How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boreal Forest

I’m a prairie girl, born and bred. Where the horizon is down around my knees, maybe even my ankles. Where there’s nothing between me and that horizon. Where I can see yesterday leaving and tomorrow coming. Where the only trees are those planted around farmsteads.

So why was I sitting on a dock in northern Manitoba, surrounded by nothing but trees and water, watching the Twin Otter that had deposited me and my crew slowly disappear into nothingness?

The answer: I’d been hired to lead one of the crews conducting archaeological excavations as part of Manitoba Hydro’s Churchill River diversion project of the early 1970s. I had no experience with boreal forest archaeology. I had no experience leading a crew. I didn’t know how to operate an outboard motor. I didn’t know how to read a topographic map. I didn’t know how to use a transit to survey excavation grids.

Boy, was I qualified!

My only previous encounter with the boreal forest had been in 1969 when I was an assistant at a camp just south of Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. I hated it, the boreal forest, that is. I couldn’t see anywhere. I couldn’t see the weather coming. Driving down the highway felt like driving down a tunnel. I didn’t feel claustrophobic but I certainly felt boxed in.

Yet, here I was, in 1973, at Lake Opachuanau on the Churchill River, fly-in only, for two whole months. Egads! How would I survive?

By the end of the first week, I had learned how to operate an outboard motor, although I had yet to finesse docking it. I had learned how to read topographic maps which is why I now hate highway maps – they don’t have enough detail. I had even learned the rudiments of using a transit and stadia rod. And I was getting intrigued by the archaeology, the geology and the natural history of the boreal forest.

But most importantly, I was falling in love with the boreal forest. Driving a boat down the river or across the lake was completely different from driving down a highway cut through “The Bush.” Those mornings when the wind was perfectly calm and the lake was perfectly still, the boat seemed to be floating in space between the forest and its perfect reflection. I could see the forest in all its complexity – alders and birch and poplars and quaking aspen lining the shore, White Spruce and Black Spruce behind. The shoreline varied from sand to mud to low rocky outcrops to rock cliffs. Inland, the ground was soft and spongy, covered with bunchberry and raspberries and strawberries and Labrador Tea and Sphagnum moss in which you could sink up to your knees.

Since then, I’ve spent a fair number of summers working in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan. A summer just didn’t feel complete if I wasn’t cruising down a river or lake in a boat, slogging through The Bush, digging test pits or excavating sites.

It isn’t just the forest itself I’ve come to love. It’s also the people who live there. Especially the people who live there. Interested and interesting, genuinely concerned about their history and its preservation, willing to share their knowledge and their stories, and more than willing to work with us (and I wouldn’t have it any other way). They have enriched my life and my work in ways that cannot be measured.

But, aren’t there black flies there, you ask? How can you love working in a place lousy with black flies?

Oh, them. Well, that’s another story.

#BorealForest #RetiredArchaeologist #ArchaeologicalMemories #ChurchillRiver #NorthernManitoba #NorthernSaskatchewan #MargaretGHanna #NonFiction


I must have walked a million miles in my day. Well, maybe not quite a million, but certainly many, many miles.

Part of an archaeologist’s work is looking for sites, and often that means walking. Walking across fields, across pastures, across sandy blow-outs. Walking and looking. Walking and paying attention. It became so much a part of my being that even today, 15 years after retiring, I still look down at the ground when I’m walking.

Surveying like that was almost an exercise in meditation. Be aware of your destination. Be aware of your route. Set a slow but steady pace. And eyes down sweeping from side to side.

Pace. Pace. Pace. Eyes centre. Left. Centre. Right. Centre.

About 75% of the brain is set to recognize known shapes, sizes, colours, textures. But the other 25% has to be alert to the unknown, the unexpected, the “Hmm, I wonder what that is?” moment.

Pace. Pace. Pace. Eyes centre. Left. Centre. Right. Centre.

That rhythm stopped for only two reasons. One, I found something. Stop, pick it up, examine it. Is it anything? Yes? Then record, map, collect. No? Put it back.

Pace. Pace. Pace. Eyes centre. Left. Centre. Right. Centre.

The other reason to stop was simply for the joy of stopping. For the joy of seeing where I was. To breath the air. To stretch my eyes to the horizon (remember what I wrote about Saskatchewan’s horizon?). To listen to a Killdeer or a Meadowlark sing their hearts out, to watch a hawk fly overhead, to wait for a Mule Deer to decide if I presented a threat to her, to watch a coyote watching me with a wary eye as it loped across the hill top. To listen to the breeze. To watch the ripening grain ripple in the wind. To simply experience where I was. To realize how fortunate I was to be in that place at that time. To be.

Pace. Pace. Pace. Eyes centre. Left. Centre. Right. Centre.

I walked across a good part of Saskatchewan – farmers’ fields and pastures, the Missouri Couteau, the Qu’Appelle River valley – but no matter where or when, it was always the same.

Pace. Pace. Pace. Eyes centre. Left. Centre. Right. Centre.

And I still do it today.

#ArchaeologicalSurveying #Reconnaisance #Memories #Meditation #Contemplation #Walking #Awareness #NonFiction #MargaretGHanna

Fear Factor

Summer 1970 – my introduction to field archaeology. I had a newly minted B.A. degree in my hand and no practical experience, yet here I was, one of a crew of four (Gil, Bob, Don and me – yes, I was the only female), traveling around the province of Saskatchewan, testing and evaluating sites.

I saw more of the province that summer than I had seen in my previous twenty-three years growing up there. We traveled most of its length and breadth. We tromped through badlands and ravines, and across pastures and sand hills and cultivated fields; we threaded our way through forests and bush. We excavated at campsites and bison kill sites (at one, I fell into a deep looter’s hole and found myself up to my armpits in stinging nettles). We found sites worthy of further work and others that were nothing at all. We camped in farmers’ back yards, in abandoned buildings and sometimes even in real campsites. I learned the difference between real artifacts and rocks that only look like artifacts (sorry, sir, it’s not an artifact just because it “fits the hand real good.”).

We met marvelous people who invited us into their homes, who shared meals and stories and laughter with us. We met others who could most generously be described as “interesting.”

And I had to face down a long-standing fear.

We were walking across a pasture – probably looking for tipi rings – when Bob scurried off, zig-zagging through the grass. When he stood up, he held – a snake! A grass snake, he called it. Opheodrys vernalis, if you really want to know. Green as the grass it had been sliding through. The three guys admired it, thought it a beauty. Then Bob walked over to me and dangled the writhing snake in my face. “Want to hold it?”

Hold that image for a moment while I digress.

I hated snakes. They were icky. Slimy. Disgusting. In grade school, the boys took great delight in chasing us girls with any garter snake that made the mistake of slithering through the school yard. Of course, we ran away shrieking as only girls do when chased by boys wielding snakes. And now, here I was being asked to hold one? Yuck! No way!

But another thought screamed through my brain simultaneously. I had worked with these three guys long enough to know that, if I refused, if I did the “girly” thing and screamed, they would forever harass me with snakes. I’d find snakes in my tent. I’d find snakes in my sleeping bag. There would be no respite.

I took a deep breath, put on a brave face and held out my hand. “Sure.”

What a surprise! The snake wasn’t cold and slimy. It was warm and dry. Its strong muscles flexed as it twisted and turned. Its pretty green scales glinted in the summer sun. It was quite harmless. I decided snakes weren’t that icky. Or slimy. Or disgusting.

Grass snake
The innocent grass snake

Good thing I faced down that fear because the next summer we began excavations at a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post that was only a few miles south of a garter snake hibernaculum. But that’s a story for another time.

Why do we fear, or at least hate, snakes? There’s a term for it – ophidiophobia. Even Indiana Jones, every archaeologist’s hero, suffered from it. Yes, it’s wise to avoid those that are poisonous or constrictors, but the harmless ones? The garter snakes and green snakes? The bull snakes? The ones who are a threat only if you are a mouse or a rat or a gopher or a cricket?

Is it some primeval memory? Is it because they slither and slide rather than walk and stride? Because they hide in dark places? Because they remind us of dragons and other monsters? Because we – Christians, anyway – have been indoctrinated by the story of the evil, duplicitous serpent sweet-talking Eve into eating from the Forbidden Tree?

No one has a definitive answer but there seems to be concensus that it is hard-wired into our brains, in particular a region called the pulvinar. Researchers found that those neurons respond strongly to snake-like images. Children who have never seen a snake have the same neurological response as those who have seen snakes. Even our primate relatives have the same “Yikes! Danger!” response.

Perhaps it all relates back to our ancient primate ancestors of some 60 million years ago, a time when that ancestral population still lived in trees where, horror of horrors, snakes also lived. And hunted. For unwary ancestral primates.

Some people think snakes make the greatest pets – I’m not one of those. But neither do I fear snakes any longer. At least, not the harmless ones.

Thanks, Bob.

#Archaeology #Snakes #Ophidiophobia #Fear #OvercomingFear #RetiredArchaeologist #MargaretGHanna

Ha! Ha! Fooled Ya’!

Archaeologists must be masochists (I should know, I was an archaeologist in pre-retirement life). Who else would willingly work in out-of-the-way places with no amenities, in blazing heat or freezing cold, bend your body into unnatural positions so you won’t step on/sit on/kick some precious (you hope) artifact or feature, or get run off your site (or worse, out of camp) by wild animals.

Archaeological sites are notoriously unpredictable. Just when you think you know what’s happening, you find something weird or unexpected – which is just as likely the absence of something you expected – and you have to change your entire excavation (or survey) strategy on the spot. Archaeologists have to be constantly on their toes, even though they are usually on their knees, or bellies, digging (maybe even praying).

I’ve been the victim of the unexpected many times. Here are a couple:

Gotcha #1
La Loche, northwestern Saskatchewan. My colleague and I were surveying a new highway right-of-way just south of the village. It was easy work. The soil was sandy and there were almost no trees (in spite of being in the boreal forest), so all we had to do was walk the right-of-way and map and collect any artifacts we encountered. At first, we found nothing exciting, just flakes of the expected quartz, quartzite and silicified sandstone. But then, just when we were about to give up on the place, I found a couple of flakes of a white homogeneous, extremely fine-grained stone that I had never seen before. A couple more lay barely a metre beyond. And then more. I followed the trail, finding more and more flakes. I was puzzled. What could this stone material be?

And then, there it was, the mother lode. I laughed. I tossed away those mystifying flakes.

What lay before me was a broken white porcelain toilet. I had been collecting porcelain “flakes.” I called my colleague over and we both had a good laugh. I swear I heard the site laughing, too.

Gotcha #2
Chambery Coulee, southeast of Eastend, in southwestern Saskatchewan. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum (where I was a curator) was excavating “Scotty,” a Tyrannosaurus rex, in the bottom of the coulee. I joined them for a few days where I discovered that chiseling through rock is much harder than digging through dirt (and more painful because I constantly smacked my thumb with the hammer). So when they told me there were lots of tipi rings (stone circles) on the prairie level above the coulee, I dropped my hammer and chisel (avoiding my foot) and headed for the hills that rimmed the coulee.

I won’t bore you with the details of my mapping strategy, except the one that is essential to this story. I used a piece of orange flagging tape on a 6″ spike to mark each of the thousands of artifacts (mostly flakes, rarely tools) that lay inside and around the tipi rings. Once they were marked, I mapped them, removing each flag-tipped spike as I recorded what it marked.

It was one of those scorching hot prairie days. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. I was hot and tired. I desperately wanted to get back to camp, to wash, to have a beer, and to hear what the gang from the T. rex site had found. I packed the last of the spikes into my backpack and slung it onto my shoulder.

But wait! Way off there, a hundred of so meters away, was a speck of orange. Rats (or words to that effect)! I dropped my pack, dug out my notebook and pencil, and paced the distance to it.

I shook my head. I laughed. Fooled again! What sat at my feet was not a flag-tipped spike. No. It was a Scarlet Mallow, a wild flower native to the prairies. The flower was exactly the same colour as the flagging tape.

I walked back, picked up my pack and went back to camp. The crew had a good laugh. I’m sure the Scarlet Mallow had a good giggle, too.

#Archaeology #ExcavationTales #PorcelainToilet #ScarletMallow #SaskatchewanArchaeology #SurveyTales #MargaretGHanna


We had a close encounter of the skunk kind the other day. It had wandered into one of our squirrel traps. Long story short, we managed to release it but not without incident. We didn’t get sprayed, directly, but the odour still stuck to our clothes. They went into the washing machine, we went into the shower, and my husband’s old runners went into the garbage.

It brought to mind the summer of 1977 when I was directing excavations on an island not far from the Village of Duck Bay, just off the western shore of Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba.

The “Summer of the Skunks” began the day a crew member came running back from the outhouse shouting, “I just saw a skunk!”

We didn’t pay her much mind. After all, she was the one who firmly believed that moths have fangs and suck your blood. Seriously!

Her report was confirmed a couple of days later by a more reputable crew member. Soon we discovered there was not one, but an entire family of skunks co-habiting the island – Mom and Dad, four Teenagers, and the runt whom we named – wait for it – The Squirt! (Da-dum-dump!)

What to do? So far, we hadn’t been bothered. We decided to let well enough alone and see what happened.

We learned that the skunks were as wary of us as we were of them. The first time we met on one of our paths, both turned tail (hmmm, maybe not the best phrase given we are talking about skunks) and ran for the hills, not that there were any hills on the island but you get my drift.

Next, we discovered that, if we clapped our hands really loudly, the skunks would scurry off into the bush. The skunks quickly learned that the sound of clapping hands meant nothing at all so they stood their ground.

So did we.

Eventually, we could pass each other, very cautiously, without incident.

And so life continued. We dug the site. The skunks dug worms and grubs.

Skunks are very interesting creatures. They can’t see well and often blunder into things. We discovered that the morning I opened up the “office tent” to find two of the Teenagers inside. They scrambled back and forth along one wall, coming within inches of the open door, only to turn around and scramble back the way they’d just come. Only by chance, so it seemed, did they stumble into the doorway and run off.

The Squirt, cleaning up

They may not see well but they can smell! The Squirt came wandering through our cook tent one evening as we were eating supper and headed straight for the tub that held our yet-to-be-washed pots and pans. He did a good job of washing, not so good with the drying.

They’re definitely built for digging. Long claws on their forelimbs can rip open almost anything. They’re wedge-shaped – pointy at the nose and widening toward the rear.

When you’re stuck on an island, you learn to devise your own entertainment. One night, that entertainment took the form of Feeding the Family. We had cooked stew for supper and traces were left in the pot. We put the pot out on the ground and, in keeping with our sophisticated reputation, placed a wine bottle (empty, of course; no archaeologist worth his/her salt would waste booze) wrapped in a towel beside the bowl.

The Teenagers were the first to arrive. They encircled the pot and began to lick it clean. Along came The Squirt who tried to nose his way into the tight circle. The Teenagers were having none of it. The fight for a bite of tasty stew intensified. The tails began to rise. The Squirt never did manage to get his share of the stew.

But we were well entertained. And not sprayed.

The only incident happened the day some kids came over from Duck Bay with their dog and ran up into the bush before we could warn them about the skunks. Two seconds later, we heard a bark and then a yelp and the dog came ky-ying back with the kids not far behind. “Lady, there’s skunks on the island!” they yelled.


RIP, egg noodles!

Oh, there was one other incident. The Teenagers broke into our food tent one night. We heard the ruckus but no one was about to go and break it up. In the morning we surveyed the damage. Amongst the shambles, we saw well-munched packages of Baker’s Chocolate and completely untouched packages of egg noodles.

Those egg noodles remained untouched until the day we backfilled the excavated units. We dumped every package into one of the units.

When we returned the following summer, that unit had the tallest, lushest growth of weeds on the entire island!

And the skunks were gone.

(P.S. Three days later, there still remains a faint but distinctive Eau du Pepe Le Peu in our garden.)

#Skunks #MephitisMephitis #Archaeology #Manitoba #DuckBay #LakeWinnipegosis #AschkibokahnFbMb1 #MargaretGHanna #NonFiction #Humour #ArchaeologicalAdventures #WildlifeEncounters