Every field biologist knows that there are days when things just don’t go according to plan – and while it’s sometimes difficult to laugh at the time, in hindsight those days often make for the best stories. So we here at Dispatches from the Field thought Friday the 13th – a day associated throughout the Western world with bad luck and uncanny happenings – was the perfect day to share some of our own bad luck stories from the field!
Picture this. It’s a blustery mid-November day. The ground is just frozen enough to keep the dusting of bright, white powder from the night before still glistening through the noon hour. The wind burns the tip of your nose and stings the back of your throat. It seems like there can just never be enough layers. Ever. My field crew and I are working at my field site getting plots ready to seed for the winter. A few hours of hard work go by, and it’s time for lunch! We waste no time— all huddle up in the ATV and head back to the van for lunch. There are three of us today, so two of us sit in the seats and the other in the bed of the ATV. It’s only about a kilometre back to the road so we don’t have far to go. The wind whistles in our ears as we sail through the dead and now snowy brush. About halfway there I notice something. I stop the ATV.
“Do you smell that?” I ask out loud.
“The burning smell?” Erika questions.
“Yes… that burning smell,” I nervously respond.
Joe chimes in from the back “It’s probably just a wood stove nearby”.
I can be paranoid, I’ll admit and so I turn the ATV back on and keep going. I park the ATV right beside our field van and we all hop in. The cold interior of the vehicle feels like a sunny day on a beach compared to the bleak winter outside. As the cold wears off, hunger takes over and we happily start eating our lunches.
Then Joe proclaims (rather calmly, I might add), “Ok, the ATV is actually on fire”.
In a flurry of panic, I throw my sandwich onto the dashboard of the van and leap out of the driver’s door, tearing around the van to the other side where the ATV is parked. Smoke fills the area under the ATV. There’s a house down the road and I send Erika running in that direction for help. My heart races. I’ve never dealt with a fire before.
In my haste, I realize that the fire isn’t actually that bad. The smoke is making it look a lot worse than it really is. I grab the one bottle of water from the van that hadn’t frozen the night before and splash it over the flames. They immediately extinguish and fizzle out. After some inspection, it turns out that the fire started on a guard plate, which has 5+ years of debris accumulating on it and with the heat of the engine, it caught fire. The pile of dead grass, sticks and even mouse fur that we pull out from under there looks like a small mountain range.
From that day on we cleaned that plate out daily and installed a fire extinguisher on the ATV. Even now, if I ever smell burning – or anything remotely unfamiliar – I immediately jump out of the ATV to inspect it, and thankfully since then it has never been fire-related. Recently, we drove through a big puddle and when the cold water splashed the hot engine it created a huge cloud of steam. Needless to say, in under 3 seconds I had the ATV off, was out of the vehicle and ready with the fire extinguisher in hand. Ok, maybe I’m still a little paranoid.
For a first time field biologist, I would say I was prepared. British Columbia is known to be wet so I had a rain jacket, rain pants, rain boots (even though they took up a lot of room in my pack), and even a field notebook with rain proof pages. I was studying birds, so I had my binoculars, birds of North America ID book, and the sampling equipment that I needed. It was early May, but we were going to be on offshore islands so I made sure to bring all the sweaters I could fit in my pack. We were going to be doing a lot of hiking so I wore a good pair of hiking shoes and brought a very large water bottle. I had been told that you should carry at least 1L of water at all times when in the field, and I made sure to follow this rule to avoid dehydration.
We had beautiful weather the first few days. The sun was shining and I had not seen a drop of rain. This made for a good workout carrying around all my warm (but heavy) clothing as we climbed up and down hilly islands. Even though this was the first time I was doing fieldwork that wasn’t associated with a class, it seemed as if luck was on my side.
I’ve said this in many of my blog posts and I am not kidding: it can be exhausting climbing up and down hills multiple times per day to look for seabird burrows.
We would leave camp in the morning (after our coffee of course) and hike all day searching for nests. Although the 1L of water was an extra weight in my bag, I was happy to have it with me to refresh throughout the day. However, on the third day, after a long hike up a mountain, I went to reach for my water bottle and it wasn’t there! I frantically searched my entire bag, throwing my unused warm clothes everywhere on the forest floor. I even retraced my steps multiple times but unfortunately, my bright blue water bottle was nowhere to be found.
I was embarrassed to tell the leader of the field team that I had lost my water bottle: I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t prepared. So when we got back to camp, I took an empty mayonnaise jar, rinsed it out, and filled it with fresh water. But WARNING – you can never rinse a mayo jar enough! I drank mayo flavoured water for the rest of the week. Not a pleasant taste if you can imagine!
Looking back on my field work, I was very lucky for a first timer. I had beautiful weather, we collected lots of samples, and I got to see amazing sights that many people will not get the chance to see. But from now on, I will always carry multiple water bottles, whether it means extra weight or not!
One of the most intimidating things about starting a new field job is meeting the other people you’re going to be working with. I suppose that’s true of every job, but when you’re doing fieldwork, you’re often living with the people you’re working with – so making a good impression is particularly important.
When I got off the plane in Hilo, Hawaii, I knew I would be spending the next few months living with a handful of other people at a remote field station on Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s tallest mountain. What I didn’t know was that all of the other field assistants working there when I arrived would be men.
I have to confess to being somewhat taken aback when I walked out of the airport and was greeted by four tall, sturdy guys. While many people think of science as male-dominated, biology – and field biology in particular – had always seemed to me to be an exception to that rule. As we all crammed into the battered field truck to head up the mountain, I told myself that I would have to be very sure to pull my weight in the field. If I was going to be the only girl, I had to represent!
As I got settled into the field station and the work, though, I realized that it really wasn’t an issue. Our job was to catch, band, and take blood samples from Hawaiian forest birds, in an effort to track population sizes and monitor malaria infection rates in high elevation forests. This involved spending each day at one of several established sites, where we would monitor nets that had been strung up high in the forest canopy to catch birds. We all took turns opening nets, checking them, and extracting and banding birds. I saw no signs of anyone treating me differently because I was a girl.
However, one day we found ourselves working at a site we didn’t usually visit – and one of the nets set up there turned out to be quite difficult to access. Checking the net (which we had to do every 20 minutes, so that birds were never left in there for an extended period of time) involved, among other things, jumping a barbed wire fence.
“Oh, Catherine, you don’t have to check that one; it’s really hard to get to,” one of my male colleagues said, watching me eye the fence dubiously. Looking back now, I realize that he was probably just thinking about the fact that I was an established klutz. But at the time, I thought he was going easy on me because I was a girl – and so, of course, I immediately got my back up.
“I’m definitely coming!” I insisted, following him down towards the fence. In fact, I was so determined to show him that I could do anything that he could do (and just as well or better), that I pushed him aside and launched myself over the fence first.
But unfortunately, I am indeed an established klutz. If there’s a log to trip over anywhere along a path, you can be sure I’ll trip over it. So perhaps launching myself forcefully over a barbed wire fence wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Naturally I caught the leg of my pants on the barbed wire, which tore an impressive gash in the fabric – and, more importantly, threw me completely off balance. I landed heavily and awkwardly on my right leg, and felt an almighty wrench in my calf as I fell to the muddy ground with a splash.
I limped for three weeks after making that particular stand for equality. I may possibly have failed to make my point.