March 23, 2015

How I Got the Truck Stuck and Other Adventures of My Time at the Mattheis Research Ranch

Some great news for me these past couple weeks regarding one of the ranches I was fortunate enough to stay and work at for several weeks as a research assistant. The University of Alberta's Mattheis Research Ranch in southern Alberta signed a well-deserved conservation agreement with Western Sky Land Trust. A compensation of $3.8 million ensures that the land is protected forever from development, and also ensures that the funds from this conservation organization go directly into the various research on rangeland and cow-calf production (carbon sequestration, grazing studies, land reclamation and grassland ecology, for instance) that takes place on this ranch, several which I was involved in.

Being one of the research assistants helping out with the multitude of rangeland projects held on the ranch I got to see all 12,000 acres (or 18.75 square miles; 48.5 square kilometers) and drive or ride on the various trails and access roads that were used on there to get to various pastures, natural gas and oil well sites, compression stations and others. I also got to see a lot of wildlife, a lot of vegetation, and feel and experience the extreme weather differences on the prairies.

My time on there was spent working on fencing exclosures, performing rangeland health assessments, soil coring and monitoring growth of cicer milkvetch plants all spread out over the most of land area of the ranch, except the latter study. You would think that, with that amount of land to cover, I would easily get lost on a large ranch like this, and you'd be right, any normal individual fresh from the city or totally unfamiliar with the land would definitely get lost in a heartbeat. But with me, it only took one or two travels down the various roads for me to remember where they were, where they lead to, and how they connected to each other. Of course, we had our mishaps, detours and occasional time when we ended up a little lost, but lucky I was driving most of the time so I always had (and have) a great sense of direction (i.e., which way is North; sounds ridiculous but if you don't have a compass or are in an area and have no idea where you are, which way is North, West, South or East is crucial to get to where you want to go) and could get back on track quickly.

Unless I get the truck stuck.

I was driving with a graduate student--Angie, let's call her (just keeping name private for obvious privacy rights reasons)--who was working on a study of the growth and flowering aspects of cicer milkvetch, an introduced legume perennial that is now taking over growth in a lot of Alberta's pastures and yards, yet the cows absolutely love the stuff. She had me do a bit of driving around to find various plants (cicer grows in big clumps like sweet clover, not wide-spread like alfalfa) that would be good for examining the flowers, counting stems, measuring growth rate of stems, etc., that would be later marked with the GPS and throw cages over in a few weeks. It took a whole lot of driving and adventuring whilst scanning for a great area with lots of cicer plants to do the study on. GPS helped not at all, and the maps somewhat, but even in the spring when the plants are just starting to come up some of the trails are freaking hard to see even sitting up nice in tall in the big Chevy Silverado 2500 I was driving.

We were just finishing up and trying to find a short-cut to get out of the big 320-acre pasture we were in and had found a literal gold-mine of numerous cicer plants, when trouble struck, country style. (Of course we could've went out through the gate onto the highway, but what fun is that?!) I thought I was travelling the right trail, but the first mystery one ran cold (had to go through a deceptively shallow irrigation ditch to get there and get back to where we "started"--talk about a bumpy ride, and I wasn't even going that fast!), and the second one yielded promise until we ran into a quagmire of sandy, clayey mud, bullrushes, and black, silty water.

Me, being the overly confident driver convinced Angie that if I gunned it we'd get through. Being a total city girl, she had confidence that this ol' farm girl would be right on the money. So I went for it. Pedal almost to the floor boards and the truck went near halfway into the pond before it couldn't move no more! Shift it backwards, then forwards, then back again, and I did eventually got the big ol' girl back on to dry land, but for some stupid reason I wanted to go for it again (yes, emphasis on stupid here)! So I did. And this time, no matter how hard I tried I could NOT get the truck out.

We were stuck in the mud and stuck good!

Meanwhile, Angie's completely freaking out as this was her very first time getting stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere. Dusk was quickly drawing in, too, and we were literally in the middle of the slough, no rubber boots to put on, and mud that went past one of the tire's top rim. And the mud? Slicker than snot on a door knob. Poor Angie, she was so very, very worried, frantic and terribly anxious! "Oh my God, oh God, we're stuck!! What're we gonna do?? We're stuck!! There's nobody around to help us! We'll have to stay the night if we can't get help!"

But with me, being frantic, frightened and anxious wasn't on my mind. Instead, I was going over in my head what else could be done, how else we could get out of this situation, etc. I was actually more amused at poor Angie's reaction than scared about getting a truck stuck, because quite frankly this wasn't my rodeo. I told her as much, and reassured her we'll get out of this before dark, which seemed to calm her down a bit. I think if she were any more frantic she would've tried to roll down the window and scream help into the wind!

Coming off a farm I can't quite remember when my dad first got the tractor or truck stuck, but it was a rather scary experience, so I totally understood how Angie felt at that time. Of course, coming off a farm it's extremely rare to farm for a long time and have machinery or a vehicle get stuck in the mud even once!

Thankfully I had the cell number of a friend who could get in contact with the ranch foreman. All I had to do was ask her to tell him that a couple of girls got stuck up near one of the irrigation fields and needed a pull out.

Half an hour later he came out with the tractor (he looked a bit amused at our situation, at least as amused as a hard-working ranch man could express), chained us up and not only got us out, but took us through another half dozen similar sloughs on our way out, one which nearly got but the tractor and us stuck until I put the truck in gear (you always have to have the drive in neutral, no touching the brakes at all, when getting a tow) and helped pull things along. Eventually we got out onto dry land and could make our way back to the ranch headquarters. Turned out, though, we did get lost, got on the wrong trail and ended up somewhere we and the truck shouldn't have been!

Certainly learned my lesson after that, though: Never under-estimate a slough, no matter how shallow or drivable it looks! But darn it, I wish I took pictures!! Of course, I wasn't the first research assistant to get a truck stuck. We've had a running gambit that for anyone who gets their truck stuck, they have to listen to Corb Lund's Truck Got Stuck song. Here's a little diddy of a music video of that very song for you to enjoy.

You can bet I had my adventures with working on the Mattheis Ranch; the stuck-truck incident was just one out of several. That's why that media coverage of that conservation agreement made me remember back about my time and the fun I had out there, and want to share some stories, and some pictures.

To be honest, the prairie that the ranch is situated on is not all flat and boring like you would want to think from just driving by on the highway. There's actually some really fascinating and amazing changes in plant communities and topographical changes--some less obvious than others--over even just a few acres. Vegetative sand dunes (see right), wetlands, dry arid grassland and temperate grassland, and the dramatic slide down a steep slope, almost like off a cliff face, into the Red Deer River and its flood plains to the north (a hint of that in the first picture above), and the Matziwan Creek to the south. But, no trees, except at the yard. Naturally, this prairie is devoid of trees, and instead covered in a multitude of many different species of grasses, forbs, and a few shrubs. And cacti! Really it's anything but flat. There are not only the vegetative sand dunes in some places, but also the shallow rolling hills that can hide wildlife like pronghorn and deer or give you adequate privacy if you need to relieve yourself (the truck tire works better though if you don't want to go walking for miles to find a good spot to pee). Of course it's nothing like the real rolling hills of the Kinsella Ranch east of Edmonton.

As researchers, you can bet we were at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she isn't too nice if you're out on the prairie in the summer. Not only were there nasty flesh-eating, blood sucking horse flies, deer flies, and mosquitoes, but the heat, the wind, and the wicked-awesome thunderstorms that rolled through were things to be respected and heeded.

Try going out on the prairies in shorts and a T-shirt and I guarantee you'll quickly need a can of bug-spray to liberally spray yourself on any available piece of exposed skin (and I mean any), in addition to plenty of sun-block. Oh, sun burn may be bad, but try getting through the day without having the deer flies pestering you! There wasn't a day that went by that I hadn't killed some flies, yet thankful when the wind showed up because it helped keep the flies at bay. The wind isn't so great when you have pieces of paper to record on, or a RubberMaid® cover to sit on that flies away on you on occasion.

But the worst (and most amusing) thing to come when you're doing plant or soil studies is a dust devil.

Me, my boss and my colleague who was also a research assistant were half-way through performing range health assessments and plant clipping on the ranch, and were nearly done with one of the exclosures, collecting our items to move on to the next exclosure. I don't know how I noticed the dust-devil coming up, either it was some movement out of the corner of my eye that got my attention or something about the current conditions that sounded off, and I looked to me right and a big, whirling thing of dust was coming toward us. It took me a second to register then I hollered to watch out for the bags and papers and next thing I knew, the wind whipped up in a frenzy and some papers and paper bags were being whirled and whipped around in a whirl-wind like mad, too fast for any of us to catch and I barely had time to protect our data papers and paper bags (and my eyes) when they escaped and one of them, just happened to be one of the pages me and my boss had completed in our plant ID collection, got away!

Oh, it didn't just go flying straight across the landscape where we could pick it up real easy. No, no, this piece of paper caught the whiff of the wind and up and up and up it went into the clear blue sky! And it just kept going up and up in the sky!! I would not come back down! We watched it for a few moments until it barely became a speck a good few hundred thousand feet--maybe a mile--up into the never-ending sky before we had to give up, re-do the plots and move on to the next exclosure.

If you've ever stood and had a dust-devil go through and around you, it's a breath-taking experience, and I'm talking about the power of the wind of these mini-tornadoes, it can knock your breath out, throw sand and dirt in your eyes and mouth, and almost send you spilling. And of course if you have any loose papers or paper bags, they will go flying!! But for me, what was simply hilarious about this dust devil was how it just threw a little bit of an interesting twist into our day and stole one of our data sheets. He didn't think it was funny at first, but I couldn't stop laughing about it and it didn't take him long to join with a chuckle. I asked my old boss not too long ago if he got it back yet, but no, it disappeared for good!

Then we got the real storms. Powerful, wonderful, frightening yet amazing thunderstorms that bang and crash and rumble in thunder and throw down gallons upon gallons of rain at a time. Anybody who risked staying out into the storm would get soaked!

One night me and some friends/colleagues from other studies around the ranch and other areas piled into the truck to watch the lightening away from the lights of the ranch yard. Thankfully, I brought my camera and snapped some pretty neat shots. Lots of cloud-to-cloud lightening, some cloud to ground and ground to cloud lightening, and certainly a bit of sheet lightening. We timed it well because we were able to get out on one of the roads and turn around (I was driving, and turning around in the dark with one ditch being full of water and the other blocked off by a temporary electric fence with a big truck is no easy task, but doable) on the narrow road so we could sit on the tailgate and watch Nature's fire-works for a bit, take some pictures, and get back before it started to rain. It was a truly amazing spectacle to behold. Thus, behold, a few of the shots I managed to get!!

It wasn't the sound of the rain that drove us back, but the smell. That fresh, oxygenated, cool air that wafts your way before you feel the first drops is what prompted us to get back before is started to pour. Because it doesn't just rain on the prairies, it pours!

Speaking of which, there was one particularly rainy day which me and a couple other colleagues were trying to get as much soil coring (taking soil samples from the ground) samples as possible. And it wasn't just raining, it was raining, and windy, and cold. And the rain kept coming in harder and harder the longer we were out there.

What made it difficult for me was that the two ladies I was with were on the soil corers and I was busy sitting processing the samples they were getting in for me. All I had on was my raincoat with a hood, my jeans, rubber boots and a good coat underneath. I had bought a pair of rain pants with the coat but they weren't exactly friendly for sitting down on the ground, more because they just didn't fit right and I was too short for the bib straps to work. Excuses, excuses, I know, but I certainly paid for it. Man, I got cold even though I did my best to keep my back to the heaviest of the rain and wind. But try processing samples that are nothing but sand, fine, grainy sand that if the wind got around me, blew right into my face and eyes! To make matters worse, I couldn't wear gloves because I couldn't process the samples as easily as with my bare hands, but with the wet the sand sticked to my hands to the point that if I tried whipping my hands off on my coat, pants or even the grass they'd get just as sandy as when I first started. We eventually had to quit before lunch because I was getting really cold and at the risk of getting hypothermia (NOT good), and the wind and rain wasn't improving at all.

The day after, thankfully, was without the rain, but the wind was sure whipping around. I'd rather take a windy day than a hot, still day (see above on my battles with the deer flies), or even a rainy day. But it's still not fun doing soil sampling. Thankfully I had two bandanas with me to protect my face, ears and neck from the bugs and inclement conditions that Mother Nature loves to through at anything living in her reign as a means to try to kill us all. But it got to the point I had to put the bandana over my eyes too because it was just a right pain in the arse to process soil cores in the wind...especially since the wind wasn't keen on blowing in just one direction! No, it had to switch directions, make turbulent little drafts in front of my face, and blow up the sand in my face. So, over my entire face my bandana went.

The funny thing was that I could still see out from it! I could still measure and separate the particular sections of soil we got just as accurately as if I didn't have the bandana over my eyes, yet it freaked my colleagues out a bit when I had to talk to them and they happened to look at my face--or where my face once was, mwahahaha! Only needed to do that for a short while, when the wind died down (or when I needed some fresh air), back around my neck it went.

I don't want to make this post any longer than it already is, and I think I spilled enough beans of the most notable stories I've made on the Mattheis. Now, I think I might share some pictures of the various flora and fauna I captured through the lenses in light and in celebration from last week's announcement. And yes, some of them will be cows.
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