There’s no place like your field site home…

This week we are excited to have Zarah Pattison from the University of Stirling, Scotland, tell us about her field work on invasive alien plant species along rivers in Scotland for her PhD work. To learn more about Zarah, check out her bio at the end of this post.

Supervisor: “So you need about twenty rivers for your project”

Me: “Right, OK…” I stand, staring at him blankly.

Supervisor: “Go buy some maps of Scotland, 6 to 10 will do, lay them out and find rivers.”

Me: “Right, OK…” I stand, staring at him blankly, and then scurry off to the nearest shops.

Maps of Scotland

Maps of central Scotland stuck together to find rivers for field sites.

I had always thought of myself as a resourceful person. Give me a problem, I’ll ‘make a plan’ (a very South African turn of phrase). However, having just passed my driving test and moved to Scotland, and having no experience of working along rivers, or knowledge of what I was looking for, I just panicked. Now, I did have two crucial criteria to aim for: Make sure I can walk at least 500 metres along the river, which must be invaded by the invasive plant Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). This plant is tall, with bright pink pungent flowers, and I soon became a dab hand at spotting it whilst driving anywhere near a river and, on parking the car, smelling it. After a month of google maps, google earth, broken GPSs and sat navs, I finally found the 20 rivers with 20 suitable survey sights. All the sites were predominantly urban or alongside farm land, which came with its own suite of problems.

In Scotland you have ‘the right to roam’, so when gaining permission to work along my chosen river sites, people were generally helpful and interested in the project. Sometimes we were even brought tea and cake by some of the landowners, who thought us standing in the rain for 10 hours was horrific (I loved it). The vegetation could reach up to 4 metres high, with stinging nettles up to 3 metres. We got used to the constant burning on our skin and kept ourselves sane by shaking the Himalayan balsam plants to see which of us would get an exploding seed pod in the eye.

tea and cake

Tea and cake provided by kind cottage Lady on the River Tweed.

When crossing the Annick Water to access a survey site, David, my field assistant, was using a 1 metre solid wood wading pole to bash back the nettles so we could climb up the bank. He stood still for a moment.

Me: “David, what’s the problem? Time is precious!”

Then he started shouting, trying to cross back to the other side of the river whilst we were both repeatedly stung by the angry wasps whose nest he had disturbed. I wanted to dive in the water, but all I could think of was my phone in my pocket, with all the fieldwork pictures on it, , and all the unsightly floating objects in the river. We finally clambered up the other river bank, running back and forth until the wasps gave up.

Me: “David, where is the equipment bag?”

We looked at each other and then over to the other side of the river where the bag sat, covered in wasps. After an hour, we suited up with every bit of clothing and plastic in our possession, as well as some burning reeds, and finally retrieved the field bag. Many beers were drunk that night.

Angry wasp nest

Geared up and ready to retrieve our field work equipment bag from under the angry wasps nest.

I had to revisit these sites 3 times over the next year and got to know them pretty well. In early spring I had to collect the 360 30 x 30cm green AstroTurf mats which had been placed at each site the year before. After winter floods, my red spray painted wooden stakes had mostly vanished and most of the mats were covered in mounds of sediment deposition. I had tried to use a visual marker, like a telephone pole, for each transect that had mats on, measuring the distance between each mat. Sally, my field assistant, and I had a ‘mat dance’: every time we found a mat we proceeded to wave our hands in air and gyrate to the ‘Venga boys are coming’ tune…much to the dismay of many dog walkers.

Finding the astro turf mats

Finding the AstroTurf mats, covered by mounds of sediment deposition, on the Dean Water.

Have you ever seen a mole swim? On the River Almond we had to access the survey site by going down one path on a steep embankment. The river was flowing fast, but I was confident that if we worked quickly we could get the work done. We were about 300 metres from the path, measuring the distance to each mat. I asked Sally to head back to get some more bags for the soil cores and as she turned around, she let out her high pitched alarm call (scream). The river had engulfed the bank. The bagged soil cores were starting to float down the river, along with the rucksack, which had our car keys in it. I managed to wade out (stupidly) and get the soil core bags and the rucksack (I was not losing any samples!), and we got up the bank safely. Sad to say we lost those mats, but we successfully retrieved 278 across all sites. And the mole? The mole was on the remaining bit of unsubmerged bank, and Sally was ready to dive in and save it. I literally held her back, but it turns out moles are great swimmers! Super mole, as she now calls it.

climbing through trees

Trying to climb through trees and 4 metre high Himalayan balsam on the River Endrick, whilst David fights through brambles and Rose Bay Willow herb on the Black Cart Water.

Attacked by wasps, intimidated by aggressive dogs on sites located in run down areas, accused of bombing the river as a poacher, constantly being mistaken for fishermen, stung by stinging nettles, even offered to a farmer’s 21 year old son as a birthday present… I wouldn’t change a thing. Most of the time you are alone, it is peaceful and beautiful, and you get used to the sickly sweet smell of Himalayan balsam. The bad experiences make the best stories. And there is nothing quite like being in the field.


wading in river

Wading through the River Gryfe with a Himalayan balsam plant in tow.

zarah's profile          Zarah Pattison completed her BSc in Ecology and the Environment in 2011 and an MSc in scientific research in 2012 at Royal Holloway University of London. Her undergraduate and master’s degree focused on invasive alien plant species (IAPs) and their impact on below- and above-ground microbial communities, particularly mycorrhizal fungi and foliar endophytes. Zarah is currently doing a PhD at the University of Stirling, Scotland, researching the ecology and impacts of riparian IAPs, particularly Impatiens glandulifera, Fallopia japonica, Heracleum mantegazzianum and Mimulus guttatus, and how their impact varies under climate related changes to river flow regime.

Electric shocks or time alone? Most choose shocks.

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska, who tells us a bit about her experiences working alone in the field during her PhD.  For more about Maggie and her research, check out her bio the end of this post.

I recently read that most people would prefer electric shocks to spending time alone with their thoughts. This of course made me think back to the first summer I spent in the field during my PhD. I worked along the shoreline of Lake Travers in Algonquin Park studying the very charismatic flowering beauty Lobelia cardinalis. Although most people do not venture into fieldwork on their own, most have spent some time alone in the field. Alone is how I spent most of that field season.

Pollination - wait, no, thievery by hummingbird  at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

Pollination – wait, no, thievery by hummingbird at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

When people hear that I spent time alone in the backwoods of Algonquin they either start playing air-banjo and humming that well-known tune from the movie “Deliverance” (this was my advisor’s reaction) or they ask if I was afraid of the wildlife. I was raised by people who’d never gone camping, and thus I had never gone “real” camping (sorry folks, car camping doesn’t count). My point in telling you this is that I had no idea what doing fieldwork alone would be like. I had spent time as an undergrad at QUBS, but fieldwork in the backcountry of Algonquin while living in a tent is an entirely different experience – although working at QUBS did help me establish some basic codes of conduct for my assistants and myself (i.e., no alcohol and 9 p.m. bedtime). At the time of developing my project, all I was concerned with was getting data for my PhD; my data or bust attitude is a story for another time.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Most of my solo sojourns into the field lasted a day or two, but in 2009 (the first year of field work) I’d often camp Monday to Friday on my own. Surprisingly, I found those lonely days to not be so lonely—I found talking to my plants helped. During the day my work kept me focused. But, when the work of the day was finished, fatigue set in and I was left alone with my thoughts—there was no option of electric shock. After running through thoughts of what I’d done and what I had left to accomplish that week, I’d daydream about finding ways to let me do this forever.

Truthfully, there were times I was terrified and a bit nuts. I once jumped right out of my skin when I caught sight of my shadow moving. At the time, I was just under 5’3 and somewhere around 120lbs. I assume this is the perfect shape and size for a quick little appetizer for a bear or pack of wolves (both of which were present in the area).  I also once lost my self-composure and started killing every slug I saw (that year most of my plants were eaten by slugs). As a warning to other slugs I mounted a smooshed slug body on a stake (i.e., small twig).

As my first season progressed, I became more competent with data collection and backcountry camping. I became an expert in setting up and breaking down a campsite solo in under 40 min, and became a backcountry gourmand (dried garlic and parsley are invaluable). More importantly, I picked up several handy tips from people I met in the field (mostly from Chris, who helped out at the Algonquin Radio Observatory and Jeremy, a park ranger).  These are my camping “must-haves” in order of decreasing importance.

  1. SPOT. This device should be required for everyone doing fieldwork. This device connects to satellites and allows you to send email messages to a set contact list (I used this to check in with my partner every night). It also can send two types of emergency signals. You can select the option that is sent only to your contact list and provides the GPS coordinates of your location (I programmed a message that read, “I’m alive but need you. Come find me”. The other option lets you send an emergency message to the nearest search and emergency system in your area (police and EMTs). I had no cellphone reception in the field, so this device was crucial for safety. I’d also recommend it for folks who are within cellphone range. You can always use a backup system to call for help.
  2. Headlamps, backup flashlights and spare batteries.
  3. Pocket flare/bear banger combo available at MEC is also a good idea. Even when you think you are alone in the woods you probably aren’t too far away from other people. I worked near the access point at Lake Travers. People starting their camping trips would often comment about how remote and isolated the area felt. On a busy week in August I would have this chat several times a day. A flare is likely to be seen by people nearby and if you’re lucky they’ll investigate.
  4. Always make sure you have enough water on hand and either rehydration crystals and/or powdered Gatorade. I used a hand pump system with a ceramic cartridge to filter lake water. I carried this everywhere.
  5. This is connected to the last point. Be very mindful of early signs of heatstroke. Different individuals have different tolerances. I once had an assistant suffer from mild heatstroke on our first day out. I was perfectly fine, but she wasn’t. Water and salts were sufficient to get her back on her feet, but I learned to become more mindful of how my assistants were feeling during the day.
  6. Always carry a small firstaid kit. Mine had tweezers, safety pins, bandaids, gauze, an aluminum emergency blanket, rehydration crystals, a whistle, duct tape and clothes pins.
  7. If you are responsible for packing food for a camping trip, always pack extra dry pasta, dry garlic, and other dried herbs. I once had to carefully consider whether starving my field assistant and finishing my work for the week was ok.
  8. For those of you driving older model field vehicles, don’t leave a cellphone charger connected to your car’s cigarette lighter. This will drain your car battery.
  9. Figure out who else is in your work area. I was near the Algonquin Park Radio Observatory and knew I could reach them if I needed help (like needing to make arrangements to send a field assistant home because they were not feeling well). Cottagers and other campers are often interested in the work we nutty biologists do and are often keen to help you out.

Although camping alone seems sketchy to most people, it’s really not that uncommon. Spending a day alone in the field is extremely common. Be safe and prepare for the unexpected. Carry emergency supplies, and a way to contact help.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.


Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska is currently a postdoc at the University of Toronto studying population genomics of the world’s most charismatic group of small-flowered plant (duckweed). She did her PhD at Dalhousie University under the mentorship of Dr. M. Johnston. Her work has largely focused on plant-pollinator interactions and other ecological factors shaping the evolution of plant traits.

Welcome to the (urban) jungle

“What the hell are you doing?”

Upon consideration, I realized I probably did look a bit odd: standing on a beach in my rubber boots on a cold winter day, holding a pop bottle (with the top cut off) and pouring its murky contents into a smaller bottle.  No wonder the guy walking his dog was staring at me strangely.

“Um, I’m collecting rainwater for analysis, as part of my PhD thesis project.”

The beach was public land, belonging to the city of Penticton, but I was pretty sure what I was doing wouldn’t bother anyone.  To my relief, the dog-walking stranger didn’t seem to mind my presence.  He did, however, appear to be laughing at me.

“Oh yeah?  How often are you planning to do that?” he asked.

“Once a month until the end of August,” I replied.

Now there was no mistaking it.  He was very definitely laughing at me.  “Interesting location you picked,” he commented nonchalantly.

“Um…” I looked around the deserted beach.  “What do you mean?”

“I just mean that, come July, collecting rainwater is going to involve a very different view.”

“Well, yeah – I assume this beach gets pretty busy during the summer.  But I won’t get in anybody’s way.”

“It does get busy,” he agreed.  “In fact, it’s one of the busiest beaches in Penticton.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied with a wicked grin, “There are lots of choices for ordinary beaches in the area – but this is the only nude beach in the south Okanagan.”

Three Mile Beach: serene and deserted in February, Penticton's only nude beach in July.

Three Mile Beach: serene and deserted in February, Penticton’s only nude beach in July.

Amanda’s recent post about her experiences doing fieldwork at the Royal Botanical Gardens (Fieldwork in unexpected places) got me thinking about the various field sites where I’ve worked over the past decade.  It’s easy to get captivated by the wild and remote locations that field biologists often get to visit.  But as Amanda pointed out, fieldwork in more populated places can be an equally rewarding experience.  My PhD fieldwork took place in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia – one of the most beautiful places in BC, but definitely not one of the wildest.  Home to several cities, many orchards, and a thriving wine industry, the Okanagan Valley is anything but remote.

Grapevines as far as the eye can see... Wineries dominate much of the south Okanagan.

Grapevines as far as the eye can see: wineries dominate much of the south Okanagan.

Obviously, doing fieldwork in places like the Okanagan makes some things much easier.  For example, you don’t have to think as carefully about what to bring with you – if you forget something, it’s easy to run to the nearest Canadian Tire and grab a replacement.  And instead of spending months pining for fresh fruit and vegetables (and flirting with scurvy), you can grab local produce from any one of the numerous roadside fruit stands.

But fieldwork in populated areas also comes with its own set of challenges – from collecting data on clothing-optional beaches to hanging out in winery parking lots in full field gear, training binoculars on bluebird nesting boxes while trying to ignore the stares of well-heeled winery patrons.  And of course, working in residential and agricultural areas poses one major problem for women: finding a place to pee.

My male field assistant had little sympathy for me when it came to this particular problem.  But while being a man may have provided an advantage in that department, it also put him at a disadvantage one February afternoon.  We had been looking for bluebirds along a popular hiking trail which ran behind several backyards in the suburbs of Penticton.  When we finally spotted our quarry, we rushed to set up our net – at which point, predictably, the bluebirds vanished.

Having put all that effort into setting up, we decided to see if they would come back.  We split up to keep an eye out for them and flopped down on the snow to wait.  I was peering around through my binoculars when suddenly a pair of boots appeared in my field of view.  I looked up and realized my field assistant was looming over me, looking frustrated.  “I have to switch places with you,” he said.

I was confused.  “Why?”  I asked.  “I know this is tedious, but it’s not like there are any bluebirds over here either.”

“It’s not that,” he responded.

“So what’s the problem?” I asked him.

“See that backyard there, right near where I was sitting?”


“A woman just came out of that house in her bikini and got into her hot tub.”

“Okay…” I still couldn’t see the problem.

He glared at me.  “She’s in the hot tub in her bikini.  And I’m sitting directly across from her backyard, hiding in the bushes with binoculars.”

I burst out laughing as he continued, “Either you switch places with me or you bail me out when I get arrested.”

I switched places with him.


Traveling in style: checking nest boxes with a golf cart.

Traveling in style: our transportation while checking nest boxes at the Oliver golf course.

I did three field seasons in the Okanagan Valley, and each presented me with its own challenges.  However, there were also some incredible benefits to working in cities and on vineyards – such as using golf carts to check bird boxes at the local golf course, or a receiving a free glass of wine while watching birds in front of a winery on a hot afternoon.  (I’m pleased to report that a lawn chair and a cold glass of Pinot Gris really improve the fieldwork experience.)

Perhaps best of all, doing fieldwork in populated areas offers unique opportunities for outreach.  We encountered people all the time – around wineries, along hiking trails, and in public parks – giving us the chance to talk a bit about what we were doing and why we were doing it.  And the importance of that contact can’t be overstated.  Even though science in Canada is largely publicly funded, there’s often a huge gap between scientists and the public.  Conducting fieldwork in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Okanagan Valley gave us a chance to bridge that gap.

A room with a view: bluebird box along a trail overlooking downtown Penticton and the Penticton Yacht Club.

A room with a view: bluebird box along a trail overlooking downtown Penticton and the Penticton Yacht Club.

Distressed travel voucher

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Vanya Rohwer, a veteran of many field seasons and a teller of many great stories!

Field work requires a change in mentality. Small details of day-to-day city life, like tidy clothes, dry shoes, regular meals, and hygiene, lose importance during field work. And the speed at which this transition occurs can be impressive.

In mid-March, many years ago, we departed Panama City in a helicopter, flew 55 minutes north, and landed on a sandbar of the Rio Chagras, perhaps the only river in the world that flows into two oceans (thanks to the Panama canal). Cathedral-like trees lined the edge of the river and the helicopter’s rear rotor trimmed overhanging vegetation as it landed. For this trip, the transition from city to field was immediate.

For the next four weeks we surveyed bird communities in the Rio Chagras drainage. We were completely alone and lived in a self-constructed shantytown of blue tarps and tents. During thunder showers we huddled under tarps and ate US military rations, each of which contained over 2,000 calories and came with a personal bottle of Tabasco sauce—ration shelf life trumped ration flavor.

The animals were stunning. Highways of leaf-cutter ants undulated across the forest floor like green ribbons; Russet-crowned Motmots, adorned with serrated bills, caramel colored heads, and tail feathers that look like tennis rackets, wagged their tails with metronome-like precision; Crested Guans tip-toed the length of narrow Cecropia branches with a calm sense of grace; Chestnut-mandible Toucans patrolled the canopy like hungry marauders crusading for their next meal. The forest teemed with life, humidity, and sounds.

Four weeks passed quickly and, when the helicopter returned, we departed our blue tarps and poor hygiene for what seemed like one of the fanciest hotels in Panama City. None of us had seen a mirror, and our clothes had both a dampness and filth that permeated every fiber. Our tans were either real from tropical Panamanian sun, or fake from an impressive combination of humid air and accumulated sweat and dead skin.

I suspect the receptionist knew that our tans were the product of exceptional filth. As we entered the air-conditioned hotel, our overall appearance, chaos of field equipment, and odor filled the foyer. We were a full-sensory experience. My mangy but highly coveted patches of facial hair were bristling, and I stroked them with pride. Our clothes were filthy with food and bloodstains, and our body odor was strong enough to make eyes water and plants wilt. After four weeks of eating MREs, our mouths watered at the thought of fresh fruit and vegetables. Indeed the transition from blue tarp to faux-marble-floor hotel was abrupt.

Perhaps it was our smell, our embarrassing use of the Spanish language, or our disheveled appearance, but immediately upon check-in with the receptionist we received, complements of the hotel, “distressed traveler vouchers” good for one free drink at the bar.

That night we showered, shaved, and sipped piña coladas. They were delicious.

Vanya RohwerVanya Rohwer is a PhD student in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University. He studies bird nests and the selective mechanisms shaping different nest morphologies, and tries to spend as much time outside as possible.


Fieldwork in unexpected places

To date most of our dispatches have focused on fieldwork done in rural and remote areas of Canada and the world. And my fieldwork, as you might recall, was never any different until last summer when I had the chance to do fieldwork somewhere really neat and equally unexpected – the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Burlington, ON, a busy city just outside of Toronto. The Royal Botanical Gardens is Canada’s largest botanical garden and also a National Historic Site. Their mandate is to bring together my three favourite things: people, plants and nature and they do a fantastic job at it. Their focus on education, conservation and sustainability is admirable and I was really excited to visit. I was interested in relationships between wild plant body size and fitness, and this was an ideal place to find some unique species.

Beautiful water garden at RBG

Beautiful water garden at RBG

My family is from the rural Niagara area so it was convenient that I was able to stay with them over the duration of the trip. Even better, I got to bring my Dad along as my field assistant which was really cool. I think my project makes at least a little more sense to him now that he’s had the chance to tag along and participate.

Now, before you jump to any conclusions, I didn’t just burst through the gates of the Royal Botanical Gardens, clippers in hand, and start plowing down peonies, roses and lilies (although that would make an excellent blog, wouldn’t it?). What many people don’t realize is that RBG has kilometres upon kilometres of untouched wildlands containing all types of habitats from wetlands and bogs to fields and forests. This was an amazing place to look for wildflowers.

I’m still not really sure what I was expecting when I arrived at RBG. I think I thought the wildflower Gods would reach down from above and point me in the direction of new species but that was not the case. My Dad and I approached the main building, permit in hand, signed ourselves in and then we were on our own. I knew where I was allowed to go to sample, but I wasn’t even sure where to start. So I just did what any field biologist would do (and what seems to be a recurring theme on this blog)…explore. It was Labour Day (and pouring rain, I mean really really pouring rain) and we started hiking around the different tracts and pieces of RBG property. Every once in awhile I’d stumble across a plant I didn’t recognize and I’d try to key it out. Since it was Labour Day, a lot of the species were well past flowering and as such a pretty big puzzle to key out but I’ve always liked a challenge. Once we had it ID’ed we would measure it, bag it and continue on. After several hours, lots of funny looks and about an inch of water in our shoes, the sun came out and we spent the rest of the trip admiring the creativity and imagination of the botanical gardens. All things considered it was a great trip and I collected lots of interesting new samples.

It’s no secret that fieldwork is usually rural or remote and you’d expect to see the elusive field biologist lurking in the bushes in the most unique, untouched areas of the world, but my trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens is a perfect example of how fieldwork happens everywhere, even in the busiest, most unexpected places!

I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite photos I took of the gardens that day!

Note: these photos are all species in the maintained gardens (not wildflowers), I didn’t take any of them (I swear)!

Chinese hibiscus

Chinese hibiscus – one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen!

Bumblebee doing his thing on the stunning coneflowers

Bumblebee doing his thing on the stunning coneflowers

Julia and Rachael’s excellent Muskoka adventure

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Julia Colm, a Masters student at Queen’s University with lots of stories to tell about working in Ontario’s beautiful cottage country.  For more about Julia, check out the end of this blog!

My project began as the 2014 Grass Pickerel Survey but soon became the 2014 Grass Pickerel Hunt, as my favourite Species at Risk had proven elusive. As we prepared to travel to the Muskoka region for the next leg of sampling, I felt both excited and discouraged, knowing that this population is difficult to sample because there are few Grass Pickerel and it is found in the heart of cottage country. I thought that shoreline alterations would be our biggest problem with the cottagers. I thought wrong.

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

We had spent hours canoeing a shoreline looking for a nice, weedy spot to sample, but were finding few areas that were not directly in front of someone’s cottage and had not been cleared of all aquatic vegetation. We finally found a spot off of an island that had no cottages (though it did bear a ‘No Trespassing’ sign). Since we would not be venturing onto the island itself and had no way of knowing who owned it to offer a courtesy explanation of our work, we figured we were safe to sample.

Just as we got our seine net deployed, a concerned cottager boated over to us and yelled “what are you doing?!”. We politely explained that we were from Queen’s University doing a fisheries survey of the lake. The cottager then informed us that all of the neighbours had been watching us and were ready to call the OPP; they thought we were poachers. I’ve been called many things in my life (including “homeless looking” later that day by a total stranger), but for two people who have devoted the last few years to working with Species at Risk and have been passionate about conservation their entire lives, being called a poacher was truly insulting. We kept our smiles on and apologized for worrying them, offered to show our permits, and suggested that they call the MNR tips line and alert a Conservation Officer if concerned about poachers in the future. The cottager lightened up, and generously offered to let us launch our canoe from her cottage the next day, but suggested we try to look more official and somehow make our net look less like a net. I wasn’t sure what to do with that last bit of advice, but I’m now trying to figure out how we can fly a “Queen’s University Research Vessel” pirate flag from our canoe. We apologized again and said goodbye, and as we paddled away began laughing at the thought of poachers using a canoe as a get-away vehicle. “The OPP are coming! GO! GO! GO!” [Frantic paddling]

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

Although this was our only negative interaction with cottagers, it was certainly not our only difficulty. Finding spots to launch our canoe on lakes praised for their ‘excellent boating’ proved to be an unexpected problem. One lake in particular, Grass Lake, which if the name is any indication, should offer perfect habitat for Grass Pickerel, was particularly difficult to access. The first day, we sampled a tributary of Grass Lake and caught three Grass Pickerel, and I was convinced we would not be disappointed when we got to the main body of the lake… if we got to the main body of the lake. We had driven all around the lake without any success. The closest we got to it was reaching a dead end road, and having the man who lived at the end tell us he has lived one kilometer from Grass Lake for 15 years and has yet to see it. That was upsetting. He then said that horses have gone missing in there. That was disturbing.

We concluded that we would have to access Grass Lake from the Trent-Severn Canal, an option we had been avoiding as canoeing through the canal isn’t exactly safe. We found a road that led very close to the mouth of Grass Lake, and we should only have to cross the canal to get in. Well, it turns out Grass Lake is connected to the canal through a tiny underpass below the CNR train tracks. So we now not only had to cross the canal, but then portage across the tracks with all of our gear.

Not your standard portage.

Not your standard portage.

When we crossed the canal and entered Grass Lake, we realized why it had been so difficult to get to: it was literally a lake of grass, a giant marsh. There were no cottages, and no way for non-motivated people to get to it. It was a totally undisturbed, undiscovered piece of paradise. The banks were lined with trees displaying a range of colours normally reserved for autumn, and the variety of aquatic macrophytes created a breathtaking underwater display. Fish representing almost every family were easily observed from the canoe, and I could not wait to pull up my first seine haul teeming with Grass Pickerel. Then I put my paddle in the substrate to test its firmness and my vision evaporated. My paddle slid through that silt as easily as it had slid through the water above it, and there was no way a person could stand without sinking. No wonder horses got lost. It might have been harder to get over my frustration about expending all that effort to find the lake and then having no way to sample it, except that it was such a beautiful, serene place, and even though we knew we were defeated, we paddled around the entire lake taking in its beauty.

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

In the end, we were redeemed at Grass Lake as one of the banks close to the mouth was clay and allowed us to do our three seine hauls. We caught several Grass Pickerel, including the first Young-of-the-Year of the year. So Grass Lake not only provided me with half of the Grass Pickerel captured during our Muskoka visit, it has also inspired me to develop new gear types for sampling fish in remote areas full of weeds and soft substrate. Canoe electrofisher, perhaps?

Julia Colm

Julia Colm completed her B.Sc in Ecology at the University of Guelph in 2010 and is currently working on her M.Sc at Queen’s University. She is interested in management and conservation of freshwater fisheries and her work at Queen’s focuses on the biology of Grass Pickerel across Ontario.

Something old, something new

For my field work for my master’s, I was in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. I talked a bit about it in my previous post (Home Sweet (mobile) Home) but this place is so amazing I will be writing quite a few posts about it to try to convince you how this place receives names such as “Islands of Beauty” or “Place of Wonder”.

The winter before I went to Haida Gwaii was full of major storms that caused a lot of damage to the islands. Reef Island, where we spent most of our time, got hit very hard by storms, where massive Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red and yellow cedar trees were knocked down including trees that were completely uprooted. Here is a picture of me standing under one of the roots for size comparison (and yes I understand I look a bit too prepared –rain boots, rain pants and jacket, extra rain coat that was way too big for me, PFD, binoculars –but when you are in the ocean on a tiny zodiac this is the only way to stay dry (mostly)).

Standing under the massive roots of a fallen tree

Can you ever be prepared enough for a ride on a tiny zodiac in the ocean?

These fallen trees made it for a fun obstacle course to find all of the nest boxes of seabirds we were looking for. The other researcher I was with is quite a bit older and I thought I would be fit enough to keep up with him. But even with the climbing over and under trees and running beside the edges of the cliffs, he would disappear up the mountain and I would be stumbling behind trying to figure out which way he went!

Unfortunately, the cabin that was on Reef Island was destroyed by the storms and thus we were stuck really “roughing it”. Our 5 star accommodation included tents and a big tarp for our kitchen (based on the views alone I am not joking about the 5 stars). Although we were limited in some luxury items (for instance, I lost my water bottle and was left with a mayonnaise jar filled with water which surprisingly is very hard to get the taste out of) we did have an oven in which we baked a cake. The most simple pleasures always seem so much better when you are out in the field!

Camp at Reef Island

Luxury 5 star accommodation on Reef Island

While I was stumbling after the other researcher, I became fascinated with how the fallen logs provided habitat for new growth. Commonly known as “nurse logs”, the fallen and dying trees provided perfect habitat for new saplings. The coolest nurse logs are the ones that used to be totem poles or structures in the old villages we visited. The purpose of totem poles is to document stories and to represent the family’s status. Although these stories had fallen to the ground, they provided new habitat for other species to begin to grow. I think this is a neat way to look at conservation.

The Haida could not have said it better themselves:

We do not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

-Haida saying, anonymous  

Sapling growing on a fallen log

Sapling growing on a fallen log

plants growing out of totem pole

New plants growing out of an old totem pole

Tree growing on old carving

Can you see what it used to look like?