An Ode to Creators and Homemade Space Exploration

Hello all!! It’s been ages since I’ve had a chance to post, but I’ve got a great story for you. I first met Cameron Smith in 2010 when he led my very first archaeology field school. I worked with him again as an assistant over the next two seasons, and he went off to work on a project he’d been dreaming about for some time: To design and create an open-source, high-altitude space suit for exploring the upper reaches of the atmosphere in a hot air balloon. Yup, a homemade space suit. I LOVE IT. Here’s a short piece a local news station did on Cameron a while back.

I’d never had time to help him out, but I watched his updates on Facebook over the last few years and loved every new milestone he managed to reach, along with the help from some very dedicated students. As time passed media outlets and other organizations began to take notice of his work and invited him to give presentations, and you can watch some of them here.

About a year ago Cameron told me he was planning to do a test balloon flight out in the desert somewhere and wanted to know if I’d like to come along as a photographer. Um, YES! So after about a year’s worth of scouting locations, he decided on the Alvord Desert in SE Washington, part of a network of dry, alkaline lake beds that stretch down into Nevada (The same desert network that hosts Burning Man, in fact), and a few weeks ago I, Cameron and the students, a professional production film crew, and an amazing photographer named Travis Stanton headed out to the big, empty desert to test out the suit at altitude. For context: The main purpose of the flight was to test the suit at a low altitude and see how it performed; were there any leaks, or issues with the air hoses, etc.

Yep, that’s us, after a 4am wakeup and an almost-perfect test flight (there was a bit of panic when that fan that inflated the balloon suddenly self-destructed, but we found a way to make it all work) . You can see a few more great shots on Travis’s Instagram here. I don’t have the level of camera gear that Travis has (The footage he shot with his camera drone was AMAZING) but I got some good behind-the-scenes shots of our preparations.


PHOTO CREDIT: TRAVIS STANTONΒ  (in my defense, I had about three layers of clothes on under that fire-resistant jumpsuit, which is why I’m shaped like a Teletubby in this shot)


Cameron on the left, and Ben, the trusty guinea pig, trying out the suit


Travis Stanton getting some excellent “hero” shots of Cameron after the test.

You can see a couple of the hero shots on Travis’s website here

There are still plenty of design kinks to work out (as one would expect when building a space suit from scratch), such as figuring out how to make it easier to get into and out of. Poor Ben, he’s such a good sport.


Ben trying to squeeze out of the suit. It’s designed to fit Cameron’s frame, and Ben is probably a good 5″ taller.


Travis controlling the camera drone with joysticks and a live viewing screen, while Tiberius, the film crew cameraman, watches.


It’s so difficult to capture just how huge and empty and flat that desert is, and how incredibly beautiful.


This is probably about 6:30am on test flight day, and there’s Travis with one of his many wonderful toys


Prepping and assembling the balloon and all the gauges and hoses for the suit was about a four-hour process (hence the need to get up at 4am) and we had to get that balloon in the air before the wind picked up. That’s Cameron on the left, Travis on the right.


Our little camp in the middle of nowhere, a good mile from any road. That’s Paulina helping to get the suit properly folded after the test flight.

The flight itself was very short, but well worth the time and expense. Cameron came up with a checklist of things that need refining and modification, and we’re working away as time allows, back here in Portland. About a week ago I went down to Cameron’s office/workshop to help out and have a meeting about the results of the test flight, and Paulina, who’s been helping handle the suit, decided to try it on to get a better understanding of what it’s like on the inside.

First you put on a set of long johns that have cooling tubes sewn around it. The tubes are attached to a container of ice water and keep the person in the suit from overheating, which happens VERY fast, even when it’s extremely cold outside the suit. The cap has cooling lines and an intercom system.


Next is the yellow inflatable suit. This is the pressure suit that keeps the person’s blood pressure normal at high altitudes, by having air pumped in at high pressure.


And then the outer layer: A blue mesh that’s there mostly to keep the yellow inflated suit from going “POOOF!” and turning into a Gumby-shaped balloon.


Once Paulina was suited up, Cameron explained how to operate the air flow gauges and read the pressure dials. Very important info when you’re sealed in a space suit!


Last is the helmet. I love this part. Remember I said this suit is homemade? I wasn’t kidding. When Cameron was looking for a way to seal the helmet to the suit, he found a genius solution: The locking rings from a pressure cooker. And it totally works!Β  πŸ™‚


One of the hardest parts of making your own space suit is funding. Cameron is a college professor, and the pay ain’t what it used to be. He’s gotten some generous donations along the way, but he ALWAYS welcome more, and we’re going to need those funds to get to the next level, and the next flight test. If you’d like to donate and help the project, here’s some info. (we’re working on getting a Kickstarter going but it’ll be a while before that’s up and running). You can also “like” the Facebook fan page to get updates on the project. If you live in the Portland area and are interested in volunteering with the project, you can also message Pacific Spaceflight on Facebook.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be sure to let you know when we’re getting ready to head out to the desert again!



So This Is Archaeology – Part III

At last, the long-awaited conclusion to our field school adventures (Here is Part I, Part II, and the Birthday addition). What a great four weeks, and an awesome crew. I can’t wait for next year πŸ™‚

So as I think I’ve mentioned before, archaeology happens in all kinds of environments and conditions. Sometimes you’re going to get very, very wet….

And sometimes you will get very, very muddy.


Here’s a collection of some of the lovely bits of chert we found scattered in the sand along the river bank we were exploring (Including the lovely point I found on my birthday). These have clearly been worked by human hands, and a couple of pieces appear to be broken bits of completed tools, but we never did find exactly where they were coming from. We suspect that the area may have been looted, possibly multiple times over the years, and the bits we found were the pieces that looters dropped on the beach as they worked, but we will probably never know for sure. Looting is unfortunately common in many areas, and there simply isn’t the money or manpower to keep watch over everything.























After spending a good few days in the muck and heat, we took an afternoon to tour around Fort Vancouver. Many of the original buildings have been re-created according to historical records and archaeological evidence in order to make them as accurate as possible. Here we’re talking to a volunteer in the Blacksmith’s Shop. I believe he’s demonstrating how one of the old handmade beaver traps worked.


Every summer there’s a field school at Fort Vancouver, and they have never yet run out of places to excavate. The fort has a relatively long history with multiple different eras of occupation, so there are sites galore here. If I remember right the students here had just dug down to the floor level of a cabin from the early 1800’s. It’s fun to talk to students from other field schools and trade war stories.


For the last day of the school a group of us went out to a small island that we’ve been wanting to explore for years. We didn’t excavate, but we did screen the dirt from mole hills (Sometimes moles will dig up bits of charcoal or flint flakes as they tunnel). We didn’t find any evidence of human activity, but it was still a beautiful place and a fantastic day.


All around the edges of the lakes and rivers we were finding these bizarre clear jelly blobs. Nothing visible inside of them, very firm, no odor. Couldn’t figure out what on earth they were! Then when I posted a picture on Facebook a friend knew immediately what they were: Bryozoans!


Some sites are just plain difficult to get to when you’re doing field work. We needed to get to the other side of the island, so the kids took the water route, slipping and sloshing through mud and goo. I took the overland route, which ended up being me plowing through Thorny Bushes Of Doom with my face. We all made it to the other side alive (And didn’t drop any of the equipment) and that’s what matters πŸ™‚


As we were breaking for lunch I spotted a little pile of very dry coyote poop. Now, some people want nothing to do with any kind of poo, but in archaeology waste can sometimes be a fantastic source of information (And it was VERY dry. I’m not messing with fresh poo. Yuck). Here are the crunched-up bits of bone from a single coyote poo. I think I see rabbit and baby deer in there, but I’m not up on my animal bone identification (I always did horribly in that class).


And the final day is done. Back to the lab to clean and store all the gear. This really was a great season and I miss this group a ton. I hope some of them come back next year for more mud, mosquitoes, heat, dirt, and exploration πŸ™‚


Another bryozoan colony, because they are TOO COOL!


Happy Birthday To Me

A field school birthday. I would have preferred to sleep in today, but there are definitely worse places to be. My birthday surprise this morning: a local field mouse decided to make a nest in our field gear. We moved them as carefully as we could, here’s hoping the mama comes back.


And to make my birthday even better, after three field seasons I finally found my first point! A beautifully made, larger-than-average, stemmed chert point. Yay!!! It looks like the stem wasn’t completely finished, so we wonder if maybe the tip broke off before the point was finished and it was thrown away, or maybe the maker dropped it and it got lost and broken later, there’s often no way to tell. Such a wonderful find, it helped make this birthday one of the best ever (Here’s a bit of general information about pre-contact stone points and how they were made)



A-Wandering Up The California Coast

I just got back from a road trip to San Francisco to attend a friend’s wedding, and I wanted to share some of the shots I got on the drive home. I just didn’t have the time to stop at every wonderful place I saw along the way, and oh there were SO many, but I managed to squeeze in a few choice stops. I’m not totally happy with the editing on some of these, but I’m nursing an old back injury that has been aggravated by three nights on lousy hotel mattresses, so it’ll just have to do. Enjoy! πŸ™‚

My friend’s wedding was held at a palatial villa on a forested hilltop, and it was just stunning. I haven’t had a chance to ask him if he’d be alright with sharing pictures from the wedding, so I will leave those out. I can, however, share a photo of this awesome birdhouse city that was in a tree on the front lawn the villa. I need one of these in my yard!!


Once I got out of San Francisco I headed for the coast and highway 101. I haven’t driven the coast in a few years, so I was eager to see what I found. One of the places I stopped briefly (in part because I desperately needed a bathroom) was Fort Ross. There’s a reconstructed Russian fort and some lovely trails to walk. Here’s some info about the fort if you have an urge to visit some day.


I walked around the trails near the fort for a little ways and got a few nice shots. Oh I love the California coast πŸ™‚



I have no idea what kind of flowers these are, but they’re gorgeous and I love them!


Back on the highway, heading north. I can’t remember where I was, but somewhere along the way I saw this gorgeous little shed being devoured by nasturtiums, just sitting there and glowing in the afternoon sun.


I ended up spending the night in Fort Bragg. The town itself isn’t overly exciting, but the views around there are beautiful.



As I was driving along north of Fort Bragg I saw a vulture perched on a fence by the road. I’ve never been able to get close enough to a vulture to get a shot, they’re usually very shy, but this one didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Just as I raised my camera two more burst out of the grass. Darnit, if only I’d been pointing my camera a little more to the right! They were gone before I managed to take another shot, but I’m just happy I got what I did πŸ™‚


Farther north and into redwood country. I wandered along the Avenue of the Giants for a little ways, but I was so tight on time that I had to get back on the highway. Before I did, though, I enjoyed some lovely woods and stopped by the famous Drive-Thru Tree.


After I left the Drive-Thru tree, I was driving up a large gorge and happened to see a little chunk of abandoned highway clinging to the side of the cliff. Since I absolutely LOVE old abandoned things, I couldn’t resist hopping the fence and exploring a little ways. I didn’t get very far, it was just too hot and I was running on only 3 hous of sleep (curse you, crappy hotel mattress!), but one of these days I’m going to go back and see how far that old highway goes.


I happened to find a little lizard hiding on the cement railing along the old highway. He kept doing pushups at me. I think that’s lizard-speak for “Come at me, bro!!”. I reassured him that I was not interested in taking over his territory and went on my way.


Heading north again I finally got back to Oregon, near Klamath, where you can stop and enjoy the gigantic and amusing statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox. My friend Artie Groovebot wanted his picture taken. He’s such a tourist…


So that was my trip. These photos represent only a tiny fraction of the wonderful things I saw along the way, but someday maybe I’ll get to go back and take my time exploring.

The Church, the Museum, and the Mammoth

I decided to thumb my nose at the lousy weather today and go exploring with my friend Jen. She told me about an old church and graveyard in Dayton, OR, so away we went. It was really lovely, just nestled in the woods by a lonely farm road. There were pin flags marking the gravestones, and flags in unmarked spots, so I assume someone is surveying the graveyard to figure out who all may be there. We stopped at the Evergreen Aviation Museum on the way home (I’ve taken tons of pictures of the planes before, but this was my first shot at the tanks), and HAD to stop when we spotted a random mammoth sculpture in someone’s field. It was an afternoon well spent.










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Yesterday I went a-wandering up north a ways and found myself at Satsop Development Park. It’s a strange and wonderful little place, worth checking out if you’re ever in the area. Apparently you can sometimes go through the gate and under the cooling towers, but the gates were all closed, so I may go back one of these days and see if I can explore further. I’m not really happy with the editing on these photos, but it was the best I could do with a migraine. Here’s a little background on the place.