June 17, 2016 – The Survey from Hell

Photo: Face-height thistles, as illustrated by my colleague, were only part of what we encountered on the S.o.H.

Archaeological surveys can be physically demanding.  Especially when dealing with the Canadian wilderness.  You need to scale hills and mountainsides, forests and deserts, all while carrying equipment and keeping your eyes open for dangers (i.e. bears, cougars, cliffs, rotten trees ready to fall down, etc.).  It’s hot and dirty and you tend to come out with bruises and scratches in places you didn’t know you could have bruises and scratches.  We’ve all had tough surveys where we’re utterly exhausted by the end of the day.  But this survey, in the wilds of a commercially zoned lot in downtown Kingston, ON, truly was the Survey from Hell (S.o.H).

The day started off like any other survey day.  Got up at a ridiculous hour of the morning.  Coated myself in sunscreen, filled my thermos with hot coffee, and drove down to Kingston (about 2 hours southwest of Ottawa).  Find my way to the lot in question, park, and start pulling on my boots and vest.  A few minutes after I arrived my colleague, and the guy in charge of this particular project, pulls in.  That’s when things took a turn for the bad.

“So there’s a very real possibility we could be stabbed by used needles”, he says to me.  He proceeds to explain that this lot seems to be a popular spot for homeless camps and, from what he could tell on his first site visit, was covered with all sorts of garbage.  Good thing I have steel-toed/soled boots on.

After my other colleagues arrived, we grabbed our gear (backpacks, high-vis vests, shovels, small hand screens) and moved into the survey area, which consisted of a somewhat open field surrounded by forested areas.  As the open field was at the entrance to the survey area, we decide to start with it first.  At first glance, it looked like it was covered with grassy bushes that we could simply stomp over.  Boy were we wrong.  Take a look at the photos I’ve put at the top of this entry and you’ll see what we dealt with.  Face-height thistle bushes.  Between those were thigh-height nettle and thistle bushes.  And below those were patches of poison ivy.  The sounds of the calm, sunny morning were quickly interrupted with “Ouch!” and “Ow!”and many other words and phrases I can’t print here.  There was no escape from the sharp pinpricks of pain, the bushes were EVERYWHERE.

After about 40 minutes of this, we finished our survey in the bushes of death and moved into the forest, thinking we would be free of the pain.  Nope.  We had simply moved into the forest of death.  Small, vine-like trees intertwined with each other, providing very little room to move around in with all of our gear.  At one point it took me nearly 10 minutes to move a total of 15 metres simply because I kept getting stuck in the branches.  Literally stuck. My hair got stuck on branches.  My back pack got stuck on branches.  My shovel got tangled in the vines surrounding the branches.  Accepting my fate that there was no way around this without making myself look like I had survived Shark Week, I shoved my way through and eventually made it back to the rest of my team.

It wasn’t just annoyingly viney trees full of spiderwebs that we had to push through.  No, this forest was full of trees far more sinister than that.  I’m pretty sure their growth is fueled by the blood of those that become impaled on their branches.  This forest was full of hawthorn trees.  Hawthorn trees, for those that don’t know, are covered with sharp, tapered spikes that grow up to a few inches in length.  If you’re not watching where you’re walking, it’s easy to impale yourself on these spikes.  Which is exactly how I discovered there were hawthorns in this forest.  While the spikes can cut you and draw blood, the secondary danger is that bacteria from the spikes can get into your system and lead to a lot of problems, including allergic reactions and bacterial infections.

Take a look at those spikes on a hawthorn tree (http://www.cirrusimage.com/Trees/Fabaceae)

6 hours.  Went spent 6 hours that day, dragging our bloodied and battered bodies through forests and fields of plants that really shouldn’t be allowed to exist.  Every time we moved to avoid one hawthorn tree, we found ourselves stuck on another.  Not a single one of our 5-person team came out without scratches and punctures and tiny stinging nettles stuck in our pants.  As we fought our way through the field of thistles one last time on our way back to the cars we were silent, our minds running over the hell we had just willingly put ourselves through.  But we were alive.  We had survived the Survey from Hell, and were stronger people for it.





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