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.

One thought on “Fieldwork in Ecuador: Alpaca my bags

  1. Pingback: Dispatches from 2016 | Dispatches from the Field

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