“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. 

 

Julia and Rachael’s excellent Muskoka adventure

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Julia Colm, a Masters student at Queen’s University with lots of stories to tell about working in Ontario’s beautiful cottage country.  For more about Julia, check out the end of this blog!

My project began as the 2014 Grass Pickerel Survey but soon became the 2014 Grass Pickerel Hunt, as my favourite Species at Risk had proven elusive. As we prepared to travel to the Muskoka region for the next leg of sampling, I felt both excited and discouraged, knowing that this population is difficult to sample because there are few Grass Pickerel and it is found in the heart of cottage country. I thought that shoreline alterations would be our biggest problem with the cottagers. I thought wrong.

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

We had spent hours canoeing a shoreline looking for a nice, weedy spot to sample, but were finding few areas that were not directly in front of someone’s cottage and had not been cleared of all aquatic vegetation. We finally found a spot off of an island that had no cottages (though it did bear a ‘No Trespassing’ sign). Since we would not be venturing onto the island itself and had no way of knowing who owned it to offer a courtesy explanation of our work, we figured we were safe to sample.

Just as we got our seine net deployed, a concerned cottager boated over to us and yelled “what are you doing?!”. We politely explained that we were from Queen’s University doing a fisheries survey of the lake. The cottager then informed us that all of the neighbours had been watching us and were ready to call the OPP; they thought we were poachers. I’ve been called many things in my life (including “homeless looking” later that day by a total stranger), but for two people who have devoted the last few years to working with Species at Risk and have been passionate about conservation their entire lives, being called a poacher was truly insulting. We kept our smiles on and apologized for worrying them, offered to show our permits, and suggested that they call the MNR tips line and alert a Conservation Officer if concerned about poachers in the future. The cottager lightened up, and generously offered to let us launch our canoe from her cottage the next day, but suggested we try to look more official and somehow make our net look less like a net. I wasn’t sure what to do with that last bit of advice, but I’m now trying to figure out how we can fly a “Queen’s University Research Vessel” pirate flag from our canoe. We apologized again and said goodbye, and as we paddled away began laughing at the thought of poachers using a canoe as a get-away vehicle. “The OPP are coming! GO! GO! GO!” [Frantic paddling]

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

Although this was our only negative interaction with cottagers, it was certainly not our only difficulty. Finding spots to launch our canoe on lakes praised for their ‘excellent boating’ proved to be an unexpected problem. One lake in particular, Grass Lake, which if the name is any indication, should offer perfect habitat for Grass Pickerel, was particularly difficult to access. The first day, we sampled a tributary of Grass Lake and caught three Grass Pickerel, and I was convinced we would not be disappointed when we got to the main body of the lake… if we got to the main body of the lake. We had driven all around the lake without any success. The closest we got to it was reaching a dead end road, and having the man who lived at the end tell us he has lived one kilometer from Grass Lake for 15 years and has yet to see it. That was upsetting. He then said that horses have gone missing in there. That was disturbing.

We concluded that we would have to access Grass Lake from the Trent-Severn Canal, an option we had been avoiding as canoeing through the canal isn’t exactly safe. We found a road that led very close to the mouth of Grass Lake, and we should only have to cross the canal to get in. Well, it turns out Grass Lake is connected to the canal through a tiny underpass below the CNR train tracks. So we now not only had to cross the canal, but then portage across the tracks with all of our gear.

Not your standard portage.

Not your standard portage.

When we crossed the canal and entered Grass Lake, we realized why it had been so difficult to get to: it was literally a lake of grass, a giant marsh. There were no cottages, and no way for non-motivated people to get to it. It was a totally undisturbed, undiscovered piece of paradise. The banks were lined with trees displaying a range of colours normally reserved for autumn, and the variety of aquatic macrophytes created a breathtaking underwater display. Fish representing almost every family were easily observed from the canoe, and I could not wait to pull up my first seine haul teeming with Grass Pickerel. Then I put my paddle in the substrate to test its firmness and my vision evaporated. My paddle slid through that silt as easily as it had slid through the water above it, and there was no way a person could stand without sinking. No wonder horses got lost. It might have been harder to get over my frustration about expending all that effort to find the lake and then having no way to sample it, except that it was such a beautiful, serene place, and even though we knew we were defeated, we paddled around the entire lake taking in its beauty.

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

In the end, we were redeemed at Grass Lake as one of the banks close to the mouth was clay and allowed us to do our three seine hauls. We caught several Grass Pickerel, including the first Young-of-the-Year of the year. So Grass Lake not only provided me with half of the Grass Pickerel captured during our Muskoka visit, it has also inspired me to develop new gear types for sampling fish in remote areas full of weeds and soft substrate. Canoe electrofisher, perhaps?

Julia Colm

Julia Colm completed her B.Sc in Ecology at the University of Guelph in 2010 and is currently working on her M.Sc at Queen’s University. She is interested in management and conservation of freshwater fisheries and her work at Queen’s focuses on the biology of Grass Pickerel across Ontario.