Stranger things have happened in Wire Fence field

Seven years. I have spent seven years doing fieldwork in Wire Fence field, and just last weekend, I collected my final data from that site. Next year the field is set to be bush-hogged and that will mark the end of my time at the site. I wanted to take a moment today to write a bit about the wonderfully beautiful and endlessly frustrating Wire Fence field.

Wire fence field is a beautiful field site, and over the seven years I have worked there, I have developed a very strong love-hate relationship with this place. Wire fence field is a small old-field that is entirely surrounded by closed canopy forest. It is located about 500 m off Opinicon Road on route to the Queen’s University Biological Station. To access it, there is a laneway through the forest. The laneway is accessible enough to travel by vehicle or it can be easily hiked in about five minutes. Friends and colleagues that know me well have certainly heard me complain about this field site. Statements like “I’d rather stare at a wall all day than ever have to spend another moment in that       field” or “This field is ruining my life” are not uncommon in the peak of a field season. It is a rewarding but challenging place to work for many reasons.

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Getting there – yes, a short five-minute walk doesn’t seem that bad. And it isn’t. Except in the summer months, when mosquitoes swarm like the monster from Stranger Things would if you cut off your finger. Then that five-minute walk quickly seems endless. The path to the field is well-maintained, generally flat and easy to walk or drive on. Except that it dips down into a very low-lying area right before you hit the field site. This summer wasn’t so bad because we were hit with a really bad drought but in previous field seasons this has made for many boots getting stuck in the muck, and well, with a 2 wheel, rear wheel drive Astro van- It wasn’t just boots getting stuck in there. Getting to Wire Fence field isn’t always easy.

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field (November 2015)

Surviving there – There is no cell phone service in this field, so if something bad happens, let’s hope it’s before dark and you’re well enough to walk out on your own. Evidence of black bears have been found at this site on more than one (hundred) occasions so being aware of that is important. The field has more and more thistles in it every year. Also, there is one spot where an old Wire Fence (coincidence??) has fallen over and grown into the ground, and in one spot it sticks up and I kid you not SOMEONE trips over that fence EVERY single time we work there. And it’s usually me, who has been to the field site probably over 500 times. I’ve also never seen deer flies like I have seen them at this site. In the peak of deer fly season, you have to be fully clothed from head to toe and with layers. At one point I was wearing gloves and still got more than 10 bites on my hands alone. Surviving in Wire Fence field is a challenge.

 

Staying there – Things disappear – it’s almost as if there is some ‘Upside down’ Wire Fence field somewhere and the monster comes to the field in the night, and steals stuff and takes it back to the Upside down. Stranger Things fans, you’ll know what I mean. Shovels, cages, individual tagged plants, you name it! If we have brought it there we have also lost it there. Of course, on the other side of the main road there is a camp ground and patrons often venture across the road for hikes, so it might not be too surprising that we have lost some items here and there. The more troubling part is that I have installed cylinders into the ground at this site (100 of them in fact). That are only about 1 inch above the ground and cannot be removed with ease. With grass that reaches well over one metre at its peak they definitely aren’t easy to spot. Even some of those have gone missing. Including plot 11 (Eleven)..I am not even kidding….OK perhaps it is time to call in Hopp, Mrs. Byers and the whole crew to investigate.

 

Even though getting there, surviving there and staying there all present their own set of unique challenges, I love the place. And I miss it already.

 

Wire fence field is surrounded by closed canopy forest with lots of very large oak, basswood, ironwood and blue beech trees towering over it. In the spring months, sides of the laneway and all of the ground surrounding the field edges is sprinkled with white and red trilliums, trout lilies and wild ginger. For about one week in early May, the entire laneway is covered in spring beauties. Tens of thousands of them peak out from the decaying autumn leaves and brighten up the forest. As the season progresses along buttercups burst open and give the field vibrant pops of yellow among the tall green grass. I haven’t seen buttercups in such numbers as I do at Wire Fence field. And then there are the deer. Deer love buttercups and thus, deer love Wire Fence field. Many mornings we would walk up to the field site and see anywhere from one to a dozen deer happily grazing on all of our experimental plots and lots of pressed down areas of grass each morning suggested that it was a common place for them to spend their nights. Sometimes we would stand there and just watch them for a few minutes, before they noticed us and re-located for the day.

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Even though working in Wire Fence field has many challenges, it was a beautiful, peaceful and quirky place to spend the last seven years.

This land is our land

In honour of Canada Day, we wanted to highlighted some of the cool, interesting, funny, or neat stories about fieldwork in Canada that we have shared on Dispatches from the Field over the years. Our blog tells stories from fieldwork happening all across the country, and also across many different species. We do truly live in a great country – check out these blogs for yourself!

Beginning in the west, Catherine D. shares why bluebird at a nest boxeveryone loves bluebirds in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia,

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset.

Julia S. shows us the varied habitats of Alberta’s boreal forest,

Feeling smalland Krista C. shares her adventures in the Land of Living Skies in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

 

From the great white North, Michelle V. explains how she prepared for polar bear fieldwork.

Sampling polar bear poop.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.Julia C. and Rachael H. share their hilarious (sorry Julia) beaver story from the Muskoka region of Ontario where they almost flip the canoe, while Melanie S. explains how help is always where you least expect it.

 

 

 

Southern Ontario is quite busy with field biologists, with Jenna S. running around in fields chasing butterflies, Toby T. listening for what the bat said, and Amanda X. searching for snakes on a [fragmented] plain.

catching butterflies in nets in the field

A big brown bat

Adorable baby eastern foxsnakes emerge from their eggs only to be fondled by eager researchers

 

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.Fieldwork is very popular at the Queen’s University Biology Station in southeastern Ontario.  Amanda C. spends her nights at the symphony listening to the frog chorus,

Me counting seedlings

 

 

 

Amanda T. collects beautiful wildflower seeds (being both wonderful and disastrous at the same time),

 

Liz P. plays hide and go seek with whip-poor-wills,  and Adam M. creates robots for sampling daphnia.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

 

 

 

 

 

As we head to the east coast, Michelle L. shares what it is like to collect salmon eggs in New Brunswick…in the winter.

IMG_4

We will leave you with a short variation on a great song:

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From Bonavista, to Vancouver Island (or studying seabirds off the coast of Labrador with Anna T. to Haida Gwaii with Sarah W.)

From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters, (or what to do with your not so “down time” in Nunavut with Kathryn H. to getting stuck in beaver pond sampling aquatic invertebrates in Muskoka with Alex R.)

This land was made for you and me.

Sunset on the tundra

Clash of the cattle

In my tenure as a field biologist, I’ve experienced and had to deal with many problems…unfortunate events…hideous disasters…whatever you want to call them. Catherine’s blog about the revenge of the ruminants from earlier this month got me thinking about an encounter that I had with these beefy creatures way back at the start of my time doing fieldwork.

Back in my first field season in the summer of 2009, our lab was setting up a long term experiment (about 10 years) to assess the effects of climate change on temperate grassland communities. The first step after getting the overall design and relevant details in order was to find an appropriate field site. We trekked around all over QUBS’ properties, and eventually found a good-sized piece of land on the Bracken tract. It met all of the criteria including having a high species richness, easily accessible by foot and was relatively flat. There had been some cattle grazing allowed on the property but the farmer assured us that they were now back on his property, and for good.

This particular study had 240 replicate 1 x 1 m plots. Treatments included plots with excess water added each week, control plots, and those with rainout shelters to minimize the access of water. There were also nutrient addition plots, and those with herbivore exclosures. Needless to say, it was a huge experiment. We spent a solid week mapping and measuring out the field. We set up the 240 plots and then used 6 different colours of flags to mark them all with their respective treatments. By the end of the week, we had made serious progress. We even left early that Friday just because we had worked so hard.

bracken shelters fence shot

An example of what the rainout shelters look like. 

We came back Monday ready to start putting up some of the shelters and fences together for the treatments. But the field wasn’t exactly as we had left it. In fact, it wasn’t even close to the condition we left it in. This would have been early June, so the grass was well over a foot tall and there were buttercups ad hawkweeds blooming galore. At least, there were when we had left the field on Friday.

Now the grass was barely an inch tall. The flags were no longer upright. Some were crushed. Some were torn to shreds. Some were just completely gone. And the source of this damage didn’t cover it up well. They certainly left their mark. There were cow patties all over the field site.

This led to a very awkward and upsetting call to our Supervisor about the state of the field, and the wasted hours of work put into setting it up. The next week a bunch of guys came down from Queen’s and installed a barbed wire fence around the site to prevent this from happening again. Luckily, the story has a happy ending because this ended up being an isolated incident and the cows have never broken into the field site after the fence was installed, and the experiment is now going into it’s 6th year.

The cows make an appearance now and then, and in large numbers, often around 70 at a time. As free-ranging beef cattle they aren’t exactly friendly or unfriendly. If you look them in the eyes, they run the other way. But 5 minutes later you’ll see their heads poking out of the bush wanting another look at what you’re doing. Occasionally one gets stuck in the barbed wire trying to get a taste of the grass in our site. They have at least a hundred acres to roam free on, but of course, the grass is always greener on the other side…or so they say.

The wonderful & disastrous world of seed collection

A lot of my fieldwork relies on locating populations of local wildflower species that meet a certain set of criteria. Those criteria can include life history, population size, disturbance regime, crowdedness, etc. Whenever we locate a beautiful population, everyone gets excited. The kicker is that we don’t need anything to do with the flowers…we need their seeds so that we can sow them into various experiments. Seed collection from wild plants, however, is not an easy thing. Locating the populations can be challenging in itself, but collecting the seeds, and dealing with them is even harder…and these are my stories.

Plant populations are never really safe

One of the battles we are constantly fighting is the battle with the city/township we are sampling in. We always find beautiful populations of species that fit all of the necessary criteria, we monitor them all summer, and when the seed is ready to collect, boom, they are gone. Cut down… no more… gone. One time, I was monitoring a fairly rare species population for months, and I checked the seeds to make sure they were fully mature. After I looked at them, I decided to wait another couple of days just to be sure. A few days later we were driving down windy old Opinicon Rd and we were just rounding a curve where the population was. There it was, right around the bend, the flashing yield light on the back… the county tractor mowing the roadsides. We pulled the field van over, staring at the remnants of the once perfectly mature seeds now mixed in with gravel and dirt along the side of the road. I’ll be the first to admit that roadside sampling isn’t the best idea, but sometimes you’re limited to that. It’s always a dangerous choice, but when it does work out it is so, so, so worth it.

seed collection

Kim collecting some seed from a population that was lucky enough to survive

Collecting seeds is easier said than done

In the summer of 2013, we were collecting the seeds of houndstongue, a fairly uncommon local species. There was one big population with hundreds of individuals right by the water in the west end of Kingston. We knew they didn’t mow this area, and as such, the safety of these populations was not an issue…phew. However, houndstongue have a thick, burr-like outer coating with little barbs that often stick to, well, anything it comes in contact with. I was walking through the population and didn’t notice that when I walked out, my black pants were covered in seeds. Good thing I had field assistants. After all that is what they are perfect for, helping with things like picking seeds off of your pants. I’ll have to start including that in future job descriptions.

pants

The field help hard at work collecting seeds…off of my pants

We have also collected a lot of seed from species that have a papus on their seed, which is useful in wind dispersal. The problem with wind-dispersed seeds like this is that the second they are ready, they are gone. Too many times we have visited populations that were ready for seed collection and a sudden gust of wind sent all the seeds trickling down the road in the wind. It’s a hard life as a seed collector, I tell you.

Seed processing can be soul-crushing

For various experiments over the years, seeds had to be processed. Processing a seed can mean different things for different species. For example, some seeds require very little processing, like common mullein. You just walk up to the plant, shake it into a bag, and hundreds of thousands of seeds fall nicely into the bag. Other species are more difficult – like cow vetch, which grows in a bean-like pod and requires you to sit at a table for endless hours, popping open the seed pods. The seeds often project outwards, bumping along the table and crashing to the floor. I’m sure we have an entire seed bank under the cupboards in the lab. Another problem when processing seeds is that often material from the seed pods gets stuck in the processed seeds. This can affect the seeds when weighing them and thus this debris has to be removed. I had a particularly annoying species for this: motherwort. I tried using sieves of all different grades to remove the debris, but I just couldn’t make it work. So in a moment of desperation I turned my desk fan towards the sieve filled with seeds and debris and just turned it on. Just like magic, the seeds stayed in place and the debris blew away. Albeit, that could have ended very poorly and of course  there was a lot of clean up after that but it was well worth it.

fan.png

Desperately trying to make seed processing easier

Every now and then I’m sure you walk past a dandelion here and there and pull its seeds off, rolling them between your fingers and maybe even sending them floating away into the sky. Sometimes seed collection can be just that easy but more often than not you’re met with one or many challenges along the way!

Lessons learned in the field

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Kim Stephens, an Undergraduate student from Queen’s University. Kim was a field assistant in 2013 to one of our resident bloggers, Amanda and today she tells us about some of the lessons she learned during her first summer in the field. 

During the summer of 2013 I worked as a field technician for the Aarssen Lab at Queen’s University – meaning I got to spend my summer working outside almost every day. I was incredibly excited to not be stuck in an office or store, gazing longingly at the sunshine outside. My 4 months were spent digging in the dirt, watering plants, and picking flowers – a dream job! We worked on 4 different projects throughout the summer, which were at varying degrees of completion. That summer, I was continually learning, and by the end I could identify a multitude of flowers and grasses, and knew my way around areas surrounding Kingston. I also learned quite a few lessons about field work… many of them the hard way. Here are some of them!

Science happens, despite the weather. One of the projects that I was helping with involved differing water levels on the study sites (decreased, control, and enriched) which meant that once per week, we pulled the Rhino out of the white house, and watered study plots for an entire day. This made complete sense to me on a scientific basis, but when I was standing out in the rain watering, it didn’t make quite so much sense anymore. That being said, watering in the rain was sometimes a nice break from the +30oC, when you wished you could turn the spray nozzle around, and get cooled off by the pond water.

watering study plots

Adam Sprott watering study plots at Bracken Field.

The Rhino.

The Rhino.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protect yourself from the elements. Sunscreen is your best friend! I was used to my typical days out in the sun – sitting in the shade, hanging out at the beach – being able to enjoy the weather without being in the direct sun. This was completely different! Bracken field, where we watered, was exactly that – an open field. We had very little reprieve from the high UV, except while filling up the water tank, and after a couple of encounters with lobster-coloured skin, I started applying sunscreen more frequently. On the opposite end of the spectrum – invest in a good rain suit… especially if you’re working in and around Kingston. Field work continues in the rain, so not having to sit in wet clothes all day, or change multiple times, makes the work day much more pleasant.

Plant ecology can be dangerous – watch where you’re walking. Late in the summer, during seed collection for Amanda’s project, I discovered that I was thankfully not allergic to wasps. We were in an area which had very little, if any, cell service and virtually no houses nearby. I was walking along the side of the road, and found some plants that looked like they might have seeds that we needed. The ground camouflaged the wasps’ nest, and unfortunately I stepped right on it. They didn’t take too kindly to my intrusion, and stung me 12 times.

Double check that you’ve packed everything. Early in the field season, just after we started digging trenches around study plots, Amanda and I were taking a break for lunch, when she discovered that she hadn’t packed a fork for her salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one either, and since we were so far from a town, we had to make do with what we had, which ended up being a garden trowel that we had been using to dig. After rinsing, sanitizing, and rinsing again, it was designated ‘safe’, and she created a new meaning to ‘shoveling food in your mouth’. We didn’t forget cutlery very often after that.

Trenches dug.

Trenches dug.

eating with a garden trowel.

Amanda making do with a garden trowel as a fork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Offence is the best defense. Poison Ivy, a tricky little plant which causes rashes and other irritation, quite enjoys hiding in the most unsuspecting places. A good portion of the summer was spent collecting samples which were conveniently located in patches of poison ivy. My solution – full yellow PVC-coated rain suit (read: homemade biohazard suit) complete with rain boots and gloves. Armed with this protective layer, I ventured into the area which held the Dame’s Rocket flowers I wanted to collect for my project.

 

 

 

Back up your pictures. You will see many amazing things while working in the field and take pictures of as many as you can– I took over 2000 during my time in the field. Weather happens, equipment breaks, and phones reach the end of their lifespan. While I was putting together this blog post I had a perfect picture in mind of one of the other field technicians watering plots in the rain. I discovered far too late that it had been taken on my cell phone – which gave up a few weeks ago…. before being properly backed up. 

Stop and smell the roses. Fieldwork has its ups and downs, but while you’re out in the field, take the time to appreciate the beautiful nature around you. I took an office job the summer of 2014, and spent most of it inside, appreciating how amazing the previous summer had been.

View of Upper Rock Lake

Rideau Trail overlooking Upper Rock Lake

Butterflies smell the flowers

Ele campane and Swallowtail butterfly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kim StephensKim did her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Biology and studied the relationships between metrics of plant body size for her undergraduate thesis. She returned to Queen’s for the 2014-15 school year to finish off her degree in German and is headed to Germany this year to work and attend graduate school.

From Tall Grass to Tall Mountains: The Real Lessons I Learned in My First Field Season

Dispatches is pleased to welcome Jordan Constant to the blog today. Jordan is a BScH candidate in the Grogan lab at Queen’s University. Jordan just finished up his first field season and fills us in on all the lessons he learned while identifying and sorting old-field species and also the highlights of a memorable field course in Colorado.  

jordans field site

 

This summer, I was lucky enough to experience my very first season of field work. At the beginning of May I was an undergrad transitioning from my 3rd to my 4th year and in the process of developing my honours thesis. I have always been interested in ecology, and after many discussions with my advisor, I settled on a project involving grassland ecosystems. And so began a summer of new experiences, life lessons, and of course some great stories that I would love to share with you.

The aim of my project involves identifying and sorting the plants in my field site at the species level. I was certainly no expert in the field of plant identification when I began – in fact I probably couldn’t have told you the difference between an Aster and a Lily – but how hard could it be, right? There couldn’t be that much to it, could there? To be safe, I sent an email out to the resident wildflower expert in the area for some pointers. She graciously offered to take me out to the field and teach me a thing or two, and I began to see what I was up against.

We arrived at the site and she handed me a field guide, as well as a list of some species she expected to see. I took a glance at the list, and where I naively expected to see around 10 species, I saw around 40. “And here is a list of some grasses to know as well,” as she handed me a second piece of paper with even more names to know. I began to see what I had signed up for but I was there to learn, so I gulped, took a deep breath, and tried as hard as I could to get some of that stuff down.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that day was extremely important to me. Sure, by the end of it I had a decent grasp on plant identification, but it was what came with it that mattered. First of all, I was reminded how valuable my peers were to me. I don’t know if I would have ever been able to do my project without the aid of that kind soul. In every facet of life, it is the love, support and guidance of those around us that keep us going, and I’m glad I was reminded of that at the beginning of the season. It is easy to forget that you are not alone when taking your first steps towards “real science” but in the end, they are the ones who helped me move forward.

I also learned on that day how to look with care. To most of us, grass looks like grass. It’s green, and it grows on our lawns right? It wasn’t until I learned to look closer that I was able to tell them apart. I didn’t even know the structures we use to tell grasses apart existed when I first began, but with careful examination, I began to see how different they really can be. Paying close attention is such a critical skill in life. Each and every person has some small things about them that make them truly unique, and it takes a careful look to really appreciate what makes us special. Just as I have to bend back the leaf of a graminoid species to truly understand what I need to know about it, I look to peel back some of the layers of individual personalities to truly understand people.

As the summer wore on and I started to get into the swing of my experiment, I couldn’t help but share a few laughs with my team along the way. One of my favourite parts of the experiment was the difference between the methods discussed in the office, and the methods as explained in the field. In the office, the methods were briefly described as, “all individual plant species will be collected from a sample quadrat, and sorted at the species level.” In the field this translated to, ” We are each going to take a pair of scissors, and cut every piece of grass and flower in this square one by one and put them in paper bags.” Sure, science isn’t always as glamorous as it seems, but every experiment has its quirks and now I like to ask every scientist I meet, “What is the weirdest thing you have to do to collect your data?” I always seem to get a great answer.

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing you any justice if I didn’t tell you how weather affects field work. When working on a schedule, you don’t have time to take days off because of some silly old rain, so a few times in the summer I had to find a way to work around the rain. I remember one day in particular, I was out working with some heavy clouds in the sky. I brought two umbrellas to keep me dry. Unfortunately, the rain was starting to take its toll on my paper bags. In the name of science, I decided to use my umbrella to cover my samples. As the day wore on I probably came in contact with 10L of water, in what was an absolute downpour. Meanwhile my samples were enjoying the luxury of a roof over their heads. I couldn’t help but laugh at how priorities had shifted.

Every once in a while, one of my sample plots would have a milkweed plant on its boundaries. Milkweed is a very large plant and sometimes seemed like a tree compared to the other species. We made it a rule that we would always collect the milkweed last. On average we would spend about 4.5 hours collecting from a plot, so when we finally got to the milkweed, the satisfaction we got from taking it down was off the charts. Milkweed became a symbol of reward. Every time fieldwork got tough, I would look around for a milkweed to remind myself that  all of the hard work spent in the field was going to feel so good once it was all over. There is always something to look forward to, and when times are tough it is important to remind ourselves that the effort we put in today is going to make tomorrow that much sweeter.

At the end of my field season, once the sample collection had been completed in my grassland, I was lucky enough to take a course in field biology in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The course gave me the opportunity to try a variety of techniques and get a sense of all the different kinds of research that occur at a field station. So naturally, in the spirit of new experiences, I decided to work on flowers again.

rockies

My time in the mountains led to some great learning about science, research and fieldwork, but once again the lessons I learned outside of the science world were the ones that truly stuck with me. Perhaps my favourite part about the course was the opportunity to experience a scientific community. I was surrounded by researchers doing projects on everything from mosses to marmots, and every day we would all meet back at the dining hall and learn about each other’s work. I liked being able to talk about what happened in my day and immediately have people respond with their thoughts and opinions. I liked settling down at the end of a field day to watch a movie with the others at the station. I liked playing cricket on Wednesdays just because it was what we did every week. And most of all, I liked waking up in the morning and seeing friendly faces and bright smiles before I started my day.  As I mentioned earlier, science can make you feel like you are all on your own at times, and having peers and colleagues around you can make a world of difference.

I think the highlight of my trip came when climbing to the peak of Mt. Gothic. The elevation change hit me hard. Sometimes it felt like there was no oxygen left when I tried to breathe in. My lack of acclimation made it pretty difficult to make it up a hill, never mind a mountain. Despite my troubles, I found myself trying to keep up with those who had been climbing mountains all summer. To keep myself pushing, I put one of my earphones in and hit the shuffle button, hoping my music would take my mind off of my heavy breathing. At one point, about halfway up the mountain, the song “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis came on. I paused to catch my breath and lifted my head from my feet for the first time in a few minutes. I was greeted by the most breathtaking view I had come across so far. I started to slow down, as Alfie Boe serenaded me through my earbuds. I was overtaken by the sights and sounds I was experiencing and kind of got lost in it for a moment. As the song ended and I began to refocus on the path, I had fallen behind a little, but I was no longer breathing as heavily and I felt a lot lighter. I started to go at a pace that was more comfortable to me and enjoyed as much of the scene as I could. I learned that regardless of what pace everyone else was going, it was more important that I did it in a way that I was comfortable. I learned not to take the beauty around me for granted. I almost completely missed that moment in an attempt to get from the bottom of the mountain to the top. A lot of the time, it’s the events that occur on the way that make the journey worthwhile.

And so, as the summer has come to a close and the leaves have begun to change, I look back on all the things I gained from my first field season. While my data on alpine flowers was insignificant and my grassland ecosystem data is still in the process of being analyzed, I took much more out of my summer than two experiments. Biology is the science and the study of life, and in the process of completing my first field season, I certainly learned a lot about life.

Electric shocks or time alone? Most choose shocks.

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska, who tells us a bit about her experiences working alone in the field during her PhD.  For more about Maggie and her research, check out her bio the end of this post.

I recently read that most people would prefer electric shocks to spending time alone with their thoughts. This of course made me think back to the first summer I spent in the field during my PhD. I worked along the shoreline of Lake Travers in Algonquin Park studying the very charismatic flowering beauty Lobelia cardinalis. Although most people do not venture into fieldwork on their own, most have spent some time alone in the field. Alone is how I spent most of that field season.

Pollination - wait, no, thievery by hummingbird  at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

Pollination – wait, no, thievery by hummingbird at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

When people hear that I spent time alone in the backwoods of Algonquin they either start playing air-banjo and humming that well-known tune from the movie “Deliverance” (this was my advisor’s reaction) or they ask if I was afraid of the wildlife. I was raised by people who’d never gone camping, and thus I had never gone “real” camping (sorry folks, car camping doesn’t count). My point in telling you this is that I had no idea what doing fieldwork alone would be like. I had spent time as an undergrad at QUBS, but fieldwork in the backcountry of Algonquin while living in a tent is an entirely different experience – although working at QUBS did help me establish some basic codes of conduct for my assistants and myself (i.e., no alcohol and 9 p.m. bedtime). At the time of developing my project, all I was concerned with was getting data for my PhD; my data or bust attitude is a story for another time.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Most of my solo sojourns into the field lasted a day or two, but in 2009 (the first year of field work) I’d often camp Monday to Friday on my own. Surprisingly, I found those lonely days to not be so lonely—I found talking to my plants helped. During the day my work kept me focused. But, when the work of the day was finished, fatigue set in and I was left alone with my thoughts—there was no option of electric shock. After running through thoughts of what I’d done and what I had left to accomplish that week, I’d daydream about finding ways to let me do this forever.

Truthfully, there were times I was terrified and a bit nuts. I once jumped right out of my skin when I caught sight of my shadow moving. At the time, I was just under 5’3 and somewhere around 120lbs. I assume this is the perfect shape and size for a quick little appetizer for a bear or pack of wolves (both of which were present in the area).  I also once lost my self-composure and started killing every slug I saw (that year most of my plants were eaten by slugs). As a warning to other slugs I mounted a smooshed slug body on a stake (i.e., small twig).

As my first season progressed, I became more competent with data collection and backcountry camping. I became an expert in setting up and breaking down a campsite solo in under 40 min, and became a backcountry gourmand (dried garlic and parsley are invaluable). More importantly, I picked up several handy tips from people I met in the field (mostly from Chris, who helped out at the Algonquin Radio Observatory and Jeremy, a park ranger).  These are my camping “must-haves” in order of decreasing importance.

  1. SPOT. This device should be required for everyone doing fieldwork. This device connects to satellites and allows you to send email messages to a set contact list (I used this to check in with my partner every night). It also can send two types of emergency signals. You can select the option that is sent only to your contact list and provides the GPS coordinates of your location (I programmed a message that read, “I’m alive but need you. Come find me”. The other option lets you send an emergency message to the nearest search and emergency system in your area (police and EMTs). I had no cellphone reception in the field, so this device was crucial for safety. I’d also recommend it for folks who are within cellphone range. You can always use a backup system to call for help.
  2. Headlamps, backup flashlights and spare batteries.
  3. Pocket flare/bear banger combo available at MEC is also a good idea. Even when you think you are alone in the woods you probably aren’t too far away from other people. I worked near the access point at Lake Travers. People starting their camping trips would often comment about how remote and isolated the area felt. On a busy week in August I would have this chat several times a day. A flare is likely to be seen by people nearby and if you’re lucky they’ll investigate.
  4. Always make sure you have enough water on hand and either rehydration crystals and/or powdered Gatorade. I used a hand pump system with a ceramic cartridge to filter lake water. I carried this everywhere.
  5. This is connected to the last point. Be very mindful of early signs of heatstroke. Different individuals have different tolerances. I once had an assistant suffer from mild heatstroke on our first day out. I was perfectly fine, but she wasn’t. Water and salts were sufficient to get her back on her feet, but I learned to become more mindful of how my assistants were feeling during the day.
  6. Always carry a small firstaid kit. Mine had tweezers, safety pins, bandaids, gauze, an aluminum emergency blanket, rehydration crystals, a whistle, duct tape and clothes pins.
  7. If you are responsible for packing food for a camping trip, always pack extra dry pasta, dry garlic, and other dried herbs. I once had to carefully consider whether starving my field assistant and finishing my work for the week was ok.
  8. For those of you driving older model field vehicles, don’t leave a cellphone charger connected to your car’s cigarette lighter. This will drain your car battery.
  9. Figure out who else is in your work area. I was near the Algonquin Park Radio Observatory and knew I could reach them if I needed help (like needing to make arrangements to send a field assistant home because they were not feeling well). Cottagers and other campers are often interested in the work we nutty biologists do and are often keen to help you out.

Although camping alone seems sketchy to most people, it’s really not that uncommon. Spending a day alone in the field is extremely common. Be safe and prepare for the unexpected. Carry emergency supplies, and a way to contact help.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.

 

Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska is currently a postdoc at the University of Toronto studying population genomics of the world’s most charismatic group of small-flowered plant (duckweed). She did her PhD at Dalhousie University under the mentorship of Dr. M. Johnston. Her work has largely focused on plant-pollinator interactions and other ecological factors shaping the evolution of plant traits.