We are excited to welcome Lisa Buckley to the blog today. Lisa is a palaeontologist based in British Columbia, Canada, and today she tells us an unfortunate but equally amazing fieldwork story! Welcome, Lisa!
“I wonder how that would taste?”
I can’t think of one field expedition lacking a humorous story about food-borne desperation. You have to laugh, or it just seems horrid. A quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte is “an army marches on its stomach.” The same can be said for your field crew. Field crews march, and they march hard. Double digit kilometer treks. Huge elevation changes, often accompanied by surprise weather changes. Removing meters of rock with a pickaxe.
I’ll take you back to 2006, when our three-person crew conducted dinosaur track research in Kakwa Provincial Park, British Columbia. The Kakwa Dinosaur Track Site is a remote subalpine-alpine site. It is a 45-minute helicopter flight to the site from the nearest inhabited area. Helicopter time is quite expensive, especially for a small research centre such as ours, so we were relying on helicopter time donated by the natural resource industry. This meant that we couldn’t simply call for helicopter support on a whim. Barring emergencies, we worked around the helicopter’s schedule. We had arranged for three trips: the initial drop-off of crew and gear, the final pick up of crew, gear, and specimens, and an intermediate pick up of our field technician (who needed to leave early) and food resupply at the three-week mark of our four-and-a-half week trip.
The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, but once we were there, we were there for the duration.
Studying dinosaur tracks in British Columbia is difficult because many of the track-bearing rock layers, once horizontal, have been pushed into a vertical position thanks to the building of the Rocky Mountains. This means that we have to use rock climbing gear to access the track surface to collect measurements and make latex replicas to bring back to the lab.
This site was hard, calorie-burning work. Every morning we had to hike from our water-accessible camp site to the top of the mountain, an increase in elevation of almost 1000 meters. We would put in at least six hours on the track surface, and then hike back down to camp. Although we had ensured that our initial food supply was generous (including not only staples, but lots of variety and the occasional morale-boosting snack), we knew a resupply would be necessary at the three-week mark.
A few days before the resupply, I called an in-town contact to ask her to pick up items. But here’s where I initiated the most spectacular #fieldworkfail of my career: I did not specify the amount of food. At the time, I assumed that either the person on the other end could read my mind, or that the person, being the outdoorsy type, would know exactly how much food two hard-working palaeontologists would need for a week and a half.
Resupply Day dawned gloriously sunny. The helicopter came in, our field tech loaded her gear, and our food resupply was unloaded. Sitting on the ground were three small shopping bags.
I asked the pilot “Where’s the rest?”
“That’s it!” he replied.
The lead palaeontologist, Dr. Richard McCrea, and I stood staring at the paltry pile of plastic sacks. We looked at one another, and looked back at the groceries. One of us said some version of “We’re going to die.”
Maybe we were being a little melodramatic…but at this point of the trip, we were pretty eager for a change in diet. What we saw in those bags supplemented our meager remaining rations for three days. After the food from the resupply was gone, we were left with lentils, rice, mustard, raisins, some tins of Louisiana hot sauce, herring, and marshmallows. Every. Dang. Night. For seven nights.
This is where I tell the tale of the Wiliest Ptarmigan. Right up until the day of our resupply, we could not go anywhere in camp or on the mountain summit without seeing White-tailed Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan, like many grouse, use the “if I don’t move, you can’t see me” strategy for avoiding predation…meaning that you can get very close to them. This picture was taken without a zoom.
After the Resupply Gone Wrong, we started making jokes about Ptarmigan Pot Pie and Kentucky-Fried Ptarmigan. And both Rich and I would swear, as soon as the resupply happened, we didn’t see one ptarmigan for the ten days remaining days of the expedition. It’s almost as though they knew we were assessing their culinary virtues. All we found was a solitary feather in the area where they would usually roost. I think the ptarmigan left that feather there on purpose to mock our hunger.
The Wiliest of Ptarmigan. These White-tailed Ptarmigan have a cunning sense of when humans are hungry.
Joking aside, we knew we were not going to starve or go hungry, but we also knew mealtimes were going to be…strange. Let me answer the “I wonder how that tastes?” question with respect to the different food combinations we tried:
Rice and lentils: Edible but very, very bland.
Rice and lentils and heated tinned fish: It should work, but it didn’t. It was kind of nasty.
Rice and lentils and mustard: It’s edible. That’s as far as I’ll go.
Rice and lentils and fish and mustard: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Raisins stuffed inside marshmallows: Really, really strange. The two don’t go together.
Marshmallows and mustard: No, YOU ate marshmallows and mustard. Shut up. I don’t want to talk about it.
Needless to say, we survived, but we really couldn’t call it living. When we were flown back into town, the first thing we did was eat a big plate of nachos with lots of salsa.
Ultimately, the Resupply Gone Wrong turned out to be a great learning experience. I now have a field meals list where I not only plan out the number of meals for an expedition, but the quantities of required ingredients.
Dedicated to the Wiliest Ptarmigan: well played, you floofy-footed fowl. Well played.
Dr. Lisa Buckley is a palaeontologist with the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre based in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Lisa’s work with the PRPRC is field- and lab-based research on the tracks and traces of dinosaurs, birds, and other vertebrates from the Cretaceous Period, with a focus on researching Cretaceous-aged bird tracks and trackways. Lisa also manages a comprehensive archive in British Columbia of vertebrate fossils from British Columbia, and is an advocate for responsible fossil stewardship in the province. Lisa can be found on Twitter @Lisavipes, where she manages the track-based game #NameThatTrack, and the sciart project #BirdGlamour, where eye makeup is used to highlight bird diversity.