The spider forest

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome guest blogger Scott Lillie, the author of the book “Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist“. Check out his bio at the end of the post!

One summer I found myself doing nesting bird surveys for the federally threatened south western willow flycatcher. While most of June I spent bushwhacking through thick forests of tamarisk in extreme temperatures one day I got a different opportunity, kayak surveys. There were some parts of the lake that still flowed well into the forested areas, and while the tamarisk could not survive being inundated with water, the native willows and cottonwoods could. The idea of gently floating on the lake listening for birds calls sounded amazing, but there turned out to be a catch.

My expectations did not match the reality. My site was filled with dead trees half underwater. Everywhere I looked the dead trees expanded for what seemed like miles. Paddling was no longer an option, and so I simply pulled my kayak along using the dead trees.

After paddling a few feet into the dead forest I felt something hit my face: sticky threads of a spider web. I turned the kayak slightly to get a view looking into the sunrise, and my stomach dropped. When the first rays of the sun hit the dead trees, thousands of large spider webs began to shine in the sun. Every tree was connected by them. It reminded me of something out of a horror movie. There was no going around them. I knew I could not call off my surveys because of spiders. If I did, I might as well just pack up my tent, go home, and throw away my diploma because my career as a biologist would be over. Time to grow up. I swallowed my fear and started in.

At first, I was using my paddle to cut through the webs, but after almost tipping over twice I just started using my hands—no need to endanger the $1000 pair of binoculars they gave me to avoid spider webs. After making pretty good progress in the forest I felt something crawling on my head. I lost it. I flailed madly. I made contact with one of my frantic blows. It was a spider, a large brown spider. It hit the water of the lake and—to my horror—the spider stayed afloat. It could run on the water due to the surface tension, and came right back to my kayak. At this point, I stopped looking for birds and looked at my kayak. This was another bad choice. I saw three more large spiders on the front of my kayak, then another climbing on the side. I feel like I handled myself heroically until I felt the ones on my legs. I immediately leaned over to reach into the kayak and hit the spider on my leg. The shift in weight made my kayak lurch sharply to the right, and just like in training, I over corrected, and into the water I went.

Now I was floating in water holding my $1000 pair of binoculars over my head in one hand and holding onto the kayak with the other. I looked around. No shore in site. I knew the closest shore was through the spider forest. I knew it, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.

It was almost a quarter of a mile to shore. A quarter mile of swimming in hiking boots and dragging a kayak! After finally making it to shore I emptied the water out of the kayak and laid some of my wet clothes to dry on top of my kayak to dry. I decided to take a break and sit in the shade for a minute.

I ended up nodding off to sleep. It was just a brief nap. Upon walking back to the kayak to retrieve my clothes, I was surprised to find one of the largest western diamondback rattlesnakes I have ever seen stretched out next to my kayak. Most days, I would have loved to see it, but since I had surveys to do and it was essentially guarding my clothes, it was rather inconvenient.

An encounter with a snake in the field

 

I decided to stomp my feet and try to scare it away. If you ever want to feel ridiculous, try yelling and stomping your feet at a five-foot-long rattlesnake while wearing nothing but your boxers. Needless to say, it did not go away. Instead, it retreated to safety underneath my kayak, which I had flipped upside down to dry out. After a minute, I flipped the kayak and the snake immediately started rattling and backing up to the kayak again.

I was able to retrieve my boots, which had been placed at the base of the kayak. I found a stick to move the snake. Having never even moved a rattlesnake by myself before, moving it with just a tree branch proved difficult. Unlike in the movies, the snake did not chase me. In fact, it proved to be rather stubborn about moving at all. After accidently poking at it multiple times I eventually got the branch under the snake, lifted, and before I moved more than a foot the snake flopped off the branch. It immediately put its back to the kayak again. I tried again, got the branch under the snake, and lifted, this time moving the snake two feet before it fell off. I wasted no time and put the branch down in front of it again. After a very tense five minutes, I got the snake away from the kayak.

Eventually, I did end up completing my surveys and even found a nest. Looking back I always appreciate that day. Even a bad day in the field beats the best day in the office.

Scott LillieScott Lillie has nearly ten years of wildlife experience in the south west United States, Missouri,       and Georgia. He is also the author of Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist     (https://www.createspace.com/5246146 ). He currently works as an environmental consultant in southern California.

 

Oh Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please don’t kill me

As most of you know, I work in abandoned agricultural fields. If you compare old fields to some of the other remote, dangerous areas we’ve featured stories from, this is a relatively safe area to work. The fields I work in are not remote, I usually have cell service, and there are no dangerous predators roaming around. Fieldwork in these old fields can be quite dangerous however.

The sun is my absolute worst enemy. Again, as I have probably mentioned, I am mainly interested in relationships between abundance and body size in plants. This involves a lot, and I mean a lot, of counting. Counting plants isn’t all that bad if it’s early on in the season (before July), but generally when I do abundance counts, I am interested in reproductive abundance, therefore, the plants I count must reproduce (or have been given a chance to) which means I can’t count them until at least part way through July. Conveniently, this overlaps nicely with the time it starts to get really hot and humid in southern Ontario.

Imagine this. You’re in the middle of an old field. You arrive at your field site, where the grass is taller than you are, and the landscape is decorated with little shots of yellow and pink as the wildflowers thrive in the warm summer weather. It’s hot and sticky as you approach your first plot to count abundance in. The sun heats the back of your neck, deer flies buzz around your head and thistles scrape the legs of your pants. You get down on your hands and knees and start carefully sorting through the vegetation below, making note of what you find.

Now, this might not seem all that bad. In fact, to some it might even sound pretty enjoyable. But let’s fast forward1.5 hours (about how long it takes to get through one plot). You count your final few ramets, and feeling accomplished, you lift your neck up, take your hands off the ground and push yourself up off your knees and onto your feet. That feeling of accomplishment quickly turns to confusion.

After staring at the ground for so long, when you lift your head up the bright rays of the sun are so intense you can barely open your eyes. As you squint, your head starts to spin and you actively try to keep your balance. Your stomach feels all kinds of unpleasant things. Your heart beats a little faster and each breath you take is a little closer to the last one as your brain tries to comprehend what is happening to your body. You have two options: collapse back onto your knees or compose yourself enough to get out of the sun and recover.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at choosing the latter and retreating to the shade with water. But early on in my time as a field biologist, I would ignore the signs and end up sick, sometimes for days. I’ve (mostly) learned my lesson since then and in fact, this year we even invested in a sun shelter to use while we sample. It might be a pain in the ass to haul around to each plot but boy does it make a difference.

The sun is a real danger for work like this and for many field biologists. It’s so important to take all of the steps necessary to stay safe in the sun, and most importantly, listen to your body’s warning signs because it knows best.

Standing by one of the plots I will count abundance in this summer

Standing by one of the plots I will count abundance in this summer

The things they don’t tell you…

This week, Dispatches from the field welcomes guest writer Kathryn Stewart to share some of the things she has learned through doing different types of fieldwork but that you are not usually prepared for!

Look, we’re friends right?! And as friends I feel we can have uncomfortable conversations. So let’s get this out in the open for good.

There are two types of scientists in this world:

Hard-core field scientists and those left with a kernel of self-respect / dignity.

What do I mean by that? Well, when you have food poisoning while traveling through different countries…do you keep your dignity trapped in your chest waders? Do you try to waddle to a proper bathroom, or better yet try to convince a trusted assistant to drive you to one? OR do you run for the nearest bush and let nature take its course, all-the-while thinking about the potential data you’re missing out on?

…see where I’m going with this?

Listen, I’m going to make this post a little easier on you and ease your trepidation in scrolling down this page. THIS POST WILL NOT CONTAIN PHOTOS! But what it will contain is a glimpse into a mind-set that is admittedly all-together unhealthy but not uncommon among your field comrades.

I, myself, have relinquished all types of bodily fluids into the depths of the great-outdoors and I have NEVER regretted it. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way, shape or form, a boasting platform. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also would never waste precious time on dignified moments of peace when I might possibly be within the grasp of getting the perfect data-set. Or at the very least, not going home (tent/cabin/car) after a long day and crying alone about the follies of my research design…out of ear-shot from my field assistants of course.

These tid-bits are something that people rarely talk about. Sure, people will sometimes ask if you are ok to pee in the woods but when you drive out at 5am to watch birds with a group of 5 people for 8 hours and not one person admits to having to defecate….well, it’s not that they have perfectly trained their bodies to the exact minute they return to a walled-abode (of some type) over the course of months. They simply do it in the forest and move on with their lives.

When you expect yourself (and everyone around you) to work 7 days a week for 4 months straight with little to no interaction with people and then one glorious morning you awake to find out temperatures have dropped 20 degrees, tornadoes are on the horizon, and hail is falling like Cadillac’s from the sky – perhaps you reward yourself with one too many beers. You wake up hungover like a 16 year old and stagger into the field only to run to a bush, vomit, and continue on as if nothing happened. THIS IS FIELD WORK. It’s not your most pleasant moment, but if an impending brown-streak in your pants won’t get you to stop your data collection, a little vomit isn’t going to get you down either.

I’ve personally crab-walked away from supervisors about to approach during awkward moments, and I’ve been on the receiving end of glimpsing things I shouldn’t have. I’ve drank too much without missing a second of work, I’ve eaten questionable tacos, and sat on fire-ants with my pants around my ankles. We shake these images out of our heads because like all obsessive-compulsive data-collecting robots, we love science, and science is often gross…but the rewards are always worth it.

So if you’re an aspiring undergrad about to embark on your first field collections, by all means don’t feel OBLIGATED to vacate your body of all its toxins. No one will force you, but also keep your wits about you…you never know what kind of carnage you might stumble upon. If you’re a well-seasoned grad student, you know all too well what I preach here. Know that you are not alone – also, I saw what you did and my lips are sealed. Promise.

Who’s the boss?

A few weeks before I started my first field assistant job, my friends all contributed to buy me a full set of rain gear for my birthday.  The rubbery, canary yellow jacket and pants were definitely not a fashion statement (at least, not one I wanted to be making), but I was extremely grateful nonetheless.  I assumed that being a field biologist would mean working in all sorts of unpleasant weather conditions, and I wanted to be prepared.

But shortly after arriving at QUBS, I found out that ornithologists have a reputation for being wimps when it comes to bad weather.  In fact, there’s a longstanding tradition that birders don’t work at all when it’s raining, because birds don’t do anything in the rain.  (How we know this without going out in the rain to check is something that we don’t talk about.)

I was – not surprisingly – very pleased to hear this.  I like the outdoors as much as the next person (actually, at that point, that wasn’t true, but it was growing on me), but I’m not a fan of wandering around in soggy clothes – and it soon became clear that, while my shiny new rain gear did indeed keep out the rain, it also made me sweat so much that I got soaked from the inside out anyway.  I folded the rain suit back into my suitcase with a relieved sigh.

However, less than a week later, I found myself pulling it back out.  What I quickly came to realize is that there’s a giant loophole in the ‘no working in the rain’ rule.  While it is true that ornithologists don’t usually catch and band birds in the rain, there are plenty of other field duties that can easily be performed even if everyone else is contemplating building an ark.  If you happen to study a cavity nesting bird, like the tree swallow, then you can certainly monitor nests in the rain.  And if you’re looking to re-sight colour banded birds, then the rain can actually make your job easier because the birds tend to move less..

The upshot is that I have spent many hours on many different field jobs staring through rain-streaked binocular lenses, trying to see colour bands on soggy birds and ignore the rain dripping down the back of my collar.  And from this experience, I have determined that there’s a strong correlation between the number of clothing layers the rain has soaked through and the frequency and intensity of thoughts of mutiny.

I always thought that when I was in charge, things would be different.  With a whole breeding season to collect data, I reasoned, who cares if you lose a few days to inclement weather conditions?  I swore up and down that no field assistant of mine would ever find themselves courting trench foot as they squelched home at the end of a long, wet, miserable day.

Little did I know.

 

The first year I ran my own field season was an eye opening experience.  Before that, I’d only given fleeting thought to what kind of boss I’d be (except for the no-working-in-the-rain thing; I’d thought about that a lot).  If you’d asked me, I would have probably said I’d be easy to work for – after all, I’m pretty approachable and relaxed, and I hate working in soggy clothes.  I might even have guessed that I’d really enjoy the chance to mentor students just starting out in field biology.

The reality turned out to be totally different.  What I hadn’t considered was the toll that collecting data for my own project would take – not to mention the strain of projecting an air of confidence and authority when I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  That first year, I spent most of the field season stressed, frustrated, and running on 4 hours of a sleep a night.  It’s hard to be a mentor to anyone under those conditions.

Being in charge was a totally new experience for me: I’d never been anyone’s boss before, and I had no idea how to go about doing any of the things I needed to do – starting with interviewing prospective candidates.

Even under the best of circumstances, I think interviews are a pretty awkward experience.  But in the case of field assistant jobs, they tend to be even worse, perhaps because what you’re really evaluating is whether the candidate’s personality is compatible with yours.  Because of this, I discovered, it is very easy to forget to ask vital questions – meaning that you can later find yourself stuck on an island, trying to re-sight colour banded birds with a field assistant who is colour blind.

Sometimes, you just need to take a break...

Sometimes, you just need to take a break…

I also didn’t know anything about recognizing someone’s breaking point.  When it’s your own data you’re collecting, your tolerance level increases dramatically – at least, mine did.  It’s easy, when you’re in the thick of fieldwork, to forget that these people who soldier alongside you do not have the same stake in the data as you.   Walking home late one evening with my first field assistant, I realized rather abruptly that there are points beyond which you really should not push people.  As we trudged along the Sable Island beach, an angry gull swooped towards us, buzzed our heads, and then crapped all over my assistant’s hat.  He stopped in his tracks, stood stock still for a second…and then took off after the gull, screaming profanities and hurling our mist net poles in its general direction.  I decided on the spot that he was taking the next day off.

Being in charge, I realized quickly is that the boss-employee relationship becomes a bit blurry when it comes to fieldwork.  When you’re working, eating, and living with someone, you get to know them pretty quickly – and while that makes it easy for friendships to develop, it also makes it inevitable that you’re going to get frustrated sometimes.  And that goes both ways.  I’m sure my disorganization sometimes drove my field assistants up the wall – they learned fast to never, ever ask, “What are we doing tomorrow?”

My father releasing a bluebird in the Okanagan Valley, BC.

That’s right, Dad…I’m in charge now!

And that boss-employee relationship can become significantly more complicated depending on who your employee is.  For example, it can be quite awkward giving orders to your PhD advisor’s daughter.  Or to your parents: I was lucky enough to have my Dad volunteer to help me during all three of my PhD field seasons – and while it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with him, the role reversal involved in me telling him what to do was a bit disconcerting.

After running six of my own field seasons, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a bit better at being the boss – but mostly I think the credit for these successfully completed field seasons goes to the incredible group of field assistants I’ve been lucky enough to work with.  They’ve rescued me in so many ways over the years – acting as my personal translator when my grasp of Spanish proved inadequate for the Dominican Republic, spending hours staking out a mist net to catch the one bird I really needed, refusing to let me drive when I was really, really sleep deprived, and making me laugh when I most needed it.  Though I’m sure that I’ve given each and every one of them cause to contemplate mutiny, I’ve appreciated their patience, enthusiasm, and sense of humour more than I can say.

But I still make them work in the rain.

Walking home at the end of a long day.

Heading home after a long day in the field.

 

 

Dispatches from the field turns one!

Great stories frequently come out of fieldwork, but all too often, field biologists have nowhere to tell them. So one year ago, the three of us started this blog, Dispatches from the Field, to provide a place to share those stories. We debuted Dispatches at the Queen’s University Biology Station open house last year and we were excited to be a part of this year’s open house – especially since it was the 70th anniversary of QUBS!

Photo of the blog writers at eh open house

From left to right: Founding bloggers Catherine, Sarah & Amanda

Although the year has flown by, we have had quite a few accomplishments:

1. We’ve published 56 posts – some of our own, some from amazing guest bloggers. We’ve heard about massive cane toads in Australia, about getting lost in Patagonia, about the pigeon guillemot mobile nest in Haida Gwaii, and about the rarest and quietest lessons of the Arctic. And we’ve published many posts about fieldwork at QUBS – because sometimes the best stories are from close to home, such a face to face encounter with massive black rat snakes.

2. We’ve attracted readers from all over the world – thank you! We’ve had nearly 8000 views from over 80 countries, which is a lot more than we expected! A year ago we were convinced that only our parents would read our blog.

Map of where our readers are from.

Readers from around the world.

 

3. We were featured on WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” site, which highlights unique and interesting blogs, from editors’ picks to community favourites.

4. We were awarded the 2014 Editor’s Choice award in the Communication, Outreach, and Education category by Science Borealis, a network of Canadian Science bloggers.

5. We’ve organized several evening programs  at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, where we bring in guest bloggers to share their stories as we go for a hike and sit around a campfire. Don’t miss your chance to hear about the highs and lows of fieldwork, and experience the field firsthand.  The next Dispatches from the Field Night at Elbow Lake is happening July 14th at 7pm – you should come check it out! (It’s free; details on the ELEEC website).

We are thrilled with the success of Dispatches from the Field thus far, and are excited to see what the second year of blogging will bring. We hope to bring you new and exciting stories from all over the world, giving everyone a behind the scenes look at what fieldwork is really like, and giving field biologists a place to share the stories that inspire them.

Wires, funnels, and seedlings: studying plant establishment in California

They did not cover this in graduate school: “Now, what do you need these funnels for?” Me, deadpan, “Have you heard of climate change?” Thus began an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful conversation with a big box store clerk.

Another thing I did not learn in graduate school: I am reaching for the top of a t-post, balancing next to a gopher hole on a steep grassy slope, squinting into the sunlight, and figuring out what my hands are telling me about the state of the sensor wires above my head. They disappear into a solar shield and I know there is a problem with the wire somewhere. Meanwhile, the searing heat of the ground on my boots, so early in the spring, is telling me something about the slope I’m standing on, and why I have found no live seedlings here.

A common garden exclosure with a weather station. Tejon Ranch foothills, California.

A common garden exclosure with a weather station. Tejon Ranch foothills, California.

I am studying microclimate and plant establishment in the foothills and montane areas of the Sierra Nevada and Tehachapi Mountains in California. What I do on a daily basis draws from both my hands-on fieldwork experience and my ability to notice and describe important factors as a biologist. The project I work on also relies on the knowledge and hard work of hydrologists, biogeographers and others to fully understand the patterns of establishment of our plant study species. But the data for the whole team begins where our boots hit the ground. And I love it.

On a recent excursion our first challenge is the forecast: on the eve of the trip, I learned that the atmospheric low that had promised to come in later in the week is going to come in smack-dab when I’ll be driving roads that get “sketchy” when they are wet. I’m working on Tejon Ranch land, together with Jason, a local biologist. We have 32 field hours to download 270 sensors, 12 weather stations, and census up to 500 seedlings (if we can), and I know I’m going to lose a day to the weather.

Since we have a day or so before the weather comes in, we cruise straight out in my boss’s Nissan 4×4. Our goal for the day is to download all of the microclimate sensors at several of the foothill “common garden” plots. We’ve planted 5 foothill and montane tree species into exclosures at 12 different locations at this site. We’re learning that the south-facing gardens are a tough place for seedlings (even hardy drought-tolerant species), especially during a drought.

 

Temperature data loggers with funnels shielding the thermocouples at 5cm above the ground.

Temperature data loggers with funnels shielding the thermocouples at 5cm above the ground.

“Now, what do you need these funnels for?” UV radiation is also a harsh deal for plastic in the foothills, and particularly so on an exposed slope. One of the first things we notice is that our radiation-blocking solar shields are smashed at our south-facing garden. Nearly all of them. Jason quips, “last fall, I said I ‘pity the fool’ who has to come out and deal with these sensors in the spring!” We laugh, since we are the unfortunate fools. Replacing these shields involves undoing the stabilizing steel wires, prying the stopper out of the plastic, getting the wires back into a new funnel, and reassembling it. All this has to happen while practically laying on the ground, in sharp Bromus (grass) seed, reaching under a wire cage. Most sensors themselves are still working fine, so we’re relieved that we don’t have to fully disassemble the structures. We get to work.

Tejon Ranch is a neat place to work; a unique biodiverse area that encompasses several vegetation types and spans from the Mojave Desert on the Antelope Valley side, up over 6800’ then down to foothill oak woodland in the Central Valley to the north. Here, more than any other field site, we need to take special care to clean up all of the small plastic pieces, or microtrash, that we find around our sensors. The California condor, an iconic and endangered species, occurs here (in fact, on the last day of this excursion, I will sit and watch a condor cruise over my head). Microtrash creates a hazard for these birds, as, given the opportunity, they will bring pieces back to their nestlings, where it clogs the GI tract of the young birds. Condor biologists sometimes must empty the gullets of these nestlings so they can survive.

Truck parked on the rolling hills.

View from a south-facing common garden at a montane site on Tejon Ranch.

Over the next two days, we manage to replace funnel after funnel. It’s time they were replaced anyway. Although the data for those sensors cannot be used because of the damage, thankfully we’re catching these now, before the summer season, when we really want to measure ground-level temperature. However, we run out of funnels, and leading to the eventual, slightly absurd conversation with a store clerk, in an attempt to describe how this household item is used in scientific research.

As expected, Friday’s weather is poor and we need to wait for extra funnels to arrive. Fortunately, it’s a day we get to meet up with a new member of the collaborative team and we can show him around the field site on a few of the sturdier roads. He is a fire ecologist, working to predict wildfire, and ultimately gap occurrence on the landscape. Gaps are opportunities for our sun-loving study species to establish. He’s collecting fuel moisture samples to help parameterize their models.

Driving on the more sturdy roads

 

Showing him around, we drive up and over the top of the ranch, getting a great look at the landscape, for which we hope to ultimately inform management. Due to the requirements of temperature and moisture for seedling establishment in conjunction with future conditions, these foothill woodland landscapes may not look the same in the future. If the foothill landscapes become drier, seedlings may begin to establish in areas that are further and further upward in elevation. However, there are existing species at these elevations that may not give up space. As we drive I imagine the shuffling and shifting that will occur with an upward trudge of species.

That’s why we’re hoping that the fire and disturbance modeling team can determine how gaps and opportunities for seedlings may occur in these landscapes.

 

View from the truck - rolling hills and few trees.

In the end, I do need my extra day. I’m on my own, so GPS, SPOT unit, bear spray, orange vest and cell phone in tow, I trudge all over the field site, downloading and servicing our “landscape array” of sensors. With each wire I need to reshape, PVC capsule I need to deconstruct or sensor cage I need to repair, I know that I’m contributing to our knowledge of how microclimate influences the establishment of plants in heterogeneous environments, now and into the future. I hear the project principal investigator’s voice in my mind telling me, to “count each download as a success!” I know that the modeling team is already hard at work, and they’ll be happy that I’ve returned, a little exhausted, data in hand.

 

Lynn Sweet bio picture

Lynn Sweet is an ecologist, working to understand establishment of plants in complex landscapes. She is from Maine and studied biology at Dickinson College, and plant biology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). She credits her research career to her diverse field experiences before graduate school, from working in a forest insect lab to monitoring southwestern willow flycatcher nest sites. Since receiving her PhD at UCR, she has worked for the University of California, Santa Barbara on an interdisciplinary team on the field project described here, with the goal of better predicting future plant distribution. She is now a researcher with the Center for Conservation Biology at UCR studying ecosystems in the Colorado and Mojave Desert of California.

 

 

To sink or swim – wet waders and heavy rocks

During the Fall of 2013 I was in between contracts for work and was really itching to get outside into the field. I decided I would reach out to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) to see if they needed any volunteers. Luckily, fall can be a busy time for them. The water keeps flowing and there are projects in the field that still need to be done but their summer students have left for school.

I was super excited to have the chance to be in the field again. Also, I would be in the field as a volunteer, meaning the whole project wasn’t resting on my shoulders and my decisions. This was going to be easy right??

One project I helped out with was monitoring benthic invertebrates (or “bugs”) that inhabit streams. We put on our waders and used a net to “sweep” the bottom to catch whatever bugs were living in the stream. The composition of species found in the streams can help determine the health status of a stream. We sampled in streams that were in a natural state and ones that were impacted by residential areas (guess which type was my favourite to sample!). A lot of the natural streams were fast flowing which made it hard to stand upright at times. However, I didn’t mind tipping over when the water was clear – it was only in the human impacted streams where I hoped that I did not take a wrong step.

On the boat with buckets of gravel.

Ready to lift heavy rocks – still smiling!

There was one artificial stream where the water level didn’t look too high. So as the eager volunteer, I said I would bring the measuring tape to the other side. I took a few steps and my boots started to stick a bit to the bottom. I didn’t think too much about it, as I didn’t want to be that volunteer who couldn’t make it across this small stream. As I got closer to the middle of the stream, the bottom dropped off quicker and I was sinking more into the clay bottom. At the deepest point, the water level was almost at the top edge of my waders. It was a good thing that I could not move very fast, otherwise the waves might have gone over the top (not the type of water you want to be soaked with)! Unfortunately, even though I was very careful about the top of my waders, somehow they ripped at the knee and I ended up with boots full of water anyway. In the end, wet socks were worth it to be able to say I helped sample “bugs”!

Another very cool project I helped RVCA with was The Otty Lake Fish Habitat Enhancement Project. They were improving habitat by putting gravel in small piles in the lake and fixing old branches and trees in cement to sink into the lake. This created gravel piles that fish species such as bass could use as nesting sites, while the cemented branches and trees provided shelter from predators. Needless to say, my arms were very sore after filling and carrying buckets of gravel all day! There were many times throughout the day that I thought I should quit – I was just a volunteer anyway. But there was a moment in the afternoon where a couple of the cottagers were questioning what we were doing to their lake. I do not blame them, as it must have looked very odd to see a team of about 15 people dumping buckets of something into the lake. However, once we explained to them what we were doing, they were very pleased about the efforts RVCA was taking to protect their lake and told us many stories of the fish they had seen swimming around. Being involved in these conservation efforts first hand reminded me how even the smallest thing can make a big difference in the greater story.

Two volunteers dump buckets of gravel over the side of the boat.

Dumping the big buckets of rocks in a pile in the water to create nesting sites for fish species such as bass.