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Sometimes being unable to sleep on a camping trip lets you see things the sound sleepers miss. Photo by Paul Hadella

Sleepless in a sleeping bag

Who knew that bitterns have appetites as voracious as tigers’?{br class="hardreturn" /}
I have just witnessed one of these brown, chicken-sized birds catch and eat a frog. A minute later, it snagged and swallowed a fish. To put this in human terms, it’s equivalent, I figure, of devouring a slab of prime rib followed immediately by a halibut steak.{br class="hardreturn" /}
I tell myself I never would have been privy to such skillful hunting and prodigious eating if not for my inability to sleep. It’s not quite 6 a.m., so I should still be in my tent at Waxmyrtle Campground in Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, enjoying a final round of down time. But I’m not. Therefore, I’m trying to convince myself that being awake so early has its advantages.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Surely the bittern will not show itself later in the day. Right? Wary wetlands bird that it is, it will go into hiding once people start moving around in the campsites next to the lagoon it calls home, once loud voices begin filling the air, and car doors start slamming.{br class="hardreturn" /}
I’m up before the commotion — a good two hours before. And I’m glad that I am. Right?{br class="hardreturn" /}
This is only the second time in my life I’ve seen a bittern — Botarus lentinosus, the American bittern. The first was at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California, after someone pointed it out to me. When a bittern doesn’t want to be noticed, it will hold its long, sharp beak skyward, and blend in with the reeds. That’s what it was doing that first time.{br class="hardreturn" /}
But this time it was out in the open, stalking its breakfast through a frilly, aquatic grass known as parrotfeather. I stopped on the trail looping around the waterhole, hardly believing my bloodshot eyes. A bittern! Thank you insomnia!{br class="hardreturn" /}
Fortunately my sleep problem is only situational, not chronic. And always the situation is the same. The first night in any campground, I’m simply unable to sleep well, if at all. Sometimes just thinking of how I’m unable to sleep the first night in a campground is enough to keep me tossing in my sleeping bag all night — while my wife snoozes blissfully beside me.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Miracle of miracles, I had traveled straight to dreamland after crawling into my tent at Waxmyrtle C.G. — only to spring awake during the night to the sound of something thrashing through our campsite.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Our daughter, also roused by the noise, shined a flashlight from her tent to see what was out there. “It’s a raccoon,” she announced. “A really big one.”{br class="hardreturn" /}
Unzipping my tent flap with a dramatic zzrrripp, I boasted, “I’m coming to get you, Rocky.” Of course, I had no intention of sticking even an inch of me outside, where I could be clawed and bitten by the furry monster. But my threat worked in scaring the intruder away.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The damage to my sleep cycle, though, had been done. I was wide-eye awake with no hope of returning to my slumbers anytime soon. Hours later, I welcomed the daylight as my signal to escape my tent and explore a lagoon.{br class="hardreturn" /}
After the bittern, I came across a great blue heron. Then I saw four cedar waxwings alight in a waxmyrtle bush. I shook my head as the mother dropped food into the mouth of each of the younglings. Sleeplessness can make me cranky, as in, “Hey, if you’re old enough to fly, shouldn’t you be old enough to feed yourself?!”{br class="hardreturn" /}
But mostly it makes me appreciate the advantages of getting a jump on the day.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Up at the crack of dawn once in Utah’s Hovenweep National Monument, I walked to the edge of a shallow canyon where 13th-century Puebloan ruins are clustered, and experienced sublime peacefulness.{br class="hardreturn" /}
In Great Basin National Park, Nevada, I spent some quality solo time with the oldest living things on the planet, repeating the hike I had taken the day before with my family, to a grove of ancient bristlecone pines.{br class="hardreturn" /}
My heart goes out to people who suffer regularly from debilitating sleep disorders. In small doses, though, insomnia works for me. In fact, it’s awesome! That’s the attitude I’ve been forced to adopt, because what’s the alternative? Succumb to moping and being miserable all day?{br class="hardreturn" /}
After my early-morning ramblings, I’ll return to my campsite with a story to tell my family. They’ll be just waking up, ready for oatmeal, and then a full day of activities.{br class="hardreturn" /}
By 8 o’clock that evening, I’ll crash in exhaustion. I never have any trouble sleeping the second night.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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