Alternative Living

Sometimes I consider how my life would be different if I had chosen another major or interest in life to pursue. I am very happy with my choice, but occasionally my mind drifts toward other occupations that could be interesting for short periods of time. Below, I list some jobs I’d try out (ignoring consequences to career or life) if I had to choose something besides science. (more…)


After several years of making fun of them, I am a little sheepish about the fact that I am starting to come around to what the polyamory people have always espoused, though, I think, for different reasons.

Our society is losing connection between people, and has been for a long time. I don’t mean this new ‘interconnectivity’ bullshit given to us by texting and i.m. I mean a legitimate emotional connection between individuals. I think an increase in sex and non-possessive relationships would help that, but we would have to change our motivations and the way we view sex. (more…)

I walked into lab yesterday morning and noticed the clocks were set back an hour.  Could it be true?  Did I just gain an extra hour to use productively in the day?  I’ve been out of the loop in terms of current events and never actually pay attention to when exactly “falling back” is.  Usually, there’s no great consequence to be an hour early to something rather than an hour late.  Generally, I trust the lab clocks since they’re all synchronized and my university is pretty responsible about these matters.  However, when I started up my computer, the times didn’t match.  My sleek and reliable Mac reported the old time. I was slightly disappointed, but didn’t care enough to research which was telling the truth.  Later on, my mother (the ultimate source on the subject) told me the clocks change next weekend.  Where am I going with this seemingly mundane tidbit?  (more…)

This weekend, I drove about three and half hours upstate to the “Cry of the Loon” lodge, for the annual Creative Writing department September retreat (and, this is the second to last retreat EVAH, which is sad). The cabins were right on the lake: i.e., the lake was mere steps away, unlike my family’s cabin in Canada, where the lake is located down a perilous slope. Minnesota is, famously, the land of a thousand lakes (more…)

I have come to the righteous conclusion that rainforest suck.

They are valuable, perhaps even crucial to the continued existence of life as we know it. They are home to an unparalleled diversity of species. They host a wealth of medicinal plants that modern science is only now beginning to learn. They house countless cultures, some of which stand the peoples least affected by globalization.

And they suck.


As the name implies, there is the constant rain to deal with; you become soaked almost immediately, regardless of protection or the amount of current precipitation. What is not soggy from sky, vegetation, or sweat quickly becomes musty and damp from the humidity.

Vegetation is so think that travel must be accomplished either on trails or on waterways, the latter by boat or by wading. Firstly, no matter what anybody says about macheteing a trail out of dense forest, it’s a bitch. Secondly, due to the nature of rainforest, any trail you do succeed in clearing turns instantly to a long, narrow mudhole, and is then soon recolonized by vegetation unless steady traffic or maintenance beats it back.

Boats typically work well, if you have one. Most visitors are lucky to have a raft or canoe, which are fine for dinking around, but are less than ideal for daily work. Oh, and ‘typically’ does not apply to the twisting, rocky rivers of B.C., because you can’t get a boat through boulder rapids in four inches of water. But that’s why you brought chest waders! Because you really enjoy twisting your ankles on unseen and uneven stones and salmon carcasses, trying to avoid grizzlies in the one place they are sure to be found and where they are also unable to hear or smell you, walking kilometres at a stretch against flood currents, every day. Except it’s not every day, because the river floods when it rains and you can’t get to your study sites anyway.

Speaking of not being able to reach the study sites, why am I here again?          

I write now from the coast of British Columbia, in the midst of the Great Bear Rainforest. I am sitting on a couch with a cup of coffee at my elbow and the smell of fresh-baked cookies in the air. To say that I am roughing it would be something of an exaggeration. In my defence, however, I will add that this is my first day off in two weeks, and the first in the same period where I have not paddled and dragged a canoe through ten kilometres of estuarial river. While the smell of chocolate oatmeal cookies (yes, I bake) is certainly a pleasant one, I can assure you that the rotting carcasses of hundreds of pink and dog salmon is less than enjoyable.

            I am currently employed by Round River Conservation Studies on behalf of the Heilsuk First Nation and the land they control. Myself and two others (and I use that number loosely) are collecting data on grizzly bears and salmon in this, the Kvai, watershed. [Note: while the river appears as ‘Koeye’ on the maps, the Heilsuk spell it ‘Kvai’ and pronounce it ‘Quay.’ We defer to the Heilsuk.] The data we gather will be added to years of research in forming a Conservation Area Design, which the Heilsuk will refer to when making decisions affecting land use and wildlife policy. Distillation: we field biologists slog through the rivers and forests, counting fish and collecting bear hair off barbed-wire snares.

            The Kvai is special for a number of reasons. The Heilsuk have used this watershed for thousands of years, both as a source of food and materials, but also living on its banks in many temporary camps and villages. Four species of salmon (no Chinook) still run this river in good numbers, though are much affected by sport and commercial fishing in the area. The mouth of the Kvai forms a small protected bay, which supports a variety of marine life that tend to be quite scarce in this area. It is also one of the few watersheds in all of coastal B.C. that has never been logged. Though we can look out the window of this lodge and see cruise ships plowing through the Inside Passage, the low mountains around us are still dense with giant spruce, fir, hemlock, and ceder, the undergrowth so thick as to be nearly impenetrable without sweaty hours of machete work. For us, travel is restricted to the waterways, the few blazed trails, and a few meters up along the banks.

            So why am I sitting in comparative luxury? The Heilsuk bought a lodge that had been used to house fishermen-tourists back in the day. Now it is used primarily for a summer camp for tribal children, but is also rented out for events ranging from company retreats to weddings. We are based out of the lodge because most of our work is on the lower river and is accessible by canoe and one main trail. We have some sites at Koeye Lake, about fifteen kilometres inland from here, and we camp on the shore while we are there.

            Given that the only power we have here is from a small generator, I will cut this post here and give further updates as warranted and possible.  


To you all out there, stay warm and dry, and don’t get eaten by bears.

Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, prepare yourselves for a world you have scarcely seen before! A world of punishing hardship and unimaginable beauty. A world as dangerous as your nightmares and as nurturing as a mother’s breast. A world that will haunt your dreams long after it is gone.

Yeah. I’m talking about the outdoors.

A month ago I quit my job as a carpenter and went forth into the hills in search of wild morel mushrooms (Morchella conica) to gather and sell. Conicas grow best in last year’s forest fires, so I spent three weeks dragging myself up and down a mountain in northern Oregon, climbing over and falling on burned out fir trees. I slept in a small tent hidden in an unburned section of forest (the Forest Service might have some things to say about these activities), drank stream water, and ate out of a cooler I hauled in with me every week. I carried mushrooms in buckets and backpacks, stored them on tarps and window screens (to aid the drying process), and eventually ran them all through a dehydrator when I returned to town.

Why would anyone volunteer to do this instead a good ol’ honest job, you ask? Consider this: In three days of work I could make half again as much as I was making in five days as a carpenter; I had no boss, no schedule, and virtually no expenses; at night I could listen to coyotes howling, and find deer, elk, and bobcat tracks every morning. Here’s the kicker: there are thousands of people doing this right now.

I was working a small fire. No more than a couple hundred acres. The mushroom-buying companies (mostly high-quality, natural food wholesalers) hadn’t really bothered to track this fire, which means that they hadn’t been telling any pickers to go there, nor did they send buyers. The only way people were finding this fire was by seeing it from the road (a two-lane state highway) or by word of mouth. And there were still dozens of people showing up to pick. A big fire, say, three thousand acres, might have three to five thousand pickers on it when the morels really start coming up.

If you go to the grocery store and buy dried morels (you can almost never find them fresh), you’ll pay something in the neighborhood of twelve dollars an ounce. Odds are good that those were wild morels, picked either in the American Northwest or somewhere around the Himalayas. Companies dealing in morels send buyers to the firesites where the morels are currently growing. Buyers will buy from whoever shows up, paying a fluctuating market price that is likely to be six to eight dollars per fresh pound, cash. On a good fire, a buyer might buy more than a thousand pounds in a day, which then has to be trucked back to whatever city their company is located in for processing, to be then sold either fresh or dry.

Some pickers may be locals who just happen to have some time off, but most are pros. They travel from fire to fire as each comes into season, gradually moving further north and further up in elevation as the season progresses. Many are immigrants, both legal and illegal, but there are plenty who aren’t. Some can’t get normal jobs, but most just like hiking the hills and camping out better. When the morel season is done, there are always other mushroom varieties or other crops to pick. Sort of like migrant workers, but less organized and better paid.

Something to think about the next time you’re banging your forehead off your computer monitor at work.