My advisor has always maintained that a field crew runs on its stomach. In other words, well-fed field assistants are much happier and much more productive – not to mention much less likely to mutiny.
There is no doubt that this is true. Trying to run a field crew without an adequate supply of coffee, chocolate, or wine is an enterprise doomed to failure. But – at the risk of disagreeing with my advisor – I would argue that food alone is not enough.
Spending time in the field often leads to awe-inspiring experiences, like the moment when you come face to face with a lynx or watch a fierce lightning storm at sea from the safety of a remote island. But in between those moments, if we’re being honest, field work can be pretty tedious.
And if it’s tedious as a graduate student – when your entire thesis depends on the data you collect – it’s a hundred times more tedious for your assistants. Field assistants are expected to work long hours, rain or shine, for weeks on end without a break. So as a boss, keeping morale up can be a huge challenge, and when you have a chance to provide some fun for your assistants, you really have to take it.
And that, in a nutshell, is how I ended up lugging a dead beaver up a mountain.
Let’s back up a step, so I can set the scene. It was the first field season of my PhD, and my field assistant and I had spent half of January driving across a large chunk of the continent, ending up at an old, somewhat isolated house in the southern Okanagan Valley. The house was large, drafty, and empty, and our days were spent trekking through the snow and waiting around in the cold in a (largely futile) attempt to catch bluebirds. Every night, we came home, made dinner, and then went to sleep. It was not the kind of field work you write home about.
But my field assistant – being a nature-loving type – was prepared to make his own fun. He had brought with him a game camera, which he intended to mount on a tree to take automatic motion capture pictures of the local wildlife. During our first week in BC, he trekked up the mountain behind our house and spent hours looking for the perfect spot to leave it – hoping to capture a black bear or maybe even an elusive mountain lion.
Unfortunately, when he went back a week later, the camera had not taken a single photo. Undaunted, he decided that the logical course of action was to use bait. At first, he contented himself with scraps from our kitchen, hiking up the mountain regularly to drop them in front of the camera. And indeed, the camera did capture photos of the occasional crow or raven checking out his offerings. But no bear or cougar appeared, much to his disappointment. He started talking about finding something better to bait the camera with.
And then – lo and behold – as we returned home one grey winter afternoon, he spotted the ‘perfect’ bait. A dead beaver lay at the side of the road right beside our driveway, the clear victim of a fast-moving vehicle.
My field assistant was completely ecstatic, but I wasn’t entirely convinced: I couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden appearance of a beaver halfway up a mountain, several kilometers away from any water, might be more puzzling than enticing for any lurking bears or cougars.
But then I thought about how limited opportunities for fun had been so far. And I thought about how excited he was. And – against my better judgement – I found myself offering to help him lug the beaver up to his camera.
The first step was to wrestle the body into a garbage bag, to facilitate transport. But this was not a small beaver, and coaxing it into the bag was…challenging. By the time all of its limbs had been stuffed inside, I was sweating – and starting to regret my offer.
Then we started up the hill, each grasping one end of the bag. It rapidly became apparent that beavers are not particularly light animals. We staggered along, panting, the thin plastic slipping out of our awkward grasp frequently.
We hadn’t made it more than a few hundred yards before we concluded that another approach was required. We decided the best approach was to take turns dragging the beaver. Of course, the side of a mountain isn’t known for smooth passage, and the garbage bag – never particularly sturdy – became progressively more torn and tattered as we struggled towards our destination. A paw appeared out one corner; a glimpse of tail was visible through another rip.
In the end, our gruesome task took us almost two hours. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to drop something as I was to let go of that bag when we finally reached the camera.
And the result of all this work? Well, as far as I can remember (although to be honest, I’ve tried pretty hard to block the memory out), the camera failed to capture a single animal coming to check out the beaver; indeed, when my assistant climbed the mountain a week later, the body was still completely undisturbed.
But hey. At least I got to feel like a good boss.