The Bear Spray Escapade

This week we welcome Jeff Havig, a geochemist currently at the University of Cincinnati to share a story about misused bear spray. For Jeff’s and his colleague’s Allie’s biography check out the end of the post.

The experience in question for me happened when I was part of a larger group collecting geochemical samples of water at springs and outflow channels. A colleague (Allie) and I had broken off from the main group to sample some springs and pools (filter water, collect sediment samples, etc.).

We were in Grizzly country, so we had a can of bear spray with us. While we were sampling, I needed to use the little geochemists room (aka find a tree to pee behind), so I was going to leave the spray with Allie. The can was a few years old, and she was pondering/questioning its efficacy, so I stepped back, checked the wind direction, chose a target, and discharged a short burst at a nearby tree stump (the spray worked fine).

Jeff trying out the bear spray

The picture of the spray that would be Allie’s undoing.

Allie said that it had looked really cool, and so she wanted me to repeat the exercise so that she could get a picture of it. So I rechecked the wind (still light and at my back), took aim at the same tree stump, and discharged a short burst, which Allie did indeed get a picture of.

However, the wind then abruptly shifted, and to my utter surprise and absolute horror, the spray literally took a 90 degree turn mid-flight, and instead of hitting the hapless target stump it proceeded to travel straight at Allie, making full and complete contact with her face.

Following the initial shock, we then proceeded to apply all of our drinking water to her face to try to alleviate the intense burning. She remembers “finding the whole situation hilarious enough to giggle madly”, which made me a little worried that she was getting hysterical. To her credit, she was able to hold rational conversations about what I was doing to help alleviate her suffering as every mucous membrane in her face exploded. After we were nearly out of water, we decided to try using the local silica-rich clay soil/mud to make a slurry for her to rub on her face, which seemed to help.

"Getting sprayed in the face with bear spray had me like..."

“Getting sprayed in the face with bear spray had me like…”

Allie in her pretend trumpet pose

Ricola – a pretend victory trumpet pose after surviving the whole event.

After about an hour, her misery was down to a dull roar, and we packed up to rejoin the main group. Naturally, I felt like a complete and total goon for having shot (albeit indirectly and unintentionally) my colleague (and very good friend) in the face with bear spray! After time this has become a great story to tell, and to her credit, Allie not only still talks to me, but we are still quite good friends and collaborators…a testament to her fortitude and great sense of humor about the whole matter.


Jeff Havig is a geochemist currently at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Geology. He studies the interaction between water, rock, and microbial communities at a wide range of sites including hot springs, redox-stratified meromictic lakes, supraglacial and subglacial environments, and acid mine drainage. He earned his B.Sc. in Environmental Chemistry and M.Sc. in Geology at Washington State University and his Ph.D. in Geochemistry at Arizona State University. He splits his time between filtering water and collecting biofilms in the field, processing samples in the lab, converting gobs of data into manuscripts with his life-collaborator Dr. Trinity Hamilton, and digging around in his garden.

Allie Rutledge is a geologist at Purdue University who is currently working remotely from Clermont-Ferrand, France. She studies glacial weathering using a combination of techniques including remote sensing, spectroscopy, and geochemistry. She is particularly interested in terrestrial analogues to Mars, such as glaciated basalt flows. Allie earned her B.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University and her Ph.D. in Geosciences at Arizona State University. When she isn’t pouring over spectra from Earth and Mars, she can be found hiking the local hills, spending time with her favorite volcanologist (and husband) Jean-François Smekens, and plotting Jeff’s demise for the next time they are in the field together.

Why I fell in love with #fieldwork?

In my third year of Undergrad I took a population ecology course that involved a weekend long trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station. We were doing a study about patterns in size and abundance with one of my favourite plants, milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca). We had worked in a disturbance or no disturbance component to the study and as such needed to choose the proper habitats. We hiked out down the road leading to QUBS to the edge of the main road and set up some plots along a mowed fence line. We stood there discussing methodology and sampling methods for the first several minutes. From the east corner of the field three beautiful horses started trotting towards us. Of course, the data collection was derailed at that point so everyone could get a chance to pet the horses. While this took time away from our data collection, everyone was enjoying themselves so the TA just rolled with it.


Milkweed – A. syriaca

When we got back to work, we needed to set up a random plot and measure the height of each milkweed that was in our plot and record the abundance. I measured the plants and my partner recorded the measurements and counts. I knelt down on the damp September grass and placed the metre stick at the base of the plant. As my eyes followed the numbers up the stick, it went dark…almost as if a giant black cloud rolled over the sky.  My eyes quickly glanced up and there was the head of one of those giant horses staring right down at me.

qubs horse 3

The culprit

Our eyes met and before I realized the horse’s intentions, it was gone. The milkweed was uprooted from the ground and hanging from the horse’s mouth. I stood up and stared amusingly into the horses eyes. She just stared back at me with the milkweed hanging out of her mouth. And then just as quick as she tore it up she bit it in two and then spit it at my feet.

I patted her head and mentioned to the horse that I didn’t think horses liked milkweed and that was a lesson learned. I crouched back down, picked up and measured the two slobbery pieces of the milkweed and moved on to the next tallest milkweed, and before I could even place the ruler at the base of the plant *snap*. This time it wasn’t uprooted but just snapped in half.

She stood there for a split second with that milkweed in her mouth and then “pfft, spat!” spitting it out this time, on her side of the fence.

I stood up and looked her in the eyes with a “so this is how it’s gonna be, eh?” glare. She stared back. Tail swaying in the wind swatting deer flies left and right.

I knelt down by the next plant. And just like the rest…gone. Eventually, we just had to retreat. This horse wanted nothing, and yet absolutely everything to do with our data collection. We moved our experiment to the other side of the road, where it was still a disturbed fence line, but there were no horses to munch on our data.

Of course this experience was frustrating, but it was equally entertaining and was my first fieldwork experience. It remains one of those capstone experiences that likely played a huge role in shaping my interests in ecology and fieldwork today.

I have visited these same horses every year since 2008.

Wildnote…Taking the work out of fieldwork

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Nancy Douglas, the “Ambassador of Buzz” for a neat app called Wildnote. Read on to see what it has to offer field biologists (promising more time in the field and less time with tedious work on the computer!). Check out the end of the post to see how you could get your hands on this useful app. 

Disclaimer: I am not a field biologist. In fact, I don’t even work in a science field, but, I am an enthusiastic supporter of those who are, and somehow over the years I have cultivated friendships with “ologists” of many kinds.

At age seven my favorite book was Charlotte’s Web, and, at age 10, I was thrilled with Never Cry Wolf. My bookcase is filled with true stories that revolve around the natural world. I have the deepest respect and admiration for the immense dedication, patience, and determination that field biologists possess. (Honestly, very few people are crazy enough to ride out in the dead of winter on a snow mobile to check on their salmon babies!.)

When my computer programming friend, Kristen, told me about an app she’s been working on for the last three years geared towards field biologists and environmental consultants, I was instantly interested because I could immediately see the benefits for my scientific friends. I became so excited about her “Wildnote” app that I convinced her to hire me to be her Ambassador of Buzz (Yep, that’s a real title … on my business card!).

Let’s face it, most people who work in the field studying our flora and fauna and collecting data do it because they love their research subject and being outdoors, not because they love spending hours in front of a computer compiling data and formatting it according to agency standards. So, wouldn’t it be cool if there were an app for that? Well, now there is – Wildnote.

homepage of

Brooke Langle and her team from Terra Verde Environmental Consulting in San Luis Obispo, CA have been instrumental in Wildnote’s design and function. They are currently using Wildnote in beta form, and they are extremely pleased with the results thus far. Hours of data entry and formatting have been saved so her team can focus on what counts. When I spoke to her, she told me the following story that some of you field biologists might relate to:

Over the course of my career, I worked my way up to management and realized that what I really loved was fieldwork. So I started my own consulting firm and got back into the field. But, I had forgotten how labor intensive it was to do fieldwork and then translate that into a report – constantly looking up botanical names in Latin and the proper abbreviations for wildlife – I’d be in the field writing everything down in my terrible handwriting and doing it quickly because I was more interested in what I was seeing. I’d then have to go back to the office and make sense of it all. One of my projects took eight hours to put the tables together and format them. It was time consuming and frustrating.”

Examples of survey types in the app.Wildnote takes care of all of that for you. It starts with customizable survey forms and ends with automatic-report generation in your required format with a whole bunch of cool stuff in between. You can check out our website for more details,, but here are the things that grabbed me about this app when my friend told me about it and why I want to create a buzz :

  • It is intuitive, highly secure, easy to use, and beautiful to the eye. I think we can all agree that more beauty in the world is a good thing.
  • It works cross-platform on all of your devices. And, yes, it works offline because many of you are offline and off the grid when you are doing your work.
  • Because your heads are already stuffed full of a lot of important data, it has a comprehensive auto-fill database of North American plants and wildlife to make your life easier.
  • You can attach your photos and video right to your report, as well as the exact geo-location of your identified species.
  • It makes compliance-type reports a snap as the reports are easily duplicated for repeated data collection.

And finally, the team who made this really cares. That’s why I hopped on board – because they care about solving problems and customer happiness, and in the larger picture, the world around us.

A note from Nancy: I encourage you to check out Wildnote to see if it might take away some of your reporting tedium so you can focus on what you really like and need to do. If you’d like to be a beta tester, please sign up on our website:, or send me a note directly at Feel free to email me any questions you might have, or if you’d like to speak to a live person, give me a call at 805-458-2690.

Packing list – items may not be what they seem

For many field biologists, the warmer weather of the spring usually means the field season is about to begin. While others are walking around outside enjoying the sun’s rays on their face without being bundled up, field biologists are rummaging around in their offices and storage closets (not their natural habitat) trying to find all of the items on their packing list for the field season.

Most packing lists will be quite similar – sampling items such as tools and containers, personal protective equipment such as gloves, warm/cool clothes, hat, and sunscreen, and equipment to help you get around such as canoes, ATVs, and good hiking shoes.

However, when you can’t find the fancy science-y equipment, it is often time to put on your thinking cap and get creative about you could use as a replacement. Surprisingly, a lot of items right in front of your eyes usually are able to do the trick (and sometimes even better than the fancy equipment)! There are some great lists compiled by @CMBuddle and @DynamicEcology but we wanted to add some of our own as well.

In honour of trying to fool someone on April 1st, we asked the Twitterverse and our field biologist friends what was the weirdest item on their field packing list.

Here are some of the responses:

Items usually occur in usually large numbers:


Or include household items that now have a new role:


But sometimes you have to get really creative:


But you also have to be careful what you call items:


Because you never know what people might be thinking your “job” is:


But the most important items on your list are ones that will keep you happy:


Tweet us at @fieldworkblog and let us know what the weirdest item on your packing list has been!

Eggs-traodinary Fieldwork

 We are very excited to welcome Michelle Lavery to the blog today. Michelle is currently finishing her MSc thesis at the Canadian Rivers Institute (University of New Brunswick), which examines Atlantic salmon embryo mortality and development in the Miramichi River system. For more about Michelle, see the end of this post. 

Winter is often ignored in ecological studies, for the simple reason that it sucks. It sucks to work in the winter because it’s expensive, difficult, and sometimes dangerous. You need a lot of extra gear like snowmobiles, snowshoes, shovels, augers, and mountains of Thinsulate – not to mention the cost of operating a field camp or finding backwoods accommodation in the snow. The work is often cold and slow, since ropes will freeze into knots, snowmobiles can get stuck, and river ice is often quite thick and temperamental. Frostbite is a genuine concern, as is hypothermia and the risk of falling through river or lake ice. However, when the equipment can be paid for, the workers are willing, and the dangers can be mitigated, winter is the most wonderful and fulfilling season for fieldwork. There aren’t any pesky biting insects, everything is covered in a sparkly white blanket, and you’re never sweaty. Plus, there’s often a lot more going on under the ice than you would expect.

In the spring of 2013, Dr. Rick Cunjak (one of the founders of the Canadian Rivers Institute and a professor at the University of New Brunswick) was on the hunt for a gullible student who would agree to examine how fluctuations in a suite of abiotic factors might be associated with Atlantic salmon embryo mortality and development in the Miramichi River system. Why would they need to be gullible? The project he had in mind required that the student complete two field seasons spanning the fall, winter, and spring – in Northern New Brunswick. Being from Southern Ontario, I had never experienced a Maritime winter. After a brief conversation and a flurry of emails, I began my Masters in September 2013. I had fallen into his well-laid trap and started planning my first field season.


[My kickass salmon-catching team – I couldn’t have done it without them and the giant beach seine] [Credit: Michelle Lavery]

Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, meaning that they spend their juvenile years in freshwater streams and move to the ocean as smolts to feed and grow into adult fish. Once mature, the adults return to their natal freshwater streams over the course of the summer and bury their eggs in streambeds in the fall. These embryos incubate over winter and hatch in the spring, when their macroinvertebrate prey are emerging in high abundances. A river can experience a number of drastic changes over the winter; aside from the obvious drop in temperature, they might experience a considerable change in groundwater contribution and dissolved oxygen concentrations, as well as significant scouring and erosion from various ice formations and breakup processes. But before I delved into how these changes might be affecting salmon embryos, I needed to find some salmon embryos.

In 2013, the Miramichi River had the fewest returning adult Atlantic salmon in 43 years and, let me tell you, we noticed. We were desperately searching for “ripe” salmon – adult fish who haven’t yet spawned – so that we could manually spawn the fish and use their fertilized eggs to fill artificial nests that we had dug in our study rivers. After a full month of searching, seining, and snorkelling (in a wetsuit, in October), we finally found a few adults who suited our needs. Back at the hatchery and early in the morning, we spawned the adults and gently measured out the quantity of embryos we needed using exceedingly technical equipment.


[I firmly believe that a frying pan counts as scientific equipment, even though Kurt seems skeptical.] [Credit: Michelle Charest]

We meticulously filled each cell of over 140 Scotty incubator trays with single fertilized eggs and buried them in our salmon nests. This had to happen in the same day as fertilization, since the embryos are only resilient for a short period of time. Consequently, a lot of incubator burying happened at night, by the light of the moon (and a few headlamps). At one site, I felt something large and very strong slapping me in the kidney while I was burying one of the incubators. I peered into the water to see not one, but five fully grown male Atlantic salmon. I had kicked up lots of sediment while rummaging around for a comfortable spot to kneel and, since I had spawned fish that same morning, I had fluid from female salmon all over my waders. For all intents and purposes, I had become my study species – a ripe female salmon…


[I know, we look like long lost sisters…] [Credit: Nelson Cloud]

A few months later, I returned to my nests to see how the embryos were doing. To rephrase the previous sentence, I snowmobiled for over 50 km, snowshoed for another 8 km while dragging a chainsaw and a large iron ice chisel, dug several holes through metre-think river ice, and retrieved my incubators using a complicated triangulation method involving ropes, trees, and a long measuring tape. Then, I dragged the incubators back the field camp to count and sample them. The snowmobile got stuck more times than I can count, I was tethered to an oak tree and wore a lifejacket to venture onto some shady-looking river ice, and I came up with incredibly colourful compound curse words. To put salt on the frozen wounds, I returned to my redds just after the spring melt, when trucks inevitably get stuck in muddy back roads and field assistants are always grumpy and soggy.


[Ice-digging is an activity of extremes; it can be incredibly rewarding or soul-crushingly disheartening. That smile is 8 hours in the making.] [Credit: Michelle Lavery]

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my field experience for anything. Unlike many of my ecological counterparts, I managed to maintain the majority of my blood volume during fieldwork by avoiding summer mosquitoes. I came away with some fond, frostbitten memories and some killer data. Plus, I have stories that I’ll be able to tell for a lifetime. That’s why we do this crazy stuff in the first place, right?

Michelle became enamoured with Atlantic salmon during a field season in New Brunswick for her Honours project at Queen’s University. Since then, Atlantic salmon embryos have taken over her life. Simultaneously, she’s discovered her passion for science communication. She’s attempting to launch some sort of freelance career while finishing up her Masters thesis. She writes, edits, and consults in exchange for money, favours, or snacks – not in any particular order. You can check out her work at or follow her on twitter (@JMichelleLavery).

Playing for the other team

Among field biologists, like in any other group of people, there are divisions that may not be apparent from the outside.  There are the animal people and the plant people.  The bird people, the frog people, the snake people, the fish people.  No matter how far down you get, there always seems to be another division: groups within groups within groups, like a stack of Russian nesting dolls.

Ever since my first job, I’ve been a bird person – more specifically, I’ve been a songbird person.  With the exception of one summer spent chasing shorebirds in Alaska, all my work has focused on these small, colourful, perching birds.  And I’ve been quite satisfied with this – I saw no reason to go explore the world of, say, waterfowl, or birds of prey.

But I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by seabirds, mostly because seabird people often do field work in the most remote, beautiful, and dramatic places imaginable – from the steep cliffs of Ascension Island to the isolated beaches of the Aleutian Islands.  However, despite a certain jealousy about seabird field sites, I’ve never been that interested in the birds themselves, for one simple reason: the majority of seabirds nest in huge colonies.  These loud, smelly groups of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of birds have never really appealed to me.

One of the things I like best about songbird research is that it usually involves marking birds to allow for individual identification.  As the field season progresses, you get to know the birds within your study population pretty well.  For example, when you check nests, you know ahead of time which birds will launch themselves at your head in a kamikaze attempt at defence, and which birds will only sit and watch, chirping mournfully.  Part of the joy of research, for me, is being able to distinguish those characteristics that make one bird distinct from another.  And I’ve always assumed that this would be much harder, if not impossible, to do in the middle of a chaotic mass of thousands of birds.

But last summer, I got an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.  As I was trudging through long days of data analysis in the office, a former labmate offered me the chance to help her out in the field for a few weeks.  We would be catching and banding Common Terns in a large colony on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.  Colony-nesters or not, there was no way I was turning down an opportunity to get back into the field – so I accepted the job.

From the moment we scrambled out of the boat onto the beach of the island colony, I realized I was in a whole new world.  The first thing I saw was three tern eggs, snuggled into a twig-lined depression in the sand.

My first tern nest!

My first tern nest!

“Ooh!  Nest!  I found a nest!” I cried in excitement.

To put my excitement in context, finding songbird nests usually involves hours or even days of careful detective work.  It requires a lot of patience – a lot of watching, waiting, and hoping for the bird’s behaviour to reveal the slightest clue about the nest’s location.  There are also usually a fair number of wild goose chases, and endless amounts of frustration.  Managing to successfully track a songbird to its nest is always cause for a happy dance.

So after years of working with songbirds, I’m pretty conditioned to be excited when I see a nest.  But no sooner had I gleefully announced my first tern nest sighting when my gaze shifted a few metres up the beach…and there was another one.  And another…and another…and another…

All of a sudden, I started to see the appeal of working with colony-nesting birds.

My second...and third...and fourth...tern nests.

My second…and third…and fourth…and fifth…and sixth…tern nests.

As we picked our way carefully up the beach into the main part of the colony, masses of hysterical terns rose into the air, their grating two-note screams (which, oddly, sounded a lot like the introductory notes of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) making my ears ring.  The smell of the colony – a mix of fish and decaying organic matter – matched the musical theme.  So far, I decided, being in a seabird colony was pretty much what I’d expected: overwhelmingly loud and smelly.

However, once we’d set up our blind and hidden ourselves from sight, things calmed down a bit.  A few minutes after we disappeared from view, the circling crowd of terns above us began to descend, and the cacophony began to quiet.  I watched as nearby birds returned to their nests, dropping out of the air with their feet stretched towards the ground, then wiggling themselves into position over the eggs.  They all finished with their wings crossed and tails pointing out at a 45 degree angle – fitting onto the nest like the lid on a jar of cookies.

Time to sit on those eggs again...

Time to come on down…

...and wiggle into the right position.

…and sit on those eggs again.

As more and more terns returned to their nests, quiet descended over the colony. I could hear the waves out on the lake and the wind rustling the island’s sparse vegetation.  I was just starting to relax…when suddenly, the colony rose into the air again, hundreds of birds moving as one.  To me, sitting in the blind, the sudden rush of wings felt a bit like being inside a snow globe, or maybe an Escher painting: terns rising up all around me, the sound of endless beating wings almost like the sail of a boat flapping in the wind.

A blizzard of terns.

A blizzard of terns.

For the next two weeks, we spent a lot of time watching the colony, and every day, the pattern was the same: short periods of calm, punctuated with frequent episodes of mass panic.  And the longer I watched, the more I realized that the individual quirks I love so much in songbirds were also evident in the terns.  For example, each time the colony flushed, there would be one or two individuals reluctant to follow the trend.  They’d stay sitting on their nests until long after everyone else was up in the air.  And it always seemed to be the same birds that stuck around while everyone else circled above.  I started to wonder: were those birds braver than the others?  Smarter?  Or maybe just lazier?  I came to the conclusion that, while the sheer number of birds in a colony may make it difficult to observe behaviour on an individual level, it is possible – and those distinctive personality traits are certainly there if you look for them.

I’m not saying I’m giving up on the songbirds: I doubt that will ever happen.  But my brief sojourn in the world of seabirds convinced me that it’s a place I’d like to visit more often.

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Fieldwork in Ecuador: Alpaca my bags

We are excited to welcome Andrew Labaj to the blog this week. Andrew is a PhD student in the PEARL lab here at Queen’s University and tells us all about his time doing fieldwork in Ecuador. For more about Andrew see the end of this post.

Field work is one of the most exciting aspects of graduate school for many of us in biology. In my field, the majority of time is spent in front of a microscope or computer screen, so the opportunity to get outside, get some fresh air, and actually visit the study sites is great! My field is paleolimnology, the study of lakes and how they (and the environments around them) change through time. Lakes record a massive amount of environmental information within their sediments, and this can be extracted and examined to reconstruct past environmental variables. Because the environmental monitoring record is frequently missing or severely lacking in detail (for example, monitoring of lake pH doesn’t extend before 1909 – the pH scale hadn’t even been invented then!), paleolimnological methods are often the only way to gain insight into how an environment has changed over long time scales. My PhD focuses on how climate change has impacted the high-elevation lakes of the Andes Mountains. Alpine regions are experiencing temperature increases at an elevated rate compared to the global average, making them important sentinels of climate change. We can use the lakes in this region to track the onset of climate change, and better understand how the environment has changed as a result of anthropogenic impacts to date. Furthermore, understanding the impacts of climate change on high-elevation water resources is critical, as many Andean societies depend on these systems for drinking water, agriculture, and hydroelectricity generation.

Anyway, with that background aside, let’s get into why you’re here…to hear about field work in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador! My first South American field season took place in early-August 2014, just after the civic holiday weekend. This was my first time going to a different continent, so I was understandably somewhat nervous about the whole thing. Luckily though, I was going with two very experienced colleagues (Neal Michelutti and Chris Grooms) who had both been to South America before, and could communicate in Spanish. On the advice of my lab mates, I bought myself a good rain jacket and rain pants, and found some of my winter clothing (that had long been packed away for the summer). I was constantly having to explain to people that, yes Ecuador is an equatorial country, but its high-mountain regions can be COLD!

We decided to bring all our equipment with us as luggage (rather than Fed-Ex it), which required careful packing, since a lot of it is bulky, and some of it is fragile. After a full day of travel, we landed in Quito. This is when we realized that none of our luggage (or equipment) made it there with us (though happy to say that we had better luck during our second field season, and everything made it through). There wasn’t much we could do at that point, so we filed a lost luggage report, stayed the night, and traveled on to Cuenca (the closest city to our field sites) the next morning.

We stayed in a hotel the first couple nights, as we couldn’t get any sampling done without equipment, and the clothing we had packed into our carry-on luggage wasn’t really sufficient for staying at the un-heated cabin at the field site. Although it was annoying, this did provide a great chance to explore Cuenca, check out the amazing historic buildings, and get a taste for the culture there. You have to always be aware of where you are walking; the sidewalks are narrow and often have holes and unexpected steps that can catch the uninitiated tourist off-guard!

Cuenca City Hall

Cuenca City Hall

Cathedral in Cuenca

Cathedral in Cuenca

After a day and a half, our luggage and equipment finally made it through, and we headed up to El Cajas National Park, our home for the next week. The park ranger station, where we were staying, is at an elevation of about 3,900 m above sea level. I’m certainly not in top shape, but it was a strange feeling getting winded walking uphill a few meters or going up a set of stairs. Although I got used to the elevation after a few days, there would still be times I got very light-headed. The weather at our field sites could best be described as ‘wet refrigerator’ – very humid, around 1-4 ºC, and rainy. We would see clouds blow up the hillside while we were coring lakes, and within a minute or two would be enveloped within the cloud, a very wet place indeed. Sometimes, the fog would get so thick, it was impossible to see more than a few meters in any direction – the rain jacket and pants were a good investment. At a few of the lakes, my hands became so cold that I wasn’t able to move them anymore. We brought waterproof gloves with us on our second field season that helped with this.

El Cajas landscape

El Cajas landscape

Cajas trail

El Cajas trail

The cabin at the ranger station (dubbed the “refugio”) had most of the comforts of home, and it was very convenient to have a dry (albeit still somewhat damp from all the humidity) place to sleep at night. The refugio wasn’t heated, but with good sleeping bags, it did the trick. There was a washroom and shower which was nice, though use of hot water was discouraged, as it used propane, so I became accustomed to cold showers (they build character anyway). Toilet paper was not to be taken for granted – on our second field season, we found that the TP had been replaced with a stack of old wildlife sighting sheets instead! This wasn’t a problem; we had brought our own anyway. The refugio was great because it was so close to the lakes we were sampling, though near the end of our second field season, the weather got so miserable that we finally decided to pack up and stay in a hotel in Cuenca where we could have a hot shower and dry out a bit more at the end of the day.

Refugio with our truck

The cabin at the ranger station (dubbed the “refugio”)

Ranger station and refugio from across Laguna Toreadora

“Refugio” from across Laguna Toreadora

The landscape around the park was beautiful and like nothing I have witnessed before. Most of our lakes involved at least some hike to reach, and this provided the chance to experience the scenery up close. You don’t realize how big some of the hills are until you have to scale them! We were lucky enough to secure a trail map of the park (surprisingly rare, we had to take good care of it), and this helped us find our lakes for the most part, though there were a few trails that differed substantially in real life from how they were marked on the map. Despite this, we were able to reach all the lakes that we intended to.

Laguna Toreadora

Laguna Toreadora

Llama at Toreadora

Llama at Laguna Toreadora

It is inevitable in a paleolimnology field season that one will spend a significant amount of time being both wet and muddy. The first year we visited, we brought two vinyl ‘recreation grade’ dinghies with us, one to use as a backup. These were small and light, and so worked well with our strategy of bringing the equipment as luggage. We realized within a couple days that this was going to be a challenge, as it became apparent that we were pushing them to their design limits (carrying two adults + sampling equipment). While we were coring Laguna Fondococha, the lake with the longest (several hour) hike in, our dinghy decided it had had enough, and began the process of deflating. While we were in it. In the middle of the (very) cold lake. We were able to quickly retrieve our sediment core and make it back to shore, where we temporarily patched the flaccid vessel with duct tape. This bought us enough time to deploy our temperature probes. We smartened up the next year and brought a Zodiac with us. Although it was heavier to carry to our sites, we didn’t have to worry about destroying it. Most of the lakes we worked on were a challenge to core, as the sediments at the surface were rather “soupy,” and the corer would sink too far in. Luckily, Neal is very adept at taking cores, and we eventually got what we needed from all the lakes.

Chris sectioning a sediment core at Llaviucu

Chris sectioning a sediment core

During our first field season, we deployed water temperature probes into 4 of the lakes, hoping to gain insight into the thermal stratification patterns of these tropical systems over the course of the year. We were fairly careful in planning how this was going to work: a large fishing float at the top, a sack of rocks as an anchor, with the probes spaced in between. Luckily, boating on the lakes is prohibited to the public (and there really wouldn’t be much point of boating on them anyway), so we figured they would be safe for the year. However, around May, we received an email from one of the park managers, informing us that the float had been found at the shore of one of the lakes. The strong winds on the lake must have dislodged it. NOT GOOD! We had taken the GPS location of the floats and probes the year prior, and by some miracle spotted the string and probes just under the water’s surface (while caught in super dense fog with zero visibility). After retrieving the data, we repaired the float and re-deployed the probes. The floats and probes from the other 3 lakes were fine. I can only hope that everything is in good shape for our next visit!

Detached temp probe float

Detached temperature probe float

At the completion of our first field season, we sent our water and sediment samples home via Fed-Ex, to make sure that they cleared customs and would make it back safely. This worked well, but was more expensive than I ever would have imagined. The next year, it was decided that I would take the samples back with me as luggage (Chris and Neal were going on to do further work in Peru that I was unable to attend). It was a bit nerve-wracking having to leave the cooler full of sediment sitting out on a cart at the airport in Guayaquil after I had checked in, but luckily, the samples made it back through the 3 flights to Kingston unscathed.

Before I finish, I’d like to take a minute to thank the staff of El Cajas National Park and ETAPA (the government agency that oversees the park) for their assistance in the field and with the project so far. Navigating the permitting process in foreign countries is not always straightforward, and their help with applying for permits and providing information about the park has been greatly appreciated! I am hoping to have a third field season in South America this coming summer, perhaps this time making it to Peru as well. It’s been an adventure so far and I am truly thankful that I have had the chance to see this amazing part of the world!


Andrew Labaj is a PhD candidate at the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) at Queen’s University. Andrew completed his BScH in Biology in 2012, and his MSc in 2014, both at Queen’s. He got his start in paleolimnology in the summer of his 3rd year, when he worked as a research assistant at PEARL. His MSc project focused on assessing biological recovery from acidification, and he has previously completed field work in Muskoka, Killarney, and Sudbury, Ontario. When he is not staring at their sediments down a microscope, Andrew enjoys swimming, boating, and spending as much time as possible around lakes.