Gear Guide – Knives

If you take a survival coarse, read outdoor living manuals like Northern Bush-craft, or talk to people who spend a great deal of time in the wilderness, one of the first items they suggest always having is a good knife. A good bush knife can be the difference between life and death in a survival scenario, much like a means of water purification and starting a fire (multiple BIC lighters is king!). When surveying the Boreal forest most of what we find are the remnants of First Nations Peoples making cutting implements out of stone. Unless you are an expert flint knapper, I would not recommend making stone tools in a survival situation and instead just follow the experts advice. However, with so many different types of knives on the market today, choosing which knife is best for you may be very daunting. So I asked the archaeological staff at Tree Time Services Inc. what type of knife they carry, why they carry that knife, and what they like/dislike about it? With this information, and my own personal experience, I wrote this guide on knives to share with our followers. Keep in mind, that not all clients allow knives on projects, so occasionally we have to leave them at home.

Folding Knives

Although I would not a consider a folding knife (a.k.a. pocket knife) the best choice for bush-craft, they do have certain qualities that make them quite useful when compared to other options. They key aspect that make folding knives a decent option is right in the name: they fold. Folding knives are the best type of knife for every day carry (EDC) because they are portable, usually lightweight, pack-able and easy to deploy like a Spyderco Paramilitary II. I would not buy a heavy or bulky folding knife. I want to put the knife in my pocket or pack and forget that it is there until I need it. I also would not buy a folding knife that cannot be operated with only one hand. Folding knife technology has advanced enough that knives that require two hands to open (or close) are now obsolete, but some people just fancy the more traditional style and aesthetic of a Buck 55 or Opinal #8. However, when buying any knife, especially folding knives, it is important to buy one that has a comfortable handle. While they may be aesthetically pleasing, many folding knives are very uncomfortable to hold and will cause hotspots and blisters during extended use.

The major downside to folding knives is that the fold is an inherent weak spot, which makes them far less durable than fixed blades, although perfectly adequate for small cutting tasks. Many people would choose lightweight and easy to carry over heavy and bulky. When doing archaeological survey, we have multiple means of communication (cellphone, radio, and In-Reach), and it is extremely unlikely that we would spend any longer than 24 hours stuck in the bush. Both Reid and Elenore think a pocket knife is perfectly adequate for what we do and don’t bother carrying a fixed blade knife. In my 10+ years of forest life, I have never been in a true survival situation, but I carry a fixed blade knife nonetheless, because I want to have it if I need it and I find it useful for tasks unsuited for a folding knife.

Fixed Blade Knives

When choosing a fixed blade over a folding knife, you need to decide whether you want portability or durability. Fixed-blade knives don’t fold, and therefore they need to be carried in a sheath on your belt or attached to a pack. While both types of knives are very proficient at cutting things (provided the edge is well maintained), fixed blade knives are much more versatile. They are universal tools that can be used for many things that would break a less durable folding knife. Digging holes, chopping down trees and cutting firewood, can all be done with a good fixed-blade knife, but would quickly destroy a folding knife. However, keep in mind that not all fixed blade knives are created equal, and a good bush-craft knife should have a full tang (the metal of the blade extends all the way to the base of the handle). This makes the knife substantially stronger than a knife that only has partial tang, or no tang at all, like those “Rambo”-style knives that have a hollow handle. Sure it may seem nice to be able to store matches and snare wire inside your knife, but that hollow-handle knife will break long before a full-tang knife will.

Before choosing which fixed-blade knife to buy, you need to decide what you will be using the knife for, and how much weight are you willing to carry? For instance, Tim carries a Gerber Vertebrae, which is small 3 inch, lightweight blade. In contrast, I carry a Ka-Bar, which is not small (7 inch blade) or lightweight, but I can use it as a small machete to clear helipads, cut roots out of test pits, and baton it through firewood with ease. However, when it comes to fine jobs requiring manual dexterity, the Gerber Vertebrae shines, while the Ka-Bar is just too big for precision cuts. Jay carries an older Gerber knife similar to the Gerber LMF-2 Infantry, which is probably a happy medium between what Tim and I carry. With a 5 inch blade, Jay’s knife is still light enough to be dexterous, while still being large enough to chop and baton.

Morakniv Companion

Vince carries the now discontinued Gerber Guardian, which is a double edged knife that is extremely cool, but not the most useful for anything other than Tactical Forest Operations. Vince admits that while two edges do not dull out as fast as one, his knife cannot baton through wood and is somewhat awkward to use since you can’t put your thumb on the spine while whittling. If price is a concern, but you still would like a good fixed-blade knife then look no further than the Morakniv Companion. These knives are very durable and come highly recommended by many outdoor and survival enthusiasts. Not to mention that you could buy 10 of them for the price I paid for my Spyderco Paramilitary II! Brittany lost her Morakniv Light My Fire this year and doesn’t seem to feel too bad about it.

Multi-tools

The usefulness of multi-tools is undeniable and most of the archaeologists at Tree Time carry one into the bush. Swiss Army knives are great, but Leatherman’s addition of pliers to the “boy scout knife” in the 1980’s changed the multi-tool forever. Since then the multi-tool market has exploded and many different variations with different types of tools are produced by many different manufactures. When buying a multi-tool it is important to keep in mind that when carrying gear through the forest all day “ounces become pounds”. Like other knives, you need to balance weight with usefulness. Ask yourself “do I really need that tiny pair of scissors when I am already carrying a multi-tool with two knife blades and a fixed-blade on my belt?”. Do this for every tool, and soon you will realize that a lightweight multi-tool with 10 functions is likely better. Sure it may seem like a good idea to get the Leatherman Surge with 21 different tools, but it also weighs in at a whopping 12.5 ounces, which is nearly a pound. Luckily many multi-tool manufactures have realized that weight is a concern for many people and have designed tools, such as the Leatherman Signal, with backpacking in mind.

Personally, I would refrain from getting a micro multi-tool like the Gerber Dime or Leatherman Micra. While these are extremely lightweight, I’ve always found that the pliers just don’t generate enough force and the knives just aren’t big enough. If force generation is a must, SOG recently designed the “Power-” line of multi-tools that have a mechanism the doubles the force applied to the pliers. Another important thing to consider when buying a multi-tool is whether you can access the tools with the pliers in the closed position and whether it can be operated one-handed. Like knives, not all multi-tools are created equal and it is important to do a bit of research before you buy a product to ensure you made the right choice.

Digging Knives

While I like to carry a knife that I can use for digging if need be, Kurt likes to carry a knife that was especially designed for the task. When conducting archaeological survey, Kurt carries a folding knife, a multi-tool and a Hori Hori Knife. The Hori Hori knife is a Japanese knife that is part trowel, part knife and is traditionally used for gardening. The dished shaped knife features a serrated blade on one side and a straight blade on the other, although Kurt wishes these were reversed so that the straight blade faced down when held in the right hand. The Hori Hori knife is large enough to be used as a small machete, and is very useful for cutting sod, removing roots from test pits and troweling through tree throws. According to Kurt, the major downfall of the Hori Hori knife is that it does not have a full tang, and the blade becomes loose with heavy use. Since the handle is riveted, there is no way to tighten the handle once it slacks off. Kurt says he may replace the rivets with screws so that he can periodically tighten it up.

In the past, Kurt has also carried a Lesche knife, which is another knife designed primarily for digging and loved by the metal detector community. Although Kurt was fond of this knife, he says that he gave it up for the Hori Hori, due to the offset handle making it awkward to carry. Like trying to carry a trowel on your belt, the offset handle sticks out from your body and gets caught on branches and trees while navigating dense forests. However, he was very fond of the sheath and it fit his Hori Hori knife perfectly.

Folding Saw

I will mention one other tool that is extremely useful and hard to do without. Folding saws are an excellent tool that are a necessity for anyone doing archaeology in the Boreal forest. There have been countless times where a tree or large branch is totally blocking a cutline that we need to quad down to access our work area. Instead of walking for an extra 3 km, we simple deploy a folding saw and cut the tree out of the way. If I know there will be lots of deadfall, I bring a chainsaw, but sometimes one small tree can mean the difference between a 200 m or a 2000 m hike if you can’t get your quad around it.

The two main types of folding saws we use are the “folding” type and the “collapsible” type. Both of these saws work, but a folding saws is more portable and easy to deploy, whereas a collapsible saw is better at actual cutting. Madeline uses her Kershaw folding saw so much she actually keeps it in her vest. She uses it to clear trails and get those pesky roots out of her test pits. Last year Tree Time bought 4 of the collapsible Agawa Boreal 21 Saws for people to take with them on the quads. We found that these saws were extremely useful, and cut through fairly large trees with ease.

Closing Remarks

When purchasing knives, multi-tools or saws for work, or pleasure, remember to ask yourself “do I actually need this?”, and better yet “do I really want to carry this around all day?”. This is what you have to remember when buying a folding-knife versus a fixed-blade knife, a 7 inch blade versus a 4 inch blade, a 21 function versus 12 function multi-tool or a folding versus collapsible saw. Weight adds up very fast when you have to carry it around for 12 hrs a day, every day, so it is these small choices that make all the difference. You cannot leave your food, water, GPS or first aid kit at home, but you can choose a multi-tool that is 5 ounces lighter, or a knife that fits in your pocket. However, always remember that outdoor living is always a trade off, and conscious well thought out decisions should always guide you when choosing your kit.

Edible Plant Series – Wild Mint

For this installment of the Edible Plant Series we will showcase wild mint. Mentha arvensis is a fairly common flowering plant that is found all over the world. It likes to grow in low-lying poorly drained areas, and will commonly be found along creeks and rivers, or in grassy areas bordering muskegs. It can be hard to spot as it may be hiding amongst taller grasses and weeds. You will usually smell it long before you see it, as it gives off a distinct, pungent, but pleasant aroma.

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Water Hemlock

A quick cautionary note: Always be sure to correctly identify wild plants before you ingest them. There are plants, such as water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), that are extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Like wild mint, water hemlock grows in poorly drained areas and they are often found in the same locations. I was raised in cattle country in northern Alberta, and I remember a couple instances when local cows died from accidentally ingesting water hemlock. Mature plants vary greatly in size, with water hemlock reaching heights of 2.5 m tall, but all plants start off small. So when it comes to eating wild plants, it is best to just assume everything will kill you, unless you know for certain that it won’t.

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Wild Mint

I was first introduced to this fragrant little plant by my friend Jonah while we were conducting an HRIA south of Kinuso, AB. We were quading through a muskeg and Jonah caught a wiff of wild mint. We stopped for lunch, and Jonah showed me the source of the smell. We then proceeded to pick as much as we could find during our break. After work we dried the mint by hanging it in bunches around our hotel rooms. I don’t know what the hotel staff thought when they cleaned our rooms the next morning, but Jonah said his grandma would be super happy when he brought her a bounty of her favourite tea. My girlfriend, now wife, didn’t seem very impressed when I brought her a container of dried weeds from the field, but she does enjoy the tea.

Wild mint is mainly prepared as a tea, and is traditionally used by First Nations people as a delicious hot beverage and a herbal remedy. The tea was used to treat a variety of ailments such as digestive issues and coughs, and an ointment made of mint could alleviate aches and pains. Northern Bush Craft, suggests that it can be used to flavour other food, and sprinkling powdered leaves on berries and drying meat will repel insects. Jonah said that if you are out of bug spray, you can rub mint on yourself to keep the mosquitoes away (I’ve actually heard the same about juniper berries).Varieties of mint are still used today to produce a variety of chemicals, like menthol, which has many pharmaceutical applications.

I appreciate this knowledge that Jonah shared with me, as I now know the source of this mysterious forest odour. I generally pick a bit each year to keep our supply topped up and while working, fresh wild mint provides a nice treat to refresh your mouth when you’ve been drinking tepid water that tastes like dirt all day.

Edible Plants Series – Wild Berries Part 1

If you follow our blog, or have read any of the other installments of the Edible Plant Series, you will notice some repetition in the following cautionary note. Do not eat any wild plants that you can not identify with 100% certainty! Berries are generally safer than plants like mushrooms, since most edible berries do not have poisonous look-alikes. However, there are still some berries that are extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Black nightshade (Solanum americanum, Solanum nigrum) and Baneberry (Actaea rubra) both have toxic berries that can be extremely harmful if eaten, especially to small children. Luckily, the two berries I will discuss in this post are both fairly common and easily recognizable.

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Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries – (Fragaria virginiana)

In my opinion, these little gems are one of the most delicious naturally occurring foods in Alberta. While not being super easy to spot, they are immediately recognizable due to the fact that they look exactly like a strawberry, but tiny. Wild strawberries are much smaller than their cultivated counter-parts, but both the plant, the flower, and the fruit, closely resemble the garden variety. They look like strawberries, and they taste like strawberries, yet I find that the little wild variety has much more flavour. Strawberries grow in varied environments and seem to like open, well-drained areas. I rarely see more than a few berries at a time under the dense forest canopies, but cutblocks that are a few years old are usually ripe with them (pun completely intended).

If you’re stranded in the bush, don’t plan on surviving off wild strawberries. They are delicious, but individual plants will only produce a few berries at a time. They do not grow in clumps like many other berries, and you will spend an hour trying to get a handful of them. But what a handful!

Prior to my parents doing some landscaping on the farm, the southern edge of their lawn next to the creek had a substantial wild strawberry patch. It really was a large patch, but it would still take my grandma almost an entire day to pick enough wild strawberries to fill a small bucket. Out of this, she would make about four small jars of jam, three of which my dad would quickly hide so that us ‘damn kids’ didn’t eat it all up in a week. This coveted preserve would slowly be brought out of its hiding place throughout the winter, usually when company was over for breakfast. Worth the work and perfect for a special occasion, but definitely not to be wasted on PB&J sandwiches!

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Wild Blueberries

Wild Blueberries – (Vaccinium spp.)

According to Northern Bush Craft, several different species of wild blueberry are prevalent across Canada. I’ve never really noticed a difference between the species, but this is probably because I’m too busy filling my face with them! They grow on a small, low lying, woody shrub that somewhat resembles bear berry or kinnikinnick. Similar to strawberries, wild blueberries look similar to, but are generally much smaller than their cultivated counterpart. However, wild blueberry plants are generally very productive and you can gather a large quantity relatively quickly. Be careful how many blueberries you consume in one sitting, as they have an extremely laxative effect when eaten in large quantities. I’ve seen them growing in a variety of environments, but they seem to be most abundant in well drained, open, coniferous forests. As a kid I remember picking blueberries with my grandma in the muskeg, but it is quite possible that these were the ‘bog’ variety (V. uliginosum), which prefer wet, acidic soils.

I will end this blog post with another cautionary note. Bears love blueberries, and they can be extremely protective of a productive patch. Bears in a blueberry patch may be too busy chowing down to even notice you’re there, yet they may also see you as competition for their prized berries and act very aggressive. It is not uncommon in the late summer to see bear scat that is almost entirely composed of blueberries. Bears need to eat an obscene amount of calories per day to ensure that they have enough fat stores to make it through winter hibernation, and a good berry patch is a very cost-effective means for them to get these calories. Picking a bucket of blueberries is extremely gratifying, but never forget that there are much bigger, faster, and stronger things in nature that also find them delicious, and they may be terrible at sharing!

Wind Storm in the Slave Lake Region Aids in the Discovery of Giant Archaeological Site.

In July of 2017, some forests in the vicinity of Slave Lake experienced catastrophic blow down when a fast moving storm swept through central Alberta. The large storm system caused high winds and localized flooding in many areas, including Slave Lake and Edmonton. It also dropped golf ball sized hail on Drayton Valley and spawned a tornado near Breton. Whole sections of forest were devastated by winds in excess of 100 km/hr. It was speculated that the severe wind and heavy rainfall may have resulted in a reduced number of juvenile birds, from both ground and tree nesting species, in the Slave Lake region.

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Severe blowdown observed in the forest

The archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. conduct Historic Resources Impact Assessments (HRIA) for many of the forest product companies that operate in the Slave Lake region. Prior to the commencement of any harvest activities, these companies must ensure that their operations are not going to adversely impact any archaeological, historic or cultural sites.

A few of the cutblocks that Vanderwell Contractors (1971) Ltd. had scheduled for harvest in 2017, were completely flattened by the storm. Although archaeological survey is usually conducted prior to harvest, the heavy blow down caused by the storm made it extremely hazardous to work in these areas. Pre-impact survey allow forest companies to avoid the historic resources identified by archaeologists and ensure that they are not disturbed by harvest activities. However, the chance of the archaeologists being injured by falling trees and ‘widow makers’ was much too high. The archaeologists had to wait till the timber was salvaged. Even though many of the trees were broken, Vanderwell Contractors was still obligated to complete the HRIA. In some rare circumstances such as this, or salvaging timber from forest fires, archaeologists may have to conduct their survey post-impact, or after the harvest is complete.

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Tim documenting exposure in the cutblock

The timber was salvaged during the winter by Vanderwell Contractors, and Tree Time’s archaeologists returned in the summer of 2018 to conduct their search for historic resources. The timber salvage had slightly impacted the area, but it was apparent that many of the trees had been uprooted by the wind storm. Usually cutblocks are full of stumps, which are still rooted in the ground, but these cutblocks were filled with stump piles. Instead of cutting down the trees, the harvesters were simply picking them up and cutting off the ends. To access the salvaged timber, Vanderwell Contractors had to build a small temporary road. The tree throws created by the blow down, as well as harvest operations, led to a substantial amount of exposed sediment, which allowed archaeologists to quickly identify a very large archaeological site: GgPm-7.

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Flake found in exposure
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Stump piles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GgPm-7 is a large pre-historic campsite that occupies a long north to south trending sand ridge next to the Athabasca River. The archaeologists found the site while looking for artifacts in the surface exposures created by tree throws on the south end of the ridge. They found four stone flakes (debitage) in the second tree throw they inspected. As they worked their way down the ridge, they continuously examined the surface exposures as they went. They did not stop finding artifacts until they reached the north end of the ridge. The archaeologists then used shovel tests to investigate areas along the ridge that did not have many surface exposures, or where no artifacts were found during the initial sweep. When the delineation was complete, GgPm-7 measured approximately 800 meters in length and 128 artifacts had been collected.

GgPm-7
GgPm-7 Site map

This site is designated as a prehistoric camp based on the variety of artifacts found. A campsite is a somewhat encompassing term given to archaeological sites that display evidence of a variety of different activities including a hearth or other evidence of fire. Stone flakes, or debitage, are found at almost a pre-contact archaeological sites and provide evidence that tool production, or re-sharpening. The presence of stone cores suggest that early stage stone tool production, or the production of flakes that could be turned into tools at a later time, had occurred.

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Core found during assessment
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Projectile point found during assessment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The discovery and delineation of GgPm-7 highlights an important issue facing CRM archaeologists working in the forestry sector. Although pre-impact survey allows for sites to be identified before they have been disturbed, the work at GgPm-7 clearly indicates that not only are sites much easier to find post-impact, but they are also much easier to delineate. Of the 27 surface inspections that were conducted by the archaeologists, artifacts were observed in 22. In contrast, of the 22 shovel tests that were dug, artifacts were only recovered from 3. There is little doubt that a pre-impact survey of this landform would have identified an archaeological site. However, there is a very good chance that shovel tests alone would have failed to display the extensive size of the site. Although surface exposures can compromise site integrity, they allow archaeologists to quickly assess an area without conducting labour intensive shovel tests.

Edible Plant Series – Wild Mushrooms

For this installment of the Edible Plant Series I decided to take a bite out of mushrooms. Before I get into the bread and butter of this topic, I must first do what everyone must do when they are discussing eating wild mushrooms. I must state: DO NOT EAT ANY MUSHROOMS THAT YOU CAN NOT CORRECTLY IDENTIFY WITH 100% CONFIDENCE. This is not mere cautionary note, and yes, I did mean to use ALL CAPS and BOLD when I wrote it.

Death Cap
Death Cap

Mushrooms are not something to mess around with. There are literally thousands of different species of mushrooms in Alberta, yet the list of mushrooms that are edible and have no poisonous look-alikes is actually quite short. In North America, a few people die each year by incorrectly identifying and ingesting poisonous mushrooms. The main culprits are usually members of the genus Amanita and have super ominous names like the Destroying Angel (A. bisporigera, A. ocreata, A. virosa), Death Cap (A. phalloides) or the little less scary, Fool’s mushroom (A. verna). These unassuming looking mushrooms have a toxin that does not show symptoms until its already too late. By the time you feel ill, you may already need a liver transplant, and death will shortly follow without intense medical treatment.

Even some edible mushrooms have toxins that are destroyed by cooking so unless you know for sure, it is always best to cook wild mushrooms. Some varieties of edible mushrooms have a toxin that interferes with alcohol metabolism. So again, unless you know for sure that the edible mushroom you picked does not do this, it is best to abstain from that bottle of wine with supper.

The surest way to avoid being poisoned is not to eat mushrooms unless you are completely sure they are edible. The best way to do this is to learn from those with the experience and knowledge, not to try to identify a mushroom by comparing to a picture on the internet. Mushrooms are abundant, and wild mushroom picking can be an extremely gratifying and delicious pursuit, but you must put in your time and learn what is edible while assuming everything else will kill you. If you’re interested in learning this skill, mushroom picking classes are offered by the Alberta Mycological Society.

So now that you’re thoroughly scared (as I intended), lets discuss two of the mushrooms that I personally feel confident picking and eating. I grew up on a farm and have spent an obscene amount of time in the forest. I know of a few mushrooms you can eat because I learned from my dad and my grandma. This knowledge was supplemented by taking survival courses and reading Northern Bush Craft several times. Even with this knowledge, I only feel completely confident identifying and eating four types of mushrooms. In this blog post I will share two of them with you. I chose the first, because it is very common, has easily identifiable characteristics and no close look-alikes. The second I will share because they are damn delicious, and one of the most sought after mushrooms in the world.

Boletus
King Bolete

Boletus edulis – King Bolete aka. Porcini, Penny Bun, Cepe

The King Bolete (Boletus edulis) is a very common mushroom in the boreal forests of Alberta, or basically any wooded area in the northern hemisphere. The mushroom forms a symbiotic relationship with trees, which makes it difficult to cultivate, but abundant in forested regions. These mushrooms grow all summer starting in the spring, but they spoil and get infested with worms as they age. The mushroom varies greatly in size, but will grow fairly large, with its red to brownish-yellow cap reaching up to a foot (30-35 cm) in diameter.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of this mushroom, is that it does not have gills under the cap. Instead, there are tiny spore tubes that give the underside a spongy appearance. This will be white when the mushroom is young, darkening to an olive or brown color as the mushroom ages. My family always removed the sponge on larger mushrooms before cooking them, but the sponge is perfectly edible and we wouldn’t bother removing it on the smaller ones.

The stem is usually white to light brown and the lack of a sock, or volva, is an important characteristic. When we pick these mushrooms we always bring a knife and cut the bottom of the stem. This not only removes the dirt, but also allows you to check if the mushroom has worms. The stem should be completely solid and white. If you see small brown holes when you cut the stem you know that the mushroom is infested and should not be eaten.

Our favorite way to eat these mushrooms is to cook them with butter, garlic and a little salt and pepper, as an accompaniment with steak, but they dry quite nicely and are good in soup, gravy and stock. These mushrooms have no toxin so they can be eaten raw and you don’t have to set aside the beer.

True Morel
True Morel

Morchella spp. – True Morels aka. Black Morels

The True Morels (I believe Morchella elata is the most common in Alberta) have a very short growing season and like forests that have been opened up in some way. They can be found from May to early June in old forest fire burns and cutblocks, but we mainly looked for them in bush around the farm where the cows reside.

They are an odd looking mushroom that has a ribbed or honeycomb cap that varies from light yellowish-brown to dark brown. They are small, which makes them difficult to spot. True Morels will only have a single, somewhat uniform, conical cap, which in my mind, makes them resemble little spruce trees from an alien planet.

These little mushrooms have a hollow stem that is light brown. The stem and the cap form a continuous hollow chamber. This is the easiest way to tell them from their look-alikes, the False Morels. Not all False Morels are poisonous if properly prepared, but many have a toxin that accumulates in your body and can be fatal at high doses. The stem and cap of False Morels do not form a single hollow chamber, so this characteristics can help discern True from False. I personally know a few people who have mistaken False Morels for the True ones. No one died, but a couple of them got fairly sick.

Technically, True Morels are still a poisonous mushroom, but the toxin is broken down by heat, so they should always be cooked before consumption. The toxin, even when cooked, can react with alcohol leading to an upset stomach and increased impairment. I’ve never had a problem with this aspect, but Morels are rare, and I have only ever consumed a small amount of them in one sitting.

Although any mushroom is delicious fried in butter and garlic and served on steak, my family usually only ate Morels this way on the day we picked them. Because Morels have a very short growing season, we would pick as many as we could find, as fast as we could find them. We would eat a small amount of them on steak, and dry the rest. They dry very well and keep for a very long time. Dried Morels are an excellent flavour base for soup, stew and gravy. They are highly sought after worldwide and fetch an extremely high price if you can find them.

Mushroom picking can be an extremely gratifying and delicious pursuit, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to get proper guidance before partaking. Take a course and learn from others, and remember not to rely on visually comparing mushrooms to pictures. Good hunting!

Wildfire and Archaeology: The good, the bad, and the opportunity

In recent years, wildfires in Canada and the United States have brought devastation to many communities. In the last 10 years, wildfires have burned nearly two million hectares of land in Canada alone. Human intervention, aimed at stemming the destruction wrought by wildfires during the last century, has actually increased the threat of large fires by fuel loading forests throughout North America. In the past, unchecked wildfires would naturally remove the built up fuel loads, and indigenous peoples also used fire as means to rejuvenate old growth areas so that food producing plants and animals would flourish. Increasing global temperatures and fire suppression activities have created an environment that promotes larger, more destructive and more intense wildfires.

I decided to write this blog post because I am keenly interested in the interaction between wildfires and archaeology. As a permit holding CRM archaeologist in Alberta, I am obviously curious about the effects wildfires can have on historic resources, and what they mean for my industry as a whole. But before becoming an archaeologist, I was a Type I Helitack Wildfire Fighter for 6 years. I have seen the awe-inspiring ferocity of wildfires first hand, and have a fairly good understanding of the nature of wildfires, their effects on the environment, and the destruction they can reap when they impact inhabited areas.

Let’s start with the BAD. It is no surprise that wildfires can negatively affect archaeological sites in a variety of ways. For example, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, the Los Conchas Fire, impacted over 1000 archaeological sites. The associated loss of vegetation, and the flash flooding that resulted, further devastated many archaeological sites. Any prehistoric or historic site that contains above ground structures will be the most affected by wildfires. Historic buildings made of wood will likely be completely consumed, but stone structures can also experience a massive amount of damage. As stone is heated it can crack, and repeated heating and cooling events can cause stone to disintegrate entirely. If a stone is heated and then rapidly cooled, catastrophic fractures can occur. Water can also enter the cracks and speed up the degradation process, and this problem is exasperated by sub-zero temperatures. Freeze-thaw cycles are why there are so many potholes in Edmonton and why we only have two seasons – winter and construction. This process is especially damaging to archaeological sites with rock art, as fire, in combination with freeze-thaw, can cause large portions of the rock surface to spall and break off (Figure 2). The smoke and heat associated with forest fires can also stain rock surfaces and obscure the pictographs. This can irreparably damage these stone canvases that have lasted for thousands of years.

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Enter Figure 2: Spalling of rock art following the 2003 Hammond Fire, Manti LasSal, Utah. (Photo Clay Johson, Ashely NF**)

Individual artifacts at archaeological sites can also be damaged by wildfires. Surface artifacts such as stone flakes, pottery sherds or animal remains can all be severely damaged by fire, although it is important to note that this does not generally lead to a total loss of information. The stone artifacts may be potlidded and ceramics (Figure 3) may be stained, but archaeologist can still gain valuable information from their study. Subsurface artifacts (buried more than 15cm deep) are more insulated from the damaging effects of heat, but can still be affected , especially if the fire burns deep into the organic soil layer, through roots or if the artifacts are near heavy fuels like old tree stumps. A scraper I found last year while conducting an HRIA for Sundre Forest Products exhibited some potlidding that may have been caused by forest fire (Figure 4).

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Figure 3: Pottery sherd including a ladle handle (above ruler) and bowl fragments found at the surface following the 2002 Long Mes fire, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (Buenger 2003*)

 

Potlids Figure
Figure 4: Several potlids noted on a scraper identified at FbPw-17

The vertical context of artifacts can be lost at archaeological sites that experience deep burning, or experience repeated burning. Archaeologists must be aware that sites with multiple occupations, spanning several thousand years, may appear as a single occupation if they experience a deep burn. A deep burn can remove the organic sediment and move all of the artifacts down to the surface of the mineral soil. About 15 years ago my crew fought a fire that started one summer and burned through the entire winter. The next summer we were surprised to find that the fire burned more than 2 metres into the ground! A site impacted by that burn would have lost all of its vertical context and the artifacts would have been affected to a great depth. Needless to say, fighting that ground fire was extremely difficult and required a lot of heavy machinery.

Although wildfires can be directly damaging to archaeological sites, the heavy equipment used in suppression activities may be the biggest source of impacts. In archaeologically sensitive areas like southern California, archaeologists trained to fight forest fires accompany fire crews and monitor the use of heavy equipment in an attempt to lessen the impact of suppression activities to archaeological sites.

In areas with valuable timber, salvaging partially burnt timber can also cause irreversible damage to archaeological sites. In Alberta, logging companies still need to complete a historic resources impact assessment (HRIA) when salvaging burnt forests. I have personally been involved in fire salvage HRIA’s that were conducted pre and post-impact. While conducting a pre-impact HRIA near Anzac after the devastating Ft. McMurray wildfire, I found a Besant point (Figure 5), and last year we found 3 new sites while conducting a post-impact HRIA in a burn near Rocky Mountain House.

brianspoint1 - Copy
Figure 5: Besant point found while doing a fire salvage HRIA

This brings us to the GOOD. I know what you’re thinking: how could any good come from devastating wildfires! But aside from the rejuvenating effect that wildfires have on the ecosystem, they also make it substantially easier for professionals to locate new archaeological sites, increasing and expanding our knowledge of the archaeology of the area. The fire that tore through Waterton National Park last year burned close to 50% of the park’s area,. While this area was known to be archaeologically sensitive, the removal of the vegetation allowed researchers to study the extent of the past habitation by Blackfoot peoples to a degree that was previously impossible. Archaeologist were able to re-visit many on the 250+ sites that were located within the burn area, most of which had not been studied since the 1960’s and 70’s. It also allowed archaeologist to easily find many new sites without conducting labour intensive (and unreliable) shovel tests. Similarly, the Elephant Hill fire near Kamloops, B.C., opened up the forest, which aided archaeologists in identifying over 100 new sites in a relatively unexplored area. Both these fires provided archaeologists with valuable insights into the past and we all gained a wealth of information to help us understand how past peoples utilized and interacted with their environment.

Herein lies the OPPORTUNITY. It is important that we recognize that although wildfires are destructive, the removal of surface vegetation gives archaeologists and researchers unique opportunities to quickly gather a lot of information. This is especially important in archaeologically sensitive areas, as well as areas that are difficult to access, or where there is not the usual motivating factor for identifying archaeological sites, namely industry. In the future, we should take the opportunity to assess any fires that naturally occur within National Parks, such as Jasper or Banff, for historical resources. Prescribed burns that occur within the parks to reduce fuel loads, or to rejuvenate forests ravaged by the pine beetle, present a special and rare chance to increase our knowledge of how these areas were used in the past.

It is also becoming more apparent that there needs to be an increased effort by government agencies to minimize the impact that fire suppression activities can have on historical resources. As someone who has actively participated in fighting forest fires, I realize that decisions concerning the suppression of a fire traveling 10+ km/hr must be made fast, and there may not be time to consider the impact to historical resources. However, once the fire has been controlled, not assessing the potential damage to sites caused by suppression activities is somewhat irresponsible and a missed opportunity. Furthermore the reclamation of heavy impacts, such as dozer guards, further damages sites, and may damage sites that were not disturbed by the fire. The monitoring of these activities by archaeologists could increase the number of sites found, and thus increase our future understanding of peoples in the past, and protect our heritage from further disturbance.

References:

*Buenger, B.A. 2003. The impact of wildland and prescribed fire on archaeological resources. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas. 345 p. Dissertation.

**Johnson, C. 2004a. Archaeological sites and fire-induced changes. In: Brunswig, R.H.; Butler, W.B., eds. Ancient and historic lifeways in North America’s Rocky Mountains: Proceedings of the Sixth biennial Rocky Mountain Anthropological Conference; 2003 September 18-20; Estes Park, CO. 16p.

Forest Fire image courtesy of Skeeze from Pixabay.

For more information see: https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr042_3.pdf

Where does the Obsidian we find come from?

Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was used by pre-European contact people all over North America. Known for its natural sharpness, ancient peoples sought the material for making tools for cutting and slicing. Additionally, it is easier to flintknap than the harder and more readily available materials local to Alberta.

As many of our readers know, there are no volcanoes in Alberta, so the obsidian is getting here either by trade or by the movement of people. Luckily for archaeologists, each source of obsidian in North America has a unique chemical signature, allowing us to trace where the material is coming from.

Finding obsidian in Alberta is rare, but over the past few years we have recovered three pieces (Figures 1-3) while working for Sundre Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser Pembina Timberlands Ltd. in the foothills region of the province. These artifacts were lent to Todd Kristensen at Alberta Culture and Tourism as part of the ongoing Alberta Obsidian Project. The artifacts we found were analysed using a technique called portable X-ray fluorescence.

FbPx-10_2
FbPx-10
FaPr-6_14
FaPr-6
FePr-4_7_ventral_dorsal---
FePr-4

The results show that two of the flakes (FbPX-10 and FaPr-6) track well with Yellowstone and one flakes tracks to Bear Gulch which is just outside of Yellowstone to the west. The source within Yellowstone is unknown, but it is assumed that it is the Cougar Creek source, which is the most wide used source.

FbPx-10_FaPr-6_FePr-4
Obsidian Sourcing Results

When we input the distance from FbPx-10 to Yellowstone National Park, we can see this artifact traveled 1,136 km and would take 231 hours to travel that distance by foot. Similarly, FaPr-6 was 1,033 km from Yellowstone National Park and FePr-4 was 979 km from Bear Gulch. This reinforces how valuable this material was for the First Nations of Alberta.

Distance
Distance between Yellowstone Park and FbPx-10