Every geoscientist in North America has a favourite story of helicopters, bears, or both, but these epic field stories take it up a notch to nearly incredible.

They also highlight how much field safety has improved in just a generation.

Any time your pilot is leaning out the door to see the trees through the fog should probably be a weather day. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

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Modern fieldwork is shaped by a culture of safety where camp meetings give pro tips on how to avoid slips, trips, and falls while scrambling over rocky terrain and every field hand carries at least a basic first aid certification, but it wasn’t always that way. Industry veteran Rob McLeod recounted his memories of a rougher, wilder time in mineral exploration, and his stories make me boggle that any geologist survived long enough to file their reports.

Helicopter safety is a big freaking deal: we’re taught to keep our heads low, approach from the front, minimize toe-in landings, and that our gear may be sitting for days instead of risking a slingload in poor visibility. The idea that either pilot or passenger would crazy enough to ride a helicopter’s dangling longline is surreally impossible, yet McLeod has photographic evidence that it happened at least once. By comparison, that he’s walked away from a helicopter crash seems almost mild.

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A geologist dangling from a helicopter’s longline during a mountain survey. Image credit: Rob McLeod

But the bear stories are where things get downright terrifying. As a field geophysicist in Canada, I have my own stories of bears: bear monitors following me around to chase away stalking bears, having the radio controller mishear my complaint a black bear was “mucking about” on my survey lines as something far more work-inappropriate, and my crew chief calmly calling in bears converging on his location from all directions. My absolutely favourite bear story involves a territory disagreement with a grizzly where as part of our escalating interactions, I finally called in a helicopter to send it lumbering down the line away from my survey location.

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That time a guy was paid to follow me around with a gun to chase off bears while I conducted a resistivity survey in the snow was pretty good, except the part where my gear kept getting too cold to function properly. Image credit: Alyssa Hooge

But absolutely none of them come anywhere close to anything McLeod gathered in his casual story-telling on the risks of mineral exploration. In a mess of too many stories of maulings, bites, close encounters, and escapes, one in particular stands out for the sheer dedication of this scientist to her work:

[USGS geologist Cynthia Dusel-Bacon] was attacked and had both arms ripped off by a bear, and managed to survive until help arrive. As a testament to the incredible will and strength of this woman, she continued to work for another three decades in the field using prosthetics, studying the regional tectonics and metallogeny of Alaska.

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After hearing the stories of how things used to be even a generation earlier in exploration, I’m suddenly very, very grateful for the rampant culture of safety that shapes modern fieldwork. Fieldwork is inherently dangerous, and every year, people get hurt, go missing, and even die. I may giggle over the unnecessary risk of driving windy cliff-side gravel roads in the snow to attend a pre-dawn safety meting, but I have never been in imminent danger of losing a limb to wildlife or climbed into a helicopter with a pilot reeking of booze and cringing from a hangover. To all the geoscientists who came before: I salute your bravery and badassery, but I am so happy that fieldwork has changed to prioritize safety and, hopefully, be a bit less crazy.

Read the rest of McLeod’s fieldwork adventures in 99 Ways To Die In Mineral Exploration.