Forget You Forest!

imagejpeg_2I had planned on writing about my last stint in the forest surveying sections of a massive pipeline, it was kind of terrible – terrible to the point that we were laughing hysterically in the middle of a gravel road because out luck was so consistently bad. I had the worst possible luck, every day. Tires popped off the argo, we got stuck (a lot), our fold-up ramp gave out while driving, I ripped the track off the argo, we almost got dumped in a lake, insanely long access routes….oh, I also discovered that bald eagles are not my spirit animal – every time we saw one we would end up having a most shockingly miserable day but they look so deceptively majestic! Apparently only one gender of bald eagle is good luck, I have yet to figure out which one is the lucky one and how to tell that in the field.DSCN1465

However, I have since forgotten all of those woes and moved on to much more awesome things – winter excavations on the prairies! Sounds bloody cold, doesn’t it?And yes, yes it is. Thankfully we managed to get out here a few days before the snow hit and set up some temporary garages/tents, add a couple of generators and heaters and tada! a cozy little oasis to do our excavating in. Really, the only downside to this plan is the long, chilly walk to the unheated port-o-potty – please let me know if you know of any that have heated seats…

We have 4 different sites to excavate, a total of 160 square meters, with the majority of them being excavated to IMG_5478over a meter deep – we’re going to be at this all winter (I hope!). As the snow set in we also covered areas of the sites we’ll be opening up later with hay bales to keep the ground from freezing, which has worked so far and also gives the tents a somewhat pleasant barn smell, until the hay gets wet that is.

The first site is amazing so far. We have at least two distinct occupation levels and there are tons of artifacts, bones (bison + a variety of other animals), fire cracked rocks, and stone tools and flakes. It is such a nice change to actually be finding things after all the forestry I did this summer where we hardly found anything. Thus far it definitely looks like it was a processing site, some evidence of butchering on the bones we’ve found and lots of tool manufacturing going on, as well as numerous boiling pits and hearths. So far we have a 50% ratio of features to units open which is exceptionally good for any site I suspect – hopefully that continues. More pictures of all the pretty things we’re finding to come, but sleep first! The temperatures have dipped to -23 degrees Celsius tonight – it is going to be a frosty morning on site tomorrow!13-246~92

Holes in the Prairies

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Oooh a hat full of artefacts from the first couple of days!

My my how time flies when you’re busily trying to complete fieldwork before the onslaught of fall and winter. Last month we furiously dug a buried campsite, or at least what we hoped would be one. Our initial shovel tests were so promising! Fire broken rock, bone and flakes – all this points towards a buried campsite. 20130923_155154

What we found was far from exciting, but we all put forth a valiant effort of ramming our shovels into the cement-like prairie for days on end to make giant empty holes, which we then ceremoniously refilled. The first units we excavated seemed to give up a decent amount of artefacts, but as we progressed these dwindled to a paltry amount.

20130925_103538But now I have excellent practice at excavating empty holes, I could have done without the fiercely blowing wind every day though. That is one benefit of forest work, at least the wind is muted by the trees. But despite the wind and the frosty mornings I still managed to get a sunburn on the last day, I am a special one.

Since we didn’t find much of note, our client will be allowed to proceed with putting their line transmission line through the area. DSCN1379Work was already being carried out adjacent to us, and despite the numerous safety orientations we had to go through they neglected to tell us of the explosions they would be using to tighten up the wires….the ones that could blow out our truck windows…We had to wear hard hats while in the middle of the prairies but no ear protection for that – I love how misguided safety can be.

Catastrophes with Quads

Sometimes I think our projects are cursed because of all the things that go wrong. I was initially excited about our last project because this time we were going to use quads – finally that expensive training would pay off! But our troubles began before we even got on the quads.

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Let’s quad somewhere majestic!

The website we used to book the hotel rooms neglected to send on our reservation to the hotel until the day we were to arrive, thus they had no room for use and we had to stay in a Whitecourt, an hour further away.

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Look at how puny it is!

The first day out all of our roads disintegrated into construction, in the end it took us 4 hours to even get to our area. When we tried to offload the quads, one of them wouldn’t start. After much fiddling around the quad started, but the chain from the ramp was stuck in between the boards of the trailer. A few well-placed hatchet hits freed it though! Of course then we couldn’t find one of the quad keys…

Once we finally got on the quads , I realized my tragic physical flaw that prohibits me from driving a quad very well – I have mutant little thumbs, I can hardly reach the gas lever. I feel that I may have to look into some sort of thumb extender for next time.

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Just hanging out in my gully

The next day I managed to fall about 5 feet backwards into a dry gully. Luckily my head and shoulder broke my fall. Later, when we attempted a rather steep slope M. almost flipped her quad, mine just decided to die midway down the slope. After much man-handling we got both quads safely back up the slope and said ‘forget you!’ to that hill.

On the third day out we ended up on a winter road – meaning it is best traveled when frozen, it was not. The road continued to get progressively worse, and about the point we thought to turn around was the point we became hopelessly stuck in mud. DSCN1372(1)We thought about unhooking the trailer, see if less weight would help free us, but the key for the trailer lock was back at the hotel. In the end, we off-loaded the quads and drove back to some men clearing trees back down the road. In the end, the guy driving the tree mulcher pulled us out using an obscenely big tow hook. He graciously cleared us a turn around area, and then we promptly got stuck going back through the same mudholeDSCN1376(1) and had to be pulled out again.

Some days it is a wonder that we manage to get anything accomplished.

Space Boots

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The giant egg!

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The giant sausage!

I was out surveying a ‘linear development’ – this is the term applied to pipelines, waterlines, transmission lines, etc. basically anything that covers a long distance. This meant that I had the pleasure of touring several small towns throughout Alberta instead of just one or two. We made the most of it and visited as many over-sized monuments as possible:

Some of the jobs were along the edges of cultivated fields, and we were given a stern lecture about the dangerous evils of ‘club root’ and the transfer of it from field to field by unwary travelers. My mind automatically associated club root with a club foot and from there jumped to Tiny Tim. Thus I had the permanent image of a little plant dressed in Victorian England-style rags dragging a deranged club foot/root behind him… Turns out it is a type of bacteria in the soil that makes the roots all fat, but it is transferred through the soil so if we walked through one field it would stick to our boots and then we would introduce it to the next field we were in, much to the devastation of the crops. The brilliant solution to preventing unwanted contamination? Space boots.   DSCN1057

Ok they didn’t really give us space boots, those would have been far cooler than the thin, over-sized, hospital-operating room style shoe covers we were given. These delightful beauties are designed to fit over your regular boots and tie up. They are miles too long though so they catch on everything, rip instantly and are generally a worse hazard to my health than simply walking. I’m also pretty sure that they trapped the dirt inside of them, ensuring that my boots were fully covered with any sort of bacteria that might have been living within that field.

I still feel that the hideous boots were magical though. They seemed to transport us out of the mundane canola field and into a magical forest filled with overgrown, mossy logs and brightly chirping birds. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland, it was such a stark contradiction from what we had been walking in for the past hour. As soon as you crossed the trees you could no longer even see the field, the terrain was completely different, even the air felt different. But, alas, it was like all other forests in that it was full of pokey things and tiny bugs trying to stick to my eyeballs – such an abrupt way to shatter a tranquil forest moment.

Small Town Quirkiness

This gallery contains 19 photos.

I try to keep my posts to archaeology but this was far to awesome to keep to myself, and it is one of the unexpected joys of staying in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere – they all have their own little claim to fame. After this morning’s very dull safety orientations that took […]

A Series of Unfortunate Mishaps

Who knew a week of surveying forestry cutblocks would be fraught with so many mishaps. Normally you expect one or two things to go awry on each outing, but with the number we had this time I feel like I am good for the rest of the season.

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Our ghetto prop to raise the trailer so we could get on it without ramps

– the electrical plug on the truck was damaged – couldn’t pick up the trailer without replacing it, nice to find that out at the rental place

-got a replacement plug, old one was welded into place so we couldn’t swap it out properly for the new one – used zip ties to create a ghetto plug attachment

-got soaked to the bone in the field, all of our clothing bags in the back of the truck also got soaked – awesome

-took the wrong road (frequently) – got the truck, trailer and argo horribly stuck on the wrong road – had to off-load the argo in order to get free

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Up to the hitch in mud!

-stuck in every single well pad we visited, and we visited a lot of them

-had our trailer ramps stolen from the hotel parking lot – Lesson: lock down everything, trust no one!

-broke one of the tow straps for keeping the argo on the trailer, wow they slide around on gravel roads

-gave up our hotel rooms because we thought we were leaving town, had to stay an extra night – everything was booked up except a room with 3 queen beds. What is that kind of room meant for?

-popped one of the front tires on the argo off of its rim 20km from the truck, with a thunderstorm quickly moving inDSCN1017

-unable to separate the truck and trailer plugs in order to return the trailer

And to top of off, we didn’t even find anything that awesome on this trip. Tempers ran a bit high but most of the time we were too busy trying to McGyver a solution to the latest problem to really notice, plus the forest was full of dense blow-down so we were exhausted most of the time as well. Overall though, not a bad trip. DSCN1019

Return to Civilization

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One shovel test – down to 85 cm.

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One excavation block were we dug 8 units, most of the microblades came from the corner they’re working in

The last couple of days in the Yukon were good; we finished up our excavation units, refilled them and had a slacker day around camp before flying back to Whitehorse. We didn’t find anything else terribly exciting, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Most of the cultural material (points and artefacts) came out of the top 30 to 40 cm of sediment but one of our shovel tests had a random bone at 75 cm below surface – just one perfectly intact tibia….thus we had to take all of our shovel tests and excavation units down that deep, or even deeper (some went to a meter). This seemed a bit drastic but at least four of our units had nothing until the 75 cm point and then we found 1 bone in each unit, most curious and annoying – I feel like it was just one random animal that decided to die all the way across our site.

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Al’s expert hands at work

The last day at the camp was fun though, well aside from tackling the mountain of dirty field clothes. We were given permission, and some quads, to go gold panning for the afternoon! Apparently this is called sniping – you are allowed to pan for gold without a claim in order to see if there is anything in the area. Luckily, we had Al, a toothless older gentleman mechanic on the mountain who used to have his own gold claim and business, show us which sediment we should be panning and how to do it. As with all things, he made it look quick and easy. It involves a lot of swirling and continually dipping the pan in and out of the river, when I tried I felt like I wIMG_4240as floating any gold I might have had downstream, I also couldn’t figure out how he magically made all of his rocks disappear from the pan. In the end, we did find some tiny flakes which I now have in a preposterously large ziplock bag, I also brought home a sandwich-sized bag of sediment that needs to be panned still, hopefully my fortune is in that bag!

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The moccasin

After that excitement, we flew back to Whitehorse and stayed the night. Before our last plane ride home we went to the archaeology branches’ main repository for an early morning visit. We took along some of the cool stuff we had found and the woman was able to help us pin down some tentative dates for when the tools would have been used (as early as 12,000 BP!), and then she showed off some of the amazing things that have been found in the Yukon, especially on the ice patches. Normally we don’t see a lot of organic material because it breaks down too quickly but the ice fields have freeze-dried a lot of wooden and leather items. They also have the oldest moccasin there, they have arrowheads still in their shafts, spear shafts, a spear point made from an antler tine – so many cool things. They also had some dinosaur bones (I know we don’t do dinos but I still think they’re awesome), and they have an impressive collection of megafauna bones – mammoth bones!

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An antler that would have had microblades inserted into the cut along the bottom edge (x-rays show that there are still broken pieces inside), there is also a unique character carved onto the top edge – thought to help identify who owned which weapon

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A broken point, sinew and wooden shaft

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Mammoth bones!