By: Solène Williams, Emily Markholm, Tommy O’Neill Sanger
With the entire crew reunited this shift, there was much excitement in the air. After a busy morning of preparations and a long drive to Red Earth Creek, we caught up on the happenings of the last shift and chatted about our weekends. Upon arrival at camp, we were greeted by the scooter-driving, back-hoe-operating RV park manager Guy and the endearing buzzings from the swarms of insects that occupied the area.
The crew was excited to explore a new area, which was this time inhabited by the Red Earth Caribou Range; one of the largest ranges in Alberta at approximately 2.4 million hectares, and the largest range the crew would be visiting all summer. The southern end of the range begins around the town of Red Earth and is bordered by Wood Buffalo National Park in the north, the Birch Mountains in the east, and the West Side of the Athabasca River caribou range in the west. This herd has been in decline since monitoring started in 1999, with one of the largest drops in growth rate between 2015 and 2016.
While the crew pushed through the dense forests and the various biting and stinging insects inhabiting them, they were seemingly unaware of their upcoming fate. With Isaiah having a bit of a cough on the first day, he was regularly testing for COVID and wearing masks while distancing as a precaution. On the third day of the shift, Solène was stung by a bee. As she is highly allergic, the swelling made her look like a red Michelin Man. Things weren’t looking up, and the next morning she tested positive for COVID. Strangely enough, after 8 negative tests, Isaiah did in fact have COVID and unfortunately, over a period of several days, proceeded to infect four other crew members: Micah, Tommy, Nikki, and Elise. The group of six sickos quarantined in one trailer and a few tents, where they were able to share their germs, lozenges, teas and fever dreams.
One feverish afternoon, while trying to nap in his tent cooking under the hot sun, Tommy lay in bed listening to the pitter-patter sounds caused by the frantic take offs and landings of black flies outside. These little guys, who were his dementors just yesterday, had become a source of entertainment that afternoon. He spent a few hours observing a new and most unlikely friend: a small spider only about twice the size of a black fly. It had strategically placed a web around a mass of flies stuck under the rain fly and sat motionless. Curiously, the flies crawled around on the thing, perhaps thinking it was just another mound of flesh to tear apart and lick the blood from. Suddenly, when a fly walked in front of it, the spider whipped its poised legs forward, ensnaring the fly and sinking its mandibles into its victim. Tommy sat and watched in awe and admiration as the fly slowly receded into the spider’s mouth over the course of about 15 mins.
Meanwhile, the healthy members of the crew continued to go out in the field and soak up all of what the Red Earth region had to offer. They discovered stands of bogs dripping in arboreal lichen, and sphagnum covered ground dotted with more sundews than they could count. As the ATV helmets could no longer be shared, Christian had the opportunity to ATV every single day and was thrilled! Claire and Sarah endured a very difficult 3km hike in thick, wet and buggy heat. They were forever changed and returned to camp hardened and unrecognizable. On the second to last day Emily and Claire had a young caribou start running towards them on the gravel road. The caribou, with only one antler, legs whirling with each step, ran within 20 meters of them, tilted its head to see what the commotion was and then retreated into the forest.
One evening after work (several days before getting sick), Sarah and Nikki were able to attend the community fair in town where they played in bouncy castles, splash pads, and ate cotton candy balls bigger than their heads. While having a bounce, the truck keys got lost and the children had to be corralled to search for them. On a separate evening, significantly less fun was had when one of the trucks (known as the cheese wagon) broke down at the town gas station. The truck was so caked in mud that it was no longer able to shift gears! Hours of scraping cement-hard mud and the help of friendly locals finally proved successful, and the group of scrapers and tinkerers rolled back into camp desperate for dinner.
Despite the many challenges experienced this shift, our crew was able to complete enough sites to get us over the half-way point of completed sites for the summer. Stay tuned!