Playing in the Sun

I spent the majority of my academic career ignoring North American archaeology – it just never held the same fascination for me as some of the other parts of the world. Trust me, though, the irony of now having a job doing North American archaeology is not lost on me. Thus I have been attempting to read up on the archaeology of the area and visit some local sites, etc. – bit of a crash course while I am off of work for a couple of days.

I roped a friend into journeying with me to Writing-on-Stone – it is a fantastic area filled with hoodoos, as well as some pictographs. Basically it was a thin sham of a reason to get out and climb on big rocks like a kid again

We set off early in the morning, but it wasn’t until we were already on the road that we realised we weren’t entirely sure where we were going – thank goodness for signs!

They have a fantastic visitor centre which is delightfully interactive and by the time we were finished there, the sun had decided to cooperate nicely. A bit of lunch was in order before doing the couple kilometer walk to the pictographs, and then back to play on the hoodoos upon our return.

The walk was very pleasant, there were lots of little birds out chirping to their heart’s content, and there was a friendly little breeze to keep us from dying in the sun.
The pictographs depict a battle in which you can see various warriors, projectiles, tipis, and horses (as well as a fair amount of more recent vulgar graffiti). Sadly they are eroding a fair amount due to the nature of the rock and the processes of time and weather.

There was a mysterious path leading off beyond the pictographs I was quite eager to explore, but alas, my traveling companion was running low on water, so that adventure will wait until next time. On the quick walk back (why does it always seem faster once you know where you’re going?) we spotted a very large Bull snake – apparently they climb up to high places so they can invade bird nests.

I highly recommend the hoodoo climbing though. We had planned to climb around for half an hour but instead spent an hour and a half clambering about the area. Of course I was brilliant and wore my most gripless pair of sandals, in the end I found going barefoot actually gave me better traction and more precise footing (also it was wonderfully exfoliating). Why do we so quickly forget the lesson that it is always easier to climb up than it is to climb back down? There were some rather precarious perches to get down from but I am increasingly discovering that being so horrifically accident-prone as a child has made me much more cautious and agile as an adult than I suspect either of my parents would have guessed. A day free of nasty falls made for a delightful outing.


A Day of Misadventures

It seemed like a decent day to begin with, but then again they always do. We coordinated with the helicopter guys to sling out the argo, our Birch Mountain project is done until the next phase of the project and we needed the argo for a smaller 2-day job just south of Ft. Mac. We had agreed to meet at the start of the winter road to Ft. Chipewyan to save on flight times with the helicopter. The drive out was remarkably pleasant and went by quickly; we were early so we enjoyed the sun and watched the giant dragonflies zip around overhead – did you know they will rip the heads off their prey in mid-flight, awesome! The argo eventually arrived, we loaded it up quickly and were on our way back to the city in no time.

Driving back one of the other new girls wanted some practice driving the truck and trailer, which went very well until we were on the outskirts of the city. A number of factors combined and resulted in us being rear-ended: a semi truck did not yield and was turning into our lane, we changed lanes but just as the traffic light was yellow, the slamming on of brakes was too sudden of a stop for the driver behind us. Thankfully the trailer is low and the damage was fairly minimal. The gentleman in the truck was nice about the whole situation, quite calm throughout it which was good seeing as how our driver was a tad shaken up over her first accident. But because they were both work trucks, and ours a rental as well, we needed to wait for the police to arrive, make statements, file a report, etc. I’m so glad it wasn’t a rainy day.

Back on the road again though, we needed to stop off at the hotel, pick up some maps and leave the second truck behind before heading off to our new job. It sounds so simple but as our second truck pulled into the parking lot it inexplicably died on us. The electrical had been acting up a bit lately, we should have known something else was coming. So, we pulled out our lunches and had a nice break while we waited for the tow truck to arrive and give us a prognosis – alas, they are never as fast in arriving as they say they will be. But in the end he quickly worked his magic and it is up and running again.

Excitedly we hit the road once again. It was a very pleasant drive until we arrived at a very severe looking security gate barring our passage. It would seem that the area we need to survey for a new water pipeline is on a lease belonging to one of the major oil companies. Most unfortunate for us, this company has very strict access restrictions: we need clearance and passes, we need to go through their safety orientation and we need to do drug and alcohol testing. However, the company that sub-contracted to us didn’t tell us we’d be on this lease, so none of that is in place. They were kind enough to let us onto the lease to turn around and promptly leave, at which point we decided to say screw it, it’s time to go home.

Oh, the adventures we will have…

What an adventure-filled couple of days! We have finally figured out where the favoured areas are and are starting to find sites – high sandy knolls beside clearly defined water sources, they didn’t seem to like the vague, sloping areas at all. The lithics are not terribly spectacular to the average eye, but after a week of nothing they seem absolutely gorgeous.

It was a terribly long day though, 15.5hrs in the field – far less than ideal but we are at the mercy of the helicopter pilots and they could not ferry us home any sooner. It was amazing to be out so early in the morning though, everything was so crisp and fresh, all the birds were out and chirping, none of the insects were up and buzzing around yet. Everything just smells and looks more vibrant as the sun is coming up.

The following day was quite the exciting day;  it was my turn to find a site, this time with the tiniest flake possible. I found a second, slightly bigger flake tangled in the roots of the moss from the top of my test pit. It was reassuring to be reminded that yes, I still do know what I’m looking for – we just weren’t finding anything.

Later in the afternoon we went to scope out some of the other high potential areas; it was a much more dynamic argo ride. We managed to get ourselves into the middle of quite a bit of swampy muskeg, we ended up crashing through the forest in attempts to find where the road had abandoned us, I almost bounced out the back several times – quite the drive. However, it was not long until disaster struck!

Alright perhaps that’s a tad dramatic, but it could have been quite serious. We came upon a tree that was crossing the path, a tree we believed would easily go under the argo and be nothing more than an unpleasant bump. However, at the last second it whipped back and caught Yvonne, our team leader across the hand and then squarely in the chest. She stopped the argo and hopped out of the argo to catch her breath; however, she very quickly went into a swoon that would have made any Victorian woman proud. Instantly we had her in a recovery position, injury iced and the sat phone ready to go (please note I didn’t take the picture until she was on her road to recovery).
Luckily we were done for the day and heading for the helicopter anyways. Tucking her safely into the passenger seat we were off again in no time.

Disaster strikes again! Ok, not disaster but adventure time. The storm we were trying to out pace quickly caught up to us and we decided perhaps it was not wise to be driving around with the lightning directly overhead. Pulling over we broke into out emergency kit and set up a cozy little tarp house to wait out the rain under. The sound of the thunder cracking and rolling around us as we sat huddled in the heart of the storm was fantastic, you could feel it reverberating through your bones. Thankfully though the storm passed quickly and we made the rest of the journey home without incident.

Under the Red Sun

Forest fires rage to the north and east of us, the smoke hangs thick in the air and gives the sun a red fierceness. Thankfully they are far enough away that we can continue toiling away.

I awoke to a horrifically mutated arms, I have three bites that seem to have swollen beyond belief. I suspect them to be black or horse fly bites, but the reaction is extreme and causing a bit of concern – they’re very big and hot feeling. But I shall give it a bit of time before I look to have it lanced open or drained with leeches.

Still getting over the feeling of being useless in the field. I have trouble getting my bearings (but that’s not surprising – I get lost all of the time), but more importantly I still feel lost concerning the archaeology side of things. I suddenly don’t feel confident that I’ll recognize a flake or artefact if I see one. I question everything I come across – I hate being back at this stage. I know it’ll get better, I just hope that it is sooner rather than later.

We slung in the argo today, what a difference that makes! We are able to speed around the entire area instead of struggling slowly to walk a few kilometers a day. Our progress should be much better henceforth. We’ve decided to start at the most northern extreme and work our way south. We scout out areas that look like they might be ideal for a camp to be, we fan out and dig numerous test pits to see if we can come across any remains of said camp. It’s not overly systematic but with such a large area to cover it is the best we can do for now.

We play Marco Polo in the forest to locate each other once we’ve spread out. Like little bats searching in the dark we search amongst the moss and trees. Our wildlife sightings on the ground have been minimal thus far: 1 feisty squirrel, and 1 rather curious bunny. Black bears and moose have been spotted whilst flying in and out but thankfully they’ve left us to our digging.

Cultural Pursuits

I have found my rustic boardwalks and dusty trails! They exist at the Heritage Park, a rather quaint little place depicting the local history (minus any mention of how the natives fit into the whole process). There’s an odd hermit that lives right in the middle of the museum, we were requested not to go poking around his house though (how disappointing).

I feel like this discovery in the museum helps me to justify my love of gin – it’s for the good of my kidneys!


We explored the Oil Sands Discovery Centre as well. It was interesting to see how they managed to put such a positive spin on everything: look at the ingenuity of man! look at the big equipment we use! look at how nicely we clear the area! Come now, it’s called clear-cutting and deforestation. I think my favourite display was the one discussing the use of nuclear devices to create caverns underground where the liquified oil would pool and then could be extracted with great ease. Aren’t humans clever! And when they start sprouting multiple arms and legs from the radiation they’ll be even more productive.


After such a riveting bit of culture and education, drinks on a patio were in order. I had a good chat with one of the girls I work with, Angie. We have a fair bit in common and seem to get along well. This is her first foray into CRM work, so we tend to have a lot of the same questions – it’s nice to have a partner in confusion.

Get to da chopper!

It was a half day today, we were chased out of the field by rather fierce-looking thunderstorms moving in from all directions post-haste. If a storm moves in quickly we have to get out before it moves in otherwise we are stuck on the ground until it passes by, and if night falls by that point we’re stuck in the field until morning.

Since we were out before the storm caught up to us, we decided to fly around some of the local lakes and look for some historical sites that needed photographing. Some were rather unspectacular but there was a decent cabin at the one site, and we had a couple of eagles that kept flying past the windows – must have been near their nest.

Thus far the work has been much less intense than I was expecting. The walking is beyond treacherous (I have a good many bruises to verify this), but we’ve put in relatively few test pits – I feel like we should be doing more, working faster but I’m sure that will come next week when we have the argo and can move across the terrain with greater ease. We’ll also be switching crew leaders next week (this week we had Rob and next week we have Yvonne), so it will be interesting to see how differently they operate. Rob seems rather laid back while I am not quite sure Yvonne is like that.

I thought there would be more birds. The woods are oddly quieter than I thought they would be. There are fewer small animals, no cheerful chatter in the trees. Just insects, lots and lots of insects – big ones at that.

Helicopter time!

Helicopters, what a brilliant way to get to and from work. They’re very peaceful once you’re up in flight and it feels as though you’re hardly moving at all. The area we’re working on is called Birch Mountain but it turns out the mountain part is a bit misleading; however, I’m actually quite ok with it being less steep than anticipated. The view is spectacular from the air, you can see every depression in the landscape, the meandering rivers bent almost upon themselves like giant earthworms, the ebb and flow of the trees and muskeg, a cow moose and her calves swimming at the edge of a lake, a well-fed black bear loping through a cutline. On the other hand, you can see all of the logging and clearcutting, the cutlines everywhere, each oil company – a little city of its own, the massive tailings ponds, the dark pits cut so deep, the endless stream of trucks waiting to carry off the black earth.I’m not sure yet how I feel about being a part of that process.

I get to walk through the forest all day long wich is quite lovely – to kneel down amongst the thin trees and work amidst the bugs and spongy earth. Yet, all the time knowing that if nothing is found they’ll move the machinery in and clear-cut the area. part of me rebels at the idea of helping strip and ravage the land, but part of me knows that there is no stopping it – why bemoan the inevitable?

We’ve been surveying the various lease areas of our client and there are a lot more ‘high potential’ areas than our maps indicate (areas where we are likely to find archaeological remains, like higher flatter areas, or areas near good water sources). Thus we need to rethink our plan of attack a bit – walking through muskeg is slow and tedious, the ground is spongy and strewn with downed trees in various states of decay. Thus we have decided the use of an argo is necessary (I’ll attach a photo once it gets here). So a couple members of the team have volunteered to make the treacherous drive back to Calgary to pick one up and bring it back. In the meantime we get a couple of days off.


While at dinner this evening a random gentleman, identified as Sam’s friend (I don’t know any Sams…), had a beer sent over to me – I think this means that Ft. Mac likes me.