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Shift 1: Oh, for Fox Creek!

By Solène Williams and Micah Winter

As the last remaining patches of snow disappeared from the foothills landscape and shades of spring green slowly emerged, the caribou field crew crawled out of their dens and reassembled for the 2022 field season. This year marks the second and last field season of our project for the Alberta Regional Caribou Knowledge Program. The field work will be a continuation of last year’s effort, with the addition of caribou use areas. We will compare vegetation at sites where caribou like to spend their time with those at cutblocks and fire sites, which will help us understand the conditions caribou require.
 

Clockwise from top left: Solène, Isaiah, Nikki, Christian

 

This year also has the largest field crew the caribou program has had in a long time! Returnees from last year include Nikki “the cool aunt” Beaudoin, and Christian “head boy” Louie, as well as the two wonderfully crusty field crew veterans Isaiah Huska and me, Solène Williams. The four of us were eager to meet the six new hires that they would be living with for the duration of the summer.
 

3 field techs examining vegetation at a plot in the forest

 

The newbies included Sarah Wild, a rodeo star and area local from Carrot Creek; Claire Kelly, a nature nerd from Edmonton trying to find her way in life after retiring from the competitive Quidditch circuit; Emily Markholm, mountain biker, ski tourer, and environmental advocate living in Prince George, BC; Elise Henze, a classically trained singer who can operate any modern chainsaw with incredible skill; Micah Winter, an avid trail runner and adventurer living in Jasper whose endless energy not only lights up camp, but also the fire under everyone else’s butts to work out; and lastly, Tommy O’Neill Sanger, aka Tommy Bahama, Thomath Bahamath, Tim Tam Slam, Tommy 2 Chains, Tommy 2-Wheel, Tommy-be-my-mommy, a man of many names and just as many hairstyles who equally knows his way around a bike as he does a kitchen.
 

4 field crew members standing around a soil probe discussing. They are in a mature pine forest

 

Unfortunately for the new members of the crew, they were forced to quickly get comfortable with the four bush-hardened hermits of previous field seasons as they all moved into small holiday trailers just hours after first meeting. The crew lived together like this in an RV Park in Hinton for the first two weeks of training. We spent the days learning about wildlife and vegetation ID, driving trucks and ATVs, trailering, and much more. In the evenings we shared stories over dinner, biked, watched the Oilers destroy the Flames and hung out with a cat named Sew (short for sewage).
 

Top: Leonie explaining a particularly tricky lichen identification to the crew in the office. Bottom: cam and Tommy with a soil probe in a field

 

Once training was complete and the crew was ready to take on their first shift, they headed up to the Fox Creek area to put their new skills to the test. As the new crew members were still learning their way around protocols and camp life, they were joined by their two amazing supervisors: Leonie Brown, the sharpest, sweetest and most handy human who everyone wants to be when they grow up; and Cam McClelland, the most empathetic and considerate life of the party who makes everyone feel included. The crew of 12 set up a spike camp on the side of a logging road, which proved to be a sweet spot. It had a creek which was perfect for end of day baths, a fire pit to gather around, and flat ground for all the tents and trailers, meaning that everyone would be well rested!
 

5 field techs eating supper outside in a clearing with trailers and trucks

 

Even though this land has been divided by seismic lines, oil pads and roads, this part of Alberta is stunning, and the sunny weather made it ever more so! The sphagnum bogs speckled with black spruce and budding tamaracks; the spacious old-growth lodgepole pine forests carpeted with lichens; and the beautiful rolling hills bordered by back country lakes and rippling rivers were a sight, to say the least. If we were all caribou we would want to live here too!
 

2 caribou on a gravel road

 

And they do—there was at least one of these majestic animals sighted each day. With their bursting curiosity, silly running technique and calm demeanor, they all captured the hearts of the team. The crew’s excitement over one particular sighting also got us brutally roasted by a man passing by in his truck, who shouted “why don’t you call David Suzuki!?”. It has been weeks and we still struggle to come up with any retaliation. You can write in any suggestions at cmcclelland@friresearch.ca.
 

Field tech in an open wetland

 

For a little context, the caribou in the Fox Creek area of Alberta are part of the Little Smoky herd, which is a small herd of just over 100 individuals that occupy a range of around 300,000 hectares. This herd is the last boreal population in the eastern slopes of Alberta and borders the A La Peche herd. The most recent survey data show that 99% of their range has been disturbed by human activities, including seismic lines and logging, meaning this herd is not self-sustaining.
 

A field tech empties his boot beside 2 ATVs

 

With the end of the shift came the end of the sunny weather. On the second to last day, crews started the day as normal, apart from adding a few more layers of rain gear to their packs. Soon after the day began, the teams received notice that we had to be out of the area by the end of the day as the roads were closing! As the rain increased, the condition of the roads did the opposite. The convoy of trucks and trailers slid their way down the roads and returned to land in Fox Creek for a night in a campground – with showers. What a luxury! The last day of the shift was filled with cleaning and organizing and ended with a fun BBQ at Cam’s place. As much as the crew was excited for the five days of rest, they also could not wait to see their new friends again (oh, and to collect all that good vegetation data too, of course)!
 

3 field techs smiling and celebrating at their truck and trailer

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