Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tales from the Field - The Frisky Pine Tree

I am celebrating the official start of my field season by watching it rain. This creates the perfect opportunity for me to do what I have been putting off for many years...writing down some of my field stories. Welcome to the first of what I hope will be a regular series of my wacky (mis)adventures in the wilderness of northeast BC. There is no chronological order planned for these stories, but I'll focus first on my earlier misdeeds while I still remember all the details and can still decipher my own field notes.

I'm a huge Tolkien geek. When I was ten, my dad gave me his old paperback copy of "The Hobbit" that he had in university. I read that book so many times my parents began to worry about me. I can't blame them - I was obsessed, and remain so to this day. So intense was my obsession my dad a year later got me started on Stephen King novels...I guess they figured that, like for Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day", anything different was good.

I digress. My point is that a particular line from "The Hobbit" comes to mind when I think of field work:

"...things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway." (J.R.R. Tolkien)

Tolkien was spot on. However, these are the tales I never write down at the time they occur. I'll be the first to admit that, when I finally hit my tent/bivy/pile of leaves after an exhaustive day, writing is the furthest thing from my mind. UFOs could land in front of me at the end of a rough trek and the best documentation they would get is a scrawled "ET took last granola bar. Jerk." Bad Scientist.

This tale of gruesome adventure is from August 2007. A seismic company donated helicopter time for palaeontology activities, and we used it that summer to survey previously unexplored outcrops of Triassic marine sediments. This material is a productive source of marine reptiles, coelacanths and a plethora of other gorgeous fish fossils. A well-known Triassic marine locality in BC is Wapiti Lake Provincial Park. 

Day One was spent loading equipment into our truck and driving to the muster area where we waited for the helicopter pilot to drop off the seismic crews. We usually do not get the same helicopter pilot twice due to their shift rotation. Some pilots are excellent and will do crazy stunts for us in the name of science. Other pilots are so bad they forget me at the airport, but that is a story for another time. We took an hour flight to a location we picked from a topographic map. Our camp was a nice flat surface next to a small tarn and ringed with hills covered in subalpine vegetation and exposures of Mississippian limestone.

We spent the late part of the morning and the early part of the afternoon setting up camp, consisting of a tent for me and my husband and colleague Rich, a tent for our field assistant Tammy, and a small mess tent. We bring an old tent on any multi-day alpine trip for food storage and prep: making dinner in blowing rain results in soggy bread and smoldering tempers. After camp was set we took a short jaunt to the surrounding outcrop to see what we were in for specimen-wise during a full day of prospecting. Peeking out from the subalpine vegetation were small outcrops of Triassic marine, but we could see tomorrow's destination to the east, which contained large exposures of eroded Triassic-aged talus. We were ready for the morning. The sharp crisp smell in the air warned us that morning was ready to welcome us, alpine style.

On Day 2 we woke to ice, rain, and snow. We knocked icicles off our tents and surveyed the terrain. The clouds low enough to hide the mountain tops - and our destined outcrop - from view.
Happy Morning!

Palaeontologists in the Mist. This lasted the entire day.
We waited a few hours, taking pictures, playing cards, and hoping the afternoon would burn away the fog and allow us a bit of prospecting. No such luck: it drizzled on us all afternoon. Regardless, we trekked out for a hike in the hills around camp for exercise.

Day 3 dawned bright and clear. We loaded up for a full day of hard hiking and struck out. Our plan was to walk a ridge of Mississippian limestone to the Triassic outcrop of the peak on which we were camped, and cross over to the adjacent cirque. As we crested the hill we encountered a male mountain caribou. He stood his ground, not aggressive, not skittish, just watching three strangely clad primates huffing and puffing up a mountain. We crested the ridge, and worked our way across the first scree slope to get to the far cirque. We started finding specimens right along the game trail.
"Silly primates - don't they know what they're in for?"
At this time I had not refined my prospecting gear system. Every time I found a specimen I had to take off my expedition pack to grab my documentation kit. As I set down my pack to collect a small vertebral column, my binoculars decided to make a break for it. They slipped off my strap and went cartwheeling down the steep slope, hit a rock, gained some elevation, and somersaulted off a small cliff into the underbrush. If those binoculars were expecting me to go and hunt for them (and sentient), they were sorely mistaken: the only way I could have followed them was if I had tucked and rolled. To this day, those binoculars rest in the alpine of BC quivering with rage and planning my untimely demise for abandoning them.

We crossed the first scree slope and made it to the vegetation covered ridge separating the two cirques. If you've never hiked in alpine "cabbage", it is treacherous on steep slopes. I clung to rhododendron bushes and stunted pine trees for dear life. Once in the cirque we found a lot of marine reptile material
Marine reptile ribs and vertebrae. 10cm scale.

and a family of White-tailed Ptarmigan.
Find the ptarmigan!
We continued out of the cirque and gained elevation to hit the unvegetated sections. Cirques are deceptive to hike - at the base they start off as a gentle slope which gets progressively steeper the higher you go. Before I knew it, I was looking over my shoulder down what felt like a vertical slope of loose scree, stuck like a cat up a tree. I'm sure I yowled.

I couldn't decide whether to caption this "Things are looking up" or "Oh crap".

Unfortunately, Tammy became stuck too. Rich motioned for me to descend to her position and lead her along a route that a touch a panic hid from view. Not being a fan of heights, I can relate. During our ascent we did find some hybodontid shark material and more marine reptile remains.

The best laid plans of palaeontologists often have to change on the fly in the wilderness. Our original plan was to ascend the peak and walk the ridge all the way back to camp. Unfortunately there was no way we were ascending that peak. Oh sure, it looked like and easy traverse on the topographic map, but what looks navigable in the comforts of the lab can look absolutely terrifying in the field. One, the slope increased in dip the higher we went. Two, two out the three party members were nervous about heights. Three, the closer we got to our target ridge we saw that it was dangerously narrow. We could have gone back the way we came, but that was also treacherously steep; all of us slipped and slid several times, and that was when we were fully rested. Short of saying "to hell with it" and building a cabin out of scrub trees and living on the mountain like hermits, we had one option left to us: we could descend to the base of the cirque, climb down the mountain into the valley below, and walk the valley back to the drainage rill next to our camp, and climb back out. We democratically voted yea.

It was three in the afternoon when we started our descent into the valley. At first the hike was easy going. The pines and spruce were more or less thin enough to navigate through, and the slope was fairly shallow. That did not last. The slope increased its pitch, and the trees became densely packed. Pine trees grabbed at me and my gear at every step. Soon the slope was so steep that the only way I could descend was to grab onto the top of a lower tree and use it as a makeshift rope to slow my fall into the waiting branches of the trees below. Grab, jump, fall, and repeat (photos not available). On several occasions I became so entangled I had to remove my pack to get out of a tree. I periodically stopped my controlled fall to listen for Tammy. Through all of my crashing and cursing I couldn't hear if she was still behind me or had zipped ahead on an easier route. I heard a pattern of rustling and crashing, dead silence, and then the occasional utterance of a very quiet monosyllabic curse. Rich was nowhere to be seen. He can glide through the bush like a bear, pack or no.

After what seemed like hours (and I'm sure it was at least two hours) I finally saw the trees thin. The slope became shallow...the trees cleared...I WAS THROUGH! And what do I see but Rich standing there looking rather amused. He heard our entire tortured descent. When we got back to camp Rich commented that, based on our expressions on emerging from the bush, he was sure we were going to mutiny and beat him senseless for suggesting that route. Not likely, but sometimes exhaustion and frustration play havoc on people's sense of logic. Rich did a good job keeping up the morale of what probably looked like two survivors of a plane wreck. It's hard to look like a tough field babe with pine needles hanging out of your ears and with your hair matted with sap.

The hike along the valley was easy going. The terrain was nothing more complex than basic mountain bush crawling. We hiked west along the valley for about two hours. We had marked camp on the GPS, so we knew when we had reached the point where we needed to start our ascent.

We chose a drainage rill composed mostly out of firm shale for our climb. The evening chill was growing, the rill was wet, and we were none too energetic. After a snack break we started our climb. My feet and hands were cold and numb: I only noticed the bruises and scrapes on my hands when I did my best impression of the Creature of the Black Lagoon in the tub at home. My feet were in pretty decent shape as I wore steel-toed logging boots. These are miserable to hike in, but I was very appreciative of how stiff they were on that climb. All I remember from the rill was that Rich found a small, mostly complete ichthyosaur dentary. Not too bad for the battle weary.

We crested the limestone ridge just as twilight was descending. We could see our tents at the bottom of the ridge as homey, welcoming beacons reflecting the last of the afternoon sunlight. We literally ran (alright, quickly stumbled as well as we could down a slope of Mississippian reef deposits) to camp, a dry change of clothes, and a hot meal. We survived!

Stay tuned for short updates from the field!

Strange Woman.

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