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.

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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.

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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*)

 

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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.

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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

Food on the Road

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.

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But who are we kidding, what we really appreciate after a long day of work is beer.

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!

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Teresa grabbing an ice cream after a long day.

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!

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And sometimes the best food on the road is cooked over a camp fire!

Gear Review – Load-Bearing Equipment

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

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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.

  • Pros
    • Comfortable if not carrying much equipment
    • Variety of colours and fabrics
    • Widely available
  • 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:

  • Pros
    • Modular and adaptable
    • Very durable
    • Equipment-specific pockets
    • Can wear while digging
    • Very adjustable and can fit winter layers
    • No zippers
    • Super Tacticool!
  • Cons
    • Expensive
    • Most are not HiVis
    • Non-breathable and hot
    • Heavy
    • Bulky
    • Not comfortable with backpacks

True North Aero – Wildland

AeroVest_Urban_Black

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.

  • Pros
    • Very durable
    • Lightweight
    • 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
  • Cons
    • 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.

Gear Review – Bulldog Spades

As a CRM archaeologist, my shovel is one of my most utilized pieces of equipment. Delicate excavation requires the fine touch that a trowel provides and archaeologists that do a great deal of this type of work are generally very picky about their trowels. Similarly, those of us that spend their days digging test pits in the wilderness, usually have strong feeling concerning our primary excavation tool, the spade.

What people value in a spade changes from person to person, so Tree Time Services Inc. actually has quite a few different types of spades on hand. The TTSI archaeologists that place the highest value on durability tend to gravitate towards the “King of Spades”. While the King’s all steel construction makes it extremely durable. I feel that it is unnecessarily heavy and because it is all steel, there is none of the shock absorption that is provided by a wooden handle. Alternatively, people that don’t feel like carrying a 4 kg shovel around all day usually choose what we at TTSI refer to as “the Grizzly”. Although these shovels are made by a variety of companies, the name typically refers to what people consider a normal garden spade, but are a little more robust than what you will generally get from Home Depot. They are definitely lighter than the King, however, they suffer in the durability department. If too much leverage is applied to the handle they tend to break where the shaft meets the tang, and I personally have “taco’d” (when the blade bends while trying to stomp through a root) more Grizzlies than I can count. Being the gear snob that I am, I went looking for a spade that combines the durability of the King, with the portability and comfort offered by the Grizzly.

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Everyone has a preference: Madeline with the Grizzly on the left, Elenore with the King on the right!

My search for the perfect blend of durability and portability ended when I came across the Boys Irish Bulldog! The Bulldog line of garden tools are produced by Clarington Forge (founded in 1780), which is the only forge in England that still makes garden tools. Their tools are hand forged from a single piece of steel, have American ash handles, are powder coated (not painted) and come with a lifetime warranty. In my opinion they are a very good compromise between the durability of the King of Spades and the portability/ergonomics of the Grizzly. While they are not common in Canada, some varieties can be found at Lee Valley Tools, and they have an American distributor that will ship to Canada. Be prepared to phone them though, as their website is not set up to take Canadian orders.

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The Boys Irish Bulldog

I purchased my first Bulldog from Lee Valley Tools, and opted to try the standard Garden Spade. I likely would have opted for the Border Spade since it is lighter weight with a smaller head, but I am a taller individual and the border spade has a shorter handle. The Garden Spade is honestly a little heavy for packing around all day long. Although it is not as heavy as the King of Spades, the forged blade and handle are both quite thick. Despite it being a little heavier than I would like, I was still impressed by the craftsmanship and durability of the spade. In my opinion the Garden Spade is far superior to both the King of Spades and the Grizzly.

I was not planning on ever getting another shovel, however I ended up breaking the handle of my prized shovel while Corey and I were trying to scare away two grizzly bears that we crossed paths with. We were making noise by smashing our shovels against trees as hard as we could, and this became the true test of durability. While Corey’s King of Spades had not a scratch or dent, the handle of my shovel broke where it meets the tang. I contacted Lee Valley Tools to try to obtain a replacement handle, however I found out that they don’t even carry them since no one had ever broken one. The lady on the phone was flabbergasted that I had accomplished this seemingly impossible task and was able to put me in contact with the American distributor. After recounting the bear story to the very kind lady on the other end of the phone, and her father, they offered to send me a new handle for free! They also suggested that I try the Boys Irish Spade that they had on sale, as they believed it would be very well suited to my profession. Boy were they right!

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Boys Irish Spade

Unfortunately the Boys Irish spade was on sale because it was discontinued, but I was able to get the replacement handle and the Boys shipped from San Francisco for under $90. Although I was skeptical of the traditional “ T ” handle and narrow blade on the Boys Irish Bulldog, I soon fell in love with both of these features. Following the design of an old fashion trenching spade, the Boys Irish is very lightweight and maneuverable while digging small holes like test pits. The long handle makes the shovel very ergonomic for a taller person, however Teresa used the Boys for a shift and she also considered it to be better than both the King and the Grizzly. The “ T ” handle fits well in the hand and adds a historical appearance to the spade. As an archaeologist I find the historical look of the Boys Irish very pleasing. Although the forged blade and ash-wood handle are extremely durable, I don’t think I want to put the Boys up against the King in a tree bashing competition any time soon. In my opinion, tree bashing is the only realm where the King has the upper hand on the Bulldog!

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Brian in action!

King of Spades – https://www.gemplers.com/product/W419/King-of-Spades

Grizzly – http://www.fransyl.com/1-83-79-Garden_Spade_Short_Handle_-_GRIZZLY_productCatalogue.html

Garden Bulldog – https://www.claringtonforge.com/spades/border-spade

Boys Irish Bulldog – https://www.amazon.ca/Bulldog-Premier-Irish-Treaded-Spade/dp/B004NT050O

The Alook Site – HaPl-1

Although the Wabasca-Desmarais regions is rich in cultural heritage, very few in-depth archaeological investigations have been conducted. HaPl-1, also known as the Alook site, is one of the few sites in the region that has actually been excavated or received any interest past its initial identification. In the 1960s and again in the 1070s, a team from the University of Alberta did preliminary excavations at the site. The results speak of a very long history!

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Archaeological sites around Wabasca-Desmarais

The Alook Site was found on a small knoll along the north shore of the North Wabasca Lake. The site is named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. In the early years of archaeology in Alberta sites were often named after the landowner or the person who reported the site, although it is unclear if John Alook was one of these people or named in his honour. Test excavations were conducted by the University of Alberta in 1969, but the band did not receive a report of the initial findings until 1977. Later that summer additional excavations were conducted under the direction of Cort Sims.

Excavations at the Alook Site included three 1×2 meter test trenches excavated in 1969, and a 4×8 meter excavation trench that was placed directly east of these in 1977. These trenches focused on the undisturbed western part of the knoll, as the eastern part was a little disturbed by a garden, and the reported possible location of the original house. The 1969 excavations recovered a total of 891 artifacts. The types of artifacts found suggested that HaPl-1 was an indigenous campsite that had seen substantial use. The artifact types included projectile points, biface fragments, scrapers, and an assortment of lithic debitage. One of the most significant finds was a McKean projectile point, found in the garden. The McKean point suggested that the site dates to the Middle Prehistoric period, or approximately 4200 to 3000 years before present.

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Examples of McKean projectile points from Alberta (modified from “Record in Stone”, Archaeological Society of Alberta, 2012).

The 1977 excavations helped us understand more of the site and its use by past peoples. A total of 131 stone tools and tool fragments were recovered. The recovered artifacts reinforced the initial suggestion that HaPl-1 is a campsite that had seen significant use. Seventeen projectile points and 11 projectile point fragments were found at the site. Points are also considered “diagnostic” artifacts, because variations in style can reflect change over time, or points made by different cultural groups. Some of the projectile points were also of the Plains arrowhead type, which generally date from 1100 to 250 years before present. These can tell us what kinds of hunting activities were being done in the area. That fact that both McKean and Plains projectile points were recovered is significant, as it shows this site was occupied at multiple times throughout the past.

Almost 40 scrapers were found, which tell us that hide processing was likely a major activity at the site. The other tool types found include utilized flakes, hammer stones, anvils, an adze and adze fragment, core fragments, bifaces, and worked pebbles. The number and variety of tools found at the site were what led researchers to suggest that this site was a major campsite, since these artifacts suggests that a multitude of different activities occurred at this location. These tools probably reflect activities as diverse as making stone tools, drying meat or fish, and wood-working. These activities are all consistent with traditional life at a major lakeshore campsite or summer settlement.

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Some of the artifacts from the Alook Site.  Artifacts B and D are examples of side-notched points, estimated to be 1100 to 250 years old.  Artifact C is possibly a Beasant point that dates from 2500 to 1350 years old (modified from “Archaeological investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site”, by C. Sims. 

During the 1977 excavations a midden feature, or refuse pile, was also uncovered. Since one of the goals of the work that year was to recover some organic material for radiocarbon dating, this was a substantial find. Radio carbon dating provided an age of 2165 to 1815 years before present, which places the site within the Besant phase. This date, combined with the McKean and side-notched projectile points found, show that this site was likely in use from at least 4000 years ago to the present. To put this in perspective, HaPl-1 was likely occupied long before the Roman Empire came into existence and is still in use today, as at present the site contains a modern house. Talk about continuity!

Although a substantial amount of information was learned from the excavations at HaPl-1, there is still much more work needed to gain a better understanding of the past life-ways of people in the Wabasca-Desmarais region. Cultural heritage is important for bringing people together and creating a dialogue of openness and acceptance in the region. First Nations people have inhabited the region surrounding the modern town of Wabasca-Desmarais for more than 4000 years (and more likely 10 000 years). This is an aspect of our heritage and history shared by all Albertans. Stories like this are a part of all of our heritage we are all treaty peoples and share a collective history.