes, rivers, and even in oceans.  For me, skinny dipping is now inextricably linked with fieldwork.  But over time, my feelings about the experience have evolved.

After leaving QUBS, I worked at a number of smaller field stations, some in very remote and isolated areas.  In most of these places, skinny dipping was much less of a tradition – in fact, in a couple of them, it was actively discouraged.  That didn’t mean that no one did it, of course, but it certainly changed the nature of the activity.  The excitement became more about transgression than sexual tension: the thrill of doing something you were not supposed to.  For me, a consummate ‘good girl’, that thrill was very appealing.

Of course, it turns out that some of those places discourage skinny dipping because they are just not ideal for the activity – which has led, on occasion, to a couple of rather epic skinny dipping fails.  One summer night just after the end of my first field season, I found myself on a Lake Erie beach with a couple of friends.  Emboldened by my field experience – and the fact that the beach was deserted at midnight – I managed to talk both of them into trying skinny dipping (which was definitely not permitted in this park).

The decision made, we glanced cautiously around before stripping off our shorts, tops, bras, and underwear, then tore towards the lake as fast as we could.  We flung ourselves in, feeling the bite of the cold water against our calves.  We ran farther…and still the water lapped against our calves.  We ran farther still…and now the water felt almost warm, and yet still came up no farther than our calves.  We began to glance rather desperately at one another.

In my newborn enthusiasm for skinny dipping, I had forgotten the reason that so many parents liked to bring their children to this particular beach: the extremely shallow plateau that extended for several hundred yards away from the shore.  Now, several hundred yards might not feel like a long distance when you’re wearing a bathing suit under the afternoon sun; however, it feels a good deal longer when you’re running stark naked in the dead of night.

I think about that experience every few months, when another story surfaces about tourists getting arrested for shedding their clothing in various notable, scenic, and even spiritually important places, such as Machu Picchu and Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu.  These hapless tourists are inevitably accused of being disrespectful – and I always wonder whether you could say the same thing about my nude foray into Lake Erie.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of it is disrespect: flouting the rules and defying authority.  Certainly, I’ve already admitted that there’s considerable appeal in the transgressive thrill of skinny dipping.  But over the last few years, that thrill has become less and less important to me.

The thing is, skinny dipping is at its best when it’s not rushed or panicked or fraught with sexual tension.  On those occasions when you can calmly slip naked into a quiet lake in the dark, and relax in water that is almost as warm as the air…on those occasions, skinny dipping is an almost spiritual experience.  It becomes about freedom and connection with the world around you, and more than anything, it becomes about being comfortable with your body, who you are, and where you are.

Now when I think of skinny dipping, I don’t picture giggling friends and stolen glances, or a headlong rush to make it to the water before being caught.  Now, I imagine a calm, dark Canadian Shield lake, the warm water lapping softly against the rocks, the stars stretching endlessly above.  Now, all these years after my first skinny dipping experience, I understand that nightswimming does deserve a quiet night.