I was a biologist in a former life and did a reasonable amount of field work. It was always nice to get out of the office and paid to do random things, but lots of it was boring. Some of it was mildly dangerous, none of it had any lasting consequence or significance.
As with everything, my career has been your average disaster and there was a reason that I eagerly anticipated my walking papers when I came back from maternity leave. It wasn’t just because I got laid off by voice mail either. It was mostly because I was a career underling and often found myself doing the jobs that no one else wanted for themselves. And often partnered with people that were used to being alone, who relished the opportunity to share every detail of their lives with me. Do you know much about the Center for Positive Living? I do, because I heard all about it on a five hour drive alone in a truck with one of its main proponents. He joined because he had a rage problem, so that’s a bit of a Morton’s Fork when you are trapped in a truck; I chose the Center for Positive Living speech rather than risk him having a relapse.
Here are the top five experiences that I both look at with fond memory and surprise that I am still alive sometimes.
5. A problem with shovels
I was doing a few weeks worth of work in Sydney, Nova Scotia digging contaminated soil out of people’s backyards. We were woefully unprepared for the rocky soil and managed to break our equipment on the first day. There are nine Tim Hortons in Sydney (a town of 30,000) but no hardware store open on Sundays, so we had to go to the flea market and negotiate for a shovel. We got this gem for a quarter.
Then I had to dig dirt out of a hundred yards with it.
Also on that trip I had to scrape toxic sludge out of a lady’s basement and share a one bedroom cabin with a dude that insisted I be thankful for wearing tighty-blueys because that’s a lot more than he normally wore.
4. Drunken cowboys
This happened doing some field work in Manyberries. The Manyberries hotel is a bit of a landmark, in that it is the only building with a second floor in a fifty mile radius. There is a restaurant with two items on the menu and Mabel will serve you steak or chili, but you are not going to get it with a smile. City folk will try and order fancy beers here, like a Heineken. That shit is not happening; you are getting a Coors, a Black Label or a Pilsner and you are not going to complain about it.
I spent a lot of time in Manyberries because it is right in the middle of the last little bit of native prairie in Canada and is home to quite a few endangered species. One of which is the sage grouse, which is a weird looking bird quite unadapted to change.
They have very predictable mating grounds and there is a large contingent of volunteers who converge for an annual count which is more or less the highlight of the Manyberries social calendar. The routine was that you’d scope out your route to the mating grounds (lek, for you sciency types) the night before, meet back at the hotel for your steak or chili and then get up at 3:30 am to get out to the cold prairie so you could sneak up on the birds in the complete dark before dawn and then count them. I have no rational explanation why any human would volunteer to do this.
The first year I went on the count there also happened to be a town hall meeting in Manyberries about how to spruce the place up. All the ranchers came from far and wide to decide that they would clean up the garbage heap and put some planters out and then they headed to the bar. The bar was rockin’ that night, and everyone was too drunk to drive home (as in, they couldn’t find their keys because no amount of alcohol would deter them) so they rented out whatever remaining rooms were at the hotel. At 2:30 am I discovered that there was no lock on my hotel room door when a bunch of cowboys had a brawl that busted my door open. At 3:30 am I got up and drove for two hours to count five sage grouse. And then I went for a four hour hike to see some grown men pretend they weren’t afraid of rattlesnakes and listen to a professor talk. And then I wanted to die, but I had to do it all again the next night.
3. Tethered to a dude in a river
I worked for a large corporation that was very fond of health and safety plans. The people who made the health and safety plans had never been outside before, so there was always some weird element of surprise whenever we had to go into the field. Would we have to go shopping for wet suits to go stand in a field and look at an oil well? Take a bear safety course to stand by a river in the middle of the city? Wear a hardhat to go get coffee? No, I had to go to Canadian Tire and buy the thickest and longest goddamned rope I could find so that my co-worker could go out and stand knee deep in the river with me tethered to his waist. Because it makes total sense that if he should get sucked in by the current, a female half his weight should be sacrificed in his memory.
Meanwhile, my cubicle neighbor often bypassed the health and safety requirements and I am pretty sure he had hazardous materials delivered to our office more than once. And possibly a large animal. When I left he gave me some complimentary paraffin wax, in case I needed it.
2. Water Sampling
This was the first adventure I had with my beekeeping partner in crime and frankly I am surprised she still talks to me at all. It was summer and we were between projects, so when someone came looking for volunteers to take some water samples we were all “hells yeah!” We were given a relatively loose timeline, but managed to pick the hottest fucking day in the history of summer, which also happened to be a Friday. We were promised that we only had to “scoop a bit of water out” from the middle of the wetland, but there was “hardly any water in it” and it was “easy to find.” These were fucking lies.
Of course the health and safety plan required waders and a rope and I already had those. We packed up the car, took off early for the day and promised ourselves we’d be drinking beer by 3 pm. It was on the edge of the city, but as we approached we learned that the GPS we had was broken because it was landing us somewhere in the arctic, and that the map was hard to read at best. It might have actually just been a map of Disneyland directing us to Splash Mountain for it’s effectiveness.
We found something that looked like a wetland, so I got into my neoprene waders. Neoprene. Because the last ten stupid projects I did were in a glacial river. Neoprene is not designed for a stagnant puddle in the middle of July, but I was not going to drive back to Canadian Tire for any reason right now. I had beer on my mind.
I waded out into the middle of the wetland sinking into knee deep mud, water up to my waist the entire way, scooped out my water and started heading back to the shore. Then I saw the shimmer of the water on the horizon, and realized that we were in the middle of about fifteen goddamned wetlands, none of which were marked on the map. It suddenly occurred to me that there was a reason the lab gave me three dozen sample bottles: I had to get water from all of them, hiking in my neoprene, directed by arctic GPS coordinates. By the end of the day I had lost about 12 lbs of water weight and let’s just say that the samples may not have been as reliable as they should have been and leave it at that.
1. Stuck in a rut
By far my worst day of paid employment was the last year I did sage grouse counts. Fieldwork is notoriously sexist because big strong man lift anything and hike far while weak little girl can’t drive or get dirty. It’s total horseshit. So this particular year I decided to partner with this female researcher I liked and respected, and we were going to do just fine without dudes. My partner was a 75 lb girl who proved to be very tough and not at all whiny and very resourceful, all of which are reasons that I am even alive to tell you about this right now.
As a joke, my supervisor assigned us to the lek that was on probably the scariest ranch in all of existence. Deliverance is a kind description. The brothers who own it (who are actually real gentlemen despite what I am about to say) live far from civilization and both parties prefer it that way. They keep their cows in the front yard, intermingled with burnt out cars, various farm debris, and the talking garbage heap from Fraggle Rock. And there’s a lot of dogs who are usually happy to chew on an entire cow’s leg, complete with hoof and fur.
We drove to the ranch compound (not sure if you can call a maze of trailers joined together by plywood a house) to see if the landowners were home. They shockingly weren’t, but we had permission to be there so we drove out to scope out our lek. It was a fairly dry spring, so you can imagine my surprise when I landed in a huge motherfucking mud puddle the exact size of my non-4 wheel drive truck. We were in the middle of nowhere. No cell phone service, nothing. We couldn’t see the house, but we could see the border crossing station. It was closed for the night and I was not about to risk walking into Montana by accident again because I didn’t need Homeland Security involved.
I was not prepared to get a truck out of the mud. I had a tarp, a rope and we both had our knives, but that was it. There was no trees to hitch to, no rocks, no nothing that we could wedge under the truck to give it traction. We were fucked. I tried rocking it back and forth, we sucked the tarp into the wheel well and dug ourselves further. The sun started to go down and we contemplated walking back to the Deliverance house, but they weren’t home and we were kind of afraid they might claim us for marriage if they were. So we started digging hard dirt up by hand to pack under the truck. Then we searched farther afield and found a cow skeleton, which we dismantled, used the hip bones as a shovel and wedged the ribs in various ways under the wheel and gave it one more go. SUCCESS! Saved by a dead cow.
We got back to our hotel covered head to toe in mud, late, hours of truck cleaning ahead of us, having to explain to a landowner why we dug a truck-sized hole in his land and reassure him we weren’t making weird sacrifices out of his cow friends, but proud of our resourcefulness and grateful that we didn’t have to surrender ourselves at the American border. And what were the first words that came out of all the guys’ mouths?
“Only a woman would drive into a puddle.”
I hate work.
Photo Credit:Sage grouse – http://www.nationalforestlawblog.com