What's on my mind.

24 July 2009

Tales from the Field

The graduate research assistant (let's just call him RA) and I have been back out in the field (new test site, almost completely official!). Of course this time instead of starting the soil monitoring in mild, late spring like at the old site, we're starting in mid-Hell, (the months between early summer and early fall). We've gotten 3.5 days in and not a single reading thanks to equipment problems. (A people will crank their AC down pretty far, but even in Eureka they can't get below absolute zero.) So far our time in the field has consisted of installing the monitoring collars (pieces of 12 PVC pipe hammered into the ground at particular points in a semicircular pattern) and machete-ing paths for ourselves through the low branches and blackberry brambles. (love blackberries, hate blackberry canes).

So first off I'm using this older model GPS which has like a 10m accuracy which is about 3/10 of a sec of longitude or latitude around here. One collar is, according to the GPS location I got 9 meters north of the well (and some 40 or so west) when I can stand at the collar, look due east, and stare directly at the pump jack. I've decided if the location I end up at is within about 10 meters (according to GPS) then it's good even if my map ends up looking all squiggly.

That first day was shit hot and the RA wouldn't let me do much hammering when we were placing the collars. The worst part was when we went to lunch (BTW, did I mention Windham Springs is in MoBFN?) I must have sat outside the gas station (first 'civilization' we passed, 15 miles from the site) for 20 minutes waiting for RA to get done in the bathroom (not as bad as the prune juice day, did I tell y'all about that?). And RA was wearing short sleeves so he sweated off his bug spray and the little biting flys were having a feast off him that afternoon. I hadn't figured out how far a second of lat and long was before we went out so several locations were a little off, also two had typos and were WAY off. They had to be moved.

So the second day we went out with machetes and the 5-lb sledge. I was slightly better equipped - I'd brought work gloves and my tool belt. I could, kind of, carry the hammer in my rock hammer holster. We got the first path cut, and a collar moved without to much trouble. Except the RA was flagging fast. We start on cutting the 2nd path and moving that collar a good ways in. About 50 yards in RA rest his hand on a bank for a second and puts his hand in an ant bed. So I trade with him to do some cutting while he takes a break for a minute or two (and knocks ants off his arm). I decide to go to the right, around a small tree, rather than to the left to avoid the ant bed all together and find a wasps nest. I actual never saw it but when the buzzing started I walked as fast as I could (without tripping) back down the path saying as I passed RA "wasps, move, wasps, move NOW" About half way out he says "wait, I think they've stopped following." They hadn't, I got stung again. I only got 3 stings - one in each and and one in the arm - does bug spray repel wasps and bees? They didn't follow us all the way back to the road, thank goodness.

We get back to the truck, my partner is exhausted and wondering if we could have some AC. I reach in my pocket and the keys aren't there. I was wearing jeans (as usual for the field) so I figure I must not have actually gotten the keys in my pocket so they would have fallen out near the truck. No luck. As I remember it we cut N150, stopped at the truck for water (requiring unlocking and locking), then I put the keys in my pocket, stood in the minuscule patch of shade for a minute, walked down the road to where we started the N100 path and went into the woods. Luckily I was wrong about the re-locking the truck because then we wouldn't of had access to my phone or water. I searched around the truck, where I stood, and finally went back down the path to as close to the wasps as I dared. Then I went back to the truck, got my phone and walk to the well (around the bend and up a hill) to get signal. While I was calling my boss to have him come rescue us RA thought to check the other path. I was wrong about having hte keys when we came back to the truck because apparently they'd fallen out near it and he, luckily, saw them. No mean feat in grass over a foot high. We got several minutes of AC and I bought him lunch the next time as a thank you. The rest of the day went much better, except it was shit ass hot, RA was not up to the heat, and neither of us had much of a second wind after lunch (found a place closer than town, yay).

On the third day we just hacked our way through the brush and moved one collar. We had started on the path to S100 the trip before so there's already a good deal of work done on the first ~10 yard. I mean serious clearing 2 inch saplings, removing limbs up to 6-7 feet off the ground kind of work. Then I start directing RA where to cut the path. North, direction we needed to go, is pretty much directly uphill of where we were but the path has to wind a bit to go through the easier bits. RA has a tendency to drift left when I told him cut directly in front of him; when I told him to head towards his one or two o'clock he went straight ahead. Oh, and he has no sense of direction.* So I keep correcting us back to the east and we finally wind our way to the spot. The path definitely winds but it's not lots longer than a straighter path and it has easy access from the road. Further around, and more directly south of the collar, the hill was cut into to make the lease road so there's a 3-4 foot bank. I'm hammering the collar in the ground and RA who has been clearing the path as I go decides that it's shorter to go straight down the hill (true) and, hey, the woods are "more open" (also true, to a point) that way. My problem is three fold. For one he's already spent a fair amount of energy cutting a path, which he now wants to abandon but it's his arm (since he won't let me do much machete work). Secondly, the woods are more "open" because the trees are widely spaced where RA's heading, that means there's a lot more undergrowth that needs cutting and not necessarily the easiest way to go. But it's his arm and he's determined. Third and more theoretically, I want to minimize our impact; while we aren't actually taking out trees that would ever be sold (we're only taking out little, late starters, that'll probably get shaded out before they get very big) I don't want the land owner, if he ever sees it, to be pissed, but at this point RA has a big sharp knife and is swinging it around, so I follow at a safe distance shaking my head. I really don't understand making more work for yourself. Really, really don't understand it.

The last path we cut that day was really short, maybe 20 yards, into fairly open (at ground level) woods. These pines are taller creating deep shade, so other than some poison ivy not much undergrowth. We want paths were we don't have to stoop at any point, it's not much fun to not bend over with a heavy backpack. I had a little more energy than RA did at this point and the batteries were mostly dead so I went ahead to the collar, checked the location, and then started clearing my way back out. He was working on the one spot where it was tight, I was mostly cutting off small dead limbs. There was one point where I decided he needed to take out the bush because I just didn't have the upper body strength (or maybe my machete was getting dull) to get it. So I look at the path, I think it's clear, I can walk up-right the whole way, only one 'stump' in the way. I'll walk out, get a drink, and RA will be out a minute or two later. Five minutes later he's still hacking away at something - I don't know what it was. He finally staggers out exhausted and we leave. Again, I think he was making work for himself.

Yesterday we went back one more time for the last two paths. They both went fast and were fairly easy. The only real hiccup was I happened to park next to a collar that is on the side of the lease road. RA starts cutting down grass and weeds. At first I thought he was just clearing the area right around the collar, then he's moving towards the bank, then he's working on the bank. I asked where he was going. He hadn't noticed that he'd practically tripped over the collar to get where he was standing. Sometimes I worry about him.

Speaking of RA, I haven't heard back about the thermocouple. I guess I'll get keys and hope we go Monday morning. So if you see me at JalapeƱos Monday with my pants tucked into my socks, you'll know why.

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