1.0 In the Snow

I sat and gazed at the word “Results” on my computer screen. The “Methods” section had taken everything I could muster. I didn’t have any energy left to write up the results.

Writing a mitigation report was like writing a Master’s thesis all over again, but in a fraction of the time. It may have been better if my crew and I had dug 100+  square metres last summer and had hundreds of artifacts, including bone and pottery. At least I’d have a reason to complain. But, no. I was writing up a report on 20 square metres and a measly 57 artifacts. Whoppee-do.

I felt a presence behind me and turned. My boss, Morris, was standing there, bi-focals teetering on the tip of his nose. “How’s it going?”

I grunted. “That good, huh?” It’s a good boss that can interpret your grunts.

“I’ve got a project that needs to be done ASAP.”

I flipped open the file folder he’d plopped down on my paper-laden desk. “They want to construct the well site in April? Are you kidding me?”

Morris shrugged. “They want to do what they want to do, regardless of sense or money.”

I continued to gawk. “They do know it’s winter, right?” Morris nodded. “They do know they I might not be able to get them clearance, right?” Morris nodded. “There’s more money in the budget, right?” Morris nodded then turned to leave.

“It might do you good to get away from the mitigation report for a while,” he said and disappeared.

Yeah, I was the smart one. I’d cashed out my lieu time instead of taking the time off. Sure, I bought a new set of winter tires for my ’84 Tercel and paid down my student loan from my brother, Theo. But I was the only one not currently on vacation.

I flipped through the survey plans in the folder then threw the folder at the wall behind my desk.

Fuck. Idiot engineers sitting in cozy office in cities thinking that archaeology can be done in winter. No wait. They don’t think that because that would require some insight. Idiot engineers don’t know that to construct a well site requires archaeological clearance. They just know that paperwork has to be done. They don’t know what has to be done to do the paperwork.

Fuck.

I clicked “Save” then picked up my coffee mug and went downstairs. I made a new pot of coffee after I poured the remaining tar-like dregs into my mug, then headed down the hall to the dry lab.

I opened the door and a cool breeze greeted me. Melissa, our lab madame, had the fans cranked up to dry all the washed artifacts that covered the counters and tables. It was a pretty neat sight, if you liked rocks.

I waved to Melissa and made a bee-line for Cam. Cam made me grateful to be a real red-head. He was one of those carrot-topped, pale-faced, freckled beanpoles, just like Archie. Only he had a few more brain cells. It was hard to find him attractive, so I pitied him.

Cam’s head was bent over a microscope, a pile of lithic debitage and catalogue sheets beside the microscope. There were times I envied the assistants. This was not one of them. “Hey, Cam.”

Cam’s blue eyes rose from the scope and looked passed me. “Elise?” He put down the pencil and rubbed his eyes. “What’s up?”

“I need an assistant to do a run up by Slave Lake. Wanna come?”

Cam’s eyes finally found and focussed on me. “Slave Lake? Seriously? What is it?”

“A well site and access road.” I shrugged and sipped my coffee.

“There’s two feet of snow out there.”

I nodded. “Can you drive a snowmobile?”

He nodded but I noted the tenuousness in his action. “Cool. Okay, I’ll start to make the arrangements. We’ll probably leave day after tomorrow. Bring lots of warm clothing.”

I left to start the process of getting the truck, the trailer, the snowmobiles, the survey plans on my GPS, the safety gear, the research organized, and generally putting my life on hold to go out in the field for a couple days. My company didn’t own their own vehicles — it was better and cheaper to rent and bill directly to the client. While this theory sounded good, in practice it wasn’t so smart. Rental vehicles aren’t meant to be taken off-road, or anywhere other than a city street or a highway. Their tires are generally bald and shitty. So much for having 400 hp and a hemi.

Cam and I headed north on Wednesday, due to return on Friday. Home for the weekend is my idea of good fieldwork. We picked up two snowmobiles on a trailer from a local guy and headed out. Seven hours later, we arrived in Slave Lake. Cam had been right — there was alot of snow up here. An average of two feet sat in the ditches. More where it had drifted.

We checked into the local “high-end” hotel and set a time for supper. I insisted on “high-end” hotels to make sure that the lock on my door worked, the springs of the bed didn’t murder me in my sleep, and to ensure I had internet access. I wouldn’t hear the end of it if Morris couldn’t get a hold of me by email or phone.

The next day we headed out. It was minus 22 Celsius at 730am. For January, that wasn’t bad. We did our safety checks of the trailer and went through our safety paperwork, swearing when the pens were so cold they wouldn’t write. Two hours later, we arrived at our access point.

We’d gone from driving on highway, to high-grade gravel (and snow) road, to gravel (and snow) road, to a line of ruts. At the first intersection, I pulled the truck around and maneouvered the trailer along the shoulder. This would be as far as this truck would go.

Cam and I jumped out and started our ritual of getting ready. It was more than just putting on a couple more layers of clothing and making sure every inch of skin was covered.

“Elise, can you pass me some hand warmers?” Cam called from the other side of the truck. I dug into my kit box and pulled a plastic baggie out.

“One pair or two?”

“Two.” I threw the hand warmers to him.

“Do you want toe ones too?” .

“Yeah. Two pair, please. Top and bottom.” I tossed him another couple of plastic baggies. Safety requirements for just about every client I know of dictate that steel-toed boots must be worn on just about every worksite. However, steel-toed boots tend to get very cold and can cause frostbite. So much for being safe.

Then there was packing for the journey. Rule number one of archaeology is never get separated from your lunch. Cam and I had stocked up before we left home. You can never have enough food in the field. Especially when it’s cold. And forget the fruit unless you’re out for a long time. Meat, cheese, and granola bars, oh yeah.

I put the first aid kit, the survival bag, the extra food, hand and foot warmers, extra clothing, and satellite phone in my big backpack. I packed all my own needs (ie. notebook, survey plans, GPS, artifact baggies, etc.) into my survey vest. When I’d bought my vest, they didn’t make them smaller than Men’s Medium. Usually, it tended to ride up under my chin and I spent most of my day grumbling and pulling it back down. Now, it fit snuggly. My vest had seen some action. Most of the velcro didn’t work any more, the snaps had broken, and my back pocket zipper no longer worked. But my GPS, compass, pens, and notebook still had a place and that’s all I needed.

After about 20 mins, Cam and I finally shut up the truck and stood looking at the snowmobiles attached firmly to the trailer by chains and ratcheted nylon bands.

Birds chirped behind us. Our breath steamed in the cold air.

“When’s the last time you rode?” I asked Cam.

“When I was eight.”

My eyebrows rose. “That was a while ago.”

“Yup.”

“You must have learned pretty early then.”

“Can’t say I ever did. That was the first and last time I was on one.”

I sensed a story. “And? What happened?”

“Within 10 seconds, I went 30 yards and smashed into a tree.”

Like any other archaeological assistant, Cam was very aware that his position was seasonal, temporary at best. His position in the lab this winter was no doubt coveted by many other, currently unemployed assistants. It was no surprise that Cam had bent the truth to go on this project with me. However, I was not happy he had. Cam was the most reliable and knowledgable assistant at my company, and because of that, my personal favourite. I’d spent alot of time and effort training him; this recent lie did not endear him to me.

“How about you?” His voice was muffled by his balaclava.

We stood again for a moment as I tried to remember the last time I’d ridden a snowmobile and then tried to shove back that memory from whence I’d retrieved it. Finally I said, “How do you feel about walking 7 km today?”

Cam’s smile spread to his eyes, “Sounds good to me.”

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