By Solène Williams & Micah Winter
After a great start to the field season in Shift 1, the team was ready to collect more data on their second nine-day stint. The crew returned to the same area as the first shift, where they again focused on the habitat of the Little Smoky caribou herd. However, this time the bustling team of ten had to be divided into two to access different sides of the not-so-little Little Smoky River.
Since the field teams work in pairs, the division didn’t happen as evenly as one might think. Instead, there was one team of four: Claire, Emily, Tommy, and field lead Solène; and one team of six: Sarah, Elise, Christian and Micah, led by the stellar Nikki and Isaiah. The first team accessed their sites from the Grande Cache side of the river and got to camp at the serene Pierre Grey’s Provincial Park. There they found a nice, sunny camping spot right by one of the three lakes, where they enjoyed the frequent songs of loons and osprey, the splashings of a local beaver and watching the rainbow trout rise and jump out of the surface of the water. As this was a warmer shift with many long walks, the team got into the routine of jumping in the frigid lake in the evenings after running a few laps through the park’s lichen-rich trails. Evenings were spent playing President and Wingspan, reading by the water, looking for morels and eating meals together in their sunlight-dappled campsite. Some books we read this shift included Dune by Frank Herbert, Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, also by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. All four are highly recommended!
The team of six returned to the spike camp from shift one, where they enjoyed seven days of rain, exacerbating mud, and swarms of blood-sucking insects. One day, the mud situation escalated so much that Isaiah and Micah got a truck stuck in one-meter-deep ruts and had to get towed out by a bulldozer. Luckily for the duo and the rest of the team of six, nature provides, and the showers they desperately needed came every day from the sky! Thankfully, they still had each other’s wonderful company as their only escape from the elements and had many laughs to keep them warm. One morning, in an attempt to make the days better, Nikki decided to treat herself and bring along on her hike a can of Coca-Cola as an afternoon caffeine pick-me-up. But a painful lesson was learned that day; some treats are not meant for the field. The can had exploded all over the inside of her pack, forcing her to shotgun it on the spot at 10:00 AM. Nothing like a little panic in the morning to get cracking!
Besides the rain, the shift had many other adventures in store for the team of six. One afternoon, as Isaiah and Sarah were changing the oil in one of the generators back at camp, Sarah had a moment of clairvoyance and raised her head at the nearby tree line. Moments before, she had discerned a small twig snap among the many other noises coming from the forest that just wasn’t sitting quite right with her. Then, a large furry black head popped out of the bush about 5 meters away and was staring back at her. A conniving little black bear had snuck right up on them! The pair scared it away before it could get any further with its devious plans. Some of the other members of the team, Nikki and Elise had a more positive wildlife encounter when a caribou walked into their fire site, and they were able to observe it silently as it investigated them 50 meters away.
Sarah, Micah and Nikki’s many philosophic discussions at breakfasts were a highlight of camp life, the favorite topic being, “what is art exactly”? and the inaugural nacho night of salty chips and melted cheese to comfort them after yet another wet field day. This meal has subsequently become a staple of each shift, much to Christian’s delight.
The two teams kept in touch throughout the shift to discuss sites and give each other updates by phone in the evenings. The foursome conveniently had full bars of cell service right at their camp. Unfortunately, the second team did not have the same luck… they had to drive up a muddy hill to get just a trace of service. Nikki recalls driving up the slick road with Isaiah one evening in a torrential downpour to call Solène across the river, where she was surprised to hear about the awful wet weather considering that they had “yet to see even one cloud in the sky”!
That’s not to say the team of four did not encounter their fair share of challenges as well! Many of their sites were difficult to access and far, even with the help of ATVs, trucks and eager hiking legs. The ATVs proved essential to access a large portion of sites where those machines were put through the ultimate semi-aquatic experience. All members of the team gained a lot of experience navigating wet land, towing and winching out of deep mud. Long hikes to sites were slowed down by treacherous bog crossings where the occasional leg got sucked down into the dark abyss that lays underneath the overlying carpet of thick sphagnum. Despite these challenges, one day Solène and Claire were able to complete a record of six sites in about 9 km of bouncy bogs and were rewarded for their efforts by a few rare wildlife encounters.
After hearing a group of alarmed sandhill cranes in the distance, followed by a much closer grouse in distress, a fisher came out of the bush about 10 meters away to investigate the pair of strange creatures staring back at it. A few hours later, while walking to a different site, we spotted a young female caribou near a burn in the middle of a bog. She approached us until she was about 20 meters away before slowly wandering off, and this will be a memory we will both treasure for a long time.
On a more sinister note, one afternoon Tommy found a red squirrel tail by his tent at camp. The tail is still in the lab for analysis, but it appears to be some sort of curse left specifically for the caribou crew. Evidently, the crew has dangerous enemies and plan to get to the bottom of this.
Despite all the shenanigans, both teams completed more sites this shift than our quota, and are looking forward to keeping the great work going!