Frozen Archaeology

Winter archaeology. Doesn’t that sound fun? No, not really. Everything is coated in a slick layer and the insects have been replaced with the chance of having fingers and toes freeze off. I’m quite happy doing my archaeology when I’m toasty and warm, but alas we had a small pipeline reroute that had to be checked out just outside of Ft. Mac.

It was a novelty to need my sunglasses for the drive up though – I do most of my driving in the dark early morning hours or once the sun has already set, I feel a bit like a mole person some days – toiling away underground. Thus seeing the mountains off on the frosty horizon was a nice change.

Since it was to be a frosty kind of trip we rented a heated, covered argo. Setting up the cover proved a bit trickier than anticipated. We pulled the cover into place and snapped it down but then we saw a couple of other covered argos drive past. They looked much sharper and squared off then our rumpled mess. But once I figured out how to climb in I noticed some straps that needed tightening, which smartened up the overall look a bit more.

Having the heater was such a blessing, it definitely took the edge off of the cold. The snow made travel a fair amount more slippery and we did a number of donuts when simply trying to turn. Slipping up and down some of the slopes was also rather fun, kind of like a giant, protected toboggan.

As for the archaeology, in our safety orientation we discovered that a large portion of our high potential area had been forested last year – with all of the logs everywhere there is not much we can do in the area (we also learned that there were some poachers in the area so it would be best if we dressed as brightly as possible and tried not to sound like wildlife while out in the forest). The rest of the areas looked deceptively good from a distance but as we drew closer their good spots seemed to blend into endless slopes (people liked to camp on level ground – shocking I know!). We did some nice walks though and made out way down to the river crossing.

With a little cautious testing we decided that the river was frozen enough to walk across. This allowed us to test the furthest extent of the reroute without having to go back and drive over an hour out of the way to attack it from the other side. Basically it saved us from having to do another day in the field.

The day was quite pleasant for the most part. I was wearing so many layers that I could hardly move, but steel-toed boots do nothing to keep your toes warm. I also noticed that as the snow on my boots melted in the heat of the argo they began to smell of muskeg once again – I will never be rid of that smell!  It was a pretty decent day but I could easily see how miserable it could have been had the weather not cooperated. When will the glorious heat of summer return? Not soon enough.


Birthday in the Field

I wish I could say that it was an all-around great day but the morning started off on a suspiciously bad foot. We don’t have our regular, awesome pilot (apparently it is more important that he be fighting forest fires up near Fort Chip – the nerve of some people!), our new pilot seems less confident and is full of a nervous kind of energy. But he plopped us onto our lease area and went off to bring us our argo.

In the mean time we started doing a bit of walking, hoping to find the river. Instead we found muskeg. It was soupy and unpleasant and by the time we were done all of us had boots full of muskeg water. This threatened my mood greatly as my feet squished about with each step. Once the trapped water warmed up a bit it wasn’t quite so bad but I’m pretty sure I could feel my toes getting more and more pruny.

Once we had the argo, the muskeg was almost a joy to pass through. We did a bit of testing (where I discovered a very nice obsidian point one of my crafty crew mates had slipped into my test pit for me) and I got to run down a few sizeable trees which was fun. We did find the river crossing, although getting the argo to the bank proved a bit tricky but once it was in the water we simply floated across – oddly, we could only steer when going in reverse…

We tested a bit and then tried to head back across the river. However, the current had picked up and we were no longer able to direct the argo at all. We were forced to simply enjoy a lovely float down the river until we were able to eventually maneuver ourselves close enough to the bank (with the aid of a poor shovel that was inadvertently sacrificed to the river gods in the process) that we could winch ourselves back onto solid ground.

As we cruised about trying to get to the next test site a storm rolled in and we quickly fled the area, but there was a splendid rainbow on the flight home to help balance out the rain.

We topped the day off with some champagne, cakes shaped like skulls and a nice dinner – overall, a pretty decent birthday.

Land of Whipping Willows and Spiders

The early morning trips out to site have been quite fantastic lately. The nights are getting increasingly cooler which makes for some lovely fog in the mornings.

We fixed up the argo once a new belt was retrieved from town, the old belt had nicely wedged itself into the machinery so it was not quite the 5 min. fix we thought it would be. And yes, he told me that was the most effective position to be in to remove the damaged belt…

We’ve moved onto our next project, the swamp lands are all done for now. Instead we now must contend with the land of whipping willows and spiders. No matter what speed we drive at the willows seem to know exactly how to whip us in the most painful of places – usually the face. It’s a rather constant onslaught as we try to explore the lease area. We also quickly discovered that once we had escaped the willows and were in the safety of the less-whippy trees, we had ventured into some sort of spider paradise. They were everywhere, in all colors and sizes, and they got everywhere – your clothes, your hair, under your clothes…We were all covered in spiderwebs continually. You would think with this many spiders in the area they would have eaten everything else that was tiny and insect-like.

Thankfully our helicopter pilot rescues us every day at noon and whisks us off to magical places for lunch that are free of spiders. Sometimes we go to the bridge, sometimes it is the little island in the middle of the river, others times it’s a nice spot on the riverside with a good fishing spot. He’s got a collapsible rod he’ll bring out it the spot looks good. These are the moments when you have to remind yourself that you’re being paid. Of course then you return to spiderland and feeling like you’re not paid enough…





At least this lease looks like there will be plenty of area for us to test, in fact a bit too much area perhaps. Best case scenario we’ll have to dig 100 test pits a day and pray that there are no rain days.

It’ll also be lots of walking since there are only a couple of access roads and the areas are quite big. At least I hope we’ll stay warm with all the moving around!

Fall is here!

Argo Killer

We finished up in the land of swamps, but not before I had soundly killed the argo once again. I’m not sure it was entirely my fault since is was only the belt that broke and it was the argo company who neglected to put a replacement one in the hidden tool compartment like they normally do. However, I was nicely taking all the really wet, muskey areas when the argo died, and of course none of us had our rubber boots, or waders….

Our helicopter pilot said he could lift it out to some dry ground but that still meant we had to get the straps under it as it slowly sank lower in the muskeg. In the end we had to winch it onto some slightly higher muskeg then crawl around under it to get the straps on. We were a very smelly lot on the flight home I fear.

We did manage to find a site (it was me, all me!!), although we did put in over 220 test pits, so we were bound to find something eventually. It isn’t terribly glorious but it will do for now – a bit of quartzite that has been hacked out. It does feel a bit like finding a needle in a haystack some days.

Our GPS has decided that it hates us, the area, the trees, life in general…we’re not quite sure which it is but we are having an impossible time laying out a decent grid for the test pits. While standing still it tells you that you’re suddenly 4m from where you started, or that you have walked in a giant circle when you have not. Thus we have been forced to map it out using tape measures and a compass. I would like to say that this is much easier to do on the prairie than in the forest, and it really helps when you have a 20m measuring tape when laying out 20m lines, instead of one that is 5m. Thankfully we have Sarah: she’s a ninja in the forest and a master of the tape measures, so it went remarkably well.

The Return to the North

They promised me the bugs would be gone by now. They lied. Granted it is much better than it was last time I was up here but I am still fighting off mosquitos that I wish would hurry up and freeze.

We did another couple of days in the Birch Mountains as an extension of the project we were working on before. We did a fair amount of walking through the forest which was rough going with all of the deadfall – my shins are delightfully black and blue from that. the next day we attempted to use the argo more; however, this time our argo did not fair quite so well either – I suppose that’s what we get for letting my boss drive. He pointed the argo at the forest and decided to drive over everything between us and the well pad site – this generally consisted of trees, a lot of trees, big trees. Not surprisingly we got the argo stuck very deep in the middle of a heavily wooded area with no hope of getting it moving again on our own.  In the end we had to hike the 2km back to the helicopter, holding our helmets in shame.

We had to hike in the next day with saws and clear an area around the argo large enough that the helicopter could lift it out for us. Thankfully we were able to get a replacement argo in rather quickly.

We’ve begun a new project up here now, it is south of the Birch Mountains and is much more low-lying – this means that it is obscenely wet everywhere on the lease area. I’m pretty sure the entire area is straight muskeg. We surveyed 35 well pad sites and only 2 of them look like they will have enough dry ground for us to actually do shovel tests on.

This area has a lot more wildlife though which is a nice change, we’ve seen a lot more birds in the area, as well as small things like mice, squirrels, rabbits and a coyote. There is definitely a bear or two in the area but they have been steering clear of us which is just fine by me.

I’ve been working on my navigation skills the last couple of days. Generally I get lost going everywhere, apparently this is not a desirable trait when in the forest. I seem to be doing better with a gps and a map now, just needed to get the hang of it. No one will give me a straight answer though on how many days of good navigation will earn me my orienteering badge.

We’ve gotten the argo stuck in the muskeg/lakes twice now and had to use the winch to pull ourselves out – this is a tricky feat when all the trees in the area are brittle and dead. The muskeg creates this floating mass of moss and roots over the standing water and you never quite know how deep the smelly black water will be. In some areas the muskeg covers over entire lakes – cool. The first time we got stuck it was very deep and lake-like indeed. We ended up sitting so low in the water that the treads couldn’t grip onto the muskeg enough to get back up onto it. The second time we got stuck we were attempting to cross what turned out to be a bit of a lake when we became hung up on some deadfall hiding under the surface. Thank goodness for winches and tall gum boots.

What’s getting a bit high…

Trust me, it’s deeper than it looks








He gets to hook up the winch because he’s got the waders


The black smelly water





Drayton Valley

I spent a week in Drayton Valley and I must admit that it is remarkably similar to Fort Mac; Fort Mac seems to have a wider mix of people (tons of Newfies there) though while Drayton is lots fo oil-loving Albertans. They seem a bit redneck though and everyone drives an overly large truck (my apologies if you know some normal people in Drayton).

Our task this time was to survey  the length of a new pipeline; however, they were putting it in alongside of some existing pipelines so there was not much to see or do. Everywhere that looked like an ideal spot to sink a couple of test pits was either outside of our testing area or were highly disturbed by the pipes already lying beneath the surface. Most of the line we would drive along without bothering to get out of the argo, at least the scenery was pretty though.

As a highlight to the trip, I finally got some training on driving the argo! Sarah would normally do the tricky part of finding our destination then she would let Angie and I switch off on getting us back to the truck. The landscape wasn’t too challenging for the most part but I’m glad to have gotten in a bit of practice. However, I was the one driving the day the argo died (not my fault, honest!). We were driving and then slowly it came to a stop and sputtered a bit and then would move no more. Of course this was the same point that a thunderstorm was quickly moving in, bringing with it intense humidity and mosquitos like I’ve never encountered before. Thus we scooped up all of our gear and had to make a mad dash through the long grass back to the truck which was thankfully only about 500m away This seemed close but without a free hand to discourage the mosquitos I fear I was literally eaten alive (I had almost 50 bites on my right arm alone, they were even biting through my pants).  We called the argo supplier and he blamed it dying on the fact that it was a bunch of women driving, resisting the urge to have the man lynched and disposed of we instead drove back to the argo (or at least closer to it), managed to get it started long enough to load it and get out of there just before the rain it.

Sarah really loves nature.

After getting a new argo we resumed our work, which didn’t take us nearly as long as we had hoped, so we found a lovely river to cool ourselves off in for a few minutes. Sarah’s got quite the amazing brain when in the wilderness, she can remember all of the cutlines and forestry roads she’s been on. As we were driving into the area she mentioned the road (a generic looking gravel one between some trees) would take us across two rivers and that one of them would have an old toilet resting in it – she was right. The last time she was in the area was over three years ago. I was impressed, but then again I get lost going everywhere.

The rest of the trip was rather less eventful but was some good experience nonetheless. And now I’ve spent the last few days dealing with the fiery itchiness of a thousand mosquito bites, I’m sure as soon as they heal up it will be fieldwork time again.

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.