Working in the Winter

Specializing in forestry archaeology in Alberta, I haven’t had much opportunity to work in winter conditions. One of the nice things about forestry is its relatively long planning horizon and the flexibility to schedule our work.

Unfortunately, in fall 2012, a variety of factors conspired to push some of our fieldwork into late October, and then we got an unusually early and heavy snowfall in northwestern Alberta. The heavy snow prevented the ground from freezing, so we went ahead with our planned surveys of forestry cutblocks, conducting landform evaluation and shovel testing as normal.

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unusually deep snow (our shovels are about 1 m long!)

Trudging through 50 cm of fresh powder gave me some perspectives on moving and living in the boreal forest under winter conditions that I hadn’t previously gained. I had wondered what effect snow cover would have on mobility patterns. Summer travel in the forest tends to follow linear features like river and stream valley margins, but I’d wondered if under winter conditions that would still be the case. This week it certainly was. We were working on the Chinchaga River valley, and found that travel along the valley margin was much easier than cutting cross country or on the slopes or lower terraces. I’d say the advantage was even greater than under summer conditions. The level backcountry had deeper snow than the exposed margins, and the snow on the slopes was even deeper than that. The grey overcast sky and falling snow also obscured the sun, which made it very hard to maintain a bearing cross-country without a compass. Without a landform to follow, I could have been walking in circles and wouldn’t know until I hit my tracks.

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Trudging through the deep snow.

If I was camping under those conditions, however, I think I’d be choosing very different locations than I would in the summer. The distinct valley margins, corners and points that we tend to focus our surveys on had great views of the river and were on our preferred walking paths. But they were also very exposed to the biting wind coming out of the northwest. Even the south-facing edges were exposed. The most comfortable locations we found to break for coffee were just back from the edge, sheltered in stands of immature spruce. For the last couple seasons, I’d been suspecting that our focus on exposed corners and points was only finding one class of sites, and this experience reinforces that suspicion. I think that winter camps in particular, and possibly all larger camps, would be located back from the sharp landform edges that we’re targeting most. Drainage is still a factor, especially on warm winter days when the snow turns to mush, so we should still be looking for local elevation. But maybe we should be testing some less distinct elevated landforms a little back from the edges if we want to find sites occupied during less than ideal weather.

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Snow is a little shallower in the protected areas under the immature spruce.

(This brief article was originally published in the Archaeological Society of Alberta Newsletter Vol. 1, January 2013)

Glacial Flutes

Ryan is doing layout work to protect wetlands and streams during aerial herbicide application and he got this great shot of glacial fluting northeast of Calling Lake.

These parallel ridges were formed when the Laurentide ice sheet coming southwest from the Canadian Shield hit bedrock uplands at the east end of the Pelican Mountains. The base of the glacier formed a saw-tooth pattern that scoured these ridges and troughs for several kilometers.

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This is how these glacial flutes appear on LiDAR.

Wild Weather

Weather can change very quickly in the foothills. From one day to the next, and within the day itself.

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This picture was taken May 24th. It was a beautiful day.

The following photos were taken all on the next day.

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The weather can also change a lot depending on your elevation. In order to get out of the valley we were in we had to drive up and down a mountain pass. There was a lot more snow at the higher elevation than where we were working There was no snow on our drive in that morning.
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Abandoned Campfire

Living in Alberta, we all know how disastrous a forest fire can be. Some of you might have been personally affected by the devastating fires in Fort McMurry or in Slave Lake. Brian knows personally how dangerous forest fires are because he used to be a forest firefighter. Many of us at Tree Time have walked though the remains of a burned forest and have seen what is left behind.

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Figure 1. An area that was partially burned by a forest fire

So when Brian and I were working the in foothills around Rocky Mountain house and we saw the remains of a smouldering fire, we took it seriously.

We noticed the smoke in the morning as we walked to our first target. The campfire had been abandoned, likely by people camping during the May Long weekend. This means it was likely burning unattended for three days. It looked like people had been burning garbage in the fire pit, including a mattress. The mattress frame was smoking heavily. The ground around the campfire was also smouldering a bit, and somewhat hot. The area around the pit was clearly burnt.

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Figure 2. Note the burnt ground under Brian’s feet clearly outside the intended fire pit area

We put out the frame with water from a nearby creek. It was so hot that it caught fire again as soon as the wind touched it. Back at the campfire, we used our shovels to dig up the earth around the firepit and in the pit itself. Brian told me that he had fought many fires during the May Long weekend that started in this exact way. Not because of people burning garbage, but because of abandoned fires. People might think that they put out their fire, but debris (roots, moss etc) on or under the ground can catch on fire and spread the fire beyond the stone rings. You can see in the pictures that the area around the campfire has been burned.

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Figure 3. Brian digging up earth around the fire pit to put out the fire

That is why it is so important to make sure that you have properly put out your fire. Please check out the Alberta Parks Website for great advice on campfire safety.

http://www.albertaparks.ca/albertaparksca/advisories-public-safety/outdoor-safety/campfire-safety/

http://www.ofc.alberta.ca/camping-and-outdoor-fire-safety

Also if you need to report a wildfire, call 310-Fire (3473). Never put yourself in danger.

We thought we would share this story in advance of the long weekend to remind people about campfire safety. Alberta is a great place and camping is an amazing way to experience it. So from us at Tree Time, we sincerely wish you a great long weekend and happy, safe camping.

Wood Bison

While doing helicopter work near Zama City in 2014 we spotted a herd of bison. We were very surprised to find out that these impressive animals are not uncommon in the area. These Wood Bison are part of the Hay-Zama herd. What is exceptional about this heard as of 2015, there is no evidence of tuberculosis or bovine brucellosis. These diseases have been found in other wild herds in Alberta.bison fom heli_resized

If you are ever lucky enough to see these creatures in the wild, please remember that they are wild animals and can be extremely dangerous. We have heard anecdotal stories of people in the area honking their horn to encourage a slow bison to move off of the road, and the bison not taking too kindly to it.Bison from air_resized