Sunday, August 18, 2013

Five Souls On Board

There are certain aspects of my career about which I do not discuss with my parents in great gory detail. Not that the career of a field paleontologist is a sordid one by any stretch of the imagination (I have heard stories though...) but there is an element of risk involved, and I imagine that no parent wants to hear about their child entering risky situations.

Field paleontology, at least from my experiences in northeast British Columbia, is a tough job logistically and physically. To badly paraphrase one of the lines in Max Brooks' "World War Z", there are no difficulties - only challenges. The first challenge is the terrain itself. The natural resource industry has opened up access to a great deal of previously inaccessible terrain, but even with the scattered capillaries of access roads the ground is still difficult to survey. Roads take you only so far, meaning that access to a particular outcrop is gained through Good Olde Timey hiking. This brings up the second challenge: the wildlife. Pedestrian travel through the bush means coming into contact with the local inhabitants: (mountain) lions and black bears and grizzlies, oh my! Honestly, I am not worried by wildlife encounters. I don't naively tromp off into the bush smeared with bacon grease, but I don't have an illogical fear of wildlife. The resident critters are not out to get me: they would rather avoid that noisy ape crashing through the bush who smells of Deep Woods Off. We go into the wilderness prepared for an unpleasant encounter, and spray and bangers are an essential part of our field kit. 98% of my wildlife encounters have been amusing. During a three week foray into the alpine to document Early Cretaceous tracks, a juvenile Peregrine Falcon mistook our heads emerging over the crest of a hill as potential prey. We all looked up to see wings and talons screaming down on us. The falcon pulled up before impact when it realized it had made a big miscalculation in scale.

" I 100% sure those ape-things aren't edible?" Our Peregrine Falcon friend would hover above us while we took lunch above the tracksite. Photo credit: R. T. McCrea.

The third challenge is personal: one has to be physically (and mentally) able to break new ground while prospecting. Prospecting in northeast BC is not the same as a hike on a groomed forested trail. There are creek and river crossings, moraines and eskers to scale, bogs/marshes/beaver dams to slog, as well as trackless bush through which to whack. What looks like an easy hike on a Google Earth image more often than not turns into a six hour detour due to the ever-changing terrain (the link takes you to the abstract for an article in Canadian Geographic by Leslie Anthony, where our prospecting-by-raft expedition involved a six hour portage due to an unexpected rock fall in a river.) Trees fall. Industrious beavers transform low areas into a several kilometer long marsh. I now have a pair of boots that I use solely for bog and marsh crossings to save all of my field boots from smelling like the inside of Vulcan's toilet. This is done while not only packing your personal gear but packing all the gear you need for dealing with a fossil.

I personally love these challenges. I am far more comfortable in the wilderness than an urban setting, and don't become anxious if I am without of Internet or phone access for weeks. The hard work not only keeps me in good shape, but it also gives me an excellent reason to stay active during the non-field season. If I drop the ball physically, not only do I make it harder on myself once the field season arrives, but I increase the physical burden on my team: it's my responsibility to ensure that I am not physically the weakest link on an expedition.

No matter how long someone can hike with a full pack, there are areas that need assessing within a time frame too short to slog in on foot. If the budget allows, we take helicopter flights to extremely remote areas. As we never have the budget for a machine to be parked on stand-by at our drop off point or to fly in-and-out every day, we schedule a pick-up date and time and wave the pilot a cheery goodbye for hours, days, or weeks (depending on the length of the expedition.)

One of the most frequent comments I hear when people find out I've spent some time in a helicopter is "Oh wow, you're so lucky!" People charter helicopter trips for fun, and when you have a pilot who likes to show you some of the cool geographic features of an area close-up it's a blast. You get to see landscape that you would not otherwise ever see. The specific detail that I keep from my parents? Helicopter trips are one of those potentially risky situations.

Parents also don't want to hear about that one sedimentology professor who shared a lot of field tales of him and his colleagues, and that about 30% of the people he had worked with in the field had their stories end with "...and he died in a helicopter crash during a survey of [insert remote location here]." Keep in mind that these stories hail from the 1960s - 70s, and I imagine that quality control for both the pilots and the machines has increased since. Risky or not, if we have an opportunity to fly into an area that we would not otherwise get to on foot, we jump at the chance. My poor parents always tell me to be careful in the helicopter. That makes me giggle, because I'm sure they are imagining either that a) without that warning I'm going to ride the machine by holding onto the landing skids, or b) by me sitting in the helicopter thinking safe thoughts will be the only factor standing between a safe trip and a trip that ends in a burning pile of wreckage.

I recently returned from a prospecting trip into a fairly remote area in northern BC. It was only a day trip, but any time we go into a remote location by helicopter Rich and I pack what we call the "Oh S**T" bag. The O.S. bag contains everything we would need to survive for a few days without too much hardship if the helicopter is not able to return to pick us up (e.g. due to bad weather.) Our O.S. bag contains two hiking tarps, our bivy sacks, sleeping bag liners, a water purifier, light prepackaged snacks (to keep down food prep odors) and a light source. Our regular packs have all of our first aid material, satellite phone, bear deterrents, and rain gear.

We were up and ready to go at 5:00am and met the rest of our party at the airfield before 6:00am. We were hitching a ride with another crew that was going into the same area for road maintenance work. Gearing up for a helicopter flight always involves the safety orientation (e.g. where is the emergency locator stored?) and then the packing of the machine (bear bangers and any compressed liquids do not fly in the cockpit). We buckled ourselves in and donned our headphones and microphones. This allows us to communicate over the roar of the engines. I listened to the pilot go over his pre-flight reporting. This includes giving the location of take-off and coordinates for landing, among other logistics, and the crew manifest. The pilot then closed off the crew manifest report with this statement before take-off:

"Five souls on board."

Hearing myself and the rest of the passengers referred to as "souls on board" was a sobering moment that cut through the excitement of the helicopter flight. Sobering is the best word I can use to describe the momentary feeling. It was odd, and difficult for me to articulate because of its fleeting nature. While I plan for several eventualities that we could potentially encounter when in the Wild, there are several for which I cannot plan. For some scenarios all I can do is mitigate the severity of the situation rather than prevent it. An overly cranky bear that I inadvertently scare. A misstep on a ledge or a loose boulder. A drastic change in the weather. A freak mechanical failure of whatever machine in which I happen to be riding.

All these things and more could happen. However, all of the "What ifs?" would not be enough to keep me from the enjoyment of remote field work. The work contains risks, but they are calculated risks. Every trip yields new information that fills in yet one more piece of the puzzle for what is known of paleontology in BC and western Canada, and I plan to survey the wilderness until I am physically unable to do so. This actually keeps me from taking unnecessary risks: if I do something completely bunny-brained and permanently hurt myself, I will have done the Darwin Award version of removing myself from field work.

My parents can rest assured that I won't be bungee jumping out of helicopters or poking wolverines with pointy sticks. There is too much ground to cover before enfeeblement sets in.

Back to it!


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