Archive for May, 2014

  • Blog
  • May 31st, 2014

Making A Hit

By Joel M. Vance

Coolest story of the week!  A gang of scammers in Philadelphia has been arrested for insurance fraud.  Seems a body shop got customers to claim they hit a deer rather than another vehicle so they could collect a “no fault” settlement and avoid a hike in their insurance.

The gang stored dead deer and blood to make it convincing.  Highly illegal, but ingenious.  However, deer-vehicle collisions are common enough without simulating any.  If a driver drives enough miles he or she is almost certain to hit a deer or have a close encounter.  There’s a wonderful scene in the equally wonderful movie “The Straight Story” where a woman crumples the front end of her car on a deer in Iowa.  Cropfields line both sides of the highway, no cover whatever.  “Where do they come from?” says the tearful woman.  “That’s the second one this month.”

As any deer hunter knows, they seemingly come out of thin air.  And as most drivers know, where one leaps across the road in front of you, there will be at least one more and you’ll hit the trailer(s).  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, vehicle crashes cost $871 billion a year and deer collisions are a significant part of that.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, deer-vehicle collisions cause 200 deaths a year and $4 billion damages.  Even allowing for some shading, given the source, these encounters are no fun.  State Farm estimates 1.5 million collisions a year and $1.1 billion in damages (The average damage to a vehicle is $3,103).

The old days when a shade tree mechanic with a rubber mallet could pound out the dents in the family car for a few bucks are long gone.  Today’s vehicle is an assortment of high-priced components that threaten to send the driver to the poorhouse.  I suffered a slight dent in a front fender when an idiot kid swerved into my lane at an intersection.  It’s barely noticeable, but three estimates ranged from $900-$1,300 to repair it.

The cost of collision is not so much the fault of the deer as it is the modern economy, dominated by insurance companies and auto manufacturers as well as oil companies.  The modern vehicle costs at least 10 times what it would have a half-century ago and doesn’t run any better.  It gets moderately better mileage (and gas likewise costs at least 15 times as much as it did when I started driving).  As all those costs have risen, so has the cost of undoing damage.

While deer are the main culprit when it comes to turning the family auto into salvage yard material, other large wild animals are not immune.  If you think hitting a deer is daunting, think about centering a moose or a bison or an elk.  Once, returning home from a trip to Yellowstone, I rounded a corner in the middle of the night and nearly collided with a bull elk, bedded down on the asphalt which had been warmed by the previous day’s sun.  He grudgingly got up and moved off the road, seemingly ticked off that I’d chased him out of bed.  My father once centered a flushed ruffed grouse on a Wisconsin road and cracked his windshield.

Deer are most active during mating season which peaks in November.  Bucks are looking for girl friends and does are playing hard to get—often across highways and often at night.  Reflectors and other deer deterrent devices don’t mean a whole lot to a randy buck with love on his mind.  Deer are crepuscular to nocturnal (late evening, night and early morning) and daylight collisions are the exception, although I nearly terminated a doe in Wisconsin at mid-day when she leaped in front of my station wagon so close that I heard her hooves clicking on the pavement.  Hunting season also moves deer and those encounters would be most likely during shooting hours (daylight).

The only deer I ever hit already was dead.  Someone had just laid it to rest right in the middle of Highway 63 on a pitch black night.  I ran over it at 70 miles an hour, a horrendous thump, and spent a few days hosing guts and gore from the undercarriage of my car.  I was lucky to maintain control until I got stopped and equally lucky that the only damage was to the deer.

Sometimes the damage is exponential.  There are many stories of deer crashing through the wind screen, wreaking havoc not only on the exterior of the vehicle, but also the interior….and the people within.  I heard a story about a guy who hit a deer which limped off and collapsed.  Incensed at the outrage to his car, the guy wrestled the deer back to the vehicle and into the back seat, figuring that he was owed some venison at the very least.  Whereupon the dazed deer woke up and proceeded to kick the interior of the car to shreds.

Some lobby for the state to pay damages to damaged drivers, but that controversy is age-old and not likely to happen.  Some landowners argue that since wildlife uses their property  to exist and by law the state owns wildlife, the state should pay for damages by wildlife.  But studies show landowners generally approve of hunting as the most viable control on wildlife as opposed to payment.  And payment would quickly bankrupt and disrupt any conservation program.  So, insurance is the usual remedy for deer-vehicle damage and drivers nationwide are stuck in a “you pays your money and  you takes your chances” situation.

If you wonder, West Virginia is the state where you’re most likely to cream a deer (one chance in 42.  Missouri is well down the list in 17th place with a one in 134 chance, well behind such seemingly unlikely places as North and South Dakota, Virginia and Nebraska.  Iowa ranks second at one in 67 “Where do they come from?”

And, if it’s any consolation, Ollie Torgerson, retired Missouri Conservation Department chief of Wildlife and a deer biologist by training, once hit a deer and as I remember, it totaled his car.  No one is immune.

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  • Blog
  • May 21st, 2014

A History Lesson

By Joel M. Vance

Here’s a quick quiz: Who said: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Sounds like some anti-American hippie Commie?  Ought to string that sucker up from the nearest tree?  Take him out and horsewhip him?  Organize a Tea Party lynch mob and rid the country of this radical.

It was said in 1918 by Theodore Roosevelt, the most conservation and environmentally-oriented president we have had (in sharp contrast to today’s presidents who too often treat conservation with contempt.

The Little Georgie oil-dominated consortium was bad enough to rank as the worst environmental administration in history, but Obama is no prize either.  He is poised to approve the Keystone pipeline, an insult to the country.  Keystone is a 1,700 mile long pipeline that would originate in Alberta, Canada, and angle across the United States to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.  Some of the Southern leg of the pipeline is already built but so far  Obama has not authorized completion of the Keystone.  Since it would cross an international boundary it needs Obama’s okay.  The president has pledged to lessen the country’s dependence on fossil fuel, but he has been notoriously timid on doing much about it.

When I began writing “Save the Last Dance,” a book about prairie grouse, with wonderful outdoor photographer Noppadol Paothong, I knew the grassland birds had problems, but the more I learned the more depressed I got.  Oil and gas exploration and the associated landscape disruption, has wreaked havoc on the once plentiful game birds in every state where they occur.   New roads, job sites, heavy equipment, all would disrupt breeding, nesting and feeding areas of the birds.  Not just in the construction, but also in the pipeline’s operation.  Anyone who claims otherwise is living in the well-known fool’s paradise.

One that I have hunted, the lesser prairie chicken, now is listed as threatened.  Others—Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chickens and sage grouse– aren’t far behind.  The Attwater’s prairie chicken is a breath from elimination and its habitat is the Gulf Coast where the Keystone oil is slated to go.  It was brought to its present near-extinction status largely by oil drilling along the Coast decades ago.  Add to that the present explosion of gas well drilling and “fracking” which has its own set of environmental problems and you have an energy crisis of a different sort—an environmental one.

At present there is a ban on exporting crude oil but none on oil refined to gasoline or diesel—some three million barrels a day leaves the U.S.  Economists call for an end to the ban but admit that it likely would increase fracking and increase the risk of water table contamination and other pollution.  One has to wonder who would benefit from a Keystone pipeline other than the oil industry.  At least this one wonders.

If you think pipelines are immune from problems, Google “pipeline breaks” to see just how common such disruptions are.  For a good discussion of both sides of Keystone, read a Washing ton Post story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/keystone-xl-pipeline-may-threaten-aquifer-that-irrigates-much-of-the-central-us/2012/08/06/7bf0215c-d4db-11e1-a9e3-c5249ea531ca_story.html.

The portion of the Keystone already complete has had 14 leaks from a little to 400 gallons.  Aside from above-ground contamination, Keystone would traverse some of the Ogallala aquifer and cross the Platte River.  Another Canadian pipeline. Enbridge, two years ago blew a pipeline and dumped at least 20,000 barrels into Talmadge Creek, polluting more than 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan.  Bitumen sank to the riverbed, and high levels of benzene in the pipeline mixture resulted in a temporary area evacuation.

You judge people by their actions and so far Obama has been as remote from Teddy Roosevelt as any of his lackluster predecessors.  Still, most environmental atrocities originate at the Republican right wing doorstep.  Their consistent actions in natural resource conservation are abysmal.

It is so abysmal that within the Republican Party itself there was a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection which, tellingly, doesn’t exist anymore.  Perhaps they sold out to the Tea Party or simply got scared off.  They held promise by not agreeing  with the direction the Republicans had taken over decades, beginning with the infamous James Watt, whose protégé, Gale Norton, later became the Interior Secretary.

We saw the most concentrated assault on environmental legislation since most of it was passed in the 1960s.  Virtually every advance in a cleaner, more agreeable environment was challenged and most still are threatened, especially by the right wing House of Representatives, surely the most egregious congregation of unindicted criminals since the heyday of the Cosa Nostra.  Resource agencies have been intimidated into taking positions that are at odds with their stated mission.  Almost no day goes by without another outrage and for someone who has spent the major part of his life fighting for protection and preservation of unique natural resources, this shock-and-awe attack is pretty disheartening.

In 1995 a Republican pollster, Linda DiVall, found that more than half the Republican voters she polled didn’t think the Republican Party could protect the environment…and anyone who thinks it has gotten better since the last election can check with me about a real bridge bargain in Brooklyn.

Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican, by the way. He founded the National Wildlife Refuge system by executive order 100 years ago.  Today the Refuge system is unique in the world.  Much of the cost of operation is by waterfowl stamps, bought by hunters.  Today there are 542 NWLRs in 50 states and five territories, totaling about 95 million acres.

Gail Norton proposed to turn over management of the National Bison Range to indigenous Indian tribes and Norton herself has written that private landowners know best how to manage wildlife resources and land.  If those weren’t the opening shots of a privatization policy on public lands, then I can’t read between the lines.  These are the same folks who have lobbied for dams in the Grand Canyon and other environmental insults.

Although hunters are the mainstay of the NWLRs (and it is duck stamp money that created and helps sustain most of them), some two-thirds of an estimated 35 million visitors are “non-consumptive,” meaning they aren’t hunting or fishing (hunting is only five percent of Refuge use).

Some 20 conservation groups, ranging from the National Rifle Association to Defenders of Wildlife, once banded to ask for a $100 million increase in Refuge funding.  That’s twice as much as the administration was asking, but even if the funding was increased to $700 million annually (double the present amount) it would have only brought maintenance and staffing to minimal levels.

The Refuges are not just places for critters to rest easy.  One Texas Refuge did a study that showed 48,000 birdwatchers annually pumped $5.6 million into the local economy.  If any administration, including Obama’s, wants to jump start the economy, one small way would be to put more money into National Wildlife Refuges, not less.

The Refuges have been underfunded for years.  About a third don’t even have a resident staff.  There’s oil and gas drilling on 45 Refuges, including the Kenai in Alaska which has suffered some 350 spills, explosions and fires since drilling started there ‘way back in the 1950s.

The right wing is grimly committed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even more fragile than the Kenai.  It would be difficult to undo the damage of a half-century in the Kenai, but not difficult at all to avoid damage in the Arctic.  Just don’t drill.  And Keystone looms like an environmental wall cloud.

We were given a great legacy by a great conservation president, along with some great words of wisdom.  Let’s not let partisan politics obscure what is happening to the outdoors that we profess to love.

-30-

 

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  • Blog
  • May 15th, 2014

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT

 

By Joel M. Vance

Like all kids of my generation, I spent Saturdays at the local movie theater trying not to wet my britches as various ghostly apparitions loomed over me on the silver screen.

Were there real ghosts?  You betcha!  They lurked in the closet or in the basement and no one my age would dare go near a graveyard after dark.  It was different by high school—the local graveyard was a favored place for parking with one’s sweetheart.  It was quiet there and the only spirits were those in a half pint of Four Roses, acquired from a 16-year-old kid who looked to be 40 and had a fake ID.

I quit believing in ghosts except, but then there were those batteries that went dead.

That happened during a “psychic investigation” in a huge old antebellum mansion, abandoned and nearly gone to ruin.  Over the decades one inhabitant had committed suicide in an upstairs bedroom.  The place went through the trauma of the Civil War.  There was reputed to be a slave burial ground near the house.  Everything reeked of the supernatural.  The dank, cavernous cellar was spooky enough to frighten Stephen King, even in the daytime, let alone at night.

If ever a place deserved to be haunted it was this one.  So my wife Marty and I joined a pair of self-proclaimed psychics and another woman to spend as much of the night there as we could stand.

There was no electricity or heat and it was November, which meant it was cold and dark both inside and outside.  Any of the famed “cold spots” that supposedly signal the presence of spirits would have been masked by the overall chill.

The psychics, who were about as strange as the phenomena they were pursuing, claimed to sense all sorts of ghostly presences.  I felt cold, but nothing else.  Oh, yes, bored too.  The psychics took many digital photos which showed “orbs.”

Orbs are little balls of light that appear on film or a digital image and could be (and probably are) dust motes or flying insects or camera light leaks—all earthly phenomena, nothing supernatural or paranormal.

The only oddity was that one or two orbs remained in one spot, at a landing on the curved staircase.  Dust floats and it was too cold for bugs.  “I get the sensation there’s a little boy sitting there,” said one of the psychics.  I got the sensation my toes were about to turn blue and fall off.

I had brought along two Marantz professional quality tape recorders, equipped with batteries fresh out of the package.  They should have been good for several hours of recording “electronic voice phenomena,” those whispers from the Other Side that we don’t normally hear.  I set one on an upstairs landing, near the bedroom where the suicide happened; the other halfway down the stairs.  When I checked them an hour or so after I turned them on…they were dead, batteries drained.

According to the folks on the popular SyFy channel’s “Ghost Hunters” show, “entities” can drain energy from sources such as batteries to gain strength to manifest themselves, open or close doors, knock, rattle chains, whatever.

None of that happened—I just had dead batteries with no explanation.  As much as I wanted to believe the resident spooks had stolen my juice, I couldn’t lay it to anything other than coincidence, cold weather, defective batteries or sheer bad luck.

The little boy orb?  I’d have been more convinced if I’d seen a diaphanous little kid sitting on the stairs giving me a ghostly grin.  The psychics were thrilled by all the activity which I didn’t share.  I was haunted only by a vicious cold that I caught in the dank mansion.

Maybe I’m ghost-immune.  Many friends have had paranormal experiences.  For example a fellow instructor at a writing workshop in Vermont said she stayed in one of the college dorms alone one night and was visited by a benign ghost.  “There was a feeling of peace,” she said.  She also ran two white noise machines to get to sleep.

I stayed by myself in the same dorm, perhaps the same room, a couple of times and was visited by nothing, not even a mouse.  But a niece, in another college dorm room, felt an invisible presence holding her down for a terrifying few moments.  Dorm rooms seem to attract either spirits or stories about them.  Perhaps I’m just not tuned into the specters of academia.  The only presence I ever felt in my college dorm room was the astral projection of the housemother, looking for forbidden beer—but maybe that was my imagination.

Some time back my wife and I stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the Mother of All Haunted Houses.  Or so horror writer Stephen King would have you believe.  The Stanley was where he conceived the idea for “The Shining,” his story of a haunted resort hotel.

And now the Stanley, once on the brink of bankruptcy, is thriving on its ghost reputation.  The “Ghost Hunters” have been there several times, each time turning up unexplainable paranormal incidents—doors that open and close by themselves, voices from the other side or whatever.  A competing show, “Ghost Adventures,” was filming while we were there.

So I expected that if ever I was going to encounter a spook it would be at the Stanley.  Our grandson Nickolas had been a ghost tour guide at the Stanley for several months and gave us the $15 tour for free.  We hit all the hot spots and there are many.

Room 417 was where Ghost Hunter Jason Hawes filmed a closet door opening and closing with no one in the room but him.  I willed the door to open but it remained resolutely shut.  So I went in the closet and shut the door behind me.  “Come on, ghosts, do your thing!” I challenged.

The only presence I felt was a musty odor from a ratty old bathrobe hanging there.  After a couple of minutes I opened the door without any spectral help and we went looking for another paranormal whirlpool.

Allegedly the fourth floor hallway is rife with child ghosts running back and forth, giggling and acting like real kids.  People even leave candy for them on the back of an old couch midway down the hall.  We sat on the couch and I was tempted by a Tootsie Roll left for Casper or whoever, but decided I didn’t want to risk the wrath of wraiths..

Nick claimed to feel a cold spot in front of the couch and a digital photograph showed an orb which either was a very round child ghost or dust.  Orbs are supposed to be psychic energy floating around like detached lightbulbs and cold spots allegedly are entities drawing energy from you.

The most prominent orb of the entire trip was directly over our other grandson’s head at The Rock, a local bar/restaurant which mostly is haunted by thirsty tourists.

It’s not that I lack the imagination to believe in ghosts.  Not long ago Turner Classic Movies showed “The Uninvited” with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, a spooky 1940s ghost movie set on the foggy English moors.  It had scared me to the brink of enuresis when I was 10 and as an aging skeptic, alone in my basement, I felt the hair rise on my neck and I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.

Maybe I’m with ghosts like poet Gillette Burgess was with purple cows: “I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one….”  Ditto ghosts for Joel Vance.

-30-

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  • May 3rd, 2014

It’s In The Bag

IT’S IN THE BAG
By Joel M. Vance

Somewhere in time a bedroll became a sleeping bag.  No longer the lone cowboy huddled in a thin blanket under a prairie moon (or, more likely, a sleeting prairie rain).
Someone had the idea of sewing the sides and bottom together to make a closed sack and the sleeping bag was born.
But it sure took a long time.  The romantic cowboy of the 1870s didn’t have it.  His best friend was his bedroll, sketchy as it was.  It contained everything he owned.  his quilt unrolled to reveal letters, reading material, makin’s for smokes, clothing (both clean and dirty) and other items.  Everything was wrapped in a large tarp.
Cowboy/writer Will James said the whole thing could weigh 150 pounds and while there is undeniable romance in this home-in-a- blanket, it was Godawful uncomfortable, not waterproof, and bulky.
There were few improvements in the cowhand’s bedroll of 1886 and my Boy Scout bedroll of 1946. In 1897, the Sierra Club published a how-to by Howard Longley which described construction of a “sleeping sack,” a double- blanket, lined with two flannel sheets, folded on itself and sewed to create a bag. My tattered 1946 Boy Scout Manual speaks of a sleeping bag, but it is a home-constructed sack identical to the 1897 Sierra Club model.
This was a double bag and, according to Longley, “the advantages of a double bed over two singles ones are that you have the warmth of the other body…”
But roomy bags also radiate out much body heat, which led to the creation of the mummy bag that hugs the sleeper, conserving his body heat cocoon-like.  That also appears to be a Sierra Club invention.  A fellow named Bestor Robinson invented the mummy-style sleeping bag in 1935 when he and Richard Leonard trekked to Mt. Waddington in the Coast Range of British Columbia.
The science of sleeping bag design and rating is arcane: it matters whether you’re a man or woman, chauvinism aside, for women tend to sleep colder than men and thus need a warmer bag for a given temperature.  And it matters whether your bosky bunking parties are in a warm clime or on the exposed north face of the Eiger.

My first good-quality sleeping bag was stuffed with goose down.  The fabric was soft Egyptian cotton.  It cost about $60 in the early 1960s; today that bag would retail for well over $200, though cotton bags today are scarce if not unavailable.  The ultimate fabric today is Gore-Tex which will not allow moisture in, yet will let body moisture out.
I also bought several duck down bags in the 1960s for $50 each.  By then, high quality duck down actually rated as good or better than most goose down because prime northern goose down had become scarce and prohibitively expensive.
Logically, the best goose down comes from cold climate geese (and it also comes from older geese–but they are the smarter ones who don’t fall easily to the blandishments of hunters).
Down bags are an extension of Grandma’s feather bed with its down comforter, but down may not be the best choice.  Down is impervious to moisture on a waterfowl, but it isn’t in a bag.  Wet down stays wet longer than you could survive waiting for it to dry.  The first sleeping bags were lined with cotton batting which is next to worthless for warmth and durability.  Today only the cheapest bunking party bags have cotton batting.
Kapok came next.  It’s a silk-like natural fiber, but use breaks the fibers and the bags don’t last long.     Norwegians once sold sleeping bags made from reindeer hides and fur sleepgear was widely used by northern Indians.  Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guides used sleeping bags on one of their Himalayan expeditions, but he reported the Sherpa porters “had slept on ice, a blanket of yak hair beneath them and a canvas awning above, without any sign of discomfort.”
Today’s choice is between down and polyester and evidence favors polyester, but it’s a judgment call.  Down is about a third warmer than polyester for a given weight.  On the other hand, wet down loses nearly all its insulating quality, while polyester retains three-fourths of its warming ability even when wet and dries much more quickly than down.
There are four major types of construction: sewn through, in which the compartments are quilted together (leaving cold seams; box; slanted tube or box; and overlapping tube or box (the most expensive construction).  The inside liner of the bag is either ripstop or taffeta nylon.

Besides the bag, you need protection from ground cold and moisture.  A ground cloth keeps moisture out and an air mattress or foam pad provides insulation and comfort.  Some campers use a cot which has to be the longest- lived instrument of torture this side of thumbscrews.  Not only are most cots too narrow for the average middle-age spread, they also are prone to pinch the unwary assembler and they allow cold air to circulate beneath the sleeper, insuring a miserable night’s sleep at any temperature below about 50 degrees.
My experiences with Army sleepwear have been unpleasant.  When I was a National Guardsman, each trooper got two blankets and half of a pup tent.  It encouraged sharing, for in order to complete a tent, you had to find someone with the other half and button or snap them together.
Everything I know about sleeping in the outdoors, I learned the hard way.  After a few years of Army bedroll-style sleeping, I bought an Army surplus mummy-style sleeping bag.  It was stuffed with chicken feathers and was faintly redolent of the barnyard that gave it birth.  I would be deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to be comfortable in a mummy bag.  That same person likely would be equally at home in a strait-jacket.
Today’s Army even has guidelines for sleeping bag loft, but the chances are you’d be extremely uncomfortable with the minimums recommended and if a night wind rose, the wind chill would be dreadful.  A tent is a barrier to wind and also holds a bit of body heat.  A tent adds an estimated 10 degrees of comfort.
Experienced campers bring their clothing into the bag with them (another reason for a “barrel” shape, rather than mummy) so they’ll be warm in the morning.  I also have invited a warm dog in and find the Brittany spaniel a perfect balance of size and warmth.  They have a fiery metabolism and tuck well between armpit and thigh.  There’s a little bit of the kid left in all of us and, in my case, you’ll find the kid lumped in a down sleeping bag, no doubt reading Jack London….
-30-

 

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  • Blog
  • May 2nd, 2014

It’s In The Bag

Joel M. Vance
8026 Cedar Grove Lane
Russellville MO 65074
Tel. 573-782-3875
email: jvance@socket.net
IT’S IN THE BAG
By Joel M. Vance

Somewhere in time a bedroll became a sleeping bag. No longer the lone cowboy huddled in a thin blanket under a prairie moon (or, more likely, a sleeting prairie rain).
Someone had the idea of sewing the sides and bottom together to make a closed sack and the sleeping bag was born.
But it sure took a long time. The romantic cowboy of the 1870s didn’t have it. His best friend was his bedroll, sketchy as it was. It contained everything he owned. his quilt unrolled to reveal letters, reading material, makin’s for smokes, clothing (both clean and dirty) and other items. Everything was wrapped in a large tarp.
Cowboy/writer Will James said the whole thing could weigh 150 pounds and while there is undeniable romance in this home-in-a- blanket, it was Godawful uncomfortable, not waterproof, and bulky.
There were few improvements in the cowhand’s bedroll of 1886 and my Boy Scout bedroll of 1946. In 1897, the Sierra Club published a how-to by Howard Longley which described construction of a “sleeping sack,” a double- blanket, lined with two flannel sheets, folded on itself and sewed to create a bag. My tattered 1946 Boy Scout Manual speaks of a sleeping bag, but it is a home-constructed sack identical to the 1897 Sierra Club model.
This was a double bag and, according to Longley, “the advantages of a double bed over two singles ones are that you have the warmth of the other body…”
But roomy bags also radiate out much body heat, which led to the creation of the mummy bag that hugs the sleeper, conserving his body heat cocoon-like. That also appears to be a Sierra Club invention. A fellow named Bestor Robinson invented the mummy-style sleeping bag in 1935 when he and Richard Leonard trekked to Mt. Waddington in the Coast Range of British Columbia.
The science of sleeping bag design and rating is arcane: it matters whether you’re a man or woman, chauvinism aside, for women tend to sleep colder than men and thus need a warmer bag for a given temperature. And it matters whether your bosky bunking parties are in a warm clime or on the exposed north face of the Eiger.
My first good-quality sleeping bag was stuffed with goose down. The fabric was soft Egyptian cotton. It cost about $60 in the early 1960s; today that bag would retail for well over $200, though cotton bags today are scarce if not unavailable. The ultimate fabric today is Gore-Tex which will not allow moisture in, yet will let body moisture out.
I also bought several duck down bags in the 1960s for $50 each. By then, high quality duck down actually rated as good or better than most goose down because prime northern goose down had become scarce and prohibitively expensive.
Logically, the best goose down comes from cold climate geese (and it also comes from older geese–but they are the smarter ones who don’t fall easily to the blandishments of hunters).
Down bags are an extension of Grandma’s feather bed with its down comforter, but down may not be the best choice. Down is impervious to moisture on a waterfowl, but it isn’t in a bag. Wet down stays wet longer than you could survive waiting for it to dry. The first sleeping bags were lined with cotton batting which is next to worthless for warmth and durability. Today only the cheapest bunking party bags have cotton batting.
Kapok came next. It’s a silk-like natural fiber, but use breaks the fibers and the bags don’t last long. Norwegians once sold sleeping bags made from reindeer hides and fur sleepgear was widely used by northern Indians. Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guides used sleeping bags on one of their Himalayan expeditions, but he reported the Sherpa porters “had slept on ice, a blanket of yak hair beneath them and a canvas awning above, without any sign of discomfort.”
Today’s choice is between down and polyester and evidence favors polyester, but it’s a judgment call. Down is about a third warmer than polyester for a given weight. On the other hand, wet down loses nearly all its insulating quality, while polyester retains three-fourths of its warming ability even when wet and dries much more quickly than down.
There are four major types of construction: sewn through, in which the compartments are quilted together (leaving cold seams; box; slanted tube or box; and overlapping tube or box (the most expensive construction). The inside liner of the bag is either ripstop or taffeta nylon. Besides the bag, you need protection from ground cold and moisture. A ground cloth keeps moisture out and an air mattress or foam pad provides insulation and comfort. Some campers use a cot which has to be the longest- lived instrument of torture this side of thumbscrews. Not only are most cots too narrow for the average middle-age spread, they also are prone to pinch the unwary assembler and they allow cold air to circulate beneath the sleeper, insuring a miserable night’s sleep at any temperature below about 50 degrees.
My experiences with Army sleepwear have been unpleasant. When I was a National Guardsman, each trooper got two blankets and half of a pup tent. It encouraged sharing, for in order to complete a tent, you had to find someone with the other half and button or snap them together.
Everything I know about sleeping in the outdoors, I learned the hard way. After a few years of Army bedroll-style sleeping, I bought an Army surplus mummy-style sleeping bag. It was stuffed with chicken feathers and was faintly redolent of the barnyard that gave it birth. I would be deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to be comfortable in a mummy bag. That same person likely would be equally at home in a strait-jacket.
Today’s Army even has guidelines for sleeping bag loft, but the chances are you’d be extremely uncomfortable with the minimums recommended and if a night wind rose, the wind chill would be dreadful. A tent is a barrier to wind and also holds a bit of body heat. A tent adds an estimated 10 degrees of comfort.
Experienced campers bring their clothing into the bag with them (another reason for a “barrel” shape, rather than mummy) so they’ll be warm in the morning. I also have invited a warm dog in and find the Brittany spaniel a perfect balance of size and warmth. They have a fiery metabolism and tuck well between armpit and thigh. There’s a little bit of the kid left in all of us and, in my case, you’ll find the kid lumped in a down sleeping bag, no doubt reading Jack London….
-30-

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