The joys of “fall” fieldwork

Thinking back on my 2013 summer fieldwork, it was amazing. Most mornings we left Kingston and ventured up to QUBS in the old Astro field van. The sun shone brightly in our eyes and illuminated the many lakes and ponds along the way; the grass sparkled in the morning dew.

I spent that summer setting up my big PhD experiment looking at relationships between body size, abundance and reproduction in herbaceous (weedy) plants. I needed to collect seeds of 45 species to sow into 200 experimental plots. I won’t go into any more details about that but rest assured, it was a ton of work and it took a lot of time – the entire summer, in fact.

My supervisor and I weren’t that worried about the time though. Even though it was early fall by the time I had everything collected, we were sure the weather would hold out. And the prospect of doing fall fieldwork sounded great. Over the past decade, we had never had significant snowfall before Christmas – and surely, if it did snow, it would melt very quickly. Well, that was not the case in 2013. We had snow in November, but that was all right, because as expected it melted very quickly. As the days flew past, I started to panic more and more. I still had more seeds to weigh, things were taking way longer than I anticipated – I wasn’t ready but winter could not have been more ready.

A little November snow never hurt anyone!

A little November snow never hurt anyone!

About a week before Christmas it snowed quite a bit.


Amanda digging through snow

Getting a little nervous!

Then we had a massive ice storm and everything was frozen. People were literally on ice skates gliding down the street. And then it snowed more, probably another 8 to 10 inches followed by more rain, snow and freezing rain.

The ice storm - December 2013

The ice storm – December 2013

Finally, I was ready to put my seeds out.

My friend Leslie was kind enough to come out and help me, given that any field assistance I did have was long gone home for Christmas. The roads were still really awful so we took our time getting to Westport (about an hour north of Kingston). When we arrived at the site, we couldn’t even open the gates to the property; the snow plows had plowed about 3 feet worth of snow and ice off the road and right into the gate. To boot, we didn’t even need to open the gate because the ATV couldn’t get out of the garage, it just sunk into the snow, then broke through the ice under the snow, and wouldn’t move. We slowly accepted that we would simply have to carry everything down to the site about 1 km away: 5 rolls of fencing, 200 bags of seeds, a drill, tent pegs, a sledge hammer and a couple of 7 foot t-rails. We did it in one trip (somehow) using a well thought out combination of scarves and strings to create makeshift sleds.

The next hurdle was the snow and ice. From the ground up it was 6 inches of snow, about 1 -2 inches of ice,  10 inches of snow, topped off with a good half inch of ice. Sometimes you could make it 2 or 3 steps without falling through the ice but often it was every step. And no matter how hard I tried to “think light”, it didn’t work. It made for a very frustrating, painful hike to the field site.

When we arrived we used sledge hammers and other hand tools to break the ice off of my plots and get the seeds distributed. Attaching the lids was challenging. The lids are only about an inch off the ground, so getting the drill level with the ground was next to impossible and to top it off, drilling and holding screws with mittens is not effective. The last thing we had to do was set up some germination boxes, which are big wooden boxes about 3 feet by 2 feet. I tried carrying them to the other side of the field, but since they sat out through all the winter storms, they were filled with ice and carrying a box of that size when you unexpectedly lose your footing every few steps is impossible. I ended up army-crawling across the snow, sliding the boxes along. This way I distributed my weight more evenly.

Moving my boxes by sliding

Getting creative

When we hiked out, I was exhausted physically and emotionally. I was pretty certain my shins were black and blue from breaking through the ice so much. My pants were soaking and frozen and my fingers were numb from drilling without gloves on. As we drove back to Kingston, the windshield got chipped, the wiper ceased to work, and we had to drive 20 mins in the wrong direction along a detour because a transformer had exploded and the main road was closed. But none of that really mattered. I had spent most of my time over the past ten months setting this up and it was finally complete. That day was probably the worst day of fieldwork I have ever had, perhaps a nightmare come to life, but it was also one of my biggest accomplishments.

So how did the experiment turn out? It’s no secret that wild seed tends to have poor germination success…would anything even grow? Was it worth it? The trials and tribulations of Dec 23, 2013 haunted me over the winter as I pondered those questions and I think I’ll leave them haunting you too until my next post!

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