This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska, who tells us a bit about her experiences working alone in the field during her PhD. For more about Maggie and her research, check out her bio the end of this post.
I recently read that most people would prefer electric shocks to spending time alone with their thoughts. This of course made me think back to the first summer I spent in the field during my PhD. I worked along the shoreline of Lake Travers in Algonquin Park studying the very charismatic flowering beauty Lobelia cardinalis. Although most people do not venture into fieldwork on their own, most have spent some time alone in the field. Alone is how I spent most of that field season.
When people hear that I spent time alone in the backwoods of Algonquin they either start playing air-banjo and humming that well-known tune from the movie “Deliverance” (this was my advisor’s reaction) or they ask if I was afraid of the wildlife. I was raised by people who’d never gone camping, and thus I had never gone “real” camping (sorry folks, car camping doesn’t count). My point in telling you this is that I had no idea what doing fieldwork alone would be like. I had spent time as an undergrad at QUBS, but fieldwork in the backcountry of Algonquin while living in a tent is an entirely different experience – although working at QUBS did help me establish some basic codes of conduct for my assistants and myself (i.e., no alcohol and 9 p.m. bedtime). At the time of developing my project, all I was concerned with was getting data for my PhD; my data or bust attitude is a story for another time.
Most of my solo sojourns into the field lasted a day or two, but in 2009 (the first year of field work) I’d often camp Monday to Friday on my own. Surprisingly, I found those lonely days to not be so lonely—I found talking to my plants helped. During the day my work kept me focused. But, when the work of the day was finished, fatigue set in and I was left alone with my thoughts—there was no option of electric shock. After running through thoughts of what I’d done and what I had left to accomplish that week, I’d daydream about finding ways to let me do this forever.
Truthfully, there were times I was terrified and a bit nuts. I once jumped right out of my skin when I caught sight of my shadow moving. At the time, I was just under 5’3 and somewhere around 120lbs. I assume this is the perfect shape and size for a quick little appetizer for a bear or pack of wolves (both of which were present in the area). I also once lost my self-composure and started killing every slug I saw (that year most of my plants were eaten by slugs). As a warning to other slugs I mounted a smooshed slug body on a stake (i.e., small twig).
As my first season progressed, I became more competent with data collection and backcountry camping. I became an expert in setting up and breaking down a campsite solo in under 40 min, and became a backcountry gourmand (dried garlic and parsley are invaluable). More importantly, I picked up several handy tips from people I met in the field (mostly from Chris, who helped out at the Algonquin Radio Observatory and Jeremy, a park ranger). These are my camping “must-haves” in order of decreasing importance.
- SPOT. This device should be required for everyone doing fieldwork. This device connects to satellites and allows you to send email messages to a set contact list (I used this to check in with my partner every night). It also can send two types of emergency signals. You can select the option that is sent only to your contact list and provides the GPS coordinates of your location (I programmed a message that read, “I’m alive but need you. Come find me”. The other option lets you send an emergency message to the nearest search and emergency system in your area (police and EMTs). I had no cellphone reception in the field, so this device was crucial for safety. I’d also recommend it for folks who are within cellphone range. You can always use a backup system to call for help.
- Headlamps, backup flashlights and spare batteries.
- Pocket flare/bear banger combo available at MEC is also a good idea. Even when you think you are alone in the woods you probably aren’t too far away from other people. I worked near the access point at Lake Travers. People starting their camping trips would often comment about how remote and isolated the area felt. On a busy week in August I would have this chat several times a day. A flare is likely to be seen by people nearby and if you’re lucky they’ll investigate.
- Always make sure you have enough water on hand and either rehydration crystals and/or powdered Gatorade. I used a hand pump system with a ceramic cartridge to filter lake water. I carried this everywhere.
- This is connected to the last point. Be very mindful of early signs of heatstroke. Different individuals have different tolerances. I once had an assistant suffer from mild heatstroke on our first day out. I was perfectly fine, but she wasn’t. Water and salts were sufficient to get her back on her feet, but I learned to become more mindful of how my assistants were feeling during the day.
- Always carry a small firstaid kit. Mine had tweezers, safety pins, bandaids, gauze, an aluminum emergency blanket, rehydration crystals, a whistle, duct tape and clothes pins.
- If you are responsible for packing food for a camping trip, always pack extra dry pasta, dry garlic, and other dried herbs. I once had to carefully consider whether starving my field assistant and finishing my work for the week was ok.
- For those of you driving older model field vehicles, don’t leave a cellphone charger connected to your car’s cigarette lighter. This will drain your car battery.
- Figure out who else is in your work area. I was near the Algonquin Park Radio Observatory and knew I could reach them if I needed help (like needing to make arrangements to send a field assistant home because they were not feeling well). Cottagers and other campers are often interested in the work we nutty biologists do and are often keen to help you out.
Although camping alone seems sketchy to most people, it’s really not that uncommon. Spending a day alone in the field is extremely common. Be safe and prepare for the unexpected. Carry emergency supplies, and a way to contact help.
Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska is currently a postdoc at the University of Toronto studying population genomics of the world’s most charismatic group of small-flowered plant (duckweed). She did her PhD at Dalhousie University under the mentorship of Dr. M. Johnston. Her work has largely focused on plant-pollinator interactions and other ecological factors shaping the evolution of plant traits.