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

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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.

Muddy Lab Secrets

The mud we slog through in the field doesn’t always stay in the field. It’s wrapped around a lot of the artifacts we find, and ends up in our sample bags. Once we get back from the field, we start the process of washing all the artifacts. As the sediment is brushed away, some of the artifact’s secrets are slowly revealed!

The mud can really hide what colour an artifact is. This flake was a dull grey brown until a “wet brush” made it’s way across one side. Underneath this layer is a beautiful pale quartzite that transitions into a orange-reddish pink the further washing was completed.
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Washing all artifacts in water is not possible. Bone just absorbs the water, which makes it take longer to dry fully. Putting wet bone into a bag will ultimately end up destroying the artifact with mold. Tools we find in the field are also only “dry brushed”. This helps preserve any residue left on tools, which can be used in various residue analyses. A good brushing will help pull out little details though. This thumbnail scraper has been worked around almost its entire edge. The brushing (left) really helps it stand out.
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Sometimes, however, a tool is only discovered after washing the mud away. Retouched flakes (as opposed to a formed tool) are often only discovered as the edges are cleaned, allowing the knapped edge to be fully exposed.  The same goes for a utilized flake.  These are flakes that look like a regular flake, but with closer inspection the edge has been chipped and worn from use.  These are often called expedient tools.  The flake’s sharp edge is used until it is dull, after which it is discarded.
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Fort Edmonton Park Expansion

As part of the upcoming expansion of Fort Edmonton Park, an Indigenous Peoples Experience exhibit is being added. The multimedia exhibit will educate visitors about the Indigenous histories and cultures of the Edmonton region in an engaging and interactive way. The exhibit will include an outdoor amphitheatre, teepees, campsite recreations, and an indoor arena show.

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Conceptual Design of Indigenous People’s Exhibit (subject to change). Photo Credit: Sandra Green.  Featured Image above – Bird’s Eye view of Indigenous People’s Exhibit (subject to change. Photo Credit : Brittany Cherweniuk.

For the purposes of authenticity, the park contracted Corey and Brittany, with another independent contractor, Alexandra Burchill, to do historical research on the Edmonton region during the period of 1600-1850 AD. Their research will be used to inform the exhibit content and educate the interpretive staff. The team analyzed several different source materials including: primary sources, secondary sources, archaeological reports, archival records, and recorded oral histories.

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The Research Team presenting at Fort Edmonton

The team also took part in a training program for the interpretative staff. Corey, Brittany, and Alex spent two evenings with the Fort Edmonton Park interpreters presenting their research. They also had several artifact reproductions for the staff to touch and ask questions about. Several staff took the opportunity to try ancient tool technologies such as the bow drill and atlatl throwing.

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Corey demonstrating tool use for the Fort Edmonton Interpretive Staff

As part of the research process, Treaty Six Elders were consulted and collaborated with to ensure the accuracy of research and identify areas that conflict with Indigenous knowledge, oral traditions, and culturally sensitive topics. Several stories told to us by the Elders were incorporated into the synthesis report including a story of an Elder that remembered his mother using a sharp obsidian flake to make small incisions on his temples to relieve headaches. We found this story to be an interesting addition to our discussion of the persistence of stone tool technologies after the introduction of European goods.

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Conceptual image of the Treaty Lodge (subject to change). Photo credit: Brittany Cherweniuk.

The project was a very educational experience for the research team learning a lot about the history of the Edmonton river valley. But more importantly, the project brought us together with many different people, all united by a love of history and respect for the Indigenous past of the place we all call home.

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 Whiskey Jack!

In 2015 a two year poll was issued by Canadian Geographic for a new National Bird.  In the end, our little Grey Jay took the lead, beating out the common loon, black-capped chickadee, snowy owl, and Canadian Goose. Although not officially recognized as the new National bird yet, it was selected as an avian representation of Canadians: its found in every province and territory, it’s friendly, and it’s very intelligent!

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From the Canadian Geographic: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay

For the Cree, the Whiskey Jack, or Wisakedjak, is a shape-shifter, benevolent trickster, teacher, and messenger of the forest. There are many different stories about the Wisakedjak, but most of them have a moral. The appearance of the Wisakedjak in the morning is seen as a good omen, and is believed it warns people of nearby predators.

This boreal forest inhabitant is often spotted by Tree Time’s archaeology crews, and it has quickly become my favourite little bird. They are almost always seen traveling in a group of three: a monogamous pair and a juvenile from the previous year’s breeding season. The friendliest groups have always been found near areas people have made their hunting camps. In fact, the Whiskey Jack has figured out that people mean food. Given a few minutes, some of them may even eat out of your hand!

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The Whiskey Jack checking us out! Notice how close it is to our gear.
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This camp must have been a popular food gathering place for these Grey Jays. They were very friendly!

Whiskey Jacks stick around all winter too, even incubating their eggs as temperatures dip to -30°C. They store their food in crevices, under lichen, and even under conifer needles. They coat the food in a saliva, called bolus, which makes it sticky, ensuring the food doesn’t move until the Whiskey Jack returns. Unlike forgetful squirrels, these birds will remember exactly where they left their caches! Their food is a variety of arthropods (like spiders), small mammals, ticks, carrion, fungi, fruits, and seeds. The average life span is about 8 years, although the oldest recorded Whiskey Jack was 17 years old!

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These three checking to see if we were going to drop any of our lunch.

What bird would you have voted for?

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.

Archaeology Around the Wabasca-Desmarais Area

The Wabasca-Desmarais region is rich in heritage of all types, such as archaeological, palaeontological and historic sites and trails. In addition, there are unexplored landscapes that have the potential to contain countless unrecorded sites. Early archaeological research in the area was conducted through government surveys or University funded projects. Over the last 10 to 15 years most of the sites in the area were recorded by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies, like Tree Time Services Inc., working for industry, primarily the forestry sector.

At least 300 First Nations historic and archaeological sites have been identified within 100 km of Wabasca-Desmarais, AB, and 13 sites within 10 km. These sites are located throughout the landscape and shed light on indigenous life over at least 4,500 years.

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Most of the archaeological sites in the region have only had limited excavation done, usually less than 20 “shovel tests”. These are 1 foot square holes dug and screened for artifacts. The most common artifacts are stone chips or flakes, called debitage, that are left behind by someone making or sharpening stone tools. Sometimes stone tools, like scrapers, knives or projectile points (arrow or spear-heads) are found, which let us say more about the site. Rarely, animal bone or charcoal is found that will let us do radiocarbon dating to find out how old a site is.

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A sample of tools found at sites in 2017 located southwest of Wabasca.

Until recently, the Wabasca-Desmarais was considered to be low in archaeological potential due to the abundance of low lying areas and muskeg. Although this type of terrain is difficult to survey, and therefore it may appear to have been largely uninhabited in the past, recent efforts have discovered that there was actually a substantial amount of past activity throughout this region. In the vast muskeg, archaeological sites can be found on elevated areas within the low lying terrain, showing that small water courses and lakes were also extensively inhabited. Many of these small water courses were likely used as transportation corridors between the more productive lakes, and elevated areas within wet lands would make ideal camping locations during resource gathering. In addition, many medicinal plants grow in the muskeg, making this environment invaluable for resource gathering.

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View of a beaver pond on our way to a site in 2017, southwest of Wabasca.

The most-studied site in the region is the Alook Site (HaPl-1), named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. It is located on the north shore of North Wabasca Lake and was excavated by teams from the University of Alberta in the 1960’s and 70’s. These excavations determined that the site was likely a 4200 – 3500 year old indigenous campsite. Archaeologists were able to recover a multitude of stone tools, including McKean atlatl dart points, Side-Notched arrow points and hide scrapers. The excavation also identified a midden feature which contained a concentration of broken bone, stone artifacts and charcoal. Stay tuned for our next post to read more about this site!

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A few artifacts from HaPl-1 Alook Site (Sims  1981.   Archaeologicla Investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site.  In: Archaeology in Alberta, 1981, pp. 12-16.  Occasional Paper No. 19, Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

With the limited archaeological research conducted in the Wabasca-Desmarais region to date, we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of past life-ways and traditional land use in this diverse landscape. It is important to note that even though people have lived in this area for several millennia, very little research has been done in the last 40 years. Further archaeological investigation is this area would be a great opportunity to bring together local communities, educators, academics and industry to further our understanding of its past inhabitants in an inclusive environment in the spirit reconciliation. There is definitely more work to be done!