Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Week in the Woods: Preparation

I've done a lot of packing in my life, but preparing for a one-week stay in the Yukon wilderness provided a relatively new experience. Most of what I needed was pretty basic: clothes, food, things to help me make a shelter, and several books to read in the free time I anticipated having. The generosity of my coworkers helped a lot-- I got a backpacking-sized backpack from a tech who was leaving and I borrowed a battery-powered lantern and a hand-pumped water filter from a grad student.

The main specialty item I needed to get for this trip was a bear canister to keep my food safe from bears and other interested parties. I decided to rent a bear canister from Parks Canada, a process that involved going to their nearest outpost and filling out some paperwork. Everything went smoothly until the ranger asked me where I was going to be using the bear canister (this is done mostly so that Parks Canada knows where campers are in case an emergency situation arises). My first answer, "Oh, I'll just be in the woods north of here," apparently didn't cut it. I hadn't considered my rescuability by Parks Canada as a factor in choosing a random section of forest rather than a designated backpacking trail for my expedition, but in hindsight it makes sense. As far as the bear canister rental was concerned, I realized I could be more specific, and I wrote "in the woods near the Old Alaska Highway, people at Squirrel Camp will know where I am," and the ranger was happy with that.

A trip to Whitehorse, the city which contains two thirds of the Yukon's population and most of its grocery stores, allowed me to fill the rented bear canister with all the food I would need. The canister was small enough to be carried comfortably under one arm, but since I went for fairly dense foods, I ended up packing about 20,000 calories into it. As in other areas, I erred on the side of over-preparation.

I made an inventory of all the supplies I brought with me for the week; this was inspired in part by the highly-organized lists my mom makes when packing for important trips, and in part by Robinson Crusoe, one of my favorite books and a source of my interest in wilderness survival and building shelters and other such stuff. When I finally set out, I had a full backpack on my back, the bear canister under my arm, my neatly-packed sleeping bag in one hand, and a stout stick in the other. Here is what I took with me for my week in the woods:

Two sets of clothes (including those I was wearing)
Two jackets
Bug net (a mesh hood that rendered my face and neck inaccessible to insects)
Rain coat
Rain pants
Two warm hats

Belt knife
Two whistles
Two pens
Flagging tape
Mechanical pencil
18 AA batteries
Bear spray
Water bottle (1 liter capacity)
Water filter
Toothbrush (I must have forgotten to bring toothpaste, typical)
Toilet paper
First-aid kit

Campsite Materials
Four large garbage bags (for waterproofing my shelter)
Thick rope
Thin rope
Duct tape
Lantern (battery-powered)
Sleeping bag
Small Canadian flag

1 kg granola
1 kg peanut butter
1 kg raisins
1 kg dried apricots
750 g dried cranberries
400 g chocolate
Bear canister
Ziploc bags

The Bible
Robinson Crusoe
Wildflowers Along the Alaska Highway
Rechargeable battery
Charging cables

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Week in the Woods: Safety First

Once I had determined that I would like to spend a week in a handmade shelter in the boreal forest, there were several safety issues to take into account. While I liked the idea of being out in the wilderness by myself, I didn't like it enough to risk injury, mortal or otherwise. Brainstorming with my coworkers and reading survival literature produced the following concerns:

In the weeks approaching my expedition, bear sightings had become relatively common, and several of us had encountered bears at a closer range than we would like. Me being alone for this week exacerbated the issue; a single person may have more difficulty frightening off bears than a group, and nobody would be close by to call for help if an incident did occur. Bear risk reduction happened in a number of ways.
1. Food - I didn't bring any meat in my food supply, and food was stored in a bear-proof canister about 20 meters away from my sleeping site. In general, I tried to avoid giving bears any reason to confront me.
2. Alarm system - I chose a site for my camp that was surrounded by three squirrel territories; squirrels bark when large animals are nearby, so I hoped to get some warning of any intruders. For the first few days, however, the squirrels mostly just barked at me.
3. Defense - I had a can of bear spray with me at all times, and when I went to sleep at night, I kept the bear spray propped up in a boot at the entrance of my shelter to be ready at a moment's notice.

My week in the woods was planned for the middle of August, and things were beginning to get chilly in the Yukon. If it got too cold at night or if it rained, things could range from unpleasant to dangerous. Since I picked a spot in the forest that was just a few hours hike from the main camp, the most important thing as far as exposure was concerned was for me to give up and go back to camp if things got too extreme. But to prevent this eventuality, I planned:
1. Shelter - I brought four large garbage bags to line the roof of my shelter to ensure that it would be waterproof. In theory, a roof of spruce boughs alone would have kept me dry, but I didn't want to take any chances.
2. Clothes - in addition to my base of jeans and a t-shirt, I brought a sweater, a light jacket, a heavy jacket, a rain jacket, and rain pants. I wore all of it except the rain gear for the majority of the week, only getting down to the t-shirt once when it was the middle of the day and I was getting warm from manual labor.

Falling Trees
I was glad to have picked up a book on wilderness survival in the weeks before my expedition because I learned from it that an important danger to consider when one is sleeping in a forest is that of falling trees. There were a lot of dead trees in our valley thanks to an epidemic of beetles in the 1990s, and it doesn't pay to assume they won't fall at any given time. The solution for this was fairly straightforward.
1. Location - I chose a spot for my shelter that would be untouched even if every tree in the area fell directly towards it. This took a good deal of time, but I was very happy with the location I eventually found.

Throughout the summer, I was one of the more adventurous members of the camp when it came to consuming the local flora. I always make sure to identify a plant and make sure it's edible before I go to town on it, and even then I start with small morsels and wait to see if anything happens if it's a plant I haven't eaten before. There was much discussion in camp of Into the Wild, a book (and movie) telling the true story of an Emory graduate who went to live in the Alaskan wilderness and died there after eating a poisonous plant. In the end, I decided it wouldn't hurt to be extra safe on this one.
1. Avoidance - originally, I planned to not try any new plants during this week, but ultimately I decided to not eat any wild plants at all-- I had enough fun with that earlier in the summer and it made everyone feel better about this risk.

The final elements of my comprehensive safety plan were communication and transportation. For the whole summer, we had generally reliable radios that we used to communicate while in different study grids, and I brought a radio and two month's worth of batteries to ensure it kept running. I was too far away to radio the main camp, but I could talk to people who were on a nearby grid, so at least I could check in each day to say I was still alive and kicking.

As for transportation, the site I chose for my camp was close to the Old Alaska Highway, a dirt road wide enough for one vehicle that had been abandoned upon the construction of the new Alaska Highway. My camp was out of sight of the road, but I marked a few trees with initialed flagging tape so that people would be able to find it if need be. In short, if things did start to go wrong, I had a good chance of being able to let people know and they had a good chance of being able to get to me quickly.

A few other dangers were considered; apparently moose are very unpleasant if they feel threatened. A coworker kindly lent me a water filter so I wouldn't have to risk disease from the local stream. Getting lost in the woods would be a downer, but with a compass and two ranges of mountains to navigate by, I couldn't go too far wrong, and in any case I stayed around my camp for most of the week. There is, of course, no way to ensure complete safety in the wilderness, but after all this planning I felt that the risks were both minimal and manageable.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Week in the Woods: the Idea

I have vague memories of a childhood in a village in rural Nigeria. I remember playing in the rain outside our cement-block house, and I remember watching our neighbors thatch one of their huts. I remember the red hill sparkling with crystals at the end of the road, and the coolness of the mango grove near the well. Ever since my family left the village, I've spent most of my time in cities, and while that has certainly has its perks, I miss the sort of wilderness that I was fortunate enough to inhabit at a young age.

Last summer, when I had the opportunity to do research in the Yukon for a few months, the chance to live in the wilderness was a big pull. The camp we worked from was a gathering of wooden shacks in the middle of a forested valley backed by a line of stony hills that would have been more picturesque if they hadn't had to compare with the range of snow-capped mountains on the other side of the vale. It was certainly a different sort of wilderness than I had previously encountered, but it was great nonetheless. We worked six days a week, but even then we found time for hiking in the hills, foraging in the forest, and swimming in several of the extremely cold local lakes. It helped that the sun only set for a couple hours each night.

For me, the culmination of this wilderness experience happened in my final week in the Yukon. Each research technician was entitled to a one-week holiday, the only condition being that they weren't allowed to stay in camp (perhaps it would lower the morale of those still working). Some techs used their week for roadtrips, to see the rest of the territory and maybe Alaska too. Some techs flew back to their hometowns for a week back in civilization. For most of the summer, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Backpacking along a trail in a nearby national park sounded appealing, but I didn't have a good tent to use. The idea occurred to me to take a tarp instead of a tent and just build a shelter for myself each night along the trail. After all, I've always enjoyed the idea of building shelters from natural materials. Upon more reflection, however, it sounded like a lot of work to walk all day and then spend a few hours gathering branches and tying them together before I could sleep.

Finally, the solution struck me: instead of backpacking down a trail (which is a sort of curated wilderness in many cases), I could have the experience I wanted by walking into the woods with a week's worth of supplies and building a shelter to keep my bones warm and dry while I spent the days doing whatever I liked. It would be just me, nature, and a bunch of gear because I'm not an experienced survivalist by any means. As I pitched this idea to my coworkers, logistical issues were raised and safety concerns were voiced (it was bear season, after all), but ultimately I got the impression that this was the first time in the camp's memory that such a vacation had been attempted, and, being scientists, everyone was interested to see how it would play out.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Graphical Updates

My laptop computer has begun to show its age in various ways; things have started to run more slowly and buggily, and it crashes more often than it used to. Since I have entered a relatively static residential situation, I decided to make the leap to using a desktop computer. I did some research, ordered the parts, and put everything together with my brother's help and only a little bit of smoke and melted wire. Being new, this desktop should be a big step forward in computing power compared to my laptop. I'm looking forward to running games at higher graphics settings than I ever thought I would be able to use.

My real-life visuals have also received an upgrade. Over the past couple years, I started to notice that I couldn't read far-away road signs as well as I once could. A few months ago, I tried on my brother's glasses just for goofs and was surprised to see that everything became clearer and sharper. After an eye exam last Saturday and a few days of waiting, I now have my first pair of glasses. It has been a good week.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Wheel Bugs

Wheel bugs have a very legitimate claim to their name; they are true bugs (order Hemiptera) and they have a protrusion on their back that looks like a wheel. They are predators on caterpillars and other such creatures, so they are described as beneficial insects, like ladybugs.

Like other true bugs, wheel bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts; they stab prey and inject enzymes that dissolve tissue, then suck it all up. When provoked by humans, this stab-and-inject routine apparently turns into one of the more painful insect bites one might have the misfortune to experience. The field guide I was consulting says the pain generally lasts for ten days, but followed with "In the case of multiple bites, the discomfort gradually decreases over six to nine months."

Having read that, I think I'd rather have ladybugs in my garden.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Fun in the Sun

Recently, I've gotten into the habit of wearing sunglasses. I've spent a lot of my life under the sun, but I'm not very keen on cranial adornment, so sunglasses (and hats too) haven't been on the menu until now. I suppose I always just squinted.

The big change, I suppose, is work that requires me to drive around on sunny days, and squinting or looking away while behind the wheel seems like a bad idea. That being said, I've found a new appreciation for sunglasses while on foot as well. I walk east to get to work in the morning and west to get home, so it's nice to not be blinded both ways.

In a few more months, I might even start wearing a hat instead of shading my eyes with a hand.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Scientific Integrity

I recently got a subscription to the magazine Popular Science and was disturbed to find a two-page ad for a water distillation machine that is said to produce healthier water by increasing the hydrogen bond angle of the molecule. This high-energy water supposedly cures all sorts of diseases and keeps its drinkers in peak physical condition.

Now, this product might sound bogus because it's too good to be true or it's chemically unviable or it lacks proof of efficacy, or all of the above. In the case of this water machine, the ad is full of red flags beyond the basics, from ridiculous claims (drinking this water will multiply the battery life of your watch tenfold) to earnest assurances that it is not a con (the creator of this device received a grade of 100% in his college engineering course). An attempt is even made to turn scientifically-grounded criticisms of the product into a selling point: "Like Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, anyone not generating controversy isn't doing much of anything."

An advertisement like this is perhaps itself a test for common sense, but while the untruth of it may be clear upon reading or investigating the claims made, the larger problem for me is that my trust and interest in Popular Science has taken a severe hit. Printing ads like this in a scientifically-inclined magazine is either reckless or mercenary, and I can't think of any positive explanation for it. I suppose the 'popular' in the name of the magazine has greater emphasis than the 'science'.