The Things We Saw: Camping For Critters

Our son’s Boy Scout troop went on a weekend campout in the Cossatot River region, and in a show of solidarity, my wife and I decided to tag along. I’d never heard of this state park before, or the Cossatot, but having been there, I urge anyone who finds themselves in in western Arkansas to visit.

But the point of this article is not to ooh and aah over the beauty of the Cossatot or the amazing park staff at the Visitors’ Center, but rather, to talk about the encounters we had with the local wildlife. Because you can bet that The Natural State earned its reputation, and then some, on this trip.

So here in no particular order are the beasts we experienced there.


Other than the two taxidermied animals on display at the Cossatot River State Park Visitor Center, we never laid eyes on an actual coyote. But we certainly heard them off in the distance! Never during the day, mind you. Only at night, or early in the morning, when we weary campers were busy trying to get our beauty rest. The howling was shrill and seemingly endless. During an impromptu astronomy lesson in the middle of the night, the boys heard the howls and thought it was people pranking us. “Actually,” I said, “I believe those are coyotes”. Coyotes?!? Half the boys nope nope noped their way back to camp immediately.

As menacing as coyotes look and sound, they typically don’t pose a direct threat to humans… though you’d do well to keep an eye on your outdoor pets.


Female wolf spider with young. Northshore Trail, Flower Mound, Texas, USA. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

They grow our favorite eight-legged freaks big in the Cossatot region. Wolf spiders, correctly identified by one particularly sharp Scout, were common around our campsite and the cabin around which we had gathered. One of the boys spotted a female carrying her young, as in the photo above. Another wolf spider decided to “help” us strike a tent on our departure day. As fearsome as the wolf spider may appear, you have to work pretty hard to provoke it into biting you — and no known fatalities from its venom have been recorded.

Image courtesy: BBC

As we were gathering our belongings and getting ready to hit the road, one scout noticed a black widow crawling onto his backpack. A black widow won’t bite unless you are giving her a really good reason, but the venom of the female black widow spider is highly toxic, plus she was acting pretty agitated as we tried to urge her from the crevasses of the (understandably freaked out) scout. It’s hard not to shudder, thinking that there we were, camped out on the ground with these things surrounding us! Are you ready for the outdoors now?

Yeah, the creepy-crawly factor was strong with the Cossatot region, and the spiders were actually the least of our worries. Which brings us to…

Giant Red Headed Centipede

Image courtesy: Missouri Department of Conservation

One part of the Scout trip was a service project that involved cleaning up the nature trail near the impressive Cossatot River Bridge. I was with another scout, a bit off the trail from the rest of the group, when I spotted a critter just like the one pictured above slithering our way. I cautioned the boy to keep his distance and called out to our guide what I had found. “Everybody get back!” she cautioned. Using her trash picker, she was able to grab it and show it to our group. “If you see one of these, stay away!” This critter’s venom can cause moderate to severe reactions in people, ranging from nausea to heart attack, and were apparently quite the nuisance to camping soldiers in the Civil War.

While she didn’t know its official name at the time, a Google search revealed that this is known as the giant red-headed centipede. Seems fitting enough!

Northern Water Snake

During the troop’s river snorkeling adventure (which uncovered a whole other level of cool invertebrates including crawfish and water pennies), we encountered a Northern Water Snake squiggling through the water, stopping occasionally to poke its head up out of the water to breathe. This species is small and nonvenomous, though at first (as I declare in the video) it sure appeared to have the markings of a copperhead snake. Of course, we had nothing to fear from this fellow, who was probably looking for a place to get some sun without being bothered.

Okay… are we ready for the critters to get less unpleasant? Let’s move on, then!

Walking Stick Bugs

Image courtesy: National Geographic Kids

Not so easy to spot this fellow! A master of camouflage, the walking stick (in the order of phasmids) can completely disappear almost anywhere on a tree or branch. The five-legged one we found crawling into the troop’s garbage can, however? Not so much. With a little patience, we were able to rescue the critter and set it free to live the rest of its days, but not before gathering around to check it out and reflect on how cool it was. My son also found a deceased walking stick bug around the campsite, and insisted on giving it a proper cremation at the campfire later that night. So, that happened.


Image courtesy: Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Dead armadillos are not hard to find in Arkansas; in fact, our caravan narrowly avoided running over a couple on the final leg of our journey to the campsite. Seeing a live one in the wild here in Arkansas is a different story, one that we were happy to experience. During part of our service project that involved blazing a certain trail, I spotted a grayish-brown blob, roughly soccer ball sized, about twenty yards off the path. It started to wriggle, and then raised its comically tiny little head. We stayed for a bit to watch it forage through the leaves and ground cover before proceeding to the trail’s end.

The western Arkansas animal kingdom is a wonderful, wide, and varied, and certainly we enjoyed seeing and hearing critters that we city-slickers don’t experience in our urban setting.

(Well, except for the coyotes. We have those.)

One HAL Of A Movie

“Don’t mind me, guys. Just watching your lips.”

A few months ago, my 11 year old son asked if he could watch “that movie with HAL”. He was referring to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“I don’t think you’d enjoy 2001,” I replied, even though I consider it one of the greatest films of all time. I thought it’d challenge his attention span; after all, this is a movie that takes its time getting anywhere and explains very little along the way. And the shots are long. So, so long. Kids these days! They don’t have the attention span for long shots.

Especially when what feels like 75% of the movie is shots like this.

But the other night he insisted on a movie night with his family. And when your kid, on the cusp of becoming a cranky teenager asks for a movie night with his family, you do not turn him down. I asked what he wanted to watch. “Cars 3?” No, not on video. Not until November, I informed him.

He then insisted. “I want to watch 2001!”

Just to reiterate: we’ve gone from Cars 3 to 2001: A Space Odyssey, within the firing of a few neurons. Ka-Chow!

Meanwhile, back in the ’70s…

Now’s the part where I include an annoying flashback sequence.

I was born in 1968, the same year that 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. My dad was a huge admirer of the film; I don’t recall the specific moment when he made me aware of it, but I remember that several years later 2001 was going to be broadcast on TV (the only way you could watch stuff when we were kids), and he urged me to watch it with him. I found it absolutely fascinating. In 1976, Marvel Comics issued a giant-sized comic version of 2001 illustrated by Jack Kirby, which I read from front to back dozens of times. The comic, and the Arthur C. Clarke novel, combined to plug the huge gaps in my understanding of the movie.

So now my son was insisting on watching 2001. Well, why not? He’s a big fan of other thoughtful, grounded science fiction like The Martian, Arrival, Contact, and Interstellar. So despite my reservations, I fetched a digital copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey in HD from the Windows store, pressed Play, and we settled in.

The Movie Rolls

Another revelation: I’ve never seen 2001 the way it was meant to be seen (in a theater, duh). I’d only ever seen it on TV: a crappy, washed-out, 480i NTSC broadcast with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Now, I have a decent mid-range home theater projector that is more faithful to the look and tone of actual film, and also conveys the full-frame 16:9 picture. The difference was night and day, or should I say, “Dawn of Man” vs. “Stargate”. Throughout the movie, the colors were more vibrant, more exciting, and more awe-inspiring than I ever knew possible. I could see why Dad and his generation fell in love with it.

The Dawn of Man sequence, far from being BORING to an 11 year old mind as I feared, was in reality a riveting visual tale of struggle, survival, dominance, and death. I anticipated having to explain the appearance of the Monolith, how it drew our early ancestors to it, and how it resulted in their uplift. But my boy was ahead of me. The only question I had to answer definitively was that no, these were NOT animals, these were actors (specifically, mimes) in costume.

We transitioned to the Space Waltz sequence, which is awesome no matter how old you are, and probably the reason 99% of us know Strauss’ Blue Danube. We eventually journeyed with Heywood Floyd through the fiction of the “outbreak” and on to the moon, indulging in the lush, colorful, and striking sets and visual effects.

It was sometime around this point that I realized — and remarked — that the film was almost 50 years old. My son was blown away. “Oh my god!” he said. “I thought this movie was way more recent!”

No, dude, this film is as old as I am, but way better-looking.

We continued to watch 2001 in relative quiet. Occasionally I’d plant little seeds of insight or explanation into the story, but he had a few observations along the way. I remember “Why is she (the flight attendant) wearing that thing (a silly white ball) on her head?” on the way to Space Station V. (I theorized it was for head protection in a weightless environment, but I suspect the real reason is so they didn’t have to figure out how to recreate the effects of weightlessness on long hair.) There was a snarky “Why would anyone build a space station and not finish it?” and a more awed “It must have taken a long time to build that place” when Floyd’s moon lander arrives at Clavius, and is swallowed up into the cavernous landing bay beneath.

Just What The HAL Is Going On?

At this point, there’s been a lot of movie, but no HAL, and the boy asked, somewhat confused “Is this the movie with HAL?” I explained that yes, this was the movie with HAL-9000, and we’d be getting to that part before much longer. There was much rejoicing.

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good and will murder you either way.

At long last, we’re introduced to the Discovery and her crew, along with the AI who is practically perfect in every way. I could see my son absorbed in the beautiful sets of the ship, the depiction of day-to-day life for the astronauts, and the design of the spacecraft itself. He observed, and I had to admit, that Frank Poole’s morning workout that included air-boxing seems comical in retrospect, but other than that, no element on board the Discovery comes across as dated.

The boy didn’t say a whole lot during the Discovery sequence. HAL himself, with his creepy, quiet, whispery, monotone, proved as fascinating as he expected. I can’t recall any notable remarks, apart from a slight giggle when HAL started to sing Daisy during his deactivation sequence.

Discovery reaches the monolith at Jupiter, Dave Bowman sets out to investigate, and to my surprise, my son actually sits through the interminably long Stargate sequence, offering only a “Trippy” remark near its beginning.

“Totally trippy, dude.”

At the conclusion of the journey, he’s a bit confused about why Dave Bowman is shaking and shivering in his pod, sitting in this grand bedroom. But he’s engrossed as Bowman watches himself settle in, live to a ripe old age, and “die” in his bed. He gets it. All of it. Right up until the Star Child is born and approaches earth. And this was his one serious WTF moment. “Wait, what? Okay… so he got old… and died… and now he’s a fetus?”

I laughed and said “I’m sure at this point, you have a lot of questions.”

Indeed he did, and I told him that a few of those would be answered in the sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which we started watching immediately. He enjoyed that movie also.

So, the takeaway? I’m not going to underestimate my son again. Thanks to his persistence, I got to enjoy 2001 with my son, the way my dad watched it with me. May this movie keep the father-son bond alive until 3001 and beyond.

Thank you, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick!