How to Win a Nobel Prize

How to Win a Nobel Prize

Featured Published Stories Archive Science

Inside Michael Houghton’s painstaking quest for a cure for Hepatitis C

From New Trail, Spring 2021

Illustration of Mr. Houghton by Adam Cruft

When Chiron Corp., a small biotech company in California, hired a young scientist named Michael Houghton in 1982, it was already clear he was an exceptional scientist.

Several top biotech companies had offered him senior scientist positions based on research he’d done since obtaining his PhD in 1977 from King’s College London, in England. When Chiron called, Houghton was researching human interferon genes at a U.K. research institute of the large U.S. pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle & Co.

Soon after Houghton arrived at Chiron, he learned about a mystery unfolding in every country.

A dangerous new pathogen that attacked the liver was running amok in the global blood supply. Left untreated, it could cause cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and cancer. It wasn’t hepatitis A and it wasn’t hepatitis B. Whatever it was, it was brutal. Apart from turning a blood transfusion into a game of Russian roulette, it plagued the world’s most vulnerable and stigmatized people when they shared a needle — for it seemed to spread through contaminated blood. Roughly 150 million people worldwide were infected with it.

Houghton decided to switch fields and devote his lab at Chiron to finding the mystery virus.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, this will be a good purpose for my lab,’ ” Houghton recalls.

He had no idea what he was in for.

By now you probably know the man we’re talking about. In October, he won the Nobel Prize in medicine, sharing the honour with Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice. Houghton, a virologist in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta, is the first scientist based at a Canadian university to win a Nobel in medicine since Frederick Banting discovered insulin at the University of Toronto in 1923.

And that, you might assume, is the story in a nutshell: young researcher gets on the train and hops off 40 years later at the summit of human accomplishment, feted by the world as a hero.

But of course, the story isn’t that tidy. And the final chapter is still being written.

“You want to know what it takes to win a Nobel Prize? You do something that many people think is not possible,” says Lorne Tyrrell, virologist and founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which encompasses the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute that Houghton leads. Both work in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Indeed, it’s necessary to not realize it’s impossible in order to be able to do it, as the Nobel-winning physicist J. Michael Kosterlitz once framed the task.

In video meetings with media following the Oct. 5 Nobel announcement, Houghton presented to the world an expression that was … complicated. A mixture of joy, relief and gratitude, for sure. But the face of the scientist, now 70, also hinted at the kind of determination you’d expect of someone who deals in the impossible.

In 1982, the disease Houghton decided to tackle was known only as NANBH — non-A, non-B hepatitis, as in not caused by hep A or B viruses. A mysterious blood-borne disease defined by what it wasn’t. This would become his quest: to chase a shadow.

Together with Qui-Lim Choo, whom he recruited in 1983 along with Amy Weiner, Kang-Sheng Wang and Maureen Powers, Houghton set to work. One of the things that had slowed progress on NANBH — let’s call it HCV, the hepatitis C virus, since we know now that’s what they were seeking — was the lack of suitable animal models. Other than humans, hep C is only known to infect chimpanzees.

Houghton visited the lab of Daniel Bradley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an expert in the NANBH chimpanzee model. With Bradley’s collaboration, the Chiron team extracted nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) from infected chimps and patients and cloned them to create vast libraries containing millions of nucleic acid sequences. They began sifting through them for one that looked as if it didn’t belong — a task akin to finding a single typo in a dictionary.

These days, with modern techniques that vastly speed up the copying and sequencing of segments of the genome, virology is a different beast than it was then. Nothing in Houghton’s tool kit at the time was quite up to the scope of this endeavour. “The methods we were applying were not sensitive enough,” he says. If today’s technology had been available back then, Houghton says, “it probably would have taken seven weeks” to find the mystery virus and sequence it.

Instead, it took seven years.

It didn’t help that no one really knew what kind of pathogen they were looking for. Was the virus like hep B or yellow fever — or even a prion? Or maybe it was a retrovirus like HIV. Houghton’s strategy was to go wide, trying many different molecular approaches at once based on the scientists’ best guesses. It was like fishing with multiple rods over the side, each hook carrying different molecular bait. At one point, more than 20 different approaches were in play.

Their work was painstaking. And fruitless.

“After two or three years,” Houghton says, “we were still shooting blanks.”

The path to any Nobel Prize is paved with failed experiments, almost by definition. The breakthroughs that win a Nobel tend to be innovations wrought by failures that force you to rethink and try new approaches.

One day in 1985, three years into the research, Houghton went next door to the lab of George Kuo to discuss a new approach Houghton had been considering involving the generation of monoclonal antibodies against HCV. That key discussion convinced Houghton to try an immunoscreening approach to bacterial clone libraries. At about the same time, Bradley suggested the same idea.

So, the Chiron team put another fishing rod over the side, so to speak.

The tactic, never before tried to identify a new virus, would use antibodies — proteins in the blood that bind to foreign substances — to help detect the virus. The team would copy the DNA and RNA from chronic hep C carriers into DNA in bacteria and make libraries of many millions of bacterial colonies. Then they could screen the libraries using samples from patients with chronic hep C. 

If the idea worked, the antibodies would sniff out and bind to the foreign stowaway, the hep C virus, in a rare one-in-a-million colony.

Over the next couple of years, Houghton and Choo sifted through the cloned DNA and RNA in 11 different bacterial libraries — millions upon millions of genetic sequences. They found nothing at all that might be the elusive quarry.


It has been said that people, like teeth, come in two types: incisors and grinders. And surely this applies to scientists, too. Incisors make an early impact with a provocative paper, enjoy early fame and then often fade from view.

Houghton is unquestionably a grinder. People who’ve worked with him say he is like a dog on a bone. “What distinguishes Mike compared to other researchers is that he zeroes in on a goal and goes after it, and he just never lets go,” says John Law, lead virologist in the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute and a research associate in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology. “He’s not going to fall back on Plan B just because Plan A is hard.”

Back in 1987, after five years of trying and failing to find hep C at Chiron, Houghton was beginning to feel some pressure as the project leader responsible for the research. “The investors put pressure on management, and management put pressure on me.” Houghton knew he was close to being cut loose.

He didn’t particularly care. This was his mission: to fight the toll of disease on so many lives around the world.

“You can go ahead and fire me,” he remembers telling his boss. “I’ll just continue to work on this elsewhere.’ ”

The needle in a haystack

By the fall of 1987, Houghton and his team at Chiron had tried 30 to 40 different approaches and sifted through literally hundreds of millions of recombinant clones. 

Up to that point, Houghton and Choo had been screening the bacterial libraries with serum derived from the rare patients and chimps that had recovered from NANBH infection, assuming they would have the highest antibody levels. They decided instead to use serum from NANBH patients who had not recovered.

One day, while combing through a bacterial library — in a sample that contained a bit of contaminating “goo” that made it look so unpromising it was almost thrown out — Choo found something. It was “a very tiny little clone,” Houghton says. The wee-est fragment of a copy of … what? He and Choo scrutinized it over several months. It looked different from anything they’d seen, not derived from human or chimp genomes. Foreign.

It was a single, small nucleic acid clone derived from a large molecule typical of RNA viruses. Houghton and Choo also showed that the RNA encoded a protein to which most NANBH patients had antibodies that were not present in uninfected control patients. Based on this, Kuo developed a method to test a large number of patients, which confirmed the presence of antibodies in NANBH patients and not in control patients. As Houghton and Choo found more and more related clones and determined their sequence, they saw very faint but significant similarities with known flaviviruses such as dengue and yellow fever. That was when they knew they had it.

Houghton disclosed the finding at a seminar at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1988. Some hepatitis experts were skeptical, even after seeing the data. But not Houghton, Choo and Kuo. “We knew we had it,” Houghton says. “I don’t take drugs to feel good, but I was on a high for two years afterwards.”

Two years. That’s how long it would take to use their precious little snippet to sequence the whole virus. And then to convince the world, with at least eight rounds of verification, that they had the real deal.

Deadly viruses can be quite beautiful. Hepatitis C turned out to be caused by an RNA virus very distantly related to tropical diseases like yellow fever or dengue. Under the microscope, it was small and round and enveloped with surface proteins — a bit like the now-familiar SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 — the better to get its hooks into its host.

With a blueprint to work from, the team rushed to develop a test to screen blood for the newly identified contaminant. The team announced its blockbuster discoveries in Science in 1989: the isolation of the hepatitis C virus and a test that could successfully detect the virus in human blood.

Blood banks around the world finally had the gatekeeper they needed. Until then, the odds of getting hep C from transfused blood had been around the same as drawing a face card in a deck. With new screening tests that could detect tainted blood in advance, HCV was virtually eliminated from the Canadian blood supply by 1992.

Beyond making the blood supply safer, Houghton et al. published the genetic sequence for HCV, which allowed researchers to develop antiviral drugs to treat hep C. It looked as if the hard work was over.

It wasn’t.

The promise of making lives better

This is a story about hepatitis C. But it’s also a story about hep B — for it was Lorne Tyrrell’s work on hep B that, in a roundabout way, built the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the U of A. From Tyrrell’s research, pharmaceutical company Glaxo produced the antiviral drug lamivudine, the first oral treatment of chronic hepatitis B, and sank enough funds into the U of A to begin robust virology research and development. Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist Li Ka-shing decided to invest in the scientist whose work had improved, if not outright saved, millions of lives: one Lorne Tyrrell. It was the infusion of $25 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation that attracted $52.5 million from the Government of Alberta through Alberta Innovates. The funding allowed Tyrrell to vastly expand his budding virology institute and to found the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute in 2013.

The new institute was tasked with transforming virology research into treatments, drugs and vaccines that would directly improve people’s lives. And Tyrrell had just the person in mind to lead it.

It began with a phone call in 2009. It was a call that was bound to happen sometime. Tyrrell, in his lab, had made his mark with hepatitis B. Houghton, in his lab, had identified the hep C and hep D viral genomes during his time at Chiron. Between them, they nearly covered the alphabet. It was about time they stopped circling each other like double-helix strands and met.

Houghton was driving through San Francisco one sunny lunchtime when he got a call from Tyrrell. Houghton was then at a different small biotech outfit, where he was working on herpes viruses. Tyrrell floated the news that a new institute within the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology would focus on translating lab discoveries into practical and commercial applications. It needed someone to run it. Tyrrell wanted an outstanding virologist to apply for a grant from the new federal Canada Excellence Research Chair program, which would guarantee funding for seven years.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested?” he asked Houghton.

It was a nervy overture. If there is such a thing as a rock star in the world of virology, Houghton was it. He had won the prestigious Albert Lasker award in 2000. In 2003, his team had developed a SARS vaccine to address the major health threat of that year. (The SARS virus disappeared quite quickly, but had the vaccine been commercially manufactured and stockpiled, Houghton believes it could have changed the course of another SARS virus outbreak: COVID-19.)

On the phone with Tyrrell, Houghton fished for a couple of names of folks who might be interested. “But you know,” he said finally, “I might be.”

It was exactly what Tyrrell had wanted to hear. 

Research that cures disease and improves people’s lives — this is what drives Houghton and turned his eyes toward Edmonton.

Canada typically lags behind the United States in this type of “bench to bedside” research, and Houghton was thrilled to see the U of A cranking up that commercial energy. It was one of the things that made him take the job.

After arriving on campus, he wasted no time in hiring a vaccine team that included a dozen scientists and technicians, many of them Canadian, with Tyrrell as a close collaborator. The goal was to work across disciplines to turn basic research into a safe human vaccine to prevent hep C.

Spirits were high. But the vaccine team would soon run into major challenges — owing partly to the sneaky nature of the hep C virus.

“The virus is difficult in a few senses,” says Law, the lead virologist on the vaccine team. Each strain has a wildly different genetic signature. “It’s almost like a person who keeps dressing up differently to get into a bar he was kicked out of,” says Law. “He keeps putting on different clothes to get past the bouncer multiple times.”

Vaccines trick the body’s immune system into building a defence against a phantom scourge it thinks it’s encountering. The hep C vaccine being developed at the U of A is made from a cultured human cell tracing back to a single donor. It isn’t a weakened copy of the whole virus but rather a little piece of the outer protein shell. And that shell is super-delicate. Like a soufflé. 

“It comes apart easily,” says Law. “Also, the cells don’t like to make this protein. Other vaccines, it’s almost like making a piece of copper. It’s easy. But now we’re making a piece of gold. And we need to give it to everybody. So, we need to have an efficient way to go to the gold mine and extract enough to give it to everybody. And keep the costs down.”

Despite the challenges, something happened in 2013 that lifted everyone’s spirits.

Law and his team were experimenting with a new technique. Many were skeptical it would work, but after many trials, they got a promising result. The technique seemed to neutralize or prevent infection for multiple different strains of the virus. They had solved, as Law explained it, the “getting-past-the-bouncer” problem.

“I remember the day we sent [Houghton] the data,” Law says. “It was right at the time he had to give a report to the funding agency.” At a media conference, Houghton coolly presented the news. The U of A had made, for the first time, a hep C vaccine that appeared to work against most known strains of the virus. 

It was a game-changing development — a development that led to a promising hep C vaccine that Houghton’s team hopes to take to human trials this year or next.

“We’ve got a lot of partners lined up around the world — the United States, Germany, Italy and maybe Australia — to test it in the clinic as soon as we’ve made it. And I think it has a good chance of working,” says Houghton.

The ultimate goal: eradication

Houghton is sometimes asked why we need a hepatitis C vaccine at all. After all, thanks to his original hep C discovery, drugs now exist that can quickly cure most patients with few side-effects. His best argument goes like this: Any treatment, no matter how effective, is still just playing whack-a-mole with the disease. Despite advances in treatment, hepatitis C has infected an estimated 170 million people worldwide, while 71 million live with chronic infection that can lead to liver disease and cancer. Ultimately, a vaccine is the only way to eradicate it from the planet.

And quite apart from the cost in human suffering, there’s the financial hit. Tyrrell likes to say that if you accidentally drop your hep C pill down the sink, you’d better have the nearest plumber on speed dial. A full course of treatment costs around $60,000. An effective HCV vaccine would save Canada’s health-care budget close to $1 billion in antiviral drug costs over 10 years, Houghton estimates. “If you figure out how much it’s going to cost to treat those people with drugs, versus how much to vaccinate, then it’s night and day. It’s at least an order of magnitude cheaper to vaccinate.”

Every year since 2012, Tyrrell had been nominating Houghton for the Nobel Prize. And every year Tyrrell had called the university’s president and dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to say they should keep an ear out.

He knew in his bones that Houghton was deserving. “To win a Nobel Prize, you’re making a discovery that is transformative,” he says. The hep C discovery has saved or transformed millions of lives, if you count the curative drugs developed from it and the blood screening that prevents the disease in the first place. An annual international conference around hepatitis C has been running for 27 years — a whole discipline that wouldn’t exist without the work of Houghton’s team.

Then last Oct. 5, at two minutes to 4 a.m., Tyrrell woke up as he does every year to check his phone for Nobel news. Nothing. He waited a few minutes. Nothing. And then … the kind of news that chalks a high‑water mark onto a whole life.

Houghton was in California. His phone rang at 3:10 a.m. local time. The Nobel committee didn’t have his phone number, so it was his friend, Tyrrell, who woke him up.

“Congratulations, Mike,” he said. “You just won the Nobel Prize.”

There was silence. Ice ages came and went. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of the University of Alberta.


What if Houghton — the man Tyrrell had hired partly for the kind of stubborn decisiveness that made him an awesome research scientist and a refuser of prizes on principle — refused the Nobel?

After all, he had refused the Gairdner in 2013, Canada’s most prestigious award in science, when he learned that it would go to him alone. To his mind, his former colleagues were an inseparable part of the hep C discovery. Choo was his wingman, working 100-hour weeks at the bench for years on end. And Kuo, well, he was the one who had convinced Houghton to try the approach that ultimately worked.

His frustration was not just about recognition. It was, and continues to be, that the world seems not to acknowledge the way science works, he says. Scientific discovery is not some kind of transoceanic row by a solo sailor. There is no single “aha” moment by the genius in charge. Innumerable small wins along the way advance the technology in ways the world never sees.

“I don’t think I’m being unduly ethical,” he says now. “I’m just being honest. When you’ve worked with people for a long time and you know that they’ve made key contributions, it’s just basic honesty.”

Which is why Houghton, after agonizing, told Tyrrell in 2013 he wouldn’t accept the Gairdner (or the $100,000 that goes with it), a gesture that was unprecedented in the award’s 54-year history.

Anticipating the same dilemma this time, Tyrrell had video-called Houghton the previous Friday for a temperature check. Just as he feared, his colleague was deeply conflicted. “Michael, we can’t go through this again,” Tyrrell said. “Please. Look straight at me and tell me, ‘I will accept the Nobel Prize if it’s awarded to me.’ ”

Houghton said he would.

It’s customary for Nobel acceptance speeches to be a little bit lighthearted. When Richard Taylor won the 1990 Nobel in physics for his work at Stanford, he said: “We were asked to be witty. But after a great deal of reflection I have decided that quarks are just not funny. … Perhaps next year the Royal Academy will award the physics prize to someone in condensed matter physics or general relativity. Those are hilarious subjects.”

Houghton’s speech
 wasn’t like that. Instead, via Zoom from his home in San Francisco, he laid a sober bread-crumb trail of his path to the hep C discovery, recognizing by name everyone who contributed along the way. Receiving a special hat tip were Choo, Kuo and Bradley.

It was Houghton’s way of cutting the Gordian knot. He was upset at how major science awards tend to prop one scientist up in the shop window. But he was honoured. 

“It would be too presumptuous to turn down a Nobel,” he says. He owed it to the U of A, to Tyrrell and to his colleagues not to refuse it. “And also, by accepting the Nobel,” he says, “I’ve been able to get the message out loud and clear: ‘This was a team effort.’ ”

After the announcement, the journal Nature reached out to Kuo and Choo for comment. Both took the high road. Kuo admitted he was disappointed to have been left out but was pleased to have had a hand in the accomplishment. And to have been able to model for his children “how important it is to work hard on something that you feel passionately about.” Choo broke down and cried — not with bitterness but with joy. “It’s my baby; I’m so very proud,” he told Nature. “How can I not be proud?”

The magnanimity breaks your heart. But by Houghton’s lights, gracefulness in the face of discourtesy should never have been asked of these two men.

“As knowledge and technology grow exponentially around the world and with an increasing need for multidisciplinary collaborations to address complex questions and problems, there is a case to be made for award committees adjusting to this changing paradigm,” he wrote in an op-ed in Nature in 2013 after refusing the Gairdner.

“What matters is that you are successful with a group of people. I firmly believe the ethical way forward is for all institutions to be more inclusive,” he adds today.

That is science’s bottom line. You’re always building on previous work. No one is freestyling. It takes a team to win a Nobel Prize.

A quirky fact on the way out the door here: Winning the Nobel Prize buys you almost two more years of life. The number comes from a 2007 study based on the lives of 528 Nobel recipients and nominees from 1901 to 1950. No one has been able to explain the phenomenon, though some have speculated that the spike in status may somehow boost the immune system. Perhaps the body knows it has earned a victory lap.

Or maybe the type of person who wins a Nobel is too dedicated to give up those two extra years in the lab.

The famed Merck virologist Maurice Hilleman, who developed eight of the 14 vaccinations that kids get today, carried in his pocket a list of childhood viral diseases that had yet to be conquered. This was his to-do list. When he knocked one off (rubella: check) he would literally cross it off and move on to the next.

Houghton has something of that same mindset. Shouldn’t it just be a normal thing to want to fix the world? And to believe that you can?

“If you really think about it, it’s almost a disgrace that we know so little about so many major diseases,” he says. “Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis. We are capable of curing those diseases. Why haven’t we? Because there’s not enough funding? Yes. But also, there’s not enough cultural momentum to focus on disease. And that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

Houghton has his own to-do list, and it is Hilleman-like. The applied virology institute is collaborating with a wide international network to research, among other things, a Group A streptococcus vaccine, novel therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer immunotherapy.

“I’ve always felt that contributing to disease solutions is well worth all the failures, all the frustration, all the funding issues, and all the politics,” Houghton says.

“Millions of people are dying and suffering from so many diseases around the world. Working for 40 years on HCV, and several years on other diseases, is the least that I can do.”


Housebound and Bored? Turn Yourself into a Human Guinea Pig

Housebound and Bored? Turn Yourself into a Human Guinea Pig

Essays Featured Psychology Published Stories Archive

THE WALRUS, March 22, 2021

A BASIC RULE OF SCIENCE is the more data points, the better. If you’re working with human subjects, you need enough of them to prove that your results apply not just to these people but to all people. Too small a sample size is a design flaw. But a single test subject—an “N of 1”—can still be useful if you run a controlled experiment for a long time.

When he was about twelve years old, Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, grew tired of his mother’s stern warnings whenever she heard him crack his knuckles: Don’t do that—it’ll give you arthritis. This sounded like BS. The boy was determined to prove his mother wrong. But how? He devised a test using the only guinea pig at hand: himself. He stopped cracking the knuckles of his right hand but continued his cracking habit with his left, making sure to do it at least twice per day. He kept this up for fifty years.

In 1990, Unger—now a physician and researcher—had his hands examined. There appeared to be no difference in arthritis creep. Aha! A triumphant rebuke to his mother—and one borne out, in those intervening decades, by other researchers, in other ways. In 2009, Unger was awarded an Ig Noble Prize, given to those who produce “achievements that first make people laugh, then think.” Unger’s venture is part of a long and storied tradition of folks experimenting on themselves. Plenty of things that have been discovered, invented, or confirmed would never have been without someone applying the basic algorithm: try something; observe results; learn; try again. And self-experimentation has arguably never mattered more. In today’s hypermediated world, with its steady diet of reconstituted information, self-experiments are a corrective. There is simply no substitute for personal experience.

Think of DIY science as a tree with many branches. Sometimes it’s done for high-minded reasons: to help humanity within the constraints of the Hippocratic oath. The Nuremberg code—put in place after the gruesome extent of medical testing by Nazi doctors came to light—forbids an experimenter from making their subject face any procedure they wouldn’t be willing to undergo themselves. Some scientists believe the only way to be totally sure they’re adhering to the code is to be their own test subjects. (Also, human trials require “informed consent”—but, as Nobel Prize–winning physicist Rosalyn Yalow pointed out, nobody can really give truly informed consent unless they helped design the trial. That’s why, she later admitted, “in our laboratory, we always used ourselves.”)

Sometimes, self-experimenting is done in the name of art—say, to test human limits, as Marina Abramović did during a show in Italy, when she allowed herself to be pummelled by strangers for several hours, or as Chris Burden did when he voluntarily took a bullet from close range. In the marketing world, self-experimentation is just good business. It’s dogfooding—a term that may trace back to Clement L. Hirsch, president of Kal Kan, who was rumoured to make a show, at the company’s annual general meetings, of opening a can of dog food and eating it with a fork in front of queasy shareholders. If you’re willing to demonstrate your product on yourself, that cements your credibility. The dogfooding metaphor has raced through Silicon Valley, where people pride themselves on beta testing their own products.

Sometimes, this has ended up working against the brand. Witness the recent parade of social media company insiders and software engineers—the ones who built those sticky engagement features—on the documentary The Social Dilemma, stepping forward, beetle-browed, to admit that they, too, have become addicted to their products. But there’s a simpler reason to experiment on yourself. It falls into the hopper of Why the hell not? There are lots of examples of people who, deep into seemingly interminable COVID-19 lockdowns with not a whole lot to do, found the most mundane aspects of their everyday lives weirdly magnified. Alone with our tics and neuroses, in the laboratories of our own homes, “we have turned into scientists of ourselves,” noted Sam Anderson, staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. Anderson found himself monitoring his intake of Doritos and then carefully, clinically noting how those little rafts of baked corn and flavour dust made him feel—before, during, and after he scarfed them down.

Other inward-bound argonauts have hatched experiments in a similar spirit. Like trying to construct a perfectly optimal day or making a list of things you’ve said or believed that you no longer agree with. As lockdown dragged on and she found herself housebound and mentally underemployed, writer Molly Young found “little harebrained ways to warp reality.” She tried “ground living” (no chairs). She wandered around naked and stayed up all night.

She ate a meal straight from the plate, like a dog, just to see what it was like. (“Sloppy.”) She practised considering doing stuff—making banana bread, investigating that stain on the carpet over there—without actually doing it. She called these little personal experiments “norm-shedding.” Her question to herself was: Does behaving unusually alter our perceptions of ourselves? If we are what we habitually do, then does changing what we do ripple back upriver and change who we are? Act like a different person for long enough and you eventually become one. And then the question is, When the experiment is over and you go back to your old ways—clothing and sleep and forks—do you find your old recognizable self waiting to meet you?

Upon reflection—and ye gads, there’s been plenty of time for it—many have come to realize that self-experimentation is actually just how we live our lives. We try to figure out how to surprise ourselves. We conduct little trials, some in public, some in private, kicking around what will take the edge off the restlessness and the fear. Some things prove reliably beneficial: exercise, facing something you’ve been avoiding, admitting mistakes, trying to make amends. Some of these experiments produce outsize results.

Some interventions, however, are fool’s gold and actually make things worse, leading to addictions and other wrong turns. It’s a trial-and-error world now. We are all Wile E. Coyote ordering stuff from Acme (er, Amazon) and seeing if any of it—the spring-loaded tennis shoes, the rocket-powered pogo stick, the instant icicle maker—gets us any closer to satisfaction.

Of course, what most of us have been futzing with is pretty low-stakes poker. As the COVID-19 crisis deepened, the death toll spiked, and a global all-hands-on-deck scramble for a vaccine ensued, a number of researchers hustled their trials along by testing their products on themselves. And it wasn’t just unaccredited biohackers who were eating their own dog food: it was some of the biggest names in experimental science. Last July, photos circulated of famed Harvard geneticist George Church shoving up his nose a vial of experimental COVID-19 nasal vaccine that he and twenty or so others, members of a rapid-response vaccine-development team, had churned out. When Gao Fu, the Chinese virologist and immunologist who heads the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, disclosed that he, too, had injected an experimental vaccine, he said it was partly to boost public confidence in vaccines. Convincing reluctant holdouts to buy in to COVID-19 vaccines may be the noblest dogfooding application of all: to sell the public on some needed pivot by defusing an unwarranted fear.

Twenty years ago, I carved my own modest notch into the self-experimentation bedpost when I underwent experimental dental surgery for a national magazine story. My reason was no more lofty than curiosity. (And, frankly, I needed the money.) The question under investigation was: To what extent can regular people override serious pain with a little mental training? The procedure, which involved the extraction of impacted wisdom teeth, was done at an alternative dental clinic in Calgary. It was successful only in the sense that I hung in till the end and lived. When I returned to Vancouver, my wife met me at the airport.

“So, how’d it go?” she asked warily.

“Okay,” I said. “I think I got the story. And no one was exploited.”

She said: “Only you.”

How Do Scams Bypass Our Defenses?

How Do Scams Bypass Our Defenses?

Featured Psychology Published Stories Archive

The answer lies in the way powerful stories exploit our cognitive blind spots. Some of us are more blind than others — as I discovered on Christmas Eve.

Natalie Vineberg illo

from THE WALRUS, Feb 11, 2020

I: The crime report

THE EMAIL popped up on my screen at 6:45 a.m. on December 24. I’d already been up for a couple of hours, working to deadline. It was from someone I know quite well: the minister of the North Shore Unitarian Church, which we attend.

No one else in the house was up, so there was no one to run this by. But then, I probably wouldn’t have asked for a second opinion anyway. For reasons I’ll explore, reasons that are the heart of this story, it didn’t really occur to me that this might be a scam.

“Ok,” I emailed back.

“THANK YOU so much, Bruce,” my correspondent replied. Then he got down to business. I was to buy $300 of cards. (That is quite a lot of music, I thought.) “I need you to scratch the silver lining laced at the back of each card to reveal the redemption code, then take a snapshot of the code and have the picture or the Ecodes sent directly to Sharon at the hospital on her email.” He gave the address.

“Let me know when you’ve sent it,” he said. “God bless.”

God bless? We’re Unitarians. Optimistic agnostics at best. The “G” word doesn’t come up much. Totally weird sign-off there. I assumed Ron’s mind was still on the dire circumstances of his friend Sharon, who was evidently a Christian.

“I can pick up the card around noon and engineer this by tonight,” I said.

He was super grateful, he replied six minutes later, but tonight’ll be too late for Sharon to use the cards. “Can you please send them to her by noon so she could be able to use them before her surgery?”

This was unhandy. But hey, what was my slight inconvenience against this woman’s cancer fight—on Christmas Eve, no less? I drove to the grocery store and purchased four gift cards. The clerk activated them at the till, turning them into currency. Back home, I took pictures of the codes. At 9:30, I emailed the pictures with the following message:

Dear Sharon,

The codes on the cards below will buy you music via iTunes.

Everybody is pulling for you.

A busy Christmas Eve day then unfolded. I forgot all about this until, around 4:30 p.m., while waiting for takeout fish and chips, I checked my email. A follow-up message had been sitting in my inbox.

“Sharon just emailed me now saying she got the cards. I want to really appreciate you for that. I’m sure it’s going to go a long way in her fight over cancer.”

But now there was a new development. Apparently word of the gift cards had made its way around the cancer ward. Now other patients were asking for the same thing.

“Could you please get me additional $500 worth of Itunes gift cards right away? I will be paying you back $800. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience.”

This was a bridge too far. The personal friend was one thing, but random strangers on the ward? Don’t these women have family? And anyway, I thought, it might be too late.

I called Ron.

“Hey Bruce. What’s up?”

“Are we too late to help those other patients?” I asked.

Silence. Then: “Um. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Those other patients on the ward who now also want music,” I said.

“Uhhh . . . ”

“I’ve been copying you on these emails,” I said. “Haven’t you been getting them?”

“Bruce.” A long beat. “It’s a scam. Somebody has been impersonating me. I put out a warning out on Facebook.”

“I didn’t . . . see that.”

I heard Ron exhale. Neither of us knew quite what to say next.


II. The narrative architecture of a successful scam

Phishing, the current “attack vector of choice among cybercriminals,” as one security consultant put it, is now so common it’s practically a demonstration sport at the fraudster Olympics. Indeed, the exact scam I’ve just described can be found on the Internet in 30 seconds. But it never occurred to me to check. The question is why.

Near the end of the film The Sixth Sense, director M. Night Shyamalan springs his trap. And you go: Wait. Bruce Willis is … dead? I remember feeling stung. Disoriented. And yet, in retrospect, the evidence was there all along.

It was exactly the same experience when Ron — the real Ron — said over the telephone: “It’s a scam.” There was the sudden reframe, the forehead-smiting denouement. The resolution seemed almost literary: both shocking and somehow inevitable.

That is the human brain on a well-crafted fiction, says Vera Tobin, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve university in Ohio and author of Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot (Harvard University Press). The sympathies and attention of the “victim” are expertly manipulated by narrative sleight-of-hand. O Henry-ish storytellers are social engineers in the same way that scammers are. The architecture of “the con” is the same. Carefully, we are led down the garden path.

The stakes start small. In my case, the initial contact was modest and believable. There were the shoe-shuffling apologies, the thanks in advance. From there, the story unfolded. Next thing I knew, I was putting on my jacket. It was as if I had been “activated,” like a sleeper agent. Once I’d bought the gift cards, I was all-in.

Stanley Milgram, the experimental psychologist—and really, all experimental psychologists are con artists of a sort—ran his most famous ruse out of his Yale lab in 1961. In it, test subjects swallowed the fiction that, by flicking switches of a console, they were administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to a man in the next room as punishment for his getting test questions wrong. The experiment was designed, in the wake of the Nazi atrocities, to test people’s willingness to blindly follow orders to dire ends.

What kept those volunteers going was that they had been led into the madness gradually. They had no idea they’d crossed a border until they were on the other side. “It wasn’t a study of obedience,” said behavioral economist Tim Harford not long ago, “so much as a study of our unwillingness to stop and admit that we’ve been making a dreadful mistake.” We get in over our heads, so we just keep going. For me, beyond a certain point, bailing wasn’t even an option. Three hundred dollars seemed like an audacious ask for some music, but it was just within the realm of the credible.

Scammers exploit thinking errors in the same way those surprise-ending storytellers do. We are “cognitive misers,” taking mental shortcuts and jumping to conclusions wherever possible. That’s why the University of Toronto psychologist Keith Stanovich insists gullibility isn’t a sign of low intelligence. It’s a sign of “low rationality,” which is different. The frontbrain never has a chance; the horse had already left the barn with that first snap judgment. And now all that’s left is rationalization.

Scammers exploit other cognitive errors. Like “optimism bias.” Most people think they’re a little bit charmed, a little luckier than average. We harbour a personal fable that things are likely to go well for us. The possibility that we’ve been hoodwinked just isn’t as “available” as a happy ending. So the Debbie Downer story gets suppressed.

And then there’s “consistency bias,” which says people tend to act in accord with who they believe themselves to be. As I sat waiting for my takeout at the fish shop, and retrieved that second email asking for more money, annoyance flared. But it was soon swamped by another feeling: I’m a nice guy and here’s an opportunity to prove it. “You were on a goodwill mission,” said the cop at the North Shore RCMP detachment who dutifully took down my report. “And that kind of put blinders on you.”

Behavioral economists coined a term, the “curse of knowledge,” which psychologists have adopted. “It’s hard for people to set aside the things you know,” says Tobin. “The more experience we have with something, the harder it is to step outside it.” The scammer had fixed in my mind the image of a cancer ward. Meet my friend, Sharon. She is craving distraction because she’s terrified to die. I could see Sharon, because I have been there. I was at my father’s bedside when he died of cancer. “Once you know something, or think you know something, it’s really hard to suppress that way of seeing things,” says Tobin. “And now you’re suddenly blind to what would be obvious if you didn’t have that baggage.”

That the cancer story was ripped right out of a made-for-TV movie was also no accident. The emotional content put me in what psychologists call a “hot state.” “The more gripping the story, and the more emotionally engaged we are in it,” says Tobin, “the less we’re thinking critically and asking ourselves, ‘What are the discrepancies here? Should I trust this source?” Under such highly charged conditions, “you can talk yourself into anything.”

My scam landed in my inbox in the early morning. The dreamy pre-dawn is a great time to be creative; our “ego defenses” are down, Carl Jung claimed. But it’s a lousy time to be logical.

Then I learned about the tight deadline. Again: no accident.

Studies show people are more likely to respond to an internet solicitation when a quick response is required. The sense of urgency “short-circuits the resources available for attending to other cues that could potentially help detect the deception,” said Arun Vishwanath, a University of Buffalo psychologist and now a visiting lecturer at Harvard. The ticking clock is a “visceral trigger,” an express ticket to a hot state, where sound reasoning goes to die.

All these factors together may incline scam victims to overlook what should be glaring red flags. My minister didn’t use my name in the first email. Then again why would he? Obama famously texted his friends in the early morning with a simple “U up?” (Of course the real reason the scammer didn’t use my name is he didn’t have it. Until, with my response, I gave it to him.) And the grammatical errors and weird capitalizations from a person I knew to be fastidious with the language? I chalked it up to stress. Basically, I read those emails through a filter that cleaned up the language, imputed only good motives and kept me from looking up from the puppet, even once, to see if there might be strings.

III: The few, the proud, the incredibly gullible

But wait: if successful scams exploit these universal cognitive biases, why don’t all of us fall for them? Around 20 percent of the population is especially vulnerable to scams, says Stephen Lea, an emeritus psychologist at the University of Exeter in the UK who studies the personality traits of likely fraud victims.

Of the folks who receive phishing emails like mine, only around four percent actually bite, according to a recent study by the telecom giant Verizon.

So we few, we sorry few, we band of schlimazals: what’s different about us?

There’s a widespread perception that scam victims are predominantly older folk. But that isn’t quite right. Millennials are actually scammed more than any other group, according to Federal Trade Commission data. But they lose less money than seniors because they have less, notes Frank “Catch Me If You Can” Abnegale, the former con man who now consults to law enforcement. (Curiously, seniors are more likely to get scammed face-to-face. One theory is that older people are less alive to visual cues of insincerity. Shelley Taylor, the UCLA psychologist driving this research, found the brains of older people showed less activity in the areas that process risk and subtle danger.)

The stereotype that the lonely are sitting ducks is true. Lonely people are more likely to let scammers get their foot in the door; they open unsolicited mail and stay on the line with those bogus Canada Revenue Agency officers. A scammer can figure out if you’re lonely from your social-media trail. But when a reporter for Mother Jones magazine traveled to Nigeria to interview a group of email scammers, the young men were pretty clear that they didn’t care about lonely. They only cared about wealthy. “We know how much you have in your account,” one said.

I’m not lonely, not a millennial and the opposite of rich. But I was randomly phished in a pool that is statistically promising for scammers: a minister’s congregation. There’s evidence that con artists disproportionately target religious groups — although it’s less clear whether “people of faith” are actually more gullible to such scams. Most Unitarians, I’d venture, are of the “trust but verify” variety, too intellectual and circumspect to fall for these kind of shenanigans. And sure enough, I learned that no one else in my congregation was fooled. This scammer was lucky to have found me. I have a history he could only have dreamed of.

I am the kid who sent away for the full-size “Frontier Cabin” from the back of a comic book — perhaps as a place for the Sea Monkeys I’d previously ordered to hang their little crowns. That kid grew up to be the adult whom panhandlers naturally find in a crowd. I have accepted at face value every hard-luck story going, and duly coughed up five bucks for a hamburger, ten bucks for a bus ticket, twenty for gas to get back home to Abbotsford. “Remember the time you almost bought a car with a lien on it?” my wife reminded. “Or the time you went, with great hope, to the Downtown Eastside to meet the guy who said he’d found your stolen camera?” She started enumerating the scams she could remember; it took two hands.

Gullibility is a hindrance for a journalist, to say the least. It seems to take me twice as long as everyone else to write a feature. I routinely have to rip the whole thing back to the studs when I hit the fact-checking stage and discover people weren’t being entirely honest. Or at the very least, the truth is way more subtle than it was presented. Shoulder-checking earlier would have saved me a lot of trouble. But shoulder-checking earlier would have also broken the spell — the spell of the perfect story that was taking shape.

Perhaps gullibility is a “neural trait,” rather in the way hypnotizability is. (Brain scans of “very hypnotizable” people reveal distinct activity patterns, Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel found.) Whether that proves true, there are other character traits we scam victims demonstrably share.

We are decisive. Okay, impulsive. “Ready-fire-aim.” Deficient “depth of processing” is another way to put it, and mine was abysmal in this case. I read those Christmas Eve emails the way our dog eats her dinner: I wolfed them down without really reading them. I got the gist, and then my imagination quickly filled in the rest. That’s how it works. “You see things that aren’t there,” says the cognitive scientist Vera Tobin, “or you fail to see things that are there, because your expectations are driving the bus.”

“Naive” or “trusting” come close, but social scientists prefer the descriptor “unsuspicious.” That’s another way of saying I just have a low-wattage bs detector right off the shelf.

And we are “risk takers,” physically, financially, emotionally. The psychologist Stephen Lea found that self-reported risk-takers were twice as likely to be victims of scams.

But the likelihood of being duped is also circumstantial.

Fraud victims are “far more likely to be facing a rough patch in their life,” according to Doug Shadel, lead fraud investor of Washington, DC-based AARP and author of Outsmarting the Scam Artists.

Having suffered a “serious negative life event” — like a divorce, a layoff, a health crisis, the death of someone close to you — more than doubles your risk of falling for a scam, according to a 2013 US Federal Trade Commission study. Also, people juggling more debt than they can handle are “significantly” more vulnerable to scams, a separate study found. (Perhaps because stress ties up cognitive resources that could otherwise be used to spot scams.) You can see how being financially underwater could create an intense desire for immediate relief, of the sort that get-rich-quick schemes offer. That’s not the kind of ruse I fell for; but the drowning metaphor still applies. Divers suffering from oxygen debt can experience “rapture-of-the-deep,” where reality-testing fails and magical thinking blooms. The journalist Jonathan Kay, author of the 2011 book Among the Truthers, found people were more likely to start believing in wild conspiracy theories after they’d hit a bumpy patch in their lives.

You’d think ignorance would be a precondition of getting bilked. But weirdly, the opposite may be true. Sometimes the problem isn’t knowing too little, but too much.

One of Bernie Madoff’s victims was a psychiatrist named Stephen Greenspan, who lost about a third of his life savings to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Just two days before he learned he’d been hoodwinked, Greenspan hadpublished a big authoritative tome, the fruit of decades of research in his area of expertise. It’s called The Annals of Gullibility: Why we get Duped and How to Avoid It.

“Scam victims often have better than average background knowledge in the area of the scam content,” notes the psychologist Lea.

Some expertise, it turns out, can make people a bit cocky. This is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s basically the premise of every Will Ferrell movie. Overconfidence can produce a kind of unwarranted swagger, an almost comically obtuse misreading of events. The more we know, the less likely we are to second-guess our initial take on something — which may have arrived via the gut rather than the brain. Overconfidence disarms the sensor of sober-second thought.

And while you can teach people to detect scams, until their scam-detectors become as sensitive as a sandpapered fingertip, the effect may be short-lived.

Not long ago a group of cadets at West Point, the prestigious military academy in New York State, was trained to accurately detect e-mail phishing schemes. They got good at recognizing incoming emails with links that could activate malware and other security risks. But old habits and sloppy cognitive processing die hard. The cadets soon slipped back into their old email reading habits. Ninety percent of them fell for a phishing scheme resembling the ones they’d just learned about, a mere four hours after receiving the training.

I actually know quite a lot about scams myself. I own a copy of the 420-page scam-detecting bible How to Cheat at Everything, by short-con guru Simon Lovell. I know quirky facts, such as that there are two key pieces of information you should never divulge together: your date of birth and city of birth. (With those a scammer has 98 percent of what they need to steal your identity.) Plus, ironically enough, I’d been right in the middle of editing some articles on how to avoid scams. That kind of knowledge should have made me be able to smell a ruse at fifty paces. But here’s the thing: while I had a solid general knowledge, I’d somehow never encountered this particular dodge. There was no Nigerian prince. No one claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency, or Windows, or Apple. No relative had been falsely arrested and needed bail money. It wasn’t a pyramid scheme. It didn’t even involve money. Why would a crook want music? (The answer is, of course, that they don’t. The reason why scammers ask for iTunes gift cards is simple: the codes are hard to trace. And once they have them they can resell them for money on the aftermarket. Gift cards are the new wire transfers.)


“I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do,” said the agent from Visa’s fraud department, after silently hearing out the whole story when the investigators came back on shift after Christmas break.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not fraud,” he said. “When we dispute a charge, our claim is against the merchant. But the merchant didn’t do anything wrong here. You willingly purchased those gift certificates.”

Wait, what? I didn’t willingly purchase them.

Or did I?

What distinguishes fraud from all other crimes is that it demands co-operation from the victim, notes Stephen Lea. The underground card magician Wesley James puts a finer point on it: “The dupe is always to some extent complicit.” But what could possibly be the payoff in getting robbed?

Maybe the answer is not so different from why we go to magic shows, or Sixth Sense-style movies with whipcrack endings. It’s weirdly pleasurable to suspend our disbelief and then have the rug pulled out from under us. “That aha moment,” says the cognitive scientist Vera Tobin, “is something humans like a lot.” The tension-and-release, after being led into jeopardy, is something I’ve probably been missing on the flat sea of midlife.

And of course, for a writer, drama is its own kind of payoff. What did I get out of the whole ordeal? I got a “moment” – a frisson of aliveness, a memory to distinguish this day from all others, forever. And, not least, a story.

Was all of that worth a few hundred bucks and public humiliation?


As soon as I’d learned I’d been scammed I contacted Visa. The first agent I talked to was sympathetic. He was a young man sitting alone in a call centre someone on Christmas Eve and the melodrama in this story seemed to overwhelm his stick-to-the-script professionalism.

“Oh,” he said gravely. “Oh.” Well, first of all, you were trying to do a nice thing. Never forget that.

“We will dispute this,” he said. He prepared me in advance that this was a tricky one. I might not recover the money. “I’d say it’s fifty-fifty,” he said.

He must have been looking at my name on the screen.

“Wait, are you the guy who wrote What Makes Olga Run?

I said I was.

“That was a great book,” he said. “I will fight for you, man.”

And right then, my heart swelled with that familiar feeling of hope.

The Cavernous World Beneath the Trees

The Cavernous World Beneath the Trees

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive


From HAKAI MAGAZINE, Nov. 20, 2018. Photos by Grant Callegari.

In the twilight hush of the fanciest restaurant in townPaul Griffiths pulls out a tiny device that looks like a primitive cellphone and sinks it in his water glass. He’s trying to figure out where the water came from—here, Campbell River, a small coastal community in British Columbia, or somewhere else?

The instrument, an electrical conductivity meter, reveals the path the water took from its source to Griffiths’s glass by measuring the charged minerals picked up along the way.

“Twenty-two, 23, 24 …,” says Carol Ramsey, reading the display.

A server orbiting past the table stops midstride and stares.

“We’re just testing the conductivity of your water,” Ramsey says cheerfully.

“Do you know where this ice came from?” Griffiths asks.

“Uh … the ice machine? I’m not sure,” the server says shyly.

“Is it possible to get a glass of just tap water?” Griffiths suspects the ice is bringing down the numbers.

Maybe the ice was shipped in from the nearest big cities to the south, Victoria or Vancouver, where drinking water comes from reservoirs. The server returns with a glass of ice-free water. Immediately, the reading climbs past 40. The higher number is a geological tell. It’s proof that the water ran underground through karst, an underground ecosystem of dissolved rock.

“That’s more like it,” Griffiths says.

Something naturally perfect happens to water when it flows through karst. It trickles and tumbles, picking up oxygen, picking up minerals, losing its acidity. The result is life-giving, luring and nurturing organisms from the tiniest microbes to humans to bears.

To be clear, karst isn’t a kind of rock. It’s a topography, one shaped by water that seeps and squeezes through limestone or gypsum or marble or dolomite, creating cavities from the size of the ones in your teeth to caverns the size of ballrooms, filigreed with delicate speleothems, dripping down and growing up and sometimes meeting in the middle. Limestone bedrock—the kind found here—was once alive and in the tropics before plate tectonics ferried it to Vancouver Island 100 million years ago. Limestone, composed of skeletal fragments of shallow-water marine organisms, such as corals and mollusks, is found in your toothpaste, your newspaper, your store-bought bread, and the cement beneath your feet—but the true worth of this karst bedrock includes more than its commercial value. A single subterranean water droplet is an ecosystem of its own. Two drops less than a meter apart have been found to harbor entirely different biological communities. For something that’s mostly nothing, karst contains an awful lot.

This is a chronicle of karst, one of Earth’s most underappreciated ecosystems, so vast and unmapped, many explorers and biologists consider it the next frontier of terrestrial and extraterrestrial discovery. NASA scientists are probing deep into karst systems as part of their research into organisms that thrive in hostile environments to better detect life elsewhere in the solar system.

If a karst landscape and its glorious biodiversity fail to grab the same attention as the Amazon jungle does, that’s because you can’t see the karst. Or can you? A karst biologist will tell you it’s right there in front of you; the forest above is an extension of the karst.

“Say you move vertically through a karst system,” says Griffiths, who is the karst biologist in these parts. “The tree canopy is an ecosystem of its own. The trees grow the way they do because of the karst, but they also influence the development of the karst—it’s a feedback loop.” Below the surface, the tree roots cradle a dense fungal web teeming with microbial life. “So when you’re talking biodiversity, you’ve got it going in both directions.”

That Griffiths has devoted pretty much every spare minute and every penny of his earnings for the past 40 years to karst, well, it’s hard to say whether that speaks more of the karst or the man.

Griffiths, who is 67 and looks a bit like The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, could be called many things. Defender of karst. Explorer of karst. Explainer of karst. He cannot yet officially call himself a karstologist—at least not until the stack of paper piled sternum-high in his Campbell River home transforms into PhD credentials, likely by Christmas. However, his colleague Carol Ramsey, who, in Middle Earth, might be the elf Galadriel’s older sister, is a karstologist—one of a handful of scientists in Canada with that title. In this country, karst studies are typically a subspecialty of geology. In Europe, karst science is well established. Ramsey got her PhD at the prestigious Karst Research Institute in Slovenia.

The PhDs are strategic. Out-credentialing everyone lends this team of two the power to influence environmental practice—in theory. Logging has forever altered much of the karst ecosystem on British Columbia’s coast, particularly on Vancouver Island with its accessible forests. And a ready, aim, fire approach to development threatens to make moot the most basic of questions: what is it about the structure of karst that makes it so sensitive to disturbance? In their fight to protect what’s left of the ecosystem, the pair’s prime tool is data.

We simply do not know exactly how much coastal karst is left. And so Griffiths and Ramsey have made it their task to monitor the bejesus out of their patch: the whole northern half of Vancouver Island. In a project that falls somewhere between a duty, a calling, and a cosmic test of character, they routinely tramp through first- and second-growth fir and hemlock forests, meticulously documenting changes in the topography. They fly over the land snapping pictures to create a photographic time series. They take soil samples from caves where they know logging will happen overhead—before and after the trees are gone. They scan newspapers for legally required notices of independent power projects and suss out whether there are implications for the karst. They lobby for toothier legislation and push for enforcement of policies already on the books. Though Ramsey is no less ferocious in her commitment, Griffiths has the bigger body of work because he’s simply been in the game longer.

Ramsey first met Griffiths while she was studying environmental archaeology at the University of Victoria in the early 2000s. Griffiths, who knew of a cave with the potential for old faunal remains on the west coast of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, volunteered to take her to check it out. They found bear bones, which were carbon-dated at 14,000 years old—among the oldest recorded bear bones in British Columbia at the time.

Together, the pair has the air of forensic accountants. Or spies. They bat around terms like “swallet” and “ponor” and “hydrostatic head.” It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they live and breathe karst. “When you guys are alone, do you talk about anything but karst?” I asked them once. There was a pause, and then they replied, simultaneously, with either masterfully contained irony or perfect earnestness: “No.”

Personality wise, they are karst and cheese. Ramsey is a quiet, sensitive soul, the person you never know is the smartest one in the room. Griffiths has the charged energy of an entrepreneur, the confidence of a history lecturer safe in his tenure. He is Noam Chomsky by way of Spalding Gray—an academic storyteller. Because stories are the most effective delivery system for big ideas.

“This is the next battleground,” says Griffiths, running his eyes to the horizon. “Or it would be if people cared about karst.” He’s talking about the old-growth conifer forest stretching out below, in a slice of the Hankin Range known as the Kinman, 150 kilometers north of Campbell River. Where he’s standing, on the mountainside, there are no trees at all—just stumps and the odd purple flash of fireweed. Until the early 1990s, this too was old-growth forest on karst. Then it was logged. Then, in July 2014, it caught fire. A fire on karst can easily become a roaring blaze—the air cavities below the ground may feed it with oxygen like a barbecue. In this case, the highly combustible piles of dry stumps and slash left behind by loggers made perfect tinder.

After the fire, the already thin soil layer soon washed through the crenellations in the rock, leaving behind the brain-like topography we’re standing on. Called rundkarren, its haunting beauty is usually hidden under a mossy forest blanket. That’s why Griffiths and Ramsey bring people up here: it’s like peeling back the skin on a cadaver in anatomy class. “I never got karst until I saw a burnt landscape,” says Ramsey. “That was when it came together for me. Okay, this is what’s underneath. Once you get it, there’s no going back.”

Intact temperate rainforest over karst is a rare thing. There’s a little left on the south island of New Zealand and some in Tasmania and a few other scattered places. But fully a quarter of what remains in the world is in coastal British Columbia. Another quarter is in Southeast Alaska.

These forests enjoy a happenstance of perfect conditions—lots of rainfall, yes, but also a way for the water to get into the rock. Tectonic activity along the Juan de Fuca plate just off British Columbia’s coast fractures the rock a little more with every sizable tremor. As a result, the karst is self-draining. The soil never gets swampy. Tree roots get a skookum foothold in the crevices and microcaves, snaking deeper, drawing nutrients out of the ground.

Merchantable timber grows like kudzu on coastal karst. In the early 1990s, Derek Ford a geologist and professor emeritus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and his colleague Kathy Harding compared trees growing on limestone—this very limestone here, part of the Quatsino Formation—to trees growing on the adjacent volcanic formation. The karst trees grew fat. Irresistibly fat. Left to their own devices, timber companies would cream off the karst forest first.

And that’s largely what they have done. Karst in Southeast Alaska was logged at three times the rate of other areas in the state. Timber companies so reliably cherry-pick the karst landscape that you can sometimes identify the extent of karst from the air. It follows the contours of the cut blocks.

“You can understand the rationale for that kind of strategy—it’s just about the cheapest way to log,” says Tom Aley, a hydrogeologist who runs an independent consultancy called Ozark Underground Lab in Missouri and must be one of the very few people to own his own cave. But clearcutting on karst creates problems both on the surface and below it. Take away the trees and soil is cast adrift. It’s redistributed from where it should be—up top, governing the rate at which rainwater enters the underground streams—to where it shouldn’t be, in the aquifers. In these natural, underground cisterns, a dump of soil deoxygenates the water and starves aquatic organisms. More to the point, logging on karst is a killing-the-golden-goose proposition.

A 1993 paper by Ford and Harding widely recognized as the shot heard around the karst world, had an intentionally provocative title that included the phrase, “Deforestation of Limestone Slopes on Vancouver Island.” Deforestation is an aggressive word. It suggests—as in the Amazon—that once the forest is gone, it’s gone. What comes back in the regeneration isn’t forest. It’s a timber farm. In their research, Ford and Harding studied a karst landscape clearcut in 1907. Ninety years later, “it really hadn’t recovered,” Ford says. When you clearcut on karst, what little soil you had goes AWOL. And the biodiversity is lost.

The rest of the world has been a test case on this for millennia. The lesson goes back to the ancient Romans, who harvested the great pine trees on the Dalmatian karst on the southern tip of Croatia. “As soon as new trees got started, the sheep or the goats ate them,” Ford says. “The word karst means stony ground—stony because they wrecked it.” In the Middle East, the mythic Cedars of Lebanon—believed by some Christians to be the place where the resurrected Jesus revealed himself—grew on pure limestone karst very much like that of Vancouver Island. They were mowed down to build the temples of ancient Egypt and Jerusalem. The soil disappeared and never came back. Around one percent of the original cedars remain, in scattered, protected groves. Slovenia banned clearcutting on karst in 1949—but by then it was too late. There are photos, circa 1900, of babushka-wrapped Austro-Hungarian peasants hauling topsoil back onto the bald karst after it was clearcut.

The Bordeaux region of western France, once home to karst forests also much like Vancouver Island’s, was logged long ago for the wood itself and agriculture. There, too, the soil vanished. Today, Bordeaux is winemaking country, and the big vintners view the region’s thick karst as a built-in soil supplement. Machines grind up the top layer of the limestone, adding calcium to the grape’s terroir and to the Bordeaux brand. But the top few centimeters of a karst system are the biological cream, dense with life. And plowing it like a beanfield makes the karst less porous for decades. “It’s an industrial approach that takes no account of the complexity and delicacy of the environment that they’re smashing up,” says Ford.

We leave behind the grooves and fissures of the rundkarren and head south, bouncing along a logging road until we come to a trailhead pullout. Just inside the forest, an interpretive sign, containing more than a dozen typos and grammatical errorsadvertises the Eternal Fountain—a fairly spectacular waterfall disappearing into a hole in the ground.

Forty years ago, the British Columbia government, together with the now-defunct logging giant MacMillan Bloedel, tried to boost tourism on the north island by bugling the virtues of some geomorphic attractions within a 100-kilometer scenic drive called the Alice Lake Loop. The Eternal Fountain was one of them, along with the Devil’s Bath and the Disappearing River—karst formations all. The attractions were featured on recreation brochures and maps, and even included in the internal newsletters issued by MacMillan Bloedel. Employees and their families dutifully visited them on weekends. But the features have collectively become a kind of cautionary tale, a fact driven home on a cool spring morning when we pay each one a visit.

At the end of a short boardwalk, the Eternal Fountain spills into its underground den as expected. But Ramsey and Griffiths are riveted by something else: on the embankment above the waterfall is a sinkhole, or doline, around two meters in diameter.

“Most holes in a landscape fill up over time,” Ramsey says. “But dolines just continue to grow. That’s why they’re weird.”

As dolines go, the BC coast has some beasts. On Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii, there is a feature called the Great Depression. It is the size of Disneyland. Not far from here, in the Tahsish River valley 40 kilometers to the west, there’s a doline so big, a fall into its mysterious depth would probably be fatal. It’s called Paradise Lost. The doline above the Eternal Fountain is much smaller. But what’s remarkable is it wasn’t here when Griffiths and Ramsey visited two years ago. Griffiths offers his best guess on the doline’s appearance—logging upstream changed the hydrology.

Nearby, similar declivities have appeared—some smaller, some bigger. In one spot, fenced off for safety, is a karst window, a deep hole in the rock giving a peekaboo glimpse of a running freshet beneath. A sinkhole in the woods is like a big Men at Work sign, except the excavator below your feet is water—with implications hard to fully fathom from the surface.

Water runs through karst like a pinball through a pachinko machine. Its route, though tied to the glacial history of an area, is definitively unpredictable. Logging on karst is like bumping the machine, a small change that can radically affect the result. On the morning drive along the loop, between watersheds pocked with clearcuts, we keep crossing bridges over dry riverbeds that once carried the water overland, boinging up and down on roads that were once more or less flat. Rerouted water is changing the architecture below.

The effect on the topography is even more pronounced as we near the Devil’s Bath. It looks like a crater lake, similar to the cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The bath was once one of the most majestic features on the north island. In 1984, MacMillan Bloedel logged right up to the north rim of the bath. In 2012, the entire area was clearcut to within 18 meters of the observation platform. People mostly stopped coming to visit after it lost its postcard charm, its disturbed setting now the feature’s main trait.

Griffiths and Ramsey have kept tabs on the Devil’s Bath since the clearcut. Two years ago, the mossy forest ground nearby was mostly flat, like a green rug pulled over a toy-strewn floor, but as we bushwhack through alders and salmonberry, across the rolling land, the ground sinks underfoot. Logging in the catchment area rerouted groundwater, Swiss cheesing the bedrock below. The whole forest feels as if it’s about to collapse.

In one spot, the earth has dropped at least three meters. But strangely, Griffiths’s mood lifts at the discovery. The collapse has revealed an entrance to a cave.

Not all caves are karst, but caves are a common feature in karst, and, like an Amazon biologist who discovers that a botfly has laid eggs under his skin, bad news, but too cool not to be excited about. Griffiths has to investigate. He’s just in running shoes because he hadn’t expected to be exploring a new grotto today; there was none here last time he checked. In a flash, he’s down the hole. The glow from his headlamp fades as he descends.

“It goes!” he calls out from inside the cave, staring into the unplumbed depths. “Oh my God!”

A few seconds later: “Woop! Woop!”

“He’s happy,” I say.

“He’s echolocating,” says Ramsey.

It’s completely fitting that Griffiths jumped into a new entrance to the underground. His introduction to karst came by way of caves.

At age six, he discovered his first cave—a one-time refuge for drifters near the train tracks of Hamilton, Ontario, where his family had moved so his father, a professor of French literature, could teach at McMaster University. His father had studied at the Sorbonne, and every summer the family returned to France, where Griffiths linked into the caving network—eventually seeking out luminaries like the famous French speleologist Norbert Casteret. Somewhere in the middle of all those visits to the karst-scapes of France, Griffiths developed a theory about French cuisine. “People can detect calcium—it’s a sixth taste,” he says. “I think about the food there: the pâté, the wine, the cheese. I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s related to the karst.”

The family moved to Vancouver Island, and Griffiths’s father soon settled in for a long tenure at the University of Victoria. For years, up to and including his 25-year-long post as head of the British Columbia Speleological Federation, Griffiths voluntarily mapped every reported new cave on the north island—a painstaking process, involving sketching and measuring in three dimensions. Griffiths attributes his digressive thinking to so much time spent in caves. “In a cave you look left, right, up, down.” His mind likewise follows every spur line.

As an environmentalist, Griffiths realized that when it comes to karst, caves were the best route into the public’s imagination, and, through this engagement, a pathway for protecting karst.

In the 1980s, when he lived in Gold River, over 50 kilometers southwest of Campbell River, monitoring environmental impacts for a timber company, he pitched to the town council the idea of selling the remote village in the middle of the island as a tourist destination—the cave capital of Canada. Then he held his tongue as city officials got a little too enthusiastic about the idea and created a summertime festival called Caveman Days, where folks dressed as Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Another time, Griffiths and his wife, Karen, from whom he separated a number of years ago, hatched the idea to offer a one-day public tour of the underground glacier at White Ridge, a cave system in the mountainside high above Gold River. Twenty-five bucks got you a helicopter ride up and a guided tour of the caves. The offer proved so popular, two helicopters were kept busy all day long. “Our hidden agenda was, we planned to turn White Ridge into a provincial park, and we wanted to get the town onside,” he says. Mission accomplished; it became a park in 1995. Griffiths later managed to protect, or help protect, karst elsewhere on the island in the same manner: Weymer Creek, Artlish Caves, Clayoquot Plateau, and Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, one of the most popular guided-cave operations in Canada.

Yet caves, like karst, also have an intrinsic worth beyond their commercial value. The conditions inside a cave—the constant cool, photon-free darkness, the moisture buffered by dissolving salts—are perfect for preserving evidence of habitation, human and otherwise. On Haida Gwaii, expeditions into caves on the west coast uncovered ancient tools and cooking-fire ash, as well as bear bones dating back 17,000 years—even older than the ones Ramsey discovered. Partly because of those finds, the archipelago is further ahead of the rest of the province in its karst protection.

Caves are an even richer lode of rare biology. “If you monitor a cave long enough, you will find a never-before-seen species,” Griffiths says. But a cave’s potential bounty is not enough to keep it safe from disturbance and harm. If a cave fails to prove itself significant for obvious cultural, archaeological, or biological reasons and isn’t actively protected, it’s likely toast.

Back in 2006, Griffiths and Ramsey helped First Nation and activist communities when they ran out of options in fighting a massive proposed golf and spa resort called Bear Mountain, north of Victoria. In the path of the idling bulldozers was a karst cave long used for sacred rituals by the Songhees and Tsartlip Nations. After a bit of low-comedy involving Vietnam-era military logic—the unstable cave was blown up with explosives before geologists felt satisfied they could safely enter it to see if it was worth saving. Nothing of consequence turned up in the rubble. “The government had its hands tied with the legislation,” Griffiths says. “If they couldn’t find archaeology, they couldn’t do anything.”

Just before it was dynamited, Griffiths documented the cave for Chief Chris Tom of the Tsartlip Nation. Then he turned his mind to the funding of Bear Mountain. The project hinged on a half-billion-dollar loan from HSBC. After a little probing, Griffiths discovered that the bank had adopted a policy called the Equator Principles, meaning that it couldn’t lend money to a project that was ecologically irresponsible or was inconsistent with Indigenous wishes. He picked up the phone, but his appeals went nowhere. Now the closest thing to a karst cave at Bear Mountain is the sand trap on the seventh hole.

Caves are good at firing up the public’s imagination, and in a backhand way, inspire people to care about karst. But there is a dilemma.

When you talk up caves to tourists, they want to check them out. Which is a little like getting bulls excited about china shops. “In some caves, the biggest disturbance is a water droplet falling from the ceiling once every thousand years,” Ramsey says. Caves are the last bastion of stasis in a world in flux. Like quietly praying monks, their benefits are sometimes intangible, but most of us value a world that allows them to exist.

Ramsey and Griffiths may know the location of more caves on Vancouver Island than anyone else. That they sometimes hide this knowledge makes them controversial in the caving community. “For some of these caves,” Ramsey says, “the only protection they have is their obscurity.”

“Caves are perhaps .01 percent of all void spaces of a particular karst block,” Griffiths says. If you can’t get a park established, then what? Maybe you create a wildlife habitat area—if there was a cave with bats it would be automatically protected under that legislation. But then it’s about the bats, not the karst.

Still, the karstologists would take any kind of protection. Linking caves to bats is one thing, but linking them to salmon—that would be even better, Griffiths thought.

Griffiths emerges from the new cave he has discovered near the Devil’s Bath in mud-caked jeans, and we head downhill, hiking down to the river where salmon spawn. Exactly where those fish were coming from was a longtime mystery; there was no obvious path from ocean to stream.

A few years ago, Griffiths got the notion that if, as he suspected, finfish ply the subway systems deep in the karst here, then karst is actually a wetland and potentially subject to stricter legislation through Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Whole karst landscapes have been protected because they’re wetlands—in the United States and elsewhere. So, underwater camera in hand, Griffiths hung out in a cave connected to the Devil’s Bath. And waited. Just when he was about to call it quits, two fat coho salmon emerged through a hole in the rock and swam past him.

Griffiths’s amateur photo caught the attention of Canada’s national broadcaster. In 2015, CBC’s The Nature of Things devoted an episode to the biology not within the famed Great Bear Rainforest, a huge temperate rainforest spilling over northern British Columbia and Alaska, but under it. Videographers caught on film, perhaps for the first time, the passage of salmon through a karst system. Turns out Griffiths was right. People on the coast care about salmon. A lot. Back up those emotions with hard science and you have a powerful lever to save the karst as Jim Baichtal discovered in 2001.

Baichtal, the forest geologist for Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, conducted a tracer-dye study he now considers the game-changing moment for Alaskan karst—the demo that connected the dots between karst and salmon.

Baichtal and a small team injected tracer dyes into forest streams associated with karst features and caves. Within 24 hours, the dye turned up in several fish streams over a kilometer and a half away. That’s fast. And it meant that surface disturbing activities like logging and road-building could send a whole lot of extra sediment along the same route with the potential to clog spawning channels and change cave environments. Also, without the forest to regulate stream flow, logged areas more often experience high flows. Fast-moving water flowing over a layer of sediment loses out on the full karst treatment, which removes more of water’s natural acidity and offers a leg up for salmon fry and eggs.

The scientific work showed that what we do to the karst forest, we probably do to the salmon. A brute trade-off hung in the air: logs or fish.

Logging communities greeted the news Baichtal presented to state government officials with roughly the same enthusiasm as Clarence Darrow met in the Scopes Monkey Trial. “This is contentious stuff,” says Baichtal. “Because I’m not taking out so many acres of bad timber—I’m taking out the crème de la crème.”

Alaska now has fairly robust karst management practices—largely drawn up by Baichtal, with input from other experts, including Griffiths. The US federal Cave Resources Protection Act also helps. Karst in Alaska is not completely off limits to logging. If a karst system is deemed closed—well protected on the surface and relatively self-contained—then it might be tagged “low vulnerability,” and timber companies might get a green light. That’s where the tension lies. Timber companies aren’t wildly eager to okay dye-tracing studies—they worry about the results.

British Columbia, meanwhile, has limited legislation for karst; it only applies to logging and only in six districts. We’d no doubt pay karst more heed if karst water quenched most communities’ thirst. But, the percentage of drinking water in coastal communities that runs through karst is less than two percent. And since it’s tough to vividly conjure images of drought in the damp Pacific Northwest during another record February of rainfall, Griffiths has long understood that if you’re going to play the water card here, you have to play it differently.

While working for the logging company in Gold River back in the 1980s, Griffiths marched into his boss’s office with an idea: the company might make more money by not logging. Instead, he suggested, exploit the karst springs below, the way a little company called Perrier does. The future karstologist soon found himself talking to a Perrier executive in Paris. Griffiths’s timing was good. The company was near maxed out in its bottling operation near Montpellier, France, and was looking to North America. “You would not believe the springs we have on Vancouver Island,” Griffiths said. He framed up the marketing strategy: protect the forest, protect the water. In the end, Perrier decided instead to buy Calistoga Springs, a water bottling business based in California’s Napa Valley. The company had tapped the zeitgeist in the estimation of the Perrier guy. “They’re flavoring the water,” he explained, “and that’s what people want.”

Griffiths’s endless creativity in his quest to save karst has saved only a bit of the ecosystem on the island. In a quiet moment after returning to Campbell River from the Devil’s Bath, Ramsey and Griffiths allow a little frustration to bubble up.

“I keep excruciatingly detailed records of how long I spend in the field—of my data, of my mileage,” Ramsey says. And she’s harbored a secret dream of sending the government a symbolic invoice that would tally what she’s spent monitoring the resource for the past five years. “It probably runs well over half a million dollars,” she says.

From Griffiths’s perspective, the battle to preserve the karst has felt increasingly like a rigged game. Since 1982, when Griffiths persuaded the government to at least create a karst inventory in one area, the rules have continually changed. More recently, the government has put cave and karst protection in the hands of the timber companies themselves. So following the voluntary standards and best practices for karst laid out in the unofficial playbooks written by Griffiths and a few others and released by government in 2003—is something they ought to do, are encouraged to do, but aren’t actually required to do. And so they very often don’t.

Griffiths and Ramsey became karstologists thinking it would give them added pull to assess, and ultimately protect, the karst. But by current convention, pretty much anyone can call themselves a karst expert. Professional certification as a geologist seems to seal the deal regardless of karst qualifications. And, if they do have qualifications, it’s often through a three-day course Griffiths helped design in 2001.

In the mid-2000s, Ramsey was reviewing a draft protection order for karst and called up a government official.

“I assure you, we’ve had karst experts look it over,” she was told.

“With respect,” Ramsey replied, “could you please tell me the names of those karst experts?”

The return email was bracing.

“Keep asking questions like that and you will never get work in this field again.”

This summer, on August 11, lightning strikes ignited a tinder-dry forest on northern Vancouver Island, and soon wildfires were encroaching on the Alice Lake Loop. Fire threatened other nearby karst areas, including Raging River, Tahsish River, and Artlish River, which together constitute much of the island’s remaining old-growth forest. Griffiths pulled up a photographic time series of those regions and matched them against the burning fires. Recently logged areas seemed to be acting as fuses, spreading the fires from one area to the next.

It’s easy to imagine a future where British Columbia’s remaining coastal karst is unencumbered by old-growth forest cover and all trees are fully employed as logs. The land would resemble a feature in Ireland called the Burren—an expanse of rundkarren produced by overgrazing and logging, marked by fissures that hint at the fathomless void beneath. Ironically, today it is the Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark. Travelers hike the ancient trails and perhaps inspect the alvars—plant communities unique to exposed limestone—viewing the rundkarren as a beautiful landscape deserving of preservation.

Like the Europeans, we will recalibrate to what’s left.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

Featured Published Stories Archive

from ZOOMER magazine, June 18, 2018

One of Facebook’s core values, according to its founder Mark Zuckerberg, is to promote “better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Not long ago, a group of psychologists from four American universities decided to test this lofty adage. They conducted the first-ever study of age stereotypes in social networks.

The psychologists looked for Facebook groups about older people — the kind of lily pads that seniors might land on as they surf social media. But the researchers were interested a particular kind of group: about older people, but not by older people. They found 84. These sites were created and managed by people mostly in their 20s. They presented a young person’s-eye-view of what it’s like to be old. A fairly jaundiced eye.

Three quarters of the individual posts “excoriated” older individuals. One quarter “infantilized” them. Nearly 40 per cent of the young posters thought older people should be banned from public activities like shopping.

Some thought older folks should just hurry up and die already. Of unnatural causes if necessary: “Anyone over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.”

Lead researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, had readied herself for some vitriol on these sites. “But I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Facebook says it does not tolerate hate speech. “It is a serious violation of our terms to single out individuals based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease,” reads its Community Standards policy.

Levy noticed age wasn’t on the list. Ageism didn’t make the cut on a social platform used by two billion people. Even after the Yale study was published, Facebook didn’t bother to correct the oversight. Last time Levy checked, eight of the most offensive sites were still up and running.

So this was appalling but illuminating. The Internet is the great magnifier of the human id. Ugly truths waft out under cover of anonymity. This study revealed a few: Ageism is everywhere. And social media is a convenient platform for young people to denigrate older people. Some young people don’t like old people very much — or maybe they just don’t like the idea of growing old.

But there is a bomb in the results. Prejudice, Levy has found, tends to boomerang back on the prejudiced.

Studies show most people’s views of aging are a mix of positive and negative and neutral. But people who are too negative — or have assimilated more negative age stereotypes from their culture — pay for that bias on a physical level. Whether we think of aging is an opportunity for growth or a ticket to frailty and incompetence — our bodies register that impression and deliver it as a wish, return-to-sender.

In an irony worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, ageism makes people age more quickly.

Levy has built a distinguished career proving it.

Her most famous study leveraged data collected in the mid-’70s from the town of Oxford Ohio. Residents over age 50 were asked yes-or-no questions about their thoughts on aging. For example: “As you get older, you are less useful,” or “As I get older, things are (better, worse, or the same) as I thought they would be.”

Twenty-three years later, Levy entered the picture. First she checked to see how many of those participants were still alive. Then she matched the mortality data with the survey answers. She made a startling discovery. The subjects with the most negative views of aging died, on average, 7.6 years sooner than those with the most positive views. Being ageist influenced lifespan more than gender. Or socioeconomic status. Or loneliness. Or exercise.

Because it was a correlational study, there was no obvious explanation for the huge effect. But Levy knew the number one killer of people over fifty is cardiovascular disease. She wondered: what if ageism stresses the heart? She decided to test that theory with a double-barreled technique that has become her trademark.

Levy is both an experimental social psychologist and an epidemiologist, which makes her uniquely qualified to see both the fine grain and the big picture of social science. She goes back and forth. “I like to observe things in a controlled setting, and then see if that applies in a real world setting over time.”

In her lab at Yale, Levy had a number of test subjects, all over 65, take math and verbal tests under tight time pressure. But before they did, the subjects were “primed” with either positive or negative aging stereotypes. Essentially, a rosy or gloomy view of aging was planted in the test-takers’ minds before the starting gun sounded.

The negative-stereotype primed group tightened right up. Their heart rate and blood pressure soared. The test — which involved talking about a stressful experience—was hairy for both groups. But the negative stereotypes stressed the participants out further, while the positive stereotypes calmed them down.

“So then we wondered how that might operate in the community over time,” Levy says.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, started in 1958, tracked health data of around 1500 volunteer subjects in total, aged 17 to 49, over the course of six decades. Handily, the researchers also asked those subjects what they thought about aging and older people.

It turned out, subjects who had bought into the negative stereotypes of aging suffered twice as many heart events — from mini-strokes to congestive heart failure  — as those who had absorbed more positive stereotypes. Levy had controlled for every factor she could think of, from diet to smoking to family-history to depression. The only difference was the subjects’ thoughts about aging.

“Young, healthy people who hold ageist attitudes may put themselves at risk of heart disease up to 40 years later,” Levy concluded in the study, published in Psychological Science in March of 2009.

Ageism is a utility knife of wicked versatility. It affects even things you wouldn’t expect to have a psychological dimension. Things such as balance, handwriting, memory. Even hearing loss.

In one study, Levy asked septuagenarian test subjects to think of words that described older people. Those who came up with words like “frail” more than words like “wise” saw their hearing degrade more quickly. Three years later, this group’s hearing was significantly worse than the group that had held more positive views of aging.

Just a few weeks ago, Levy, in collaboration with the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, published perhaps her most audacious study yet — and her most personal. Levy had a beloved grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Could the course of that kind of affliction, too, be steered by our thoughts?

Levy had already produced one blockbuster study suggesting the answer is yes. In a 2016, she and colleagues compared the ageism scores from that Baltimore Longitudinal study to the autopsied brains of the study subjects who had died. The brains of subjects who had held the most negative age stereotypes bloomed with tangles of amyloid plaques, and showed significant hippocampal shrinkage.

In the new study, within a different data set of older subjects, Levy zeroed in on a particular type of dementia candidate. People who carry the ε4 variant on the APOE gene are more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The chance is around 50 percent.

““So half of this is environmental,” says Levy. “We thought the positive beliefs might be one of the environmental factors that explain why some people with APOE4 develop dementia and others do not.”

Around a quarter of the subjects carried APOE4—as revealed by genetic testing at the beginning of the study. All the subjects were dementia-free at that point. Levy compared the attitude data to the health outcomes. Turned out, the APOE4 carriers who held rosier views of aging were less than half as likely to show signs of dementia four years later.

So what is actually going on here? What might explain the dramatic physiological effects of something as ineffable as mere “thoughts”?

For one thing, our attitudes, conscious or not, drive our behavior. This was likely a factor in Levy’s studies of stereotypes and long-term heart-health. “If people hold more negative views of aging, they may be less likely to walk the extra block or engage in healthy behaviors as they get older,” Levy said. “Because they tend to think of poor health as inevitable later in life.”

But a more potent factor — in some ways the elephant in the room in all aging stereotype studies — is this: there’s often a disconnect between young people and their future selves.

“People under forty don’t think of themselves as eventually getting older,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, whose pioneering work on age primes paved the way for Levy’s. That disconnect is a problem. It prevents young people from, for instance, developing habits that would profit their older selves down the line. (Like saving for retirement, as the behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown.) Just thinking about growing old is heart-constrictingly stressful – if, that is, you expect older age to be a time of pain and loneliness and confinement, rather than a time of leisure and discount travel and free play with tow-headed grandkids.

Ageism, at root, is about fear.

Robert Butler, the psychiatrist who coined the term “ageism,” thought ageism and elder abuse stem from “deeply human concerns and fears about the vulnerability inherent in the later years of life.” The idea of shuffling inexorably toward the grave scares the hell out of us. So we hold the shufflers at a contemptible distance – even as we ourselves, bit by invisible bit, become them.

“One time I picked up my father at the airport,” recalls Langer, “and I said ‘Dad, how was the flight?’” He said, ‘It was fine but there were all these old people on the plane.’ My father was in his eighties. Ageism is rampant among older people.”

This curious, common phenomenon of prejudice against one’s own group makes ageism different from the other ‘ism’s that Facebook actually cares about, like sexism and racism. People don’t typically diss their own gender or race. If others diss our gender or race, well, we can develop antibodies against those attacks from an early age, and ward off those poisonous judgments. Age is different. To the young, “old people” can seem almost like a different species—crotchety and frail and out to lunch. Until one day the young actually are old, and find themselves undefended against the very stereotypes they so deeply absorbed. And they sink to their low estimation of themselves.

This is all bad news for those ageist 20-something Facebook posters. They don’t know what flight plan they just filed.

But here’s the rub. Levy believes it’s possible to change that flight plan.

In fact, almost all her studies can be flipped to reveal not the destructive effects of negative aging stereotypes but the healthful effects of positive ones. Her whole  body of work, in a way, is a call for a public-health campaign against ageism.

“We know that children as young as three or four have taken in those negative stereotypes of our culture, and we know that those stereotypes are reinforced in young adulthood and middle age,” she says. “So by the time individuals reach older age the stereotypes can be pretty engrained.

“But we also have research that suggests that thoughts are malleable. If you prompt them, most people can come up with positive images. Some of those strategies we can learn. People can be taught to question negative beliefs.

“Because we know this starts at a young age, the earlier the interventions happen, the better. For example, You can make curriculum changes” in schools. “There are programs where older individuals come into classrooms and become resources.”

Langer’s work carries a similar message.

Many of her age-priming studies are about tricking the old to remember what it was like to be young — the better to tap the youthfulness that is still in them. (In her famous  Counterclockwise study, from 1979, older subjects were dropped into an elaborate re-creation of the ‘50s and emerged, one week later, measurably more spry. It has inspired the re-design of some seniors facilities and the re-thinking of elder care.)

But the rest of them are about nudging the young to think about what it’ll be like to be old.

“Let me tell you something I wanted to do years ago but couldn’t get funding,” Langer says. “I wanted to create a building that simulated life at age 70. As you get older, your body changes. You feel temperatures more intensely. Your field of vision narrows. By having a 40-year-old live in such a place — and I don’t think it’d take more than about three weeks — they’d probably develop the skill to be able to overcome, or at least adapt to, these deficits.”

For the Internet hate-mongers, it would be a powerful intervention. It might just keep them alive.


From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

Featured Published Stories Archive

from the NEW YORK TIMES, Sept 26, 2003

ON an overcast afternoon, eight snorkel divers and two guides — all of us encased in snug, full-body wet suits — gathered under a logging bridge on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and waded into the fast-rushing Campbell River. We took a few moments to acclimatize in the shallows, hyperventilating a little as the glacier-born river flooded our suits.
The women had removed their earrings; trout passing through the river tend to strike at anything shiny, whatever flesh it may be attached to. After a bit of low comedy involving the cumbersome fins and the current, I pushed out into the main flow, looked down and swallowed my breath again. A few feet in front of me was a salmon the size of a dancer’s leg. Tail forked, flanks rust-red, it tracked laterally across the river, whip-cracking the muscle of its body. This tyee was probably five or six years old and at least 35 pounds. The size was to some extent an illusion; but even allowing for the double magnification of the water and the mask, it was one big fish. And it wasn’t alone. Looming out of the shadows now were others, kings and cohos and the odd straggling pink, each salmon churning upstream, a flash of biological imperative in my peripheral vision.
It’s a strange way to see a game fish: not on a dinner plate or at the end of a fishing line, but alive and free and in your face.
The annual salmon spawn really is one of those mysterious, natural spectacles worthy of the build up. Almost half a million Pacific salmon return to the Campbell each year from the ocean, inching back to their natal streams, to the precise football-size patch of riverbed where, for them, the whole plot began.
They come in succession: the humpbacked pinks, the silver-sided coho and eventually the fiercely hooked-nosed chum. But most impressive of all is the tyee, the coastal Indians’ word for chief, a title Chinook salmon earn when they hit 30 pounds. These are the fish that have given the Campbell a reputation for almost unmatched salmon fishing — at least until recently.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, loss of habitat, overfishing and, perhaps, climate change turned the slow depletion in Pacific salmon stocks into a crisis gravely, recalling what happened to the cod stocks of the East Coast. Strict fishing regulations were imposed on most salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia.
Almost all salmon fishing in the Campbell, therefore, is now catch-and-release. But an alternative has grown in its place. If you can’t take salmon out of the river, nothing says you can’t climb in there with them.
The Pacific salmon in this stretch of the Campbell River would all be dead within a month. Unlike their Atlantic cousins, returning Pacific salmon die after just one reproductive season. Once they hit fresh water, the fuse is ignited. They stop eating; the only fuel available to them is their own bodies, which they quickly deplete. Battered by rocks and snacked on in passing by lazy seals, they’re soon marked with open wounds. Fungus grows in the wounds. And the once gleaming silver flanks begin to fuzz over with gray. The fish start to leave bits of themselves in the water, to mix with the milt and the roe. In few other places in nature do sex and death so explicitly commingle.
The number of coho in the river on this day last October was surprising; they don’t generally spawn in deep water. But because there had been so little rain, they weren’t moving into the tributaries, Catherine Temple, founder of Paradise Found Adventure Tours, explained about the near-drought conditions on this late-season day. Typically, rainwater in the river is a signal to the fish that it’s time to move out into the spawning beds.
Ms. Temple’s six-year-old company bills itself as the only one in North America that offers snorkeling-with-salmon tours. (And a search of the Internet seems to support that claim.) Which isn’t to say that individuals around here hadn’t thought of trying it earlier. The first probably was the Canadian outdoorsman and writer Roderick Haig-Brown, who in the 1950’s donned a mask and snorkel to observe the effects of a new dam on the behavior of the fish and, not incidentally, to see where they were hiding (he was a fisherman, first and foremost). In the 1970’s and 80’s, locals started getting into the act. Only the unusual clarity of the river makes this sport possible: on some days, in bright sunshine, fish can be seen finning 30 feet away.
On this day, the big pink run was largely over and the chum run had yet to begin. Next to the tyee, the chum are the most arresting fish in the Campbell, with their lantern jaws and guard-dog teeth, which nature starts to manufacture the moment the fish enters fresh water, a signal that it will soon be needing weaponry if it is to have a chance in the territorial skirmishes.
”The chum won’t move in till the chinook are gone because they’re in direct competition for the beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”And the coho didn’t come till the pinks were gone. Apparently they don’t like their smell.”
At one point, to better appreciate what the salmon were up against, I spun around and kicked back against the current, hard, until my legs burned. I still lost ground. But I noticed, for the first time, some salmon drifting downriver with me. And the Sisyphean nature of their task sank in: a spawning salmon cannot rest without backsliding at an alarming rate; and yet, it has to rest. So its labor becomes two strokes forward, a stroke and a half back, for days, weeks, months.

A guide, Jamie Turko, grew up on Vancouver Island. As a boy, he and his pals would float like torpedoes down the whole navigable length of the river, a 45-minute run. Back then, the fish were so plentiful they would routinely collide with him. Not so now. ”I’ve only had two bump into me so far this year,” he said.

Fish stocks have recovered somewhat in the last three years but are only about 60 percent of the levels they were a decade ago. And though the tyee are still big enough to set the eyes of most visiting fishermen spinning, they’re not nearly as big as they used to be. It was not uncommon, Mr. Turko said, to have 200-pound salmon 500 or 600 years ago. (The modern record is 122 pounds.) If you belonged to the local Tyee club in the early 1950’s, you would routinely bag fish in the 65-pound range; now the biggest are pushing 50. Because no limits were traditionally imposed on how large a fish you could take from the river — only how small — the biggest tyee were removed from the gene pool. Only in the last few years have maximum limits been imposed as well as minimums. But it’s too late: the really big fish are probably gone forever.

One way to approach snorkeling with the salmon of the Campbell is to think of it as a metaphor for an ancient relationship. People in these parts have relied on salmon as a food source for as long as there have been people in these parts. Salmon rivers determined settlement patterns. To the Indians of the region, salmon were and remain sacred. (The Haida people believed the Pacific salmon were actually a race of subterranean humans who took the form of fish when they rose out of the ground and into the oceans.) ”Much of their behavior remains cloaked in mystery still,” Mr. Haig-Brown wrote of the salmon in the Campbell. ”Where exactly in the ocean do they go, when they leave the streams where they were born? How do they find their way home? What is the immediate purpose of this schooling in the canyon pool at what must be almost the end of their journey?”

Floating down the river, elbow to elbow with others, like part of an advancing line of rugby players, the snorkel diver is struck by an inevitable question: Can this activity be good for the fish?

The wager all eco-tour operators make is that whatever impact their visitors have on nature is more than offset by the impact nature makes on them, that a renewed respect for the chain of life and a diminished desire to interfere with natural processes is absorbed and passed on. It’s not clear if or how humans in the river affect salmon. There is some evidence that the fish can at least smell large mammals in the water and that they are sensitive to electromagnetic changes of the sort a human might generate.

”The main concern, however, is that the added stress of people’s floating down the river will cause the fish to die of exhaustion too soon, before they reach their spawning beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”But the fish don’t seem to be affected.”

Dave Ewart, manager of the Quinsam River Hatchery, which has been doing fish counts for more than 20 years, gives Ms. Temple the benefit of the doubt. ”I’m sure, just as with killer-whale watching, there will come a time when it’s just too much, that there will be a breaking point,” he said. ”But my experience is that when it rains and the river comes up and it’s time to spawn, nothing stops these fish. They’ll go wherever they have to go.”




Featured Published Stories Archive

Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha” moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?

From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (cover story), March 2015

Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.

Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.

Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”

What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with buy ambien american express this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con. Continue reading Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Chicken Suit for the Soul

Chicken Suit for the Soul

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive

from READER’S DIGEST, June 2014

It promised to be the best job so far that summer—which wasn’t saying much. I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, to seal cracks, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.

That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who could bust a few dance moves on the corner.

I fit the suit. I got the job.

The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversize head—more chicken than rooster—was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulderpads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up right with mine.

It was mid-July. Even the mosquitos were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was only allowed during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view—lest any children (delicate creatures) be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.

It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in adult sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen pre-teens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”

My best defense was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm—er, wing—more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.

The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head and I actually re-oriented to give them that bigger, softer target.

No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupee, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stock room, removed my head and hyperventilated.

That night at the supper table my dad said grace. “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service” — the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, said quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and still trotted out for his four kids, who were mostly just glad it was so short. Then he asked: “How’d it go?”

To everyone’s surprise—but mostly mine—I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.

“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”

My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:

“No you don’t.”

This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster) and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”

Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”

We’re only lent to each other, the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the Twist or the Bus Stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.

The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it I deposited a cheque from Hormel Foods for $86, and felt like a king.

From the archives: Fishing for Madeline

From the archives: Fishing for Madeline

Essays Featured Kids Published Stories Archive


From READER’S DIGEST, Dec. 2010 – Quinton Gordon photograph

Today was a big day, I’d reminded my daughter. Right after kindergarten we had a date. “Rick’s taking us fishing. He’ll teach us about fish.”

Madeline, who is five, looked unmoved.

“I already know everything about fish,” she said.

“You do?”


“What do you know about fish?”

“They need to eat to stay strong, and they need to be wet to stay alive. They swim with their mouth open so they never get thirsty.”

It wasn’t a bad start.

“Rick” is Rick Hansen, the renowned wheelchair athlete who, outside of his charity work, happens to know everything — or close to everything — about one particular fish. Hansen is director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. And as he loomed into view through a misty rain, from the deck of his boat bobbing at the public wharf in Steveston, B.C., she recognized him as the “man in motion” guy in one of her kids’ books.

Madeline had never really been fishing. Oh, I’d taken her to the Father’s Day derby at nearby Rice Lake, where about a million little kids lily-dip their lines in hopes of snagging one of the timid little trout in there. But this was something else. White sturgeon are a species so big and old and storied that catching one is almost as much of a life-changing experience as tagging it and putting it back—even for adults. The sturgeon that swim in the Fraser today are evolutionarily unchanged from the ones that swam before the ice age before the last ice age. No joke: we were going fishing for dinosaurs.

His folded wheelchair tucked between the seats, face flush with the pleasure of being out of the office, Hansen throttled up and we nosed out of port. The wind, here in the estuary, carried the tang of sea salt. The working river was doing double-time – seiners schlepping their heavy nets, tugs towing barges of sawdust, a crane lowering a tankerload of cars from Asia onto the dock. None of this interested Madeline much. Look, there were two TVs on board! When it became sadly clear that neither was going to pick up Babar, she tuned in to Rick’s explanation. One screen mapped where we were. The other was a fishfinder. “In the old days you used to be able to say, well the fish just weren’t around,” Rick said. “Now you have to admit, we just weren’t smart enough to catch them.”

Madeline sat on my lap. I could feel the warmth of her right through the yellow rubber rain pants. It was kind of blissful. To busy parents of little kids, life too often seems like a string of teachable moments squandered. By the time we realize what we should have said to help decode their wonder and give it a name, the door has slammed shut. But a day spent fishing for sturgeon is one long master-class in pretty much everything that’s important to know. The teaching goes both ways. Adults make fishing complicated, but a kid’s appreciation of it—as of most things—is big-picture simple. Today we would learn not how different a prehistoric fish is from a five-year-old girl, but how similar.

“What do you think sturgeon like to eat?” I’d queried on the drive south through Vancouver. “Worms,” Madeline said, definitively. Turned out she was right: many a novice fisherman casually dangling an earthwormed hook into the Fraser has had a near heart attack when a sturgeon the size of a dancer’s leg takes that bait. But there are things a sturgeon likes even more. Fred Helmer, a veteran BC fishing guide who was along with us, had prepared four rods—including one for Madeline and one for me. And now as we dropped anchor in Rick’s secret favorite spot near the Alex Fraser Bridge, he cast the hooks in and they sank without bubbles. On the menu today was choice pink-salmon parts and —the special of the day — a syrupy clump of skein roe that Fred called “magic bait.” These are protein-rich eggs harvested from a mama pink salmon just preparing to spawn: superpremium catnip.

Fred held his hands a foot or so apart. “How big is the fish you’re going to catch?” Madeline shook her head. He went wider. “This big?” Madeline knew exactly how big. In her kid logic, a successful fishing outing is one in which you land a fish that would fit your clothes. Madeline’s sturgeon, by that reasoning, was going to be 109 centimetres long– three foot seven. Mine would be 175 centimetres—five foot nine.

What’s cool about sturgeon fishing, though, is that it’s not about size. Every fish has equal merit. Nobody would be taking a sturgeon home for dinner tonight. Earlier this century they were fished almost to extinction—twice—and while their numbers recover, the white sturgeon of the Lower Fraser are protected. But this is more than a catch-and-release enterprise: it’s catch-and-tag-and-release. Sturgeon fisherman are tracking the population: where they’re going, how they’re growing, how many of them are out there — and data on the juveniles is just as valuable as data on the old soldiers. To fish for sturgeon is to be an adjunct scientist. Everyone who catches a sturgeon becomes part of the conservation effort, and in this sense a five-year-old’s contribution is as valuable as any biologist’s.


An hour of fishing under the bridge yielded but one tiny sculpin, which Madeline took great joy in setting free. But now the tide had turned. The rising sea was pushing boats upriver, giving the Fraser the appearance that it was running backwards. We were entering a dreamscape where the normal laws of physics were suspended.

The scent of that gorgeous bait was carrying on the current. For the fish, the wind had just picked up outside a bakery.

Madeline’s rod-tip twitched, subtly. Rick took the rod gently, reefed up hard on it, once, then handed it to me. A fish was on.


It felt big. Or at least mad. I struggled to keep too much line from peeling off the reel. “So, Rick has a couple of rules,” Fred said. “You cannot let go of the rod no matter what. If you do go over the side, hang on to the rod and we will come and get you.”

For some long minutes the tug-of-war continued. Then out of the brackish depths of the Fraser it came, Madeline’s sturgeon, tigerish stripes on its back visible first, then the sharklike head and the flicking tail defining the two ends, establishing its size. I had been trying to stay strong for Madeline—the great stoic hunter little girls expect their dads to be—but my arms were blasted. I was shaking and frankly not too far from tears.

“What’s the most humane thing to do with this fella?” I croaked as we brought him alongside.

“Just keep him in the water, relaxed,” Rick said. “We have to set up.”

The fish was still. “Is he dead?” Madeline asked.

“No, Sweetie. He’s had better days. But he’ll be fine.”

Fred guided Madeline’s sturgeon into a hammock-like sling in the water, which Rick then winched up into the boat. Madeline put on gloves. She came up to her fish. It seemed less like a fish than some kind of farm animal with body armour. Something in a medieval petting zoo. We watched the gills opening and closing, flashes of crimson beneath. Was it suffering?

“Sturgeon aren’t like some other fish, where after five minutes out of the water they’re done,” Rick said. “They are incredibly hardy.”

“Back in the day when you could catch and keep sturgeon, my dad would store them on the lawn, for three or four days, with the sprinkler on them – and then go sell them in Chinatown,” Fred said.

“Here’s the mouth—see how leathery it is? Look how it comes out – like a vacuum hose. And these things on its nose are chemical sensors for detecting prey.”

Rick turned in his chair. “They have the ability to locate food that’s way more sophisticated than ours, using vibrations,” he said. Madeline, who sometimes has trouble locating the snacks in her backpack, stroked her sturgeon, its sandpapery skin, incredibly gently.


I picked her up and held her, lengthwise, over top of her sturgeon. It was her size. A measurement confirmed it – within a centimeter. It was probably a few years older. Fred produced an instrument, like the little retail-store gun that scans the barcode tags, and passed it over the fish. BEEP! A microchip under the fish’s skin sent a signal, and a number popped up in the scanner viewscreen.

The fish had been caught once before – on November 22, 2006. Since that day, we would learn, the fish had grown nine centimeters in length but only one in girth – taller but not much fatter. Like Madeline herself. I had a flashback to St. Paul’s hospital, our daughter emerging grey-pink and slimy and a doctor moving her under a warm light and producing a tape measure. Madeline stuck out beyond the last mark, off the charts. “Our child cannot be measured by science!”)

“You can check on your fish once a year,” Rick told Madeline. Thousands of BC schoolkids, from grade two to grade seven, are monitoring the sturgeon stocks by following the stories of individual fish like this one.

As Madeline’s fish rested in the sling, a second sturgeon was brought aboard. This time the scan was beepless. So: a new capture. This fish had never been above water. Fred loaded a little glass tag the size of a grain of rice into what looked like a hypodermic needle.

“I’ll try not to get this needle in my hand—that has happened before,” Fred said. “Now, Madeline, we put the tag right under the surface of his skin, so when the fish grows the tag can move around in his body.”

We tipped both fish toward the river and they slipped in, headfirst. I thought, romantically, that Madeline’s fish might look back at her before swimming away, but it didn’t. Madeline asked to be picked up. She was dead weight. I had the notion that she was drained of energy in sympathy with her exhausted fish.  (Or, less likely, in sympathy with her exhausted dad.) Probably it was just a perfect storm of a couple of late nights, fresh air and a glucose crash from the nut bars.

But clearly, this was all almost too much for her to process. She didn’t have the language for it.

I wondered what new fears we had introduced on this trip. The idea of a whole teeming subsurface world: monsters under the bed. Her fish had been brought up gasping into the air. It looked bad, but it really wasn’t, we insisted. Did she buy it? (You could see her searching for the right analogy and later she found it. “How would you like to be holded under water?”) A million mind-blowing factoids swirled: Dinosaurs are real. Dads are weaker than they let on. And the people we read about in books might one day step out of those books and take us fishing.

She had been a motormouth on the car ride over. From the back seat issued strong opinions on how Beethoven lived in China, how things were better in the days when dads like me weren’t underfoot and moms played with kids and gave them treats. (Also: could she have a horse?) But now she was silent. I looked down at her in my arms. She was asleep.


You can guess how the rest of the story goes. Kid logic prevailed. The sun broke through. Soon after my own fishing rod twitched with a bite. After a monumental struggle that ensured I’d be sleeping with a heating pad for days, I brought this last fish in. Madeline was awake now, saucer-eyed, trying to get close without getting in the way. Fred’s hand got raked by the pointy scutes and was trailing blood as he scanned it.

This fish was monstrous. It measured 93 centimetres around, its belly probably full of pink salmon. It was between sixty and eighty years old – the age of grandpas and grandmas. Now it was going back. With great luck it will still be here a generation from now, and maybe Madeline will catch it again with her own five-year-old son or daughter on a fine fall day like this one.

But there was one thing that didn’t square. Madeline’s fish was Madeline-sized. Mine was supposed to be my dad-sized: that was what she’d ordered. We measured it. From its nose to the tip of its tail it was around 215 centimetres. Madeline leaned close.

“That’s you?” she said.

I shook my head. “It’s taller.”

Then it clicked.

“That’s you on my shoulders.”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Fresh Tracks

Fresh Tracks

Featured Kids Published Stories Archive

The “Spirit Trail,” Harrison Lake, BC.

from BRITISH COLUMBIA magazine, December, 2010

The tubing park at Hemlock Valley Resort doesn’t look like much: just five lanes carved into the side of the hill, separated by hay bales, with a rope tow to schlep the demonstrably lazy to the top. But it provides a perfect teachable moment.

“Girls, in about a minute you’re going to feel like you’re going for gold in Whistler. Because this is very much like the luge.” Madeline lay poised on her inner tube. Lila lay on top of me on the other tube, inert in her snowsuit. (She is two.)

“What’s the luge?” Madeline says. (She is five.)

“An Olympic event.”

“Who invented it?”

“Who invented the luge?”



Last night’s snowfall had creamed the entire valley almost to lodge level. In today’s sunlight it looks as if a painting crew had triple-coated everything in white, leaving the baseboard untouched. You can see the triple-express chair ferrying skiers and snowboarders to the summit – from which, an hour ago, a parasailer had launched, a yellow dot against the blue sky. We shrugged our tubes up to the edge of the slope and over.

It isn’t super-steep. But some space-age polymer on the underside of the tubes makes them unspeakably slippery, and fast. We thundered town, pinched the haybale sidewalls and spun like curling rocks until straw scattered on the runoff slowed us to a silent stop. There was a certain amount of heavy breathing; I realized it was coming from me. Were the kids alive? If so, it occurred to me they might never forgive me. But it soon became clear they’d never forgive me if we didn’t do this 15 more times.

Snow is not the first thing, or even the second or third thing, that comes to mind when someone mentions Harrison Hot Springs, BC, and its surrounds. The village, just two hours’ drive east of Vancouver, is known as a summer getaway — a place of sandcastles (on the beach) and fiddlers (at the arts festival) and boutique cheeses (from the area farms). Even winter here’s just a cooler shade of green. That’s why Hemlock Valley is so freakish. It’s like something out of CS Lewis. Bear north outside of town and push up into the mountains – through the firs as if through the furs in the magic wardrobe—and out you pop into … the French Alps. In Hemlock Valley so much winter snow routinely falls that even amid one of the warmest winters on record in southern BC, it was ski business as usual up here—minus the lift lines.

If it all seemed a little bit magic—slipping in and out of winter in less time than a cab-ride takes to the airport—well, so be it. There is something a bit otherworldly about this former logging town cum-tourist-mecca—and there always has been.

To American gold-rush prospectors, steaming north toward the rumoured motherlode in Yale, Harrison Lake was a golden key. Here was a freshwater highway, 42 miles long and boomerang-shaped, that breeched forbidding mountain ranges like a magic portal to the BC interior, where untold riches lay. And maybe all that concentrated human intention, that thrill of sudden good fortune, is still in the air around here.

Willie Charlie has no qualms about using the “s” word. It is, he says, a spiritual place. Charlie, the soft-spoken chief of the local Chehalis band, is a custodian of many of his people’s legends, recounted an origin myth. A man out fishing had a bountiful day. But instead of sharing his catch, he got selfish. He boiled up a huge batch of fish-head soup that he aimed to quaff down himself in one big greedy slurp. Sadly for him, the great creator was watching, and turned him to stone. He stands forever on a mountain ridge west of Harrison Hot Springs. And that boiling cauldron of soup? That’s the hot springs.

To all the Natives in the area the springs carried – and still do – a healing power. But no longer can you just jump into the pools that once gathered beneath a fissure in the mountainside. The healing waters have long since been harnessed. They pop out now in two places: the pedestrian public hot springs and the lavish, spa-like pools of Harrison Hot Springs Resort.

The morning we arrived, the hotel itself seemed to be just stirring from sleep. Guests padded groggily through the lobby in plush robes en route to the outdoor pools – thence to slide into the water until the warm vapours met the cool air and their hair turned white.

The rest of the family beat me into the water. I was finishing breakfast upstairs with a guy who knows as much as anyone as the other thing that has put Harrison Hot Springs on the map.

Bill Miller is a big man with a shaggy mane of cinammon-brown hair. Almost every day, rain or shine, he climbs aboard his Polaris ATV — “Bigfoot Research” on the side — and guns it up the logging roads, high into the mountains looking for … signs. When he’s not on the buggy he’s out dutifully checking out every reported sighting, or he’s on the Net contributing to the sasquatch conversation in forensic detail. Sasquatch sightings have been reported all over the Pacific Northwest. But around Harrison Lake the data points cluster. If Bigfoot lives, he lives here. Did Miller really believe they’re out there? I asked.

“Unless the one I saw died as it walked out of sight, and it was the last one,” he said.

Miller’s eyes drifted into the middle distance, beyond the poised forkful of breakfast sausage and out through the big windows into the east shore of the lake, as he reconstructed the memory. Co-ordinates: 2003, 4200 feet up Sentinal Mountain, near Stoki creek. Miller was scanning a nearby slope when, in a clearing, something moved. He got off the buggy and peered through 600 mm of camera lens. He picked the thing up again there, in the shaky telephoto spotlight, and squeezed off two shots. The first one was blurred. The second one caught Bigfoot. The very same species of hominid, maybe, that Miller had glimpsed through the fog while night-fishing in Minnesota almost thirty years ago, and that set his Bigfoot obsession in train. Except that the picture is not quite good enough to show anyone. Another inconclusive photo is going to create more scoffers than believers. And so he will not rest until he has the definitive vindicating evidence – a crisp photo, a sharp video sequence. He has already spent, in his estimation, $150,000 of his own money in the hunt. (If he accepted money, his motives would be suspect and his credibility shot, he reasons.)

The fruits of his labours to date: some footprints in the middle of nowhere. A rough catalogue of fugitive glimpses. No bones, no nests. “People say to me, you’ve been at this almost every day for a decade and you haven’t found it. Well, look around. This is a vast place. You could hide a dinosaur up here and no one would know.”

But just by being here, doing his thing, Miller is kindling a buzz around Bigfoot not seen around here since they cancelled Sasquatch Days. He’s trying to scratch up funding to get a good-quality replica of the creature built and put on display here in Harrison, a diarama kind of thing, sasquatch in his natural habitat. He thinks there might be a market for Sasquatch tours, taking tourists into the mountains to the locations of famous reported sightings. You’d bring a lunch and eat it right there on the Sasquatch trail.

It’s easy to think of the whole Harrison Hot Springs area as a filigreed map of trails like that, some visible, some not, dating back thousands of years – First Nations, explorers, fur traders, prospectors and maybe hairy hominids too, all laying down tracks. It would take something like a satellite map not of space but of time to reveal them (get on this, Google people). But even today, local residents are still finding ways to create new trails, with surprising payoffs for those who discover them.

Earlier, we’d pulled off the main road and stopped at an unmarked trailhead. This was the “spirit trail,” so named by some geocachers who had hidden a small prize at the end of it (a box maybe containing batteries for the gps that had got you there). The woods in there felt primeval. Traffic sounds soon fell away, swallowed up by the sword ferns. Moss-covered deadfall gave it an elephant’s-graveyard feel. It seemed untrodden by anyone, ever. And then you saw it: halfway down the path, high up on a big hemlock, the face of an old man.

The mask was the handiwork of Ernie Eaves, a potter and semi-retired drama teacher from an area highschool. This was a path he knew of, had walked for years with his dog. But one day he saw the forest differently. The trees seemed somehow…animated. A group of four of them looked like four men playing poker—and so that’s what they became, replete with visors and eye patches. Near the end of the trail is a kind of circle of trees. That’s where Ernie put “the goddesses” – twice-lifesize faces of women across cultures.

Ernie didn’t build this trail to be discovered, or to be written by people like me. He built it, he says, “to make myself laugh.”

I caught up with the rest of the family at the indoor pool at the hotel. There was a strange energy to the scene. Madeline was sharking around in search of warm spots. Where was the kid who was a little bit afraid of water? She was dunking her head, swimming half the width of the pool. Lila was launching herself off the side with crazed abandon, and babbling nonstop in some foreign toddler tongue. Clearly, in the last 24 hours, the kids had made a developmental leap. There’s probably a scientific explanation –like, that’s how kids’ brains grow, in observable fits and starts. But I couldn’t help think that something in the water had shot them through with vitality, like Hume Cronyn in Cocoon.

Probably, whatever mysticism people find in Harrison Hot Springs is mysticism they have brought here themselves. “The great thing about Harrison is that it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is – a beautiful spot at the end of a long lake,” Ernie Eaves told me. The medicine water issues not from rock but from the espresso machine at Muddy Waters – a coffee spot we visited on the way out of town. Sunshine speared through the big glass windows. We fueled up on sandwiches for the trip home and gazed at the photos on the wall. Portraits of guys with names like Cootie Williams and Waldren “Frog” Joseph. Jazz legends who never in their lifetimes saw this much light.

Perpetual Motion

Perpetual Motion

Featured Published Stories Archive

from Vancouver magazine, Nov 2, 2008

If you’re an endangered animal, you’d better hope that human beings find you cute, like a Vancouver Island marmot, or charismatic, like a Grizzly, or majestic, like a whooping crane. Then supermodels and rock stars and Disney animators will make emotional appeals on your behalf, and the general public will feel genuinely sorry for you, and you’re in the clear.

The leatherback sea turtle, whose catastrophic decline in the last two decades has landed it in the “critically endangered” category, isn’t what you’d call cute or charismatic. (Although it is kind of staggering in its primitive grandeur. Adult leatherbacks can grow to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. They are, pretty much, living dinosaurs.) Its virtues are subtler. The survival of the leatherback is a campaign liable to attract not movie stars but poets, or perhaps philosophers.

The leatherback is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. At least it was until ten years ago, when Todd Jones, then at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton — who would move to Vancouver and become the first scientist to successfully raise leatherbacks in captivity at a lab at UBC —took up their cause. Before then, all we knew about leatherbacks was that they hatched in the dead of night on a tropical beach, scurried down the sand and, if they made it to the ocean alive, started swimming. And then they were gone. Where they went between that instant of departure and the time they waddled ashore, as adults, perhaps twenty years later, nobody knew, (the legendary turtle researcher Archie Carr called this stretch “the lost years”). The leatherbacks were believed to command entire oceans and move into neighbouring ones, their whole lives consisting, Michael Phelps-like, of swimming and eating. (Unlike Phelps, who must occasionally stop to cash endorsement cheques, leatherbacks never stop swimming. They fuel on the go by swimming with their mouths open, their jaws moving.) Because of this cradle-to-nest existence in the open sea, beyond even continental shelves, leatherbacks live in a world without obvious dimensions: infinite space. “They have no concept of barriers,” says Jones. “That was the main obstacle to overcome.”

If you put a leatherback in a tank in a lab, it will swim into the side: bump, bump, bump. It will never make the adjustment. “They’re a deep-diving animal, so they’ll also dive down and hit the bottom of the tank, over and over,” says the 33-year-old zoologist. “They get cuts and abrasions leading to infection and death.” (Leatherbacks are immunocompromised, like AIDS patients – likely because they’ve lived in such a dilute medium, relatively free of bacteria, that they don’t develop much tolerance.) It’s not that they can’t see the walls. “They are visual animals,” says Jones. “They can spy their food and they can go for it. It’s just that they seem to have no grasp of the idea of a barrier. So whether they see the wall or not, they don’t know what it is. They might understand that there’s an obstruction there. But in their life they aren’t really bothered by obstructions. To a leatherback an obstruction is just something you swim around and keep going.”

The very same factors that have made leatherbacks so vulnerable in any container we might hold them for study, are what make them so important. They are at home everywhere we are not. Like very few other species, they have no defined range. The whole unpeopled world is their range. So anything that happens in any marine environment, anywhere – from climate change to overfishing to pollution – affects leatherbacks. It registers in them, in their physiology, in ways scientists like Jones can read. “Leatherbacks,” he says, “are the poster species for the health of the world’s oceans.”

And that, despite the poor odds of success, was why Jones and two colleagues four years ago made a midnight grab of twenty leatherback hatchlings from a beach in the British Virgin Islands. The trio brought them back to UBC in styrofoam coolers they carried on the plane, spritzing them periodically with water to keep them moist.

The question was how to turn a five-by-one-and-a-half metre tank into a boundless universe. Jones had had a brainwave about this. He’d contrived a backpack-like harness, made of soft rubber tubing that would fit over the shells of young turtles so that they’d hang suspended, as if in the open ocean, driving forward against the resistance of 100-pound-test fishing line, their flippers churning slow figure-eights, perpetually. Did Jones’s hatchlings now believe they were back home? It’s impossible to say. But the simple fact that they survived suggests that wherever they thought they were was a place they could live with.

The turtles grew. They hoovered down a diet Jones created to simulate what leatherbacks eat in the wild. (Jones calls it “squid jell-o.”) Jones created an antibiotic regimen to tackle the inevitable infections, and worked out the day/night cycles of artificial light. “It took me easily a decade to get all of this right.” (The feat did not go unnoticed. His research has been widely published, and this year Popular Science magazine included Jones on their list of groundbreaking scientists they call “The Brilliant 10.”)

Jones has the kind of wholesome enthusiasm you see in the hosts of TV science shows for kids. He seems to have ended up exactly where he needed to be — the greatest ally of a creature he could identify with more than most. Jones grew up fishing and surfing and diving and basically wanting to be Jacques Cousteau. In college he allowed himself to be steered into the more lucrative field of ocean engineering, until it dawned on him, two years into the program that “this isn’t even close to marine biology.” He marched into the faculty office and announced he was switching to zoology, coming home. Other people’s plans for you are just an obstruction you swim around and keep going – in Jones’s case, a subspecialty that has required the marathon cadence and all-consuming focus of, well, a leatherback.

Jones’ niche is in a new field of “conservation physiology” – which bridges the interests of his past and current advisors. Conservation and animal physiology don’t seem natural bedmates, but Jones has found a productive cascade of forensics where they join: call it CSI North Pacific.

The idea is that if you look at the micro picture – the metabolism and growth rate of an individual turtle — you can figure out where that turtle, given its energy budget, can go. And once you know where it can go, you look at the macro picture, the environment, for clues about where it will go.

“How much food does a leatherback need?” asks Jones. “To reach adulthood a leatherback will consume 165 tonnes of jellyfish. That’s one turtle. Multiply that by let’s say, 5,000 juvenile leatherbacks in the Pacific. Where are they going to find that much food? So now you bring out the maps.”

He pops open up a Powerpoint demo on his laptop. “Where are the jellyfish? Well, where is their food? Where are the chlorophyll hotspots? Where are the plankton? That’s where the leatherbacks have to go. Can they go there? This is cold water. Can they move into it without blowing their energy budget?” Zero in on the natural leatherback flight paths, Jones says, and you can make marine-protected areas en route.

“We believe you’ll find turtles right there.” He points to a spot in the South Pacific. “But look who’s coming in — Hawaiian long-line fisheries, and Samoan drift gillnet fisheries here. When are the animals moving through? During those periods we should have fishing restrictions.”

Of those original 20 hatchlings scooped off the Caribbean beach, Jones managed to keep 10 of them alive for a year, and four of them alive for almost three years. The four achieved modest fame. They had grown from hatchlings the size of poker chips to small juveniles the size of garbage-can lids, specimens virtually never-before seen. Then came last November’s freak snowstorm that knocked out power to the campus. “Our tanks dropped down to ten degrees Celsius, and once we got the generator going we had to heat one tank at a time,” Jones says. “The turtles survived –but it was hard on them. They went off feeding. A bacterium took hold and moved into the bloodstream. We lost them in December.”

The final leatherback – named somewhat dispassionately “DC-10” — died a few months ago after Jones leant it out for a collaborative study, with several other universities, on how leatherbacks see and hear under water. (The better to learn how to put alarms on fishing nets that will deter turtles from the bait.) “I knew there was a risk, but it was important research,” Jones says. DC-10 was put under a general anesthetic. It never woke up.

But three years of close observation yielded a bagful of invaluable data points. Jones will schlep it all to Madison, Wisconsin, where he will begin a postdoc fellowship in the spring building models to nail down leatherback distributions. It has taken ten years to figure out what questions to ask. The hard part won’t be the answers, which are fairly obvious: changes to commercial fishing practices here and here and here, fixed in legislation with real teeth. The hard part is “whether or not the international community will listen,” will indeed have any interest at all in protecting a strange, autistic fugitive, moving around somewhere out there, with precious microfilm under its hat.