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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
*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.
It’s the little things that keep you going during a 10 day survey shift, and we archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. all have our own favorite go-to food depending on where we are in the province. For this week’s post, I decided to ask my fellow archaeologists what their favorite on the road food is so that I can share it with this blog’s followers. So if you are ever in the neighborhood, we suggest you check out these spots!
Brittany – When asked what her favorite on the road food is Brittany instantly replied “Peace River Mexican”. According to Brittany and Reid, the Su Casa Cafe, located in Peace River is the best Mexican food they ever had and that is saying a lot, since they ate there directly after returning from their Mexican honeymoon. If you don’t want to take their word for it, just look up Su Casa on Trip Advisor or Yelp, both of which rank Su Casa as the best resturant in Peace River. Brittany says that the quesadillas were the best she ever had and Reid has nothing but good things to say about the mole chicken. Brittany also added that after a cold day in the field, the french onion soup at the Walking Eagle Hotel in Rocky Mountain House is pretty good too!
Reid – At the end of the day Reid’s comfort food is a big helping of northern Alberta poutine. The type of poutine that I grew up with in the North doesn’t use cheese curds, but instead comes with mozzarella cheese baked on top, similar to lasagna or baked spaghetti. Although this concoction is sure to make purists roll their eyes, this is the style of poutine that Reid loves. It actually wasn’t until I moved to Edmonton that I found out that this is not the traditional form of the dish. Reid says he is definitely not a poutine purist and thinks that The Ridge Taphouse in Slave Lake has the best poutine he has ever eaten. The fries are lightly breaded and crispy, the gravy is fake, and the cheese is plentiful! It may not be everyone’s favorite poutine, but in Reid’s opinion it is the best accompaniment to a cold beer after a long hard day in the bush.
Corey – When asked what his favorite food on the road is, Corey admitted that he really doesn’t eat out that much while on shift, since as a vegetarian, much of the time your choices are very limited in small towns. However, he said that Ernie O’s Restaurant and Pub, in Fox Creek has really good food and is very accommodating to vegetarians. While Corey and I were in there for the first time, the waitress told us that the chef would be willing to cook a veggy friendly version of most things on the menu. For Corey that is a big deal, since usually the only thing he can eat at many places is fries and nachos.
Elenore – At the start of a shift, the TTSI archaeologists aren’t very far down the road when they stop at Elenore’s favorite on the road spot. As a former employee of A&W, Elenore knows when a franchise location is on point, and she says that of all the A&W’s that she has been to, the Acheson location is the best! The TTSI warehouse is located in Acheson, and so at the start of every field shift, that is our jumping off point. Elenore’s favorite road food is early morning breakfast picked up from the Acheson A&W and eaten in the truck on the way to the field. It’s not A&W breakfast in general, but specifically the breakfast at Acheson, since according to Elenore, this location is the best A&W in Canada!
Vince – Like Elenore, Vince’s favorite food on the road comes from a place where you can also gas up your vehicle. In the small town of Smoky Lake, there is a Centex service station, and they make some ridiculously good chicken! Vince admits that his hunger level may influence this choice, as usually by the time you are driving past Smoky Lake on your way to Edmonton from Ft. McMurray, you are usually pretty hungry. However this does not change the fact that Crispy Fried Chicken (CFC) is very good and extremely satisfying. Another plus is that this gas station also has a free sanitary dump for RV’s. There is nothing like enjoying some hot and crispy fried chicken after finishing using the sanitary dump after a 10 day trailer shift. YUM!
Teresa – Sometimes at the end of a long day you are cold and want a hot meal, but sometimes, especially during the hot summer months, all you want is a nice cold treat. Teresa’s favorite food on the road is ice cream from The Grandview Stage Tempo, which is located at the southwest of Rocky Mountain House on Highway 752. TTSI archaeologists do a substantial amount of work for Sundre Forest Products and so we usually spend a fair bit of time around Rocky Mountain House throughout the summer. Located about 20 min southwest of Rocky, the Grandview Stage is a perfect place to stop and get a treat on the way back to the hotel. The ice cream is divine, and the perfect refreshment after a long day in the sun! The Stagecoach restaurant also has some very good food and I for one really enjoy their chicken wings.
Madeline – Reid and Madeline both hold permits that place them in Slave Lake for a large portion of the field season, so it is of no surprise that both of their on shift favorites come from The Ridge Taphouse, which is right next door to the hotel we usually stay at. Madeline says that the ginger beef at The Ridge is some of the best that she has ever had and is the meal that stands out the most for her. She says that the beef is crispy and that the sauce contains a lot of ginger, but not enough that it becomes over powering. Served with rice, she says it is a very delicious, satisfying meal that usually provides her with enough food for two suppers!
Kurt – Although Kurt’s choice for favorite food on the road can be procured many places, he specifically mentioned the Swan Palace in Swan Hills as the place to go. Kurt’s predicament is that while he loves what we in Alberta know as Chinese food, his family does not. So when on the road, Kurt’s food of choice is something that he doesn’t get to have at home, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Those of us that have been to Swan Hills know that there isn’t a lot of choice of restaurants. While not the best Chinese I have eaten, I can definitely attest to the draw of a Chinese buffet. The food at the Swan Palace is always hot, plentiful and quite good. I also understand Kurt’s choice of a buffet style eatery, as nothing is worse that getting out of the bush, going for food, and then having to wait for over an hour for it to arrive in front of you. At a buffet, you just roll in, fill up your plate and within 30 min your full and ready for bed!
Brian – As previously mentioned, I grew up in a small northern town, and the only fast food we had was Burger Baron. When I am in the city, I rarely eat at Burger Baron, mainly because there are so many options. However, when in a small town with a Burger Baron, the Dad Burger is one of my go to favorites. Sundre, Rocky Mountain House, and Wabasca all have very good Burger Baron restaurants that are very close to the hotels we stay at. The pizza is usually very good a Burger Baron, and Madeline says that the chicken fingers at the Wabasca Burger Baron are the best. While Burger Baron may not be everyone’s go to for road food, I am a big fan of the franchise. It is fast food, but it is also made to order and you don’t have to worry about how long your burger has been sitting in a tray. Not all Burger Barons are created equal, but most of the locations I have eaten at do burgers and pizza well, and some locations even have pretty good fried chicken. It is definitely one of my favorite places to get food on the road!
Anyone that works all day in the wilderness knows the importance of having a quality piece of Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) that accommodates all the odds and ends that are required of your profession, while being comfortable enough to wear for prolonged periods. LBE comes in a variety of styles, from the standard Cruise Vest, to the more tacticool modular equipment based off military style plate carries and H-harnesses that employ MOLLE attachment systems. Archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. have tried and tested a whole gambit of systems over the years, and everyone but a few outliers (Reid loves his cruise vest), have adopted the True North Aero Vest – Wildland as our LBE of choice.
Before I start the review section, there is one important aspect of our job that influences what type of LBE we prefer. We need to carry more gear than can be accommodated by LBE alone, so that a good backpack (30-50 Litre) is a necessity. Even though some people have tried to fit all the required equipment in their cruise vest, you can only fit the bare minimum of what we need to bring, and have to abandon some items that aren’t necessarily required, but are extremely valuable in certain situations. Things like rain gear, extra thermal layers, extra socks, survival kits, extra food and extra water will not easily fit in a cruise vest when it is filled with all the items that are required for archaeological survey in the boreal forest. Also, if you do try to fit all those things in your cruise vest, you will no longer be able to work effectively while wearing it. Furthermore, attaching your screen to your backpack with a bungie cord is arguably the best way to carry your screen for long hikes, and allows you to stow things such as a hoodie or jacket between the screen and backpack. For these reasons, almost every archaeologist at TTSI uses a combination of some type of LBE and a backpack.
The Cruise Vest
Cruise vests have been around for a long time, are widely available, and come in a variety of colour and materials. In my opinion, they are fine if your profession requires you to be mobile in the field and your profession does not require much equipment. Reid uses a cruise vest made from a plastic mesh and considers this to the best vest as it is durable and breathable. Cruise vests can be expensive ($100+), and even more so if they have an internal frame. Yet they still don’t accommodate all the extra gear needed for adverse conditions. Teresa and Tim have both used the cruise vest with internal backpack frame, but Teresa has since switched to the True North Aero and hasn’t looked back.
Comfortable if not carrying much equipment
Variety of colours and fabrics
Cons (With no backpack feature)
Not enough storage space
Very uncomfortable when overloaded
Very uncomfortable while riding ATV
Cannot wear while digging
Secondary HiVis still needed
Bad screen attachment
Cons (With backpack feature)
Less gear retention
Uncomfortable with backpack
Full pockets impede pack waist straps
Not adjustable for winter layers
Flimsy and wear out quickly
Non-breathable and hot
The Modular Vest
Modular vests have been around since the 1990’s and have generally replaced what was typically referred to as “web gear” by many Armed Forces groups around the world. They employ a Pouch Attachment Ladder System (PALS), also referred to as MOLLE, which allows the user to change what types of pouches they use based on personal needs without changing the base vest. Most modular vests also act as plate carriers (body armour) and allow the user to change their load-out while still utilizing their body armour as a base. Although modular vests are widely available, most are in neutral colours or camoflage and are therefore not suited to working with a HiVis requirement. With hunters in mind, a few companies have produced modular vests that are blaze orange, and thus work as HiVis provided the rules concerning HiVis clothing are not super strict (some companies would not consider any of these options to be sufficient HiVis clothing). Kurt used a modular vest for a couple field seasons, but has since switched to the True North Aero. He provided the following list of pros and cons:
Modular and adaptable
Can wear while digging
Very adjustable and can fit winter layers
Most are not HiVis
Non-breathable and hot
Not comfortable with backpacks
True North Aero – Wildland
True North is a company that primarily produces gear for Wildland Fire Fighters and First Responders. The True North Aero was designed as a primary piece of LBE that could be worn comfortably with a backpack. Although True North makes specific products that compliment the Aero, we at TTSI have found that this particular LBE to work with a variety of backpacks. The Aero has a specific spot for radios, GPS, flagging, tape measure and has a fleece lined pocket that fits a iPad Mini perfectly. Essentially, the Aero can accommodate all the equipment need while actually working, and in conjunction with a 30-50 L backpack, provides all the space you will ever need. A further benefit of using the Aero in conjunction with a backpack is that since all your survey equipment fits in the vest, one does not have to unpack their backpack to survey a target. Kurt was able to obtain several Aero vest in blaze orange, but unfortunately they seem to have discontinued so only the black version is widely available. While wearing the black version, TTSI employees usually opt to wear a HiVis work shirt.
Comfortable to wear with backpacks
Breathable and cool
Fits all survey equipment
Holds gear secure
Can wear while digging
Protected inner fleece pockets
Few zippers, but high quality
Sheds water and dries out fast
Very adjustable and can fit over winter layers
Not true HighVis
Zippers can get clogged with mud
There are many options when it comes to LBE and like most things, not everyone will agree on what is the best. Reid stands fast as a die hard proponent of the mesh style cruise vest as it is durable, breathable and works well with his system. Similarly, Tim continues to use the internal frame cruise vest even though he has had the option to switch. However, the rest of us archaeologists at TTSI have chosen the True North – Aero as our LBE champion and never looked back. I personally think it will be a very sad day when my blaze orange version finally wears out and I am unable to get a replacement. On that day, I will regrettably don a HiVis undershirt, strap on a black True North – Aero and head off into the boreal wilderness.