Off Beat: Tall tales of tall creatures fly like sparks at scientists' campfire

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When a group of international volcanologists visited Mount St. Helens this month, they picked up the hands-on experience that comes with working in one of the world's best natural laboratories.

They also picked up a bit of Northwest lore.

Sitting around the campfire after a day in the field, the group -- including 11 visitors representing nine countries -- swapped stories under a sky full of stars. Light-hearted talk at one point veered toward Sasquatch, one of the region's best-known tall tales.

The ape-like beast is familiar to just about any Washington or Oregon native. But Sasquatch drew some quizzical looks from this audience. It was clear not everyone knew the name.

"Yeti?" Italian visitor Domenico Mangione offered.

A camp host explained it this way:

"It's like Yeti, except it lives in the forest instead of the snow," she said.

That prompted someone else to expand the topic. What mythical beasts do you have in your countries?

A few South and Central American researchers mentioned "chupacabra." That's the creature that reportedly preys on and drains the blood of livestock, including goats. The term "chupacabra" can be literally translated as "goat-sucker." (This drew chuckles from the Americans in the group.)

As reported Sunday in The Columbian, the group did field work near Mount St. Helens as part of an eight-week course, accompanied by counterparts in the U.S. Geological Survey.

The campfire wasn't the first time the Northwest's signature monster came up. At a stop overlooking Ape Canyon to the east of Mount St. Helens that day, John Pallister of the Cascades Volcano Observatory took the opportunity to get everyone acquainted.

"There are some who believe that this is where the Sasquatch lives," Pallister said. "Do you know the Sasquatch?"

Again, only a few nods and smiles.

But after this week, the legend of Sasquatch may reach new corners of the world.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.