A quiet night

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away

“Nightswimming”, R.E.M.

Full confession: I am not a particularly audacious person.  I invariably choose Truth over Dare, and I’m probably one of the few people over the age of 18 who can play Never Have I Ever and be virtually sober at the end.

However, on those rare occasions when I play Never Have I Ever, I usually get to have at least one drink – because there’s one question that almost always comes up: “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping”.

In one of my first posts on Dispatches, I mentioned that my first summer in the field was also the first time I ever went skinny dipping.  In fact, that is one of my favourite memories of that summer.  Skinny dipping is something of a tradition at the Queen’s Biology Station, where evening parties more often than not end with the last few party-goers relaxing on the lake shore.  Inevitably, someone will suggest that the next logical step is for everyone to strip and jump off the diving board.

The first time I went skinny-dipping was just such an evening.  I vividly remember the giggles, sidelong glances, and excitement as we all shed our clothes, and the rush to get into the water as fast as possible.  It was a perfect summer evening: the night air was soft and scented, rife with anticipation and sexual tension.  I remember lazily treading water in a circle with half a dozen others, feeling exposed but also sheltered by the dark water.

There have been many, many skinny dipping experiences since that first time, in lakes, rivers, and even in oceans.  For me, skinny dipping is now inextricably linked with fieldwork.  But over time, my feelings about the experience have evolved.

After leaving QUBS, I worked at a number of smaller field stations, some in very remote and isolated areas.  In most of these places, skinny dipping was much less of a tradition – in fact, in a couple of them, it was actively discouraged.  That didn’t mean that no one did it, of course, but it certainly changed the nature of the activity.  The excitement became more about transgression than sexual tension: the thrill of doing something you were not supposed to.  For me, a consummate ‘good girl’, that thrill was very appealing.

Of course, it turns out that some of those places discourage skinny dipping because they are just not ideal for the activity – which has led, on occasion, to a couple of rather epic skinny dipping fails.  One summer night just after the end of my first field season, I found myself on a Lake Erie beach with a couple of friends.  Emboldened by my field experience – and the fact that the beach was deserted at midnight – I managed to talk both of them into trying skinny dipping (which was definitely not permitted in this park).

The decision made, we glanced cautiously around before stripping off our shorts, tops, bras, and underwear, then tore towards the lake as fast as we could.  We flung ourselves in, feeling the bite of the cold water against our calves.  We ran farther…and still the water lapped against our calves.  We ran farther still…and now the water felt almost warm, and yet still came up no farther than our calves.  We began to glance rather desperately at one another.

In my newborn enthusiasm for skinny dipping, I had forgotten the reason that so many parents liked to bring their children to this particular beach: the extremely shallow plateau that extended for several hundred yards away from the shore.  Now, several hundred yards might not feel like a long distance when you’re wearing a bathing suit under the afternoon sun; however, it feels a good deal longer when you’re running stark naked in the dead of night.

I think about that experience every few months, when another story surfaces about tourists getting arrested for shedding their clothing in various notable, scenic, and even spiritually important places, such as Machu Picchu and Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu.  These hapless tourists are inevitably accused of being disrespectful – and I always wonder whether you could say the same thing about my nude foray into Lake Erie.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of it is disrespect: flouting the rules and defying authority.  Certainly, I’ve already admitted that there’s considerable appeal in the transgressive thrill of skinny dipping.  But over the last few years, that thrill has become less and less important to me.

The thing is, skinny dipping is at its best when it’s not rushed or panicked or fraught with sexual tension.  On those occasions when you can calmly slip naked into a quiet lake in the dark, and relax in water that is almost as warm as the air…on those occasions, skinny dipping is an almost spiritual experience.  It becomes about freedom and connection with the world around you, and more than anything, it becomes about being comfortable with your body, who you are, and where you are.

Now when I think of skinny dipping, I don’t picture giggling friends and stolen glances, or a headlong rush to make it to the water before being caught.  Now, I imagine a calm, dark Canadian Shield lake, the warm water lapping softly against the rocks, the stars stretching endlessly above.  Now, all these years after my first skinny dipping experience, I understand that nightswimming does deserve a quiet night.

“Lake” sampling

This week we are very excited to welcome our good friend Alex Ross to the blog. Alex just completed his MSc in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University and today he tells us all about his adventures sampling lakes in the Muskoka region. For more about Alex see the end of this blog. 

To me, taking a job that would keep me outside and, better yet, in a canoe, sounded like a dream. Growing up I spent many summer days fishing from an old beat up cedar strip canoe at a family cottage. Subsequently I spent the better part of 5 summers during my teen years and early twenties guiding canoe trips for summer camps all over Ontario and Quebec. I knew that eventually I would need a “real” job, but when I heard of an opportunity to be part of a team surveying 135 lakes in the Muskoka region I thought, great! A real job can wait a year. Little did I know that not only was this a very “real” job, but also a gateway to a career that could keep me outdoors for good.

The project itself aimed to document new establishments of an invasive aquatic invertebrate, Bythotrephes longimanis, or as it’s more well known, the spiny water flea. Coming to the Great Lakes via ballast water from ocean-going ships, these tiny invaders have since spread to hundreds of inland lakes in Canada and the United States. Largely a result from transfer by recreational boaters, secondary invasions of the spiny water flea to inland lakes have unfortunately left a trail of ecological impacts in their wake. A primary goal of our work during the summer of 2010 was to establish a model that could be used for predicting where new invasions were likely to occur. As such, our survey took us to some very remote lakes with a low likelihood of invasion, as well as some very developed lakes with a high likelihood of invasion.

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The spiny water flea: the subject of our search

After getting our feet wet and confidence up by sampling lakes with relatively easy access, my field partner, Julie, and I decided to pick a lake off the beaten path, so much so that it didn’t have a name. We pulled up satellite images and old topographical maps of our lake’s location, determined where the closest road to it was and formed our plan of attack for access.

The maps showed a meandering stream that led to a forested area where we could make a short portage to hop into the lake – no problem! Well, when we arrived at the stream what we found was much more “bog”, than stream. Undeterred, we set out but eventually discovered that our stream had all but dried up and that we were woefully unequipped to make it any farther. Looping back, we hopped in our vehicle and started down an unmaintained ATV trail in hopes of getting close enough to hike in the rest of the way. Next obstacle – stuck in the mud! After a good hour spent freeing our vehicle, and with the day getting late we turned around and decided that getting to this lake might have to wait for another day.

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What we thought was our access point to the lake

Fast-forward a month or so, and with a new plan in mind, Julie and I set out to conquer this lake, once and for all!

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Perhaps a little too excited for what the day had in store

With hip waders in tow we set back out and launched our canoe into the stream. Similar to our first attempt, it wasn’t long after putting it in that we came to a point where the water was all but absorbed by wetland sedges, flowers, and muck.

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Quickly running out of water to paddle through

Now, let me walk you through what the rest of the journey looked like…

Once the stream became un-navigable it was time to get creative. Waist-high mud made us perform a rather uncoordinated combination of poling ourselves ahead with our paddles, and hopping out of the canoe to pull, and push it forward in increments of what seemed like an inch at a time. Unfortunately, there are no photos of this process but if you can imagine two people in the middle of nowhere, literally stuck in mud – that was us. Along with that, place a chorus of delirious laughter and excessive swearing that only the smaller creatures in our midst were privy to – I’m sure that many reading this have found themselves in identical situations.

Once the ground firmed up, slightly, we continued pulling our canoe through thick brush and shrubs, receiving the odd scrape to the arm or poke in the eye by an errant branch.

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Not an environment fit for a canoe…

Finally on solid ground and with our lake at the top of a ridge we carried our canoe and all of our sampling gear up a steep slope to finally get a glimpse at the lake that had eluded us for so long.

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Nearly there!

The lake itself was essentially a beaver pond, shallow and no larger than a few swimming pools in size. Although many would consider this no more than a puddle, I cannot think of a more triumphant and accomplished feeling that entire summer than finally launching our canoe into this unnamed lake.

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Our final destination

As Julie and I found out, “lake” sampling often involved much more than calm sunny days on the water. However, we are happy to report that, at least on this day – the spiny water flea had not invaded our stubborn, secluded lake.

 

Alex Ross is currently working as a research technician at McGill University in an aquatic ecology lab, working on a fish conservation project with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Alex’s research interests lie in understanding how aquatic communities and ecosystems respond to environmental change. His Masters project looked at understanding  biological recovery of acidified lakes facing emerging stressors.