Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How I spent my summer vacation: BEARPEX 2007

I spent August and September and the beginning of October at summer camp. Unfortunately, there was no archery or canoeing (though I did make it swimming to the lake twice. and to the waterfalls once. after the temperature nosedived from 30C to 15C, so no swimming. but at least i got there). There were, however, woodstoves (useful in the houses). Hard manual labour. Hard intellectual labour. No (well, poor, so more or less the same thing) internet connections or cell phone service, so no letters home. And we even had prisoners walking around the place (no really. the department of corrections lets them work at the Research Station. slightly disconcerting to wake up at 7am to ten prisoners outside your cabin in orange jumpsuits wielding chainsaws. but don't worry. there's an unarmed guard with them.)

Suffice it say that I spent nine weeks at Blodgett Forest and barely had time to breathe - let alone cook, check email or write a blog. It's taken me about a week of cultural readjustment to blend back in with normal people, and I don't think I'll ever be quite the same. But I do have internet access again, and far too many stories to tell.

And I am left with one post to summarize the highlights of an unbelievably intense time period. The science was interesting, the equipment was temperamental, the logistics were a nightmare, the sleep was minimal and the people were fabulous. For example, Glenn became the self-appointed Social Coordinator and sent out emails with subject headings like "I need a date and after 4 weeks in the woods, you're starting to look cute". Jessica provided tablecloths and christmas lights for our impromptu barbeques. Not that there wasn't friction - put 20 scientists in the woods with not enough power and no connection with the outside world, and you get an interesting sociological experiment...

Movie night was one of the more entertaining aspects: the first evening, we dropped sheets off the balcony of the main house, sat in the parking lot (several boys sat in lawn chairs in the back of the pickup truck), and watched The Beatle's Yellow Submarine. What a trippy movie! Very entertaining. Due to the decrease in temperatures, subsequent movie nights were moved inside: they included drinking with the dude: The Big Lebowski, that is. Dave was hung over for days after that one. And Jessica and Ellie made liquid nitrogen ice cream (yes, science really is fun). My favourites: Casino Royale and Blades of Glory. Both brilliant, in their own way. Daniel Craig, a rather dark and tortured James Bond, but with the expected quirky sense of humour. Will Ferrel - a completely ridiculous, over the top figure skater that one can't help but love. Or at least laugh at. Sort of ashamed that one is laughing, but you just can't help it, nonetheless.

We renamed all the cabins after Hogwarts houses: the girls ended up with Slytherin. Because we're cunning and ambitious and evil like that.

And all in all, despite the nightmare of the first few weeks (I did not appoint myself the 'competent person', but somehow got defaulted to Site Manager. Never again. In fact, I am blocking out that time period out of my head.), the struggles learning how a very complicated instrument works in the field, and the exhaustion of far too many 12 and 15 hour days, I left with the strange feeling that summer camp was over. When you're stuck out in an isolated spot (with no phone and poor internet acccess - stupid trees getting in the way of the satellites), you have to adapt. As a group, we (or at least a vocal sub-set of us) became a little more relaxed. We lost those filters that stop one from saying rather uncouth or blunt statements - as one postdoc put it, what everyone else is thinking, but has the self-restraint to not actually say. We made jokes about everything, and innuendos about absolutely anything we could think of. On my last night, a small group of us went bowling at the local (read, 45min drive) town. It wasn't about how well (or, more accurately, how unbelievably poorly) we did. It was about being mocked for my poor granny-style of bowling, for everyone cheering when I got a strike, and for finding something to laugh about. And that warm, fuzzy feeling I got when people actually got out of their cabins the next morning and came over in the snow (yes, the snow. in October.) to say goodbye. Thanks, guys. I'll miss you. Though I won't miss spending every night working on computer code. Or the Friday nights spent calibrating the instrument.

But the exhaustion is beginning to subside and it's time to look at the terabytes of data and try to find my way around 'home' - where I've been gone so long I don't even remember my zip code, and the temperature has dropped in the crisp fall air reminding me that summer is over and it's time to go back to school...

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