Well, we’re back in Victoria–a thousand kilometres and a serious road trip away. The team has spent all day, every day of this past week in the MLP lab entering the hard drives upon hard drives of data we’ve collected (100 stations in all!) into our project database. It’s quite the change of pace to go from flying around in helicopters and climbing mountains every day to sitting still in the lab, but it’s given us plenty of time for reflection on the amazing summer we’ve had and some of the lessons we’ve learned.
One fun (and informative) discussion that we’ve had is a review of some of the stations we found the most challenging. You may think that the life of a repeat survey photographer is all fun and games, but it’s not all amazing hikes and easy stations! We’ve certainly had several stations that have pushed us to our limits (or at least out of our comfort zones) in a variety of ways. In no particular order, here are a few of our top picks.
Fisher Peak: This was one of the last stations we did, late in August. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, with very low cloud and fog. Flying conditions were poor, but as it was our last chance to attempt this station we went out into the fog anyway, in hopes that the forecast of afternoon clear skies would come true (it didn’t.) It was a steep, slippery, two-hour scree scramble to the cairn, and although the brief glimpses we could catch through the fog confirmed that it was in fact our station, for the most part visibility was about 20m. Nicole and Rick bundled up and sat (mostly) uncomplaining) in the cold drizzle for an hour willing the sky to clear in vain before beginning the knee-destroying scramble back. It was a long and tiring day to not complete a station!
Station 530 (near the Jasper Park boundary) was a difficult weather station in a different way. When Tanya and Kristen were dropped off (by helicopter), the ominous thunderclouds were a safe distance away. However, the storm came amazingly fast and even though the girls were keeping an eye on the sky the whole time, the storm cell was right on top of them in what seemed like no time at all. Thunder and lightning filled the canyon they were overlooking, and the air was filled with sparks. The situation was dangerous enough that the two scrambled (as fast as you can in wet steep scree) down the mountain for a full hour before they were safely out of the storm, a situation made even scarier by the total lack of radio comms on the way down. They were eventually able to get a bump back up and complete the station, but it was a bit of a scary experience!
Another difficult station was the aptly named Obstruction Mountain. This mountain had nowhere flat, and the only possible landing site was on a snowfield nearly two hours of difficult scrambling below the summit. Rick and Vladka were rewarded for their troubles with one of the season’s most difficult shooting locations. The ridgetop didn’t have a flat spot anywhere, and was steep unstable scree down one side and a sheer terrifying drop to the other. The team tiptoed around the cairn, holding on for dear life! On the way down the team realized that the winds had changed and that their drop-off point was no longer safe for a pickup, and they had to climb down a different way. This meant leaving behind some gear that had been left at the drop-off spot to reduce weight for the climb. Although this gear was later retrieved (thanks to an epic hover-exit into some snowdrifts on Vladka’s part) it was a good reminder that( even with the best mountain pilots) you have to be flexible.
What have we learned? There’s nothing we can do about the weather (except watch the sky and be ready to run). Try not to look down. Watch where you put your feet. Don’t trust rocks. Helicopters are cool. Helicopters are dangerous. Just because you’re in vast landscapes doesn’t mean that you don’t need personal space. The rocks in our historic photos don’t move, except when sometimes they do. Don’t try and tough out fatigue. Remember to turn your radio back on when you get out of the helicopter. Don’t trust rocks!
What are we grateful for? We’re grateful for the amazing experience we’ve had, the support we’ve received, and the excellent team we had. In particular, we’d really like to put out a special thank you to Rick Arthur (Father Fire, Ranger Rick, Grandpa Rock). Rick was the unofficial 5th member of our team, coming out with us almost every day. Thanks to him, we were able to field two teams most days while still staying on top of our mountains of processing and prep work. Rick’s wealth of experience was an amazing resource, and made our lives a lot easier (particularly with respect to logistics, helicopter landing sites, and local geography). Rick was a mentor to all of us, and always made our days better with his dry sense of humour, wise remarks, fatherly advice, and steady stream of fun facts about fire (none of us will ever forget the 4 characteristics common to fatality fires!). He also carried the tripod, an awkward and ungainly beast, with constant good humour. Rick and his wife Nathene showed us some amazing hospitality, and we felt like part of their family for the summer.
We’re also grateful to everyone else at the ESRD (duty officers, camp managers, cooks, pilots, mountain experts, friendly firefighters), UVic (wise professors and irrepressible coworkers) and everyone we ran into along the way who helped, supported and encouraged us. It’s been an amazing summer, and we couldn’t have done it alone!