Monthly Archives: June 2016

Dragonfly Morning



Dragonfly eating a yellow jacket. (C) Bob Armstrong


The low morning sun breaks just over the distant trees. A direct sunbeam reaches the clearing below at the water’s edge. The air buzzes with creatures aflight, fresh sunshine glinting off lacy wings. I amble around the serene morning landscape. It is late spring. It is the morning of the dragonfly.

Days ago I watched these creatures emerge from the depths. Standing ankle-deep in a shallow stream, I crouched over a sunny rock. A nymphal dragonfly, mottled and brown to blend in with streambed gravels, crawled out of its watery home to the land above the surface. Stocky and strong, the size of a quarter, the nymph is the tank of the littoral zone. For months—even for years—the dragonfly nymph has patrolled the waters of its home. A voracious predator, it will seize any prey nearby into its strong maxillae. Powerfully the nymph shoots through the running stream with a water jet through its anus. Bloodworms are common prey, mosquito larvae too. Even tadpoles and minnows cannot escape the appetite of the mighty dragonfly nymph.

As of yet the nymph has known nothing of the land above the surface. Water has been its domain since it was an egg. Yet the dragonfly nymph is drawn by the biological imperative to crawl beyond. Out of the deep they will come, en masse in spring, then steadily during the summer. Squatting down, I watch the next generation of dragonflies emerge from the deep. Sunlight glints off the nymph’s still wet body; in a matter of minutes it will dry off completely. Pausing on a flat rock, the nymph looks dead and desiccated. Still, the nymph is fully alive; it soon reanimates, crawling onward towards its destination of the high brush.

Having completed its arduous landward journey, the dragonfly nymph clutches an emergent piece of grass. From here the nymphal stage has moved its last. The exoskeleton dries out even more. The nymph has died to the watery world, becoming nothing more than a mere mummified remnant. But inside the journey continues. Slowly, a weak suture line opens up along the back of the neck. The alien within the husk starts emerging. First the back bows out. Then the head pulls free. The creature arches its back, pulling out its legs one by one. One more arch of the thorax and the creature’s long abdomen is pulled from the husk of the nymph. Bright green and soft, the newly emerged dragonfly is exposed and vulnerable. Resting on top of its former exoskeleton, the dragonfly slowly hardens. The maverick of the air expands its wings for the first time in anticipation of flight. Hours later, the dragonfly is ready. It now joins the aerial display of other dragonflies humming above the disused nymphal exoskeletons still clinging to the bulrushes.

This morning I stand in amazement at the show before me. Hundreds of adult dragonflies going about dragonfly business. It is a harried, frenetic existence they live. The life in the air lasts but a few weeks, and much must be accomplished. Territory must be defended. Meals must be had. Mates must be found. Dragonfly business fills the morning stillness with an audible buzz. As in the water they are in the air—apex predators of the insect world. With voracious appetites they consume up to one-fifth their body mass in insects per day. Agile acrobats of the air, flying effortlessly in six directions—left, right, forward, backward, up, down. No insect prey stands a chance. The dragonfly’s keen compound eyes detect a world open to predation. Jerking forth in mid-air, the dragonfly snatches a housefly. It is time for a meal.

I crouch down to where the dragonfly has just landed on a narrow branch. It doesn’t seem to notice its inquisitive observer. Instead it’s just busy consuming its meal. The hapless fly is clasped in the dragonfly’s maxillae, its mandibles pull off the wings. The dragonfly then uses its rugged labrum to grind down the housefly into small pieces. Rotating the housefly around with its mandibles, the dragonfly’s meal resembles an apple being eaten. Minutes later, all evidence of the housefly’s existence is vanished—it has been integrated into the pulsating body of the dragonfly.

With a sudden jerk, the dragonfly launches itself in the air. It starts off as quickly as it had stopped. The dragonfly rejoins the hovering mass in the morning light, searching for its next meal. I watch in fascination; I can’t go on just yet. Though the dragonflies share in my presence, they remain indifferent. The spring generation has reached maturity and have bigger issues on their minds. Soon they will mate and lay their eggs back along the water’s edge where days ago they emerged. The spring influx of dragonflies will then dwindle. The aerial beasts will die and disappear. But the eggs have been laid and the mission completed. A year from now there will be more dragonfly mornings to come.


Do You Smell?



Do you smell?

The aromas of life surround you. Do you smell them?

What is it about an odor that can take us back, transport us somewhere different? A subliminal scent registers deep in the brain, evoking connotations of time and place. Do you remember those smells?

The pungent acridity of freshly cut grass and the distant earthy wafts of freshly spread manure arouse memories of a childhood spent in a suburban town encroaching into the countryside. My nose fondles the familiar scents as precious childhood souvenirs.

Wherever I am, the scent of a warm spring rain causes me to linger. That smell—that particular scent—is the essence of my aromatic association with home. The warm humidity of spring rains coat my nostrils, embracing them in a comfortable caress. The very sensation of humid air is far removed from the arid climes where I’ve spent the last three years. Nostalgia overtakes me whenever that sensation of the rain presents itself.

I was always told that the smell of spring rain comes from the worms. But the scent of worms alone could never do justice to the depth of the aroma. The scent is fundamentally deeper than that, nothing less than Petrichor—from the Greek words petra for rock and ichor for the blood of the gods. The fragrance of earth pours forth from the bedrock. The scent of spring rain is none less than the blood of the gods flowing through the ground.

The earth comes alive during spring rains. Soil microbes thrive in the warm, damp soils of spring, producing geosmin, the scent of the earth itself. Again a Greek construction, geosmin combines the words for the earth and the word for smell. Over winter the earth’s biotic community slackens its pace of life. Metabolic excrement accumulates in the soils, waiting to be flung into the air upon impact by rain. Spring rains re-awaken the soil microbes from winter dormancy, releasing even more of the distinctive geosmin fragrance. This is the smell of life emerging once again from the slumber of winter. Do you smell the very scent of life stirring?

I’m in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area right now. I’ve never been to this place before, but the scent brings me somewhere familiar. Is it the smell of the northwoods forests? Pine, spruce, fir, birch and aspen, all mixing their pheromones together in a melody of fragrance. Spring fecundity spreads through the air. Prolonged exposure to the scent of these northern forests registers deep in my mind. Yes, I have been here before. Not the Boundary Waters specifically, but to this place in general. The scent here is as much about where I am physically as about where I’ve been emotionally before. I ruminate with the old familiar smells. Comforting, inherently wild but familiar enough to feel homey and lived-in. Yes, I have smelled that before; yes, I have been here before.

The aromas of life surround you. Do you smell them?

Saving Lives and Taking Names



The classroom is lined with bruised and bloodied students, oblivious of their apparent injuries, all sitting at attention ready to learn. Though the injuries may look severe or concerning (especially the occasional impaled object), everything here is purely superficial, the product of realistic special-effects make-up used in class scenarios.  Although each student is cured of their ails at the end of each scenario, the special effects make-up stays on long afterwards, a constant reminder to the students about the nature of their studies.

This classroom scene is from a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. The WFR (verbalized as ‘Woofer’) students are here to learn the fundamentals of wilderness medicine. Over an intensive eight-day schedule, students go from learning about the critical systems of the human body to applying such knowledge in realistic scenarios of wilderness medical emergencies. The aim of the WFR course is to teach any interested person enough to be able to safely assess and evaluate any emergency situation and provide basic life support to each patient when in a wilderness setting—that is, when definitive medical care is at least two hours away. Medicine in the wilderness context is made more challenging by the lack of medical supplies and a setting that is often hostile to medical emergencies and the rescuers. Thus, WFR students are taught a holistic program of extended patient comfort and care in the wilderness and are encouraged to improvise tools from outdoor gear when medical devices are scarce.

A WFR course attracts an affable and often young group of similar-minded outdoor enthusiasts. Such personalities come with the terrain. Many enrolled in the course are burgeoning outdoor professionals—guides or instructors—but some also take the course for personal development. All share the general desire to help others in emergency situations in the wilderness. With a common interest in the outdoors and backcountry medicine, and with so much class-time spent together, a class group dynamic forms with its unique bond. Being comfortable with the other students in the course is essential too; as a very hands-on classroom setting, WFR students get close and personal in the process of learning: performing spinal palpations, simulating rescue breathing, backboarding, and much more. Having a WFR course taught at a roadless camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area also doesn’t hurt the sense of group formation. Classroom time is shared, but so are meals, lodging, and recreation time in this residential setting. The aura is one continually steeped in the learnings of backcountry medicine.

The WFR curriculum carries no pre-requisites. Class instruction takes the student from the ground-up and quickly builds upon newly acquired knowledge. Starting with the basics, students learn about the three critical life systems of the respiratory, circulatory, and neurologic systems in the patient primary assessment. A deficit in any of these three critical systems could entail death to the patient within minutes. Simple, early scenarios in the course cement the concepts of checking each patient for these critical systems to safeguard each life in immediate danger.

Once WFR students master the basics, they soon learn more about advanced topics—a wide variety of serious and not-so-serious medical conditions. Patients with intact critical systems get a thorough secondary assessment in the field that can uncover many other challenging problems. Discoveries made on the secondary patient assessment will lead to the decision of an urgent evacuation, non-urgent evacuation, or field treatment of the patient. A traumatically injured patient may soon go into shock and need to be evacuated immediately, whereas some simple joint dislocations can be reduced in the field allowing a trip to continue. All problems, from critical to superficial, become the territory of the well-trained WFR.

The apex of practical training in the WFR course comes towards the end, when students put their new skills and knowledge into practice in realistic full-scale simulations of medical emergencies. This is where the special-effects make-up really comes into play. The course instructor will set up a medical scenario in the woods—be it a storm during a canoe trip or a mass rock climbing fall—and use some students as patients. Student-patients get a list of injuries to act out in a scene; fake bruises and blood add to the realism. Other students in the course then serve as rescuers in the scenario, approaching student-patients with little prior knowledge of the scene. Using their newly acquired knowledge, student-rescuers need to perform patient assessments and treat injuries in the field as if it were a real emergency. Even after only eight days of training, the student-rescuers perform their job with a high degree of skill and knowledge. Mistakes are still made in these simulations, but class debriefings help both patients and rescuers understand what went well and what could be improved. Afterwards, student-patients and student-rescuers switch roles to practice additional medical scenarios. One can learn just as much about wilderness medicine by being a patient as by being a rescuer.

Certified WFRs are everywhere. We look just like any ordinary person. You may see us in a city or encounter us in the great outdoors. When the situation arises, we are trained and prepared for the emergency. And we may just be the ones who can save a life.