Shift 6: Uncharted Chinchaga Chaos

2 field techs with arboreal lichen moustaches

By: Elise Henze, Claire Kelly, Tommy O’Neill Sanger, Micah Winter, Solène Williams

Q: What does a ghost with antlers say?

A: Cari-BOO!

With the season’s end hastily approaching, The New Boos divided into three crews spread far and wide. Their goal was to collect data throughout the extensive Chinchaga Caribou range, which covers over 1,750,000 hectares of northwestern Alberta. This caribou population has been in decline since monitoring began in 2002, facing habitat disturbance due to wildfire, historic seismic lines, and other anthropogenic disturbances.

The most northern crew studying this herd’s habitat consisted of Marvelous Micah and Nutty Nikki who ventured all the way to Rainbow Lake, where the regional motto is “Good People – Good Times”. 

Savvy Solène and fearless field techs Tommy, Emily, and Sarah made up the middle crew who explored the habitat around Manning: “Land of the Mighty Moose”.

The most southern crew consisted of Indominable Isaiah and terrific techs Christian, Claire, and Elise, who collected data near Worsley: “Gateway to the Clear Hills”.

The separation anxiety between the members of the various teams was palpable, but this opportunity to be in smaller groups encouraged closeness and cooperation between those few who had not had as much time together over the summer. Sometimes living in close quarters in small groups in rural Alberta forces the most beautiful of field-hardened friendships, forged by quesadilla disasters, endless mud pits, gutting fish, and painting each other’s nails metallic purple.

Photo by Claire Kelly

For the North and Middle crews heading up Highway 43, the shift really started with a bang. Well, more like two pops, to be specific. Each of their holiday trailers got a flat tire early on, so the six members of this joint team spent an unplanned night at an RV Park in Valleyview. After the long day, they appreciated a few moments all together, playing card games and laughing over a warm chicken pot pie and snap peas, the latter a treat fresh from their supervisor Leonie’s garden! The next morning, the Middle Team bid adieu to the North Team who continued the long drive. Meanwhile, the South team quickly and effortlessly settled into their camp as planned at Running Lake Provincial Recreation Area, which offered sunset views over a lake stocked with eager rainbow trout, fire pits full of chopped wood, and a campground all to themselves.

Rainbow Lake: Nikki & Micah

Nikki and Micah were told by the mechanic in Valleyview that you could fall asleep at the wheel and wake up five hours later to find yourself in Rainbow Lake. Man, oh man, was the mechanic ever right! The drive was a straight shot north through burned and unburned boreal. Needless to say, they were happy to see the welcome sign in Rainbow Lake after so many hours of travel.

two field techs with arboreal lichen moustaches
Photo by Nikki Beaudoin

The shift continued to throw Nikki and Micah for a loop as they proceeded to get the truck stuck two days in a row. They had a great time getting their favourite truck, Black Beauty, out of the muddy roads by winching her to many a black spruce as they inched through the deep mud. After these adventures, they spent a full day trying to access their cutblock sites, with each road having been decommissioned in some form or another – one road was now even a waterfall! It was only one final attempt that gave way to a driveable road. Once the sites were located, this beautiful place provided them with some of the most brutal bushwhacking they had yet experienced this summer. Waist deep in bogs and beaver ponds, thwacking and cussing their way through hordes of mosquitos, Salix, cattails, and Betula was the main theme of the shift.

pickup truck stuck in muddy ruts. winch cable played out. smiling field tech standing nearby
Photo by Micah Winter

The other theme was the great people they met in the town of Rainbow Lake, whose town slogan “Good People – Good Times” was truly fitting. In order of appearance: there was the person who gave them directions on how to get to the campground after they knocked on their door lost as can be, there was the manager of the campground (read gravel pit) who told them all the best things to do in town, and the wonderful oil pad worker who shared some knowledge of the backroads with them, which increased their site completion from 40% to 100%. This last person also shared their sighting of a big male chocolate caribou, who Nikki and Micah then kept their eyes peeled to see, but never had the luck. They spent their evenings painting, reading, cooking, and mainly just relaxing from whatever bog slogging (or swimming) that had occurred that day.

Manning: Solène, Emily, Tommy, & Sarah

After a rusty first day, Solène, Emily, Tommy, and Sarah finally arrived in Manning, where they stayed in a campground and golf course next to a picturesque creek shaded by tall aspen trees, and, most importantly, offered hot showers. Tommy was delighted to learn that Tuesdays were “Men’s Night”, but, in the end, he decided to forego playing a round in light of having no male companions.

On the first day of field work, Sarah and Tommy encountered a helicopter crew doing herbicide spraying in the area, which worried the two, who hoped they wouldn’t accidentally walk into the line of fire of these aerial herbicide attacks. When the foresters said not to worry because they were only spraying “cut blocks and burns that were really far from the main road”, the field techs’ obvious reply was “that’s exactly where we’re heading!” Fortunately, after further discussion they confirmed that none of their sites were in fact in the spray zones. After two days of productive field work, they relocated camp 100 kilometers down the Chinchaga Forestry Road near an abandoned cabin that gave some members of the group the heebie-jeebies. A similar feeling lingered throughout the shift as they were right in the middle of fire season and new fires were popping up every other day. Luckily, the group had good cell reception at camp and was able to frequently check the Alberta Wildfire app to keep an eye on the wildfire less than 10 km from their spike camp!

Photo by Solène Williams

The trials and tribulations of field work were significant for this crew, who had to deal with endless amounts of mud. Emily was the unlucky one who had to deal yet again with the underside of a truck so full of mud that it ceased to be able to shift gears. Thankfully, having dealt with this issue back on shift 3, she was able to resolve the problem deep on a back road, with handy Sarah’s help. There were also many tricky quad-winching situations calling on the field techs to get resourceful and creative with the few tools they had.

Photo by Tommy O’Neill Sanger

Animal sightings included a lynx, several moose, and many black bears. The most notable sighting was a large bison herd blocking a road! Many members of the crew had never seen bison before, so it was quite the memorable encounter. Other highlights of this hard-working shift for the middle crew included an abundant supply of wild blueberries and the much-anticipated birthday party for mud-slinging Emily! The theme was “purple”, and the crew prepared an all-purple meal, which tested their culinary skills. They found purple party hats and listened to music about purple things, all to celebrate the birthday girl and her favorite color. They were also pleased to be reunited with the north crew, Nikki and Micah, for this fun surprise party on their last evening in the field.

Photo by Nikki Beaudoin

Worsley: Isaiah, Christian, Elise & Claire

As for the south crew, they had their fair share of mud and birthday parties too! Head Boy Christian’s birthday landed on the second day of shift, and he was given the greatest gift of all – a stocked lake to fish in, just a few minutes’ walk from their campsite! After a productive field day, his birthday meal consisted of truffle gnocci, fresh-caught rainbow trout, finished off with a Dairy Queen Treatzza Pizza! The group had a fire by the lake, accompanied by sparklers and a clear night sky full of stars.

Photo by Claire Kelly

Another one of Christian’s favorite things is quadding, and the south crew needed to do a lot of it to access their sites. Both teams in the crew used quads almost every day, although some days they were pleasantly surprised by truck-accessible roads, saving them a bit of time. There were a few memorable moments on these long quad roads, such as Claire and Christian finding the first Bear’s Tooth mushrooms of the season, which they took a sample of to cook up back at camp! Another expedition, which would have brought the techs almost 100 kilometers from camp on quads alone, was turned around about 5 km in, due to very wet conditions (read hungry bog monsters). Thankfully the crew found a different approach, which rewarded them with not only a more sturdy, reliable road, but also a sighting of a cow moose and her calf, and elusive wolverine tracks.

Photo by Claire Kelly

The south crew had many evenings of sunbathing, swimming, and fishing at the lake at their campground. On one of these evenings, they celebrated Elise’s birthday! She was treated to a feast of tortellini, roasted vegetables, more fresh trout, and an angel food cake adorned with freshly harvested wild berries. She received a note from her long-lost North and Middle crew members to brighten the evening as well.

smiling field tech holding up a half eaten cake

Near the end of shift, the sunny days came to an end. What started as a foggy morning quickly turned to the crew getting soaked by a torrential downpour while completing sites. They had a very long and wet quad ride back to their trucks, followed by a slippery and mud-slinging drive back to camp. Hoping for a calm evening taking refuge in their luxurious Conquest Supreme trailer after being soaked to the bone, the crew returned to camp to find their generator was out of gas, their trailer was out of water, and their campsite had become a small lake. Eventually the rain stopped, the crew was able to dig a trench to drain their campsite lake, the trucks got a free car wash, and the team was finally cozy in their humid trailer. Their shift ended with one last sunny day, perfect for berry picking! Christian and Elise picked 6 cups of wild raspberries which they made into a pie, aptly nicknamed Bear Scat Pie.

Photo by Claire Kelly

We were all pleased to be reunited in Hinton for their final day of the shift, and we had many stories to share over supper that evening at a local Korean restaurant.