Man Camps in May: Some More Observations

This past week I spent a few days scouting in the Bakken in advance of the North Dakota Man Camp Project’s first field season of the summer at the end of the month. He will be going out to the Bakken to administer a survey on behalf of another agency. This agency asked that we administer the survey on the basis of our camp typology and was open to adding some questions to the survey to help with our research. (For the uninitiated, we argue that there are three types of camps, cleverly named Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3).

We hope to also do some interviews, and Kyle Cassidy will once again join the team to do some more photography of the characters and landscapes of the Bakken. This is a bit nerve wracking for me because I’ll be in Cyprus while Bret is heading up our research team, but I think we’re on the same page technically and conceptually.

This past week’s trip was the first I made since writing the first draft of an article on our work. There is something about writing that makes my observations all the more tangible and real. So it felt some addition pressure to check on some of the observations that I made in the article on our trip this week.    

1. Camps and Abandonment. One of my favorite arguments (which I think was initially offered by Richard Rothaus) was that Type 3 camps might leave the greatest signature in the landscape because they are the least integrated with the modern methods of trash disposal and have the least investment in any particular place. The short duration of many Type 3 encampments would obviously moderate the accumulation of substantial quantities of discard, but the circumstances of their abandonment could have a more significant impact on the materials left behind. I’ve written about this before here.

We revisited the Type 2/Type 3 camp that we initially documented in August 2012 and returned to in February 2013. This camp had been abruptly abandoned in the winter of 2013 and there was a significant assemblage left behind. When we returned to this camp this week, we discovered that the most conspicuous trash was removed from the site. Plastic silverware, beer cans (Coors Light), bottle caps (Corona), fragments of broken styrofoam, pieces of a small grill, and a few other objects. The cement brick fire pit that was still visible in February. was disassembled and moved to another location near some other RVs in the area leaving only the ash deposit from the past fires behind.

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We also noted signs of abandoned or declining map camps throughout our study area. We observed a “dry” Type 2 (that is a Type 2 with electricity but no water) that had numerous open lots after being nearly filled in August 2012. We also observed a Type 2 that had been completely abandoned and was strewn with trash, abandoned RVs, fragments of insulation and bit of architecture most notably the plywood mudrooms leaned against the side of many RVs. We would have spent some time documenting this camp, but the gentleman onsite seemed pretty uninterested in having us around. Fortunately, Bret Weber left his business card with the man so if he changed his mind, he can let us know. He was the one of the few unpleasant characters we have encountered in the Bakken.

2. Where are the Type 3 camps? The proximity of the Type 3 camp described above site to a group of new apartment buildings probably accounts for why it was so thoroughly cleaned up. Many Type 3 camps, however, are less conspicuous (and perhaps this is by design as some of them are probably unpermitted or even squatters).  Others are incredibly short term and last only as long as is necessary for a particular activity. The small Type 3 shown below, for example, stood at a construction site, drew power from generators, and had a ports-john nearby.

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The small size, short duration of occupation, and sometimes hidden locations makes Type 3 camps particularly difficult to locate and document. These aspect of Type 3 camps perhaps also makes them significant and suitable for archaeological investigation. 

3. Towns and Workforce Housing. Every time we go out to the Bakken we check out another small town that shows signs of infilling with mobile homes and RVs to serve as workforce housing. Certain patterns of land use in these towns are just beginning to appear. For example, two of our study sites developed around the closed schools in the communities. The available land around schools and the more robust utilities infrastructure probably accounted for this.

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We also noted that old towns provide appealing locations for short-term workforce housing. First, most of western North Dakota is dotted with small towns in various states of decline. The two towns pictured above had populations of 80 and 97 respectively (from over 200 in their boom times). These town are linked to major roads, have utility connects and some (albeit modest) amenities, and land. Moreover, they tend to be out of sight allowing for a kind of unsupervised growth. 

4. Seasonal Rhythm and Discard. The seasonal rhythms of camp life in Type 2 and Type 3 camps are particularly visible. We noted, for example, piles of plywood and foam insulation around the camps as residents de-winterized their units. We could also sometime tell if a RV entered the camp recently based on evidence for winterizing. 

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5. The Next Step. The more we traveled the area over the past year, the more we feel like we have a technical handle of what is going on in terms of the oil boom. This last week, we made our way south to Killdeer and Dickinson, North Dakota and saw much the same kind of development and organization as we saw around Watford City and Tioga. It may be that the time of extensive research is coming to a close and the next step is to document one or two camps at a very high resolution. We’re making plans now for another field trip in August (funding permitting). So, stay tuned.

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