The first two weeks working in the field as an archeology aid have been…(searching for a non-cliché adjective here)…a thrill? a pleasure? amazing? I’ll go with – the first two weeks have been a refreshing gift.
To be honest, I was not all that sure what I was signing up for when I committed to this seasonal job. I didn’t know much of anything about archeology nor how one does archeological work in a forest. In case you are just as much in the dark as I was, I’ll share with you a bit of what our average day has been like thus far.
0700 – Gather at our field vehicle to do an inspection of the car (check the lights are working, check the oil, make sure nothing in stuck in the wheel-well from the previous day’s work, check for any dents or scratches on the exterior of the car from the previous day’s work, etc.). We then climb in and drive to the closest parking point for our day’s transects.
0800 – Radio dispatch to let them know we’re entering the field for the day, we provide the township, range, and section we’ll be working in for the day.
0800 to 1230 – Walk transects (will explain this more below)
1230 to 1300 – Lunch
1300 to 1700 – Continue to walk transects
1700 – Radio dispatch to tell them we are leaving the field for the day.
1730 – Back at bunkhouse. Unpack our daypacks, check for ticks, plug in all electronics for tomorrow’s work (includes GPS unit, camera, radio).
The timing of these things aren’t exact except for our start time…the rest of the items’ timing shifts depending on the day.
As for “walking transects” …
We have been given a specific project area to survey. This area is broken down into 3 categories – high probability, medium probability, and low probability (each distinguished with a different color on the map). The “probability” is determined by a series of factor, mostly related to the proximity of water to the area and the slope of the land. The “high probability” sections are the priority, and higher probability means we need to walk enough transects to essentially “survey 100%” of the area. Although, truthfully, there is no “100% survey” possible (more on that below).
When looking at how this is demarcated on a map, the area appears to be divided into a series of irregular (to use the most technical of Technical Terms) “blobs” – which is to say that walking a transect is not as simple as walking a straight line.
Our crew chief uses the GPS unit (which has a digital map with the high, medium, and low probability marked) to the edge of a high probability area. The rest of the crew (3 of us) pace 20 meters off of each other and line up. Our crew chief gives us a bearing to follow, and we synchronize our compasses, and then when we are all set she calls off to start walking.
Back to why “100% survey” isn’t actually possible. When walking 20 meters apart, you are supposedly surveying the area in front of you, but also to the left and right of you. But, your eyesight can only go so far, especially when you are also trying to keep track of where your fellow crewmates are in the woods, and watching for your own footing. So, you cannot scan all the land in that area with 100% thoroughness. Unless we walk shoulder to shoulder (not time or budget efficient, not to mention makes for awkward navigation), there really is no way to have a “100% survey.”
Fortunately (yes, fortunately) walking transects in this particular project area is not simple. Since our survey areas are irregular in shape, our crew chief periodically has us change our bearing. This has enabled me to get a lot more practice with using a compass to navigate. Adding to the beautiful complication of the survey process here, we are walking through rather thick, and often messy, forested areas. There is tree fall galore and thick stands of trees in most of the areas we have been surveying so far. This means that 1) you can rarely sight on anything further than 20 – 50 meters in front of you (so you are regularly checking your compass), 2) you have to regularly call out to your crewmates to ensure you are still properly spaced and not too far ahead or behind the rest of the group, and 3) you are daily improving your skill set to create a competitive resume for hiring by the circus.
How is that you say? Well, it takes a certain amount of agility, balance, and acrobatics (not to mention cat-like reflexes) to get over, under, and through a lot of the tree situations we encounter. Sometimes I have to laugh to myself when we line up for a transect “ready, set, walk!” I think and look in front of me and see no pathway in sight. It is a fun challenge personally – a puzzle you have to work out (and I am a big fan of a jigsaw puzzle). Much like crossing a stream, you can’t hesitate too long with finding a good way through a dense tree stand or when choosing footing over fallen logs. Moving efficiently and decisively is all part of not losing your footing. Sometimes you traverse quite a long way without touching the ground because it is easier and safer to just balance-beam walk along fallen trees.
It is not all elegance and grace, however (but don’t put this on your circus resume). Sometimes the best way to get through an area is to get on all fours and crawl…like a dog. Sometimes it means using your arms to lift your leg so you can straddle a log and slide over on your bum. Sometimes it means putting your head down and bullying your way through tree branches, like forcing your way through a crowd.
Now, I’ll be honest by saying that some parts of this bring me to a complaining state of mind. This usually occurs when I lose my footing for a moment or get slapped in the face by a branch (rude). I feel frustrated, and tired, and yearning for the well-groomed trails of hiking from days gone by, which in that moment seem like an echo of a dream. It is during these times that God usually provides me with the instinct to look up to the tree canopy above, or out around me to the branches moving in the breeze and then I think – “Look at where you are and remember how much you had missed being outside only a few months ago. Remember and be thankful.” And then, I stop complaining and move on.
In full sincerity – I really love what I am doing and am learning so much. I mean, my goodness, I get to walk in the woods all day. Yes, of late, “walk” means more “climb, crawl, and shuffle” over fallen limber, but it is a thrill, a treat, and I’m thankful for this refreshing gift.