Help where you least expect it

This week we welcome guest blogger Melanie Shapiera to write a dispatch about the wonderful people you meet and receive help from during field work. Check out her bio at the end of the post!

They say good help is hard to find. But I’d argue that good – even great – help can turn up when and where you least expect it. And that includes when you are in the field.

I could write a ton of blog posts about how field teams I’ve been involved with quickly become tightknit partners in crime with inside jokes and stories that are hilarious and surreal and sentimental and meaningful, if only to you and your teammates. But what is perhaps more surreal are those moments in the field when a Good Samaritan shows up at a time when you need them most and saves the day. Locals can provide awesome assistance and knowledge that can save field workers huge amounts of time. Probably the best example I have of this is the day I met Gerald.

Gerald and Melanie

The man, the legend – Gerald. And yes, I totally requested a photo after his help on a long field day!

Back in 2010, I spent my summer surveying Muskoka lakes to investigate the distribution and dispersal of the spiny water flea, an invasive species from the eastern hemisphere that was introduced accidently to the Great Lakes in the 1980s, and has been spreading to inland lakes ever since. These seemingly innocuous invertebrate predators have been shown to have drastic effects on freshwater zooplankton community structure, outcompeting native species for resources, and proliferating even under different stressors such as decreasing calcium concentrations and fish predation (from which they are protected by the barbs on their tails). Thus, my work as a field assistant for York University in conjunction with the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network was to document new establishments of the species and provide data to test predictive dispersal models that considered factors such as ease of access to a body of water.

Small bytho.

Itty Bitty Bytho.

Lakes ranged widely in accessibility, so one day my teammate and I would be able use a public boat launch, but the next day we’d be conducting semi-ridiculous portages through forests, across swamps, or even needing to camp a night, to get to very remote lakes.

One particular day, we had planned to access a smaller lake. Looking at topographic maps suggested it would require a kilometre or so of portaging. The maps indicated an ATV trail that looked like an excellent conduit for us to use.

But maps sometimes do not give a complete picture, which we found out when we arrived at the trail. The trail was gated, seemingly on newly acquired private property. Our Plans B and C involved at least triple the amount of portaging in some pretty hairy terrain. So we were parked at the gate entrance, resignedly making a game plan, when out of nowhere walked an elderly lady, who saw the canoe strapped to our vehicle and asked what we were doing. After explaining our quest, she said something along the lines of “Oh, well my husband and I take care of this property because the owner lives in Switzerland. I’ll get Gerald to open the gate for you to use the trail; I don’t think it’ll be a problem”.

Cue inward happy dance.

So we drove over to her place, where she went and found Gerald, the man of the hour. Now, Gerald was a man probably in his 70s, bespectacled, ball cap-clad, soft-spoken, and stoic. When we told him our portage plan, he said,

“Well, it’d be a lot faster if I took you in on my ATV.”

Even though an ATV ride with Gerald seemed like it’d be a blast, we explained that we had the canoe and various sampling gear that we had to carry in, and that we were used to portaging.

“Well, all I need to do is hook up my trailer – I’m sure we can figure it out.”

Flash forward 15 minutes, and Gerald had hooked up a trailer to his ATV, ratcheted our canoe on, and put all of our gear inside.

ATV pulling canoe

Our sweet ride.

But I’m not done yet. While cruising down the trail on the back of Gerald’s ATV, we came to a fallen tree that made the rest of the trail impassable. We were more than halfway, and more than willing to portage the rest. But Gerald was unstoppable, and I’ll never forget the next words that came out of his mouth:

“Well, I guess I’ll go get my chainsaw.”

Let me make this clear – Gerald drove back to his house, grabbed his chainsaw, chopped up the tree, moved it out of the path, and came back to the lake to pick us up a couple hours later after our sampling was finished.

Can you say above and beyond?!

Gerald made the day such a success, helping us access and sample the lake in a fraction of the time it would have taken without his help. He really was the biggest help, and he did it asking nothing in return, and maintaining his calm and quiet demeanor. We couldn’t say thank you enough.

View of the lake.

Access success – thanks to Gerald.

Melanie Shapiera completed her BScH in Biology at Queen’s University, and her MSc in Biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Following her MSc, she worked as a Fisheries Biologist on the GTA Subway expansion project, working to monitor and minimize development impacts on the surrounding riparian ecosystem. She now works as a Biologist Intern with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Bancroft, ON, focussing on Species at Risk, land use planning, and examining road impacts on wildlife.


3 thoughts on “Help where you least expect it

  1. Pingback: This land is our land | Dispatches from the Field

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