In The Field: It’s a Hard Rock Life For Us, It’s a Hard Rock Life For Us

Gabrielle Klemt - 2N Geological
Posted on: June 17, 2017

Unlike many engineering students, my co-op job consists of a lot of hiking through the woods. When people say, “hiking through the woods” normally they mean walking along a well-trodden path in a well forested area. Sometimes I hike on paths, other times I am forging my own path through the dense growth of the forest itself. This week we’re talking about the perils of the workplace—the great outdoors—and some tips and tricks that I’ve been picking up along the way.

  1. Being prepared: Everyone’s number one tip for working in the actual middle of nowhere is to be prepared. When I go out for work every day I bring enough food to last me two days, a survival kit, a first aid kit, a walkie talkie, a GPS, a compass, sunscreen, bugspray, raingear, and only enough water to last me to the end of the day because water is heavy and I’m not taking more than 2L with me, you’re asking too much. This is just on top of the gear I actually need to do my job. Yes, I’m carrying about half my body weight on my back once you add the 4lb rock hammer, the chisel, and the 8lbs of rock samples I have to bring back from the field, but it’s worth it if it’ll keep me alive.
  2. Hammer safety: The first thing I learned about rock hammers is that you are not Michelangelo. You are a regular human who needs to chop a rock into bits, but no matter how you hit the rock it is not going to break the way you want it to. When swinging the hammer, don’t bring it behind your head, it is very easy to bring it too far and whack yourself on the noggin causing extreme pain and an unnecessary concussion scare; you want to bring it over your shoulder. Next, bring your hammer as high as you can so that gravity can do most of the work, that why the hammers weigh so darn much. Third, avoid your foot, which is on the rock so it doesn’t bounce around. Hitting yourself in the toe with all your might is almost as painful as hitting your own head. Try some practice hits to get yourself into the swing…
  3. Peeing: Of course, if you’re anywhere for an extended period of time you’re going to have to pee, that’s… well it’s my life, it might not be yours. At any rate, keeping peeing to an absolute minimum is the best course of action. If there’s one takeaway from using nature as a toilet it’s that toilets are man’s number one greatest invention and we really take advantage of their existence far too often. I don’t want to be the weirdo who writes an article about toilets, but seriously you should thank god that even if your office is the definition of hell you have somewhere you can pee without fear of something biting your ass.
  4. Crossing a river: Sometimes life gives you lemons and sometimes it gives you a lot of water. Rivers can be kind of tricky when you’re out in the wilderness because sometimes you really need to get to the other side. If you can avoid wading across the river you should absolutely do that because there is nothing worse than spending the whole day feeling like your toes pruning inside your boots. Wool socks can do nothing for you once they’re super-saturated. The best thing you can do is find somewhere safe to cross. Luckily, in northern Ontario there happens to be a lot of nature’s bridges: beaver dams. According to my boss, you’re never more than 100-200m away from the nearest dam so start walking! The hardest part now is not getting stuck in the surrounding marsh…
  5. Crossing a marsh: Marshes, unlike rivers, are not always conspicuous at first glance. One second you’re thanking your lucky stars that you’ve finally found some open flat ground, the next you’re ankle deep in water and marsh moss. The trick is to walk as quickly as you possibly can to avoid falling in, like quick sand. Probably. Just don’t stand still; that’s the worst thing you can do because you’ll soon find that the “waterproof” warranty on your hiking boots wears off when the water goes over the top of your boot.
  6. Making your way through a forest: There’s really no good way to describe what walking through dense forest is like. Think of walking through a hedge but surround it with trees, more endless hedges, fallen logs to trip on, roots to snag you, and so many branches it’s impossible not to get whipped in the face no matter how hard you try. The term “bushwhacking” really doesn’t go far enough because in my mind I picture someone who is at least capable of fighting back at the forest. You get over feeling bad about destroying branches and baby trees quickly when you realize that if you don’t get out you’ll go crazy. Plus, animals crash through the forest all the time and it’s none the worse for wear. In fact, once you’ve “blazed your trail” you can’t even see all the broken branches or snapped twigs; the forest has already reclaimed them! The only advice is to just keep going in the direction your compass is telling you and no matter how impenetrable the forest looks, you will find the road eventually.
  7. Bugs, bugs, bugs: We all know how bad mosquitos can be, those bites are terrible because the more you scratch the more they itch. But do you know the joys of other bugs nature has to offer you? How about the black fly?
    As I sit here writing this I’m finding it difficult to concentrate due to the insane bite collection I received today as a result of plaid shirts that don’t have enough sleeve buttons. My arm looks like something out of a movie about people dying of the Plague. I don’t know why but some of my black fly bites are the kind of purple that comes from bad internal bleeding and they itch like nothing you can imagine. I’m scared to count but I’m certain I have over 40 bites on one arm. One arm. I think it would actually be less painful for me if someone hacked my arm off at the elbow. And if the itching doesn’t drive you nuts, then just noticing all the flies crawling over your clothes and skin and swarming your face will. The only way to stay sane in the bush is to ignore their very presence. That’s all you can do! And empty your whole bottle of DEET onto whatever you don’t mind ruining forever.
    The worst part about these buggers is that you can’t shake them. Your first few days in the field are followed by nights of “phantom bugs”: your first step towards insanity. Although you are now inside and safe from the monsters, you can still sense them buzzing just out of sight, little black dots in your peripheral vision. Turn your head and they’re gone! Bed doesn’t make them go away either. As soon as the lights are out, the phantoms return with a vengeance; they swarm your face and now you can actually feel them touching your cheeks, landing behind your ears, on your nose, your eyelids. Even though your eyes are closed and you’re face is pressed against your pillow they still won’t go away. There is literally no escape from phantom bugs.

These have been the fruits of my experience in the field so far. I hope you find them useful one day and you can laugh at my pain because right now I can’t.