CAPE BRETON FIELD SCHOOL - WHERE ONLY THE TOUGH SURVIVE AND BOOTS GO TO DIE
What follows is a story of men and women overcoming great adversity in the face of mother-nature, bagpipers, soft legs, and the want of sleep. These are the actual accounts of real individuals in real situations.
I had only arrived in Canada from the U.S. less than a week before, and there I was in Cape Breton Island standing between a Gaelic speaking Scot (Dr. Rob Raeside) and a Spanish/Swedish/English ex-engineer (José Texidor-Carlsson). This I'm afraid is not the opening line of a bar joke, but the opening line of my account of adventures at field school. Don't get me wrong field school was more fun than half price spaghetti night at Joe's, but many of the scars (mostly physical) are just now healing.
Each day we would go out into the wilds of Cape Breton Island in small groups and pairs to ponder, hammer, and spite the wonderful rocks within our designated field areas. It was perhaps after the 5th, or 6th day that Jose and I happened to notice each others legs. Jose had large circular blotches of dried blood along the shins and I had long gashes down the shins, calves, and ankles. The state of our legs was a badge of our determination and fortitude. It showed how fearlessly we would dash through the underbrush with no concern for the periodic falls due to an obscured log or cliff. Each subsequent night the bare legs would be shown to the group as evidence of the great achievements and mishaps of the day.
I had been told by my advisor a couple months prior that field school would be a great way to introduce me to the department as a new graduate student. Little did I know that my introduction to the group would include baring my pasty white beaten and bruised legs.
I hail from the metropolis of Middleton found nestled in the heart of the Annapolis Valley. This I would have assumed would prepare me for what lay ahead of the brave souls who dared to embark on the Acadia Senior Field School. Little did I know that I would be paired up with the unknown El Americano (aka Gabe Nelson).
Our first big challenge came a few days into the journey as we tried to scale a waterfall which to my eyes looked impassable. Captain America thought this would be a good time to tell me that he was an avid climber and that he and I were going over the top. Struggling as I went I managed to make it to the top with my last breath of life before being swept away by the roaring river. It was a mere 5 minutes after this obstacle that I decided to locate ourselves on the map by means of GPS while Mountain Nelson went to check out the geology of the brook meters below our position. As Gabe descended into the unknown through the thick brush it seemed that only seconds had swept by before I heard the huffing, puffing, and branches breaking coming from behind me. I jumped to my feet replaying horror stories of rabid moose in my head as I clenched the Normark holstered on my belt. Luckily for me the moose turned out to be Gabe "The Woodsman" Nelson coming 180˚ from the direction that he had descended and my heart sunk back into my chest.
Near the end of our journey a few days later we found ourselves on the wrong path which added an hour to our trip. Needless to say we were running up the mountain that day. However it was not until all of the science had been completed that we had to make our way down the last waterfall of the day. Piece of cake as I saw Nelson make it to the bottom of the towering landscape with ease. It must have been because I was carrying the map at the time that I lost my footing and came crashing down on to the hard rocks in the pool below with a laughing Nelson grabbing for his camera, hoping to get the perfect shot to put on the geology website before I was back on solid ground. After checking to see that I was intact we continued out of the jungle and back to civilization where we met with our friend Alexander Keith which made all of the troubles and worries subside.
Ryan Toole fording the magnificent North River.
Having an interesting background and faced the dangers of dragons and goblins in field school in northern England, followed by a field school in Antigonish under the watchful eyes of Dr. Raeside and Dr. McMullin, I decided I was ready to face senior field school at Acadia. After all, how bad could it be? Surely no worse than summer in New Brunswick collecting a myriad of insect bites and interesting tree-stump-induced bruises? My partner for the adventure was Ben Stormont from Maine. I knew he was ready for the trip when he turned up with a flask full of coffee, plenty of cigarettes and chewing tobacco; my stimulant intake was limited to black tea, but I thought that would suffice...
The first day on the field was like a walk in the park, with regular stream crossing and stream hiking, seemingly along the deepest portion where the current would not take you. Quite frankly, we thought our experienced field leader for the day would know better. Not surprisingly, the quality and quantity of information to be taken that day left its mark, somewhere other than hieroglyphs on my notebook and some vague memories.
As the days passed, I realized that my stimulant intake was not adequate, and I made the switch to black coffee in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings, with black tea intervals. The quality of sleep must have been pretty good, for my moderate caffeine intake still allowed me to sleep a few hours every night. I did not even hear the ghost piper reputed to annoy people by playing the bagpipes in the early hours.
Field school certainly has left a lasting impression on me. Besides the widespread scarring on my shins, the hills were magnificent and adequate for climbing on rainy days, the rivers were alive and perfumed my room every night with their memories, the rocks were records of the past and unwilling to part with cherished fragments, and the evenings were spent in contemplation of the memories of that day, often until the early hours of the morning. Of course, we also left our impression on the hills, as blood, sweat and tears, and words that shall never be repeated again.
It was extremely rewarding to see that all the hard work and willingness to excel in Cape Breton bore fruit, for upon return to Wolfville I was ready to make my map again and write most of my report again so that I could elevate my work to near perfection. I certainly learned a lot from that experience.
Dr. Raeside's point of view:
It has been 20 years now since Sandra Barr and I realized the suitability of the southeastern Highlands of Cape Breton Island for a senior field school. And what fun it has turned out to be! Never a year goes by when we don't get yet another interpretation of the geology of that area. I wonder if we will ever get it right? However we also have innumerable memories of students who came to recognize the skills they had been growing for the past three years would indeed serve them well in "the real world". I can't record what those Aha! moments were in case future students start to google the answers, but I am sure the many students (over 100 of you now) who have "survived" the experience remember them too.
Speaking of survival, the comments above may sound like the effort to complete this school is truly superhuman. However, I expect you will recognize the literary exaggeration employed to scare or dare the next year's students into doing the course! Next year's class: remember Dr. Barr and I will be there too, so it can't be all that bad (even if the waterfalls seem to get higher every year)!
One of the biggest frustrations of this field school (and very obvious from the comments here by Gabe, Ryan and José) is its intensity. Every year, in our course evaluations of the school, we get the comment to take an extra day to do it. However, an extra day means another $60 per person, and already we see some students who are simply unable to do the field school because of the expense. The department and the Development Office have set up a webpage where you can find out more about the experience, and of the opportunities you as alumni or alumnae have to assist future generations of students to realize their potential.