Recently, I was invited to speak as part of this year’s “Community Read,” a month-long series of events hosted by the non-profit group Geneva Reads. Each year, the goal is to bring the community together — both figuratively by reading a common book or exploring a specific genre of writing and literally, through a series of events during March. My presentation will focus on a recent trip to India where my wife and I visited a national park famous for its large tiger population. I will also share some tips on writing memoirs of personal adventures.

Since agreeing to present, I have spent much time thinking about what “adventure” means. It feels like we could all identify an adventure when involved in one, but I have found it harder to pin down a formal definition on paper. Everyone seems to agree that getting out of one’s comfort zone is a core element of a good adventure.

Last semester, I recruited two students for a short field study with me at the FLCC Muller Field Station. The plan was relatively simple: We would compare the results from four pairs of camera traps over the course of a month. Neither student had ever done work like this before and both told me I was pushing their comfort zones. I gave them two papers to read from other, similar research projects and tasked them with thinking about what data we would collect to compare the two different cameras.

If you are not familiar with camera traps, perhaps you know them by the names trail or game camera. These are the cameras a nature enthusiast, hunter or researcher straps to a tree or post and leaves in the field. The cameras are designed to detect heat and as a warmer object (like a bird or mammal) moves in front of the camera, one or more images or video are captured. There are many makes and models to choose from ranging from affordable to wishful thinking. Many researchers use cameras that cost around $500 each due to their high detection rates and durability over time. When a new camera came on the market for $29, I knew I had to conduct a side-by-side comparison.

I had more than one person say that a better comparison would have been two cameras of more similar price. Surely testing the cheapest camera on the market with one of the most expensive would produce predictable results. That is a valid point. The definitions of research and adventure both say that there needs to be an element of the unknown; a foregone conclusion would negate the reason for research and would disqualify an activity as an adventure. My standard response was to acknowledge that we absolutely expected the more expensive camera would perform better, but would the more expensive camera be worth the extra $470? Would it really be 17 times better as their prices would indicate?

We erected the cameras in pairs, one of each model. Each week, we moved them so we could test them under a variety of conditions (forest, field, trail, etc.) and at the end of the month we compiled our data. It turned out that the cheaper model did miss some animals, especially ones of gray squirrel size or smaller. And when it did capture a creature, a slow shutter meant the images were often blurred and harder to identify. The biggest difference was in durability. One cheap camera failed within a week and another failed after two.

Our adventure didn’t end there. Through a grant, I was able to take the students to Phoenix, Ariz. to present their work alongside community college students from dozens of institutions across the country. Many of the published definitions of adventure include words like “hazardous,” “risky” and “potential for physical danger.” Although we never really experienced that during our data collection, one of the students was certain this was a real possibility on her first air travel experience.

The event was a tremendous success and when it was time for my students to present their poster, alongside dozens of others, they carried themselves with poise and enthusiasm and forgot they were supposed to be terrified of public speaking. The next day, I drove them to the Phoenix airport for the flight home, while I continued south for a further adventure of my own. I had reserved a room for two nights in the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson. The goal was to photograph some new birds and mammals.

Searching for bobcats

Despite being only 30 miles north of the Mexican border, the days were cold (long underwear cold) due to the elevation and the high canyon walls that made direct sunlight a brief affair. The nights were colder still but nectar-feeding bats still came to the hummingbird feeders. Two days later, I was again down on the desert floor and had one more stop before my adventure ended. I was in search of bobcats and had information that they were regularly seen in a wetland near Tucson.

Sweetwater is a wetland that was created to help Tucson treat its wastewater and runoff. The open water attracts lots of wildlife and for several years a female bobcat has raised her kits there, paying little attention to the trail hikers. I traded winter wear for a T-shirt and baseball cap and eagerly began to search. After an hour, I met another man with a telephoto lens and we struck up a conversation. He, too, was looking for the bobcat family but with no luck. He was a Tucson resident and said a friend had seen them the previous afternoon. We wished each other well and I retreated to the rental car for my lunch.

I think I prefer “informed adventures” as I have come to call them. Rarely do we travel somewhere without a plan and a good amount of prior research. To me, this enhances the adventure. Bobcat was on my list of animals I had seen but not photographed, so I decided to focus on that goal. I posted a request for information on a mammal watching forum I follow and everyone agreed my best chance of seeing a bobcat in southern Arizona was here. This was preferable to me than just randomly searching, although there is a time and place for that kind of adventure, too.

I finished my cheese and cracker lunch and walked back to the trailhead prepared to scour the trails for the rest of the afternoon, before I had to catch my flight home. I literally stepped onto the trail and looked west to see a bobcat walking directly towards me! She was still more than 50 yards away, so I had plenty of time to move to the far side of the trail and ready my camera. Onward she came, hunting the vegetation along the water’s edge.

I was able to stay ahead of her and she paid no attention to the other hikers nearby. Suddenly, she heard something we did not. Her eyes stayed fixed as she crouched down in a hunting posture. She pounced into the vegetation faster than I could follow with my shutter and emerged with an Arizona cotton rat in her mouth. Heading up a side trail, I lost sight of her for a few agonizing moments but she emerged into a clearing. As she did, her two kits bounded out of the vegetation for their afternoon meal.

I thought of the man I met earlier and hoped he, too, had found the bobcat. When I lowered my camera, I saw he was standing beside me. As much as I was enjoying my solo adventure, it was a good feeling to share it with someone who seemed to appreciate it as much as I did. We spent the next 90 minutes shadowing the adult bobcat as she made several failed attempts to bring home more prey. For her and all wildlife, every day is an adventure where the stakes are high. That night, before nodding off in my not-so-spacious aisle seat, I updated my travel journal with the day’s events. Memoirs are best written fresh, while the sights, sounds and smells of adventure still hang in the air.

Van Niel, an environmental conservation professor at Finger Lakes Community College, lives in Seneca Falls and enjoys exploring wildlife around the world as well as in his own backyard. If you have comments or questions, Van Niel can be contacted at bears@flcc.edu.

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