Thursday, July 26, 2012


Field Working Through the Corners

Working "in the field" or going on work trips makes up about 40 percent of the work I’ve done at my current job. The other 60 percent is generally spent sitting at a desk writing technical reports and emailing clients with occasional breaks when I read articles on websites and never comment on them. While I appreciate the variety of work, I prefer being in the field, especially a type of field work that involves monitoring the noise levels generated underwater during a particularly loud-ass construction method: pile driving.

I had no clue what this meant when I was starting out at our company. Turns out, building bridges can be complicated, and one way they do it is by banging huge cylindrical steel pipes (piles) into the ground to make sure things stays put. Driving these piles deep into the bedrock makes a lot of noise in some fairly sensitive and stunning environments, and the company I work for gets contracted to be “hydroacoustic monitors,” basically ensuring that the construction doesn’t make too much noise that would harm nearby wildlife, e.g., fish and marine mammals. A pile-driving job, for me, means getting out to a construction site at a time when I’m usually dreaming hard, and getting in position with equipment running properly before a construction crew starts literally hammering away. Just getting to a particular jobsite without wasting time can require some navigational skills and can cause some stress, but hanging out in nature-escape places I’ve never been to before and getting paid for it is nothing to complain about.

One job I worked on was a bridge replacement project spanning a river 10 miles north of Fort Bragg, California. Thus the name: Ten Mile River Bridge. I traveled to work for this job a number of times, and have broken down the getting-there into four portions:

Drive the ’98 Saab 900 I own from my apartment in Oakland to the office (a converted bungalow house) of the company I work for in Petaluma, California. This commute is committed to memory and a source of frustration in my life, despite how easy it is on the eyes. Approaching Petaluma, the grass-covered and cow-speckled hills are green in the spring and fade to gold as they dry out. Once in town proper, find a decent place to stay parked for a week. This is not difficult compared to parking in certain neighborhoods in certain cities at certain times when I have been on the verge of both tears and misdirected violence, but it’s something to consider.

Pack a bunch of equipment into the company car (‘93 Subaru Outback) and rig up a trailer to tow with two kayaks and a pontoon boat tethered to it. Check that I have everything. Double-check that I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m not being redundant to be funny. This is a crucial step because forgetting things sucks, especially when those things are technical equipment that cannot be purchased at a local drugstore. Think about stopping for coffee. Now that it’s in my mind I will find a cold-brewed iced coffee or I will cry trying. The first shop I stop at only has the hot stuff so I say thanks and leave without getting anything, which I’m totally fine with in this case. I really love good hot coffee, just not at this time because I’m hell-bent. I find a good strong iced-coffee at another place before merging onto Highway 101 North. The merge happens slower than I like, because someone driving a cream colored 1960s VW van in decent condition has managed to get ahead of me on the on-ramp. Driving north out of Petaluma, I pass through the towns Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and Windsor. This is wine country; even Nicolas Cage’s uncle Francis Ford Coppola has a winery here. It's a pretty area but I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead.

The next leg should be a fun drive for most drivers. I realize that consistency is a good rule to follow, but I'm adamant about describing the next particular stretch of road in a commanding, somewhat instructional way, and therefore we're driving right into the second person point-of-view.

Driving the Anderson Valley Highway (SR-128) from Highway 101 to Shoreline Highway 1 (CA1), you pass through numerous quaint towns ideal for witness protection relocation. This part of America is scenic and the route is quite varied, with sharp curves, straight-aways, and an array of contorted trees as you split hillsides, all book-ended with jaunts through woods. It is impressive. However splendid the journey, it is still annoying to get stuck behind a delivery truck or leisurely driver. Yes, looking at pretty things is nice (just agree), but you can perform the additional and more thrilling act of testing a vehicle’s handling here. Actually the beauty of the landscape is not compromised by quickly cutting through the narrow valley, provided there’s sunlight. You don’t have to be training for Formula-1 to enjoy the speed allowed by roads that forgivingly hug your tires. This should be within your comfort zone of traffic safety. Some slowpokes will pull out for you but that’s only if you’re lucky.

The largest of the small towns along this stretch of the State Route used to be called The Corners but is now called Boonville (population just over one thousand). Don’t pretend to know it intimately, but feel free to stop for food, gas, cigarettes, and road-trip beverages. This town is your acquaintance. Anderson Valley Brewing Company is located here, as you might know from drinking their beers and reading their labels, which feature a large bear with antlers. Despite the lure of the brewery, it’s probably not a great idea since you’re passing through on a work trip and there’s a significant drive ahead before reaching Fort Bragg. They’re probably not open right now anyway. Not the case? Then go for it and stop for a couple cold ones if you want, who’s stopping you? Be your own maker.

Another notable aspect of Boonville is that the locals invented their own “folk” language called Boontling sometime in the late 1800s. Phrases such as “Rudy nebs” (pristine, mineral rich, well water) and “Bahl Hornin” (good drinking) are some favorites. The wiki page for this oddball (dare you to call it hillbilly) language is fascinating.

You should get gasoline in Boonville if you’re below a quarter-tank. Although it’s only about 30 miles to the coast from town, gas stations are sparse out this way, and it just seems like a logical place to stop. Heading northwest out of town there’s a nice straightaway where you don’t suspect any cops with radar guns looming, so you can punch it. Farther ahead are more curves and switchbacks, and then the village and redwood grove called Navarro pops up. All of a sudden there are huge tree trunks inches from the pavement, and a few cause the road to buckle upward in little lumps you might want to avoid. It’s not like you’ll spiral-flip your vehicle if you hit one, but that’s what you imagine, which, how fun would that be — if you did just one mid-air roll and landed it? As you approach Coastal Highway 1, you round a corner and it feels like you’re being spit out of the woods and right into the Pacific Ocean. From here you can veer either northbound or southbound.

Since I have a precise destination and this is not a ‘choose your own adventure’ let's switch back to first-person point-of-view. I’m heading north, winding up a seaside cliff. The town of Mendocino, in all its gorgeous hippie glory, seems intentionally removed from the main roadway. It is quite a looker of a town, perched atop a large ocean cliff jutting out like the land was hoping for a bunch of animals (human or otherwise) to gather there and hang out for a while. There is what can be called a downtown, because there are a dozen or so building façades all in a row, all town-like. But I must move on to harder working towns, oh Fort Bragg you’re so hard working.

Some people are good looking and they don’t have to work very hard, while some people are hard working and they don’t have to look very good. You can also categorically generalize towns in this same manner. Although the west coast’s Fort Bragg is nothing to sneeze at, looks-wise, it’s not going for the enchanting or charming aesthetics that County namesake Mendocino has going for it. I hope I’m not slighting Fort Bragg here, because sheesh, this whole area has many attractions, I just get the impression that this town let itself develop according to human needs and sprawled somewhat naturally instead of limiting itself. The streets are planned in a grid according to cardinal directions, which I truly appreciate, having lived in Chicago. (I am fairly confident in the accuracy of this.)

Regardless, Fort Bragg is a town with much to offer, including a hotel I need to stay at and a variety of restaurants/bars I want to frequent. I will play Rick Steves’ domestic correspondent and feature two such businesses: North Coast Brewing Company and Piaci Pub & Pizzeria. The former being a somewhat well-known brewery with good food and better beer (I’m looking at you Old Rasputin), the latter being a smaller place with surprisingly good pizza, and which I never want to leave. After a couple strong brews I strike up a conversation (go figure) with a dude who lived in the neighborhood of Rogers’ Park in Chicago at the same time as I did, and it turns out we both went to open-mic nights at Heartland Café, probably had some drunken exchanges years ago, and we wow ourselves over the odds of our meeting. Shouldn’t we all go ape-shit when these things come up? We want to play it cool and act like we’ve been there before, but do small-world stories ever get old? Probably to some, but I tend to think that the more weird coincidences keep happening, the harder it is to stay disgruntled or jaded. Say “SMALL WORLD, HUH?” with pride, because that means you talk to people and you get along and live in places to be proud of, mostly. Camaraderie. This digression makes total sense, so go to sleep in a Fort Bragg hotel room already.

I wake up way too early, there’s no snooze button-hitting this time. I meet my coworker in the lobby, and we pile in the old Subaru after making sure the boats are secure in the pre-dawn light. We drive north out of town, and 10 miles later we duck off Highway 1 onto a dirt road. Idling our way down the side of a cliff, we approach the construction site, where a safety meeting is just under way. We don’t have to attend because our safety meeting is an unspoken “don’t get hurt." So we roll past the construction crew with a nod. These dudes aren’t thrilled with our presence, because who are we to possibly say they have to stop doing their job because they’re being too loud trying to do their job? Noise nerds, that’s who. I should make a superhero costume (no I shouldn’t). Depending on the type of animals living near a project, we use different noise metric thresholds (that have been set by an agency). Hopefully before noise gets too close to a threshold we let a foreman or some boss know. We don’t make the rules, we just monitor and then later chart up and analyze the data — basically observe and report. In that way we’re not exactly noise police, but we are expected to tattle. Usually the construction crews warm up to us a little, but not before a cold shoulder treatment. Admittedly we can be pesky, always asking what they’re planning on doing and when.

So they’re building a temporary trestle, which is basically a wooden platform for the crane to work from while they demolish the old bridge that’s already been replaced. The trestle is built in segments, and currently one segment is hanging about 20 feet out over the water. They will drive piles into the sediment for the next segment, and we need to set up three noise-monitoring stations in the water: two farther from the action (upstream and downstream) and one closer in. Thus the boats: one is a little inflatable pontoon-style thing that I tie to a kayak that, in turn, is tied to another kayak. I get in the lead kayak and trail the others to the downstream location and set an anchored buoy, so pontoon and expensive equipment perched on the seat don’t float down river and out into the ocean. The ocean is visible from the project site, just beyond the sand dunes adjacent to the riverbank. There are tons of snazzy birds coming and going and chilling around these parts including egrets, Great Blue Herons (my mom absolutely loves seeing a GBH), and those mystical lingering dinosaurs called pelicans.

The sun has risen now above a hilltop pine tree horizon opposite the ocean-side horizon. Fog is burning off the lower atmosphere to reveal a pink-orange-blue sky. I finish setting up the equipment, which includes placing a hydrophone at a certain depth in the water and starting a sound level meter. I make sure ambient levels are in an expected range, and then I start to paddle over to the upstream location. This is the part I can’t complain about at all. Not only is it serene and calming and something I usually would not get to do, let alone make money doing, but OH LOOK a fucking seal has decided to surface 20 yards from me to check me out. “Hey little buddy” in a hushed, high pitch voice is almost impossible for me to avoid saying. He or she looks at me with those huge black eyes and ducks back under, unimpressed. So I go about my business and set up the other kayak with equipment running just like the other monitoring system and then start to cruise without urgency toward shore. After a few paddles, I notice some movement along the surface of the water maybe 50 yards away. It’s converging with the path I’m on and I slow down. As the shimmering approaches I recognize that it is an entire family of otters! I don’t know if they’re sea otters or river otters, because water toward the mouth of the river is quite brackish and I’m not a biologist. They get within 15 feet and I’m surprised they’re not scared under by me, no, they continue playfully swimming all leisurely. One is obviously a parent and there are two littler ones. Geez they are cute.

Usually I try to avoid being cheesy and/or using clichés, but at a moment like this I can’t help thinking phrases like, “Well if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,” “hard work pays off,” and “early bird gets the worm." If this early-bird hard work isn’t nice, I don’t know if it pays to get the worm off the hook. Wait, that’s silly. But it does make me think about how I usually stay up late and sleep as late as possible. There’s a backlog of so many early morning daylight hours that I’ve slept through when there were families of otters and curious stone-faced seals to hang out with. I guess I’m more of a “night time is the right time” as opposed to a “nothing good happens after midnight” type of person. You can’t force a night owl to be an early bird, except sometimes you can? I mean night owls can catch some pretty great early-bird specials if the job calls for it. This digression cuts some corners as a means to an end.


Jordan Lennon Roberts is a staff consultant at Illingworth & Rodkin, Inc. He plays unprofessional baseball for The Oakland Beers and gets nerdy over all things audible.

21 Comments / Post A Comment


I LOVE Ft. Bragg and that whole area of the North Coast. also I want this job.


This makes me so happy@y


I have driven those roads, and MAN! you are correct.

Also, I think I got gas in Boonville, and it was the first time I had to actually lift the handle on the pump to make it go? I was totally baffled for a few minutes.




@liverwortlaura also, sounds like a dope job!


This is what I want my job to be 24/7. I get like one or two weeks a year where I do something like this (though my measurements are taken inside of a small shack on top of a hill not on a pretty lake) I'll be headed up to Maine in a few weeks to drive about the countryside, good stuff.


this just made me all happy and nostalgic for the terrain of my childhood. hurray northern CA!


@TheDangQuesadilluh Yes! Me too! I live in SoCal now and my roommate and I have a longstanding argument about how it's not "PCH," it's "Highway 1." Glad to see the correct usage here.

This also reminded me of being depressed, unemployed, and broke, and going on long carrides through this country with my dad every Wednesday morning listening to books on tape. I wasn't very happy at the time, but those are some good memories.


I love Fort Bragg! We played them in high school sports though and that is a 5 hour bus ride that I do not miss.

Reginal T. Squirge

This sounds like the coolest job ever.


Boonville! Such a strange place. I had friends that lived there for a time and it was where I learned that pot actually grows into tree sized plants. Their neighbors had 10 or so plants maybe 8 feet tall. The neighbors past that had a veritable forest, even taller than their house.
All clearly visible from the main road.

you're a kitty!

Um, I grew up in Fort Bragg, and before that in one of the general-store-and-a-post-office villages about an hour between Mendocino and Ukiah. My mom used to drive me out to Boonville for horseback riding lessons, and then a decade later I learned to drive on those crazy logging roads.

If you're still out there (or if anyone is visiting), Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino is pretty nice, they used to have a cat—maybe they still do?

In Boonville, stop at Boont Berry Farm Store, which according to Google still exists, and see if they still have the world's best cheesecake. I used to love it, just about twenty years ago.



@you're a kitty! I wonder if I know you! I grew up in Mendocino in what is probably the same era. I was also so into the oatmeal cookies from Boont Berry Farm (which we usually got at Corners of the Mouth.)

Oh, the North Coast!


Stone-faced seals! Mystical lingering dinosaurs called pelicans! Thanks. California is big, and I'm more toward the middle of its coast, but this made me glad of where I call home.


Yes. Environmental consulting on the hairpin. My variety of standing on construction sites usually involves watching someone dig a hole, hoping to god that I don't see half a tiger salamander coming out of the ground. Now every time I pass a construction crew on the side of a highway in California I look around for the biological monitor (usually, a deeply bored looking young person with binoculars and a clip board). They're almost always there, looking kind of dejected and tired.

Oh, and for biologists getting along with construction crews: ask them about fishing and duck hunting. Duck hunters are just bird nerds with guns.


@foxbat91 Didn't really think I'd see this sort of piece here either. I do the same thing to re: construction sites - so bored, oh so bored. But there are some really great areas that I never would have seen otherwise.


@blueberry "Hurry up and wait."


@foxbat91 Wow, lot of environmental working folks on here! I've done a bit of environmental monitoring, and I mostly do environmental consulting for big resource companies. What is with the shitty behaviour towards the environmental folk? A coworker and I were just bitching about it when we weren't able to get a helicopter until 10:30 because it was being used to move garbage around. They do know they're paying us to be there, right?!


@blueberry A couple weeks ago I listened to an entire game of thrones book on tape in one earbud while monitoring.


@MilesofMountains But you did get to fly in a helicopter. That's pretty cool. On another note, your userpic is from Land of the Lost (starring Will Farrell) right? I tell people I love that movie and they look at me like I have banana slugs coming out of my ears.

Murphy is never very far from construction projects. Stuff breaks, things don't go according to plan, and then us environmental monitors are last on the list of people to call (or forget to call). We just bill our time and say to ourselves, "It is what it is." CATCHPHRASES!


ahhhhhhhh California grey pelicans! I just love those mad prehistoric-looking birdies. When I worked in Oakland, my office had a window that looked out on Lake Merritt, and I was continually having to draw the blinds because otherwise I would lose hours just watching the pelicans glide and swoop and glide and swoop AND THEN BOOM, DIVE-BOMB INTO LAKE MERRITT.

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