In the field

This time last month I was headed — as we say in the business around here — “into the field”. Generally this entails some sort of extended excursion into the wilderness. There is camping involved… primitive camping… well sort of. There are no facilities, let’s just say that. And no wifi. Tents and Coleman stoves and water filters. Far too many meals overly laden with carbohydrates. Fun as this may be, when we go on such an excursion it is for work purposes. We go to undertake some sort of project.

This last trip took two plane trips each way… from the ‘banks to a village up north and from said village to a lake. The latter involved a smallish plane on floats. We unloaded ourselves and our gear and shoved the plane out into the lake. With a cough and billow of oily smoke, the engine roared back to life and following a brief taxi it lifted off of the lake and flew back from whence it came. Back over the mountains, back into the Interior. We were alone (all six of us) in the arctic. Then there were mosquitos.

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We spent the better part of two weeks, falling into a routine and a schedule based solely around our project and the “facilities” we had brought with us. Twice we heard and finally saw another plane, but it just flew nearby and then away. We saw no other people. One day we spotted what appeared to be a bear on the far side of the lake, but no one got a very good view. Another day we saw what appeared to be caribou, again on the far side of the lake, again no good view. There were what we called “sassy birds” that had a very distinctive call that made us laugh. Otherwise there were mosquitos.

Some days were remarkably hot, even so that we all went swimming/bathing. Being an arctic lake the water was still terribly cold, but it was nice none the less. Despite the mosquitos. There were some fish too that we saw, but we did not try to catch any. The sun never set. There were occasional thunderstorms sometimes overhead, but more often along the mountains beyond the lake and the river to the south. On the last night there was a spectacular rainbow. On the last day there was rain, but the float plane retrieved us without trouble. We headed back over the mountains. It was strange to see trees again. There were still mosquitos.

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When you go “into the field” there is no television, no computers, no cars, no phones, no pizza delivery. There are no showers and the toilet involves a shovel and a lighter… and mosquitos. You sleep in a tent, you eat in a tent, you visit and tell stories in a tent. To many this sounds intolerable, but to many others “the field” is a blessed respite from the brutal depravity that is a desk job. You work hard and sleep on the ground. You stink and are dirty regardless of bathing efforts. There are mosquitos. But in those two weeks nearly every day I laughed until my gut hurt, often several times. There was music, some from harmonicas, some from the fact that we would frequently break into song. We cooked and cleaned with and for each other and everyone always offered to help. We exchanged books and stories and both sought and gave advice. You get to know people without all of the distractions and social nicety nonsense of the “working world”.

But it can be difficult. Sometimes people do not get along and out there you have to. To go out means you have to leave your life behind; your wife, your kid, your dog, your garden, your friends. Whatever you normally do has to be put on hold, left alone, or otherwise taken care of. If this is not easily accomplished, going into the field for extended periods can put a strain on one’s “normal” life. But it can be worth it.

I used to spend a fair bit more time in the field. My first true field season I took three showers in four months and was only “in town” perhaps 10 days in that time. The days were long and stretched into weeks. We all did not always get along. There were mosquitos, and rain, and tussocks, and low water, and high water. My knee threatened to give out at one point. But I got to float two rivers (and part of the Yukon twice) and cross two mountain ranges. I got to help excavate a 500 year old house pit and a 4000 year old hunting camp. There were bears and wolves and fox and moose and caribou and eagles and peregrines and wildflowers and aufeis and rainbows. And mosquitos.

I do not now go into the field so much. I chose a different path and cannot say at this point that I do not at times question that choice. But there you have it. I am thankful for the occasional opportunity to get out but must say that the coming back to the desk is always difficult.

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