A Race Against the Clock

Hello readers! Justin Wright here, research assistant for the Lamendella lab at Juniata College, excited to offer you my perspective on our quest to obtain a seemingly impossible amount of water samples with a single weekend.

Crunch time doesn’t even begin to describe the mad rush that the Grant Lab underwent this past weekend. Due to an unfortunate error in packaging, we needed to re-collect water samples from 26 sampling locations scattered throughout the Central Pennsylvania area, transport these samples back to campus, and have them filtered and packaged for shipment to the U.S. Geological Survey for Mercury analysis… all within a 3 day period. In addition to the sheer amount of samples that we had to collect, we needed to use some finesse when it came to coordinating the time of sample collection with the time of filtration back in the lab. The reason being, water samples set for mercury analysis cannot remain idle in their bottles for longer than 24 hours. If a sample remains in its bottle beyond 24 hours, Hg can adsorb to the plastic potentially changing Hg concentrations in the sample. Therefore, not only was this weekend going to be a physically daunting challenge, but also a mental one, in terms of working out a plan to get all of the samples collected and returned to the lab so that they could undergo filtration without sitting in the freezer longer than 24 hours. To accomplish this task, our whole team needed to be on its A-game. Everyone had to know their role and be aware of their deadlines. Time was our enemy, and we were constantly racing against the clock. I felt like we were Keanu Reeves in a weekend-long version of the movie Speed, one mistake and everyone was in trouble. I It was beyond crunch time, it was “I don’t know how are we going to get this done in time”…time.

By Thursday (August 7th), our plan was set. Friday morning at around 830 AM, two vans, containing two researchers each, were going to collect 15 of the 26 samples we needed to obtain. One van’s route contained 9 sampling sites, the other contained 7, but with a greater distance to travel by van. It was decided that Dr. Grant and I would take the route containing 9 sampling sites, and Caleb and Allison would take on the route with 7 sampling locations. We were hopeful to get the samples back into lab by about midnight so that they could be ready for filtration the following morning. We were lucky enough to get in touch with former Juniata student and Grant Lab member Elliott Perow, to lead the filtering effort. Elliott, along with two other team members, Aaron and Abby, were prepped to begin filtration at 730 AM Saturday morning, beginning with the sample collected earliest the day before, to ensure no sample sat beyond the allotted 1 day period. The plan was set, but actually carrying it out was going to be the real challenge.

Friday

Dr. Grant and I were on the road by 830, fully aware of the physical and logistical challenge we were about to face. While some of the sampling locations were rather easy to access, most were a bit difficult. We decided to hit 6 of the 9 easier locations first, and then tackle the most challenging 3 last. Of the 3 difficult locations, the hardest site to access was Mocassin Run. Only being about a mile hike form the van, when it comes to distance Mocassin doesn’t stand out as difficult compared to the other sites. The trouble with Mocassin, is that after a flat ¼ mile hike, the remaining ¾ involves scaling a hill with a slope of more than 45o. The terrain is extremely rocky, with some of the thickest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen. As we were going through the first 6 sampling locations, Dr. Grant and I were continuously mentally preparing ourselves for the intense hike to Mocassin (see June 22nd post entitled “Mocassin Revisited” to see a video clip of an earlier trip into Mocassin).

This intense focus and mental preparation for the challenges ahead really benefitted Dr. Grant and I. Every sampling location went like clockwork, and seemingly out of nowhere, we had completed 6 sampling locations by about 230 in the afternoon. Needless to say we were pumped, but we still had to hop over our biggest hurdle, Mocassin. Upon our arrival our spirits were high, but physically I was beginning to feel a little weak. Being a 6 foot, 150 pound, out-of-shape microbiologist, the day’s hikes were beginning to take a toll on my body. But on we went. Upon reaching the ¾ mile downhill slope, I fell within a matter of seconds. Dr. Grant laughed and told me that: “If you only fall once at Mocassin then you are doing something right.” After falling 8 more times, I lost count. On we went, and eventually we made it too the stream. As we collected water samples and caught our breath, I suggested to Dr. Grant that he should give his research students badges for surviving some of the more difficult sampling locations. He said he would consider it, and if he does I am looking forward to obtaining my Mocassin badge because we did indeed survive the climb back to the van!

After completing Mocassin, our morale couldn’t be higher, and while the remaining two sites were challenging, we completed them with great efficiency. When the last water sample was bagged and put on ice, Dr. Grant and I were amazed to see that it was only 830. A trip that we had expected to potentially take us into the early morning hours of the next day was completed before nightfall. We rendezvoused with Caleb and Allison at the lab by 1030, as they had also completed their day’s work with extreme speed. We were ecstatic. Like Keanu Reeve’s we had beaten the clock, but the ride wasn’t over yet.

Saturday

15 of the 26 samples had been collected, 11 remained. We decided to attack the sampling effort with the same strategy as the day before, 2 vans with 2 researchers to a van. This time, Caleb and I would sample 7 locations, and Dr. Grant along with his wife, Kimi, tackled the remaining 4 locations.

Again, both vans attacked sample collection head-on, and after the monstrous challenge that we had faced on Friday, obtaining these final samples came with ease. By 1030 PM Saturday night, Caleb and I were back in lab again with all 7 samples collected. We went to put our samples in the freezer and noticed that there weren’t any other samples inside.

“That’s odd,” I thought to myself. I had expected to see the 4 samples that Dr. Grant had collected with Kimi that same evening, since the filtration team’s job on Saturday was to filter only the 15 samples we had collected on Friday. Surely they couldn’t have been so ahead of schedule that they also completed the 4 samples Dr. Grant brought in with his wife? Well…they were. The filtration team had successfully filtered 19 samples for Mercury analysis in a single day. Not only were we getting the job done, we were ahead of schedule. The end was in sight.

Sunday

On Sunday, Elliot, Abigail and I filtered the final 7 samples Caleb and I collected the day before. As I observed and carried out the filtration process, I realized how truly impressive it was that the team had gotten 19 samples done the night before. Each step required extreme focus, as there were many pieces involved in the filtration process, and avoiding contamination was of the highest concern. One thing I continued to forget was that, as the person deemed “clean hands” I could not touch anything besides the equipment involved with the filtration process. I must have burned through 10 pairs of nitrile gloves by the end of the day, as I continued to touch the countertop. Looking back, after the arduous days of sampling beforehand, my mind was not quite in the freshest of states. Nevertheless, we got through it. After filtration was complete, Dr. Grant, Elliot and I packed up the samples for shipment with extreme care to avoid making the same mistake with improper packaging. By 4 pm we had finished. Just like that it was over. The samples were sent, and we were spent. Everyone returned home for much needed rest.

Looking back on the entire weekend, I have realized how rewarding of an experience it was for me, as I hope it was for everyone else involved. It is truly amazing what we can accomplish as humans if we have passion for what we are working towards. When it comes to solving the environmental impacts and the unanswered questions behind fracking, the passion we posses here at Juniata is staggering, and I can say with confidence that it matches with any large institution in the county. While this work required intensive work, dedication and time, it was worth every second.

As Dr. Grant and I were on the road Friday evening, we discussed our motivations for taking on this project. We both agreed that we are not trying to combat fracking corporations, simply to prove that fracking is “bad”. Rather, with fracking being such a new but large-scale process with such huge potential environmental implications, it would be foolish and short-sighted to not be curious to investigate what these implications may be. Streams are the veins of our earth, and it is our duty as environmental researchers to ensure their overall health is being maintained. If this weekend proved anything, it proved that the Gramendella lab (Grant and Lamendella labs) contain individuals passionate enough to do anything to investigate the implications of fracking. I am convinced that with continued dedication, we will continue to answer some of the unanswered questions behind fracking. I can’t wait to get my Mocassin badge, and I look forward to getting many more.

 

~Justin Wright

Discovering Pennsylvania Streams and their Unknown Fish Assemblages

This post comes from Dr. Jonathon Niles, a colleague from Susquehanna University who is a biology professor and the director of the RK Mellon Freshwater Research Initiative.  I have worked with Jonathon for the past several years on the Unassessed Waters Initiative that aims to document fish assemblages in previously unassessed streams (for more information about the program look under ABOUT tab on wildsonfrack).  This program and its collaborators, like Jon, have allowed for thousands of streams to be classified and protected because of the discovery of wild populations of brook and brown trout.  Hope you enjoy – Chris Grant

Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a vast amount of streams and thus very important aquatic resources. We have large rivers like the Susquehanna, creeks and streams that are five to fifty meters wide, and we have streams and runs that you could easily step across. Each of these streams is an important ecological and economic resource for the Commonwealth. While, Pennsylvania has over 64,000 waterways, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission only have data on approximately 6,500 of these waters. Therefore, only 9 percent of the streams in the Commonwealth are being actively and properly managed. Of the waters remaining, many likely support wild trout populations. Trout whether it be rainbow trout, brown trout, or the native brook trout are an important economic resources for the Commonwealth, as their fisheries generate over a billion dollars of economic activity across the state each year. Trout are also the key indicator species in coldwater streams across the state. Brook trout in particular are only found in the highest quality streams. The native brook trout needs clean, highly oxygenated water of the highest purity. They have a narrow range of pH tolerance, and are sensitive to low oxygen, pollution, pH changes, temperature, and other human induced environmental effects such a sedimentation.

Created in 2010, The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Pennsylvania colleges to visit headwater tributaries that have never been assessed to determine the presence and status of wild trout populations. An unassessed water is a waterway that has no biological data or information about which fish species live in that water. The goals of this program are to proactively identify and properly classify the most at-risk streams which support naturally reproducing trout populations in order to protect, conserve and enhance those waters as wild trout streams. Data collected from the Unassessed Waters Initiative is used by the Fish and Boat Commission to help correctly classify and protect high quality trout streams from environmental alterations and degradation. The primary threat to undocumented wild trout populations is inadequate water quality protection. The importance of adequately protecting our aquatic resources has increased dramatically with Marcellus Shale Gas extraction. Proper stream classification and protection is vital, as it is likely that streams will be impacted by human caused stressors with additional pressure for resource extraction.

Since 2011 my research team at Susquehanna University has been involved with the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Since 2011 we have surveyed 340 previously unassessed waters as part of this project. These streams have been across most of north central Pennsylvania in Snyder, Union, Centre, Mifflin, Northumberland, Montour, Lycoming, and Sullivan counties. The majority of the streams we have sampled are within Lycoming and Sullivan counties in the Loyalsock Creek drainage. We have found trout in over 55% of the streams we have sampled in those 3 years. During this time we have worked directly with many different stakeholder groups all of whom are concerned about protecting water quality and trout streams. We have worked with watershed associations like the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association who have provided in kind volunteer hours, donated many nights of overnight accommodations for our crews. Many private landowners, hunting clubs, and private companies like Dwight Lewis Lumber have allowed us access to sample streams on their property. Government agencies like DNCR’s Bureau of Forestry and the Game Commission have opened closed gates to gain us access to extremely remote streams that needed to be sampled. The cooperation from multiple entities has shown me that this program is extremely important for aquatic resource protection across the commonwealth.

Last summer my team of 4 students and I decided to focus on un-named tributaries for the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Un-named tributaries are the small blue line streams on a USGS topographic map that drain to the larger named streams. Un-named tributaries represent the largest amount of unassessed waters across the state with over 54,000 un-named tributaries still remaining to be assessed. During the summer of 2013 we sampled 168 un-Named tributaries across several watersheds including Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming Creek, Buffalo Creek, and White Deer Creek, of these 168 un-named tributaries we found that 80 of the un-named tributaries had no trout (61 had water but no trout, while 19 were dry). We found that 88 un-named tributaries had trout present with brook trout being present in 85 of those streams. Finding brook trout in 50.5% of the 168 un-named tributaries we sampled was surprising and shows that these un-named tributaries are important clean water resources. Our data indicated that 23 (26%) of these streams might even qualify for the best of the best qualification (Class A trout streams) from Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission. That is a very high percentage of high quality waters which may indicate that these un-named tributaries are almost as important as larger named streams in terms of trout habitat and production.

This summer our field crews (1 research scientist Mr. Mike Bilger, 1 research technician Mr. John Panas, and 5 summer student interns) have again been focusing on un-named tributaries. We have been primarily sampling in the Schrader Creek watershed of southern Bradford County. This area around state game lands 12 and 36 is in the heart of Marcellus Shale gas development. Over the last few weeks we have made several overnight trips here and sampled 6 named streams of which four had trout, and 2 were severely impacted from acid mine drainage and had no trout. During this time we have also sampled 43 un-named tributaries in Schrader Creek watershed. We have found brook trout in a large number of un-named tributaries in the watershed. Our data primarily shows that un-named tributaries will be either dry or if the hold water they have trout present. Last week we were extremely surprised to find brook trout in an unlikely looking stream (Un-named tributary 64346) in the town of Laquin (see picture 1). After arriving at the stream we found the stream had lots of sediment and little water flow. (see picture 2). However, after taking water quality measurements, we found that the stream was cold, and had good pH so it may be fed by some springs and had good water quality that it might hold trout. We began to electroshock the 1st pool and to our surprise we found several small brook trout in that pool and throughout the rest of the 100m section (picture 3). All total we found over 20 brook trout ranging in size from 2 inches to up to almost 6 inches (picture 4). This discovery of just goes to show us that we should judge a stream by its outward appearance that we need to look at the water chemistry and actually sample a stream to determine if it is a good quality stream.

1

Picture 1. Location of Un-named tributary 64346 on a USGS topographic map

6 (2)

Picture 2. Un-named tributary 64346 in near the mouth of Schrader Creek in Laquin, Bradford County.

 

6 (1)

Picture 3. Finding brook trout in the 1st few meters of Un-named tributary 64346.

7

Picture 4. Completing our sampling in Un-named tributary 64346.

The Long Cold Days of Late July

On Tuesday of this past week, we revisited the Bells Gap Watershed as part of our ongoing work on a project trying to develop a conservation plan that addresses threats to the health and proliferation of newly discovered brook trout populations (for more info see Bells Gap Headwater Project under the about tab). The biggest threat is that a number of the sub-watersheds have abandoned and reclaimed shallow and deep mines land within their watersheds.

We visited two adjacent streams and their watersheds: Green Springs — with no abandoned mine drainage (AMD) within its watershed, and Tubb Run — which has significant AMD within its watershed.

Access to these sites is a little difficult and it required a decent amount of hiking and elevation change (see below map). We set out to sample 6 locations (labelled on map below) accessed via hiking a large loop (~5 mi.) through both watersheds (red-dashed line on map below). We arrived at our parking location (labelled VAN on map) around 930 AM. We then packed up all of our gear and Jen, Nicole, Allison, Brad and I headed towards Tubb Run.

Bells Gap topo

Topo map showing Tubb Run (on left) and Green Springs Run (on right) with six sampling locations denoted and hike route outlined in red-dashed line.

We first sampled Tubb Run and found (as anticipated) the pH to be quite acidic due to the influence of upstream AMD. Presumably as a result of acidic waters, we found no brook trout at sites (1) and (2). To our surprise, we did catch 6 brook trout at site (3) on Tubb Run where the pH was still 4.93 (a pH of 7 is neutral and the pH scale is logarithmic…so a pH of 4.93 is quite acidic).

tubb

Picture of Tubb Run at sampling point (3) where six brook trout were caught in a 100-m reach

After hiking past the confluence of the two streams, we arrived at our first stream site (4) on Green Springs Run. At this site we caught 21 Brook trout and found the stream pH to be much more neutral. Further upstream on Green Springs site (5) we caught even more brookies, 42 to be exact. At our final site on Green spring (6), we didn’t catch any trout (which we believe to be due to insufficient water-as flow was quite low).

qwe

Where’s Waldo? A Picture of Allison hiking between sites

While we collected quite a bit of other data (stream water chemistry, macros, collected samples for Hg analysis), differences are apparent from observing fish data alone. These adjacent watersheds are very similar (size, slope, forested, geographic location, etc.), except for AMD influence. Comparing fish across the streams, we caught a total of 6 brookies at Tubb Run to our 63 brookies at Green Springs. It is this kind of stark contrast that makes the ecological “cost “ of our past energy extraction (coal) in this area more real, and gives me pause projecting towards future ecological “cost” associated with Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction.

Upon arriving back at the van (at 11pm) and packing up for our drive home, I couldn’t help but reflect upon what part of this 16 hour day was most challenging to our team. At this point in the summer, everyone works well together, is very capable of carrying large/heavy packs, hiking long distances, working long days, sampling after dark, and surviving largely on snacks and “trout adrenaline” until we finish. However, one thing we aren’t accustomed to is working in the cold….and it was cold for July. The night before the weather said it was going to drop to 50 degrees F, and when we arrived to our first site for the day, it wasn’t much warmer. While things did warm up through the day, everyone kept their long sleeves on, and at our last site (which we sampled largely after dark), it was cold enough to see your breath and get chilled. Now this would be normal if it were early fall or late spring, but we are in late July when the weather is supposed to be hot and sticky, and that is what our bodies are anticipating. While the cooler weather made hiking between sites quite comfortable, it made the remainder of our long field day of in-stream work (in the 12 degrees Celsius stream water) a little chilly for late July.

Chris Grant

Camouflage

Yesterday started the first day of sampling stream water for Mercury (Hg) for the Marcellus and Mercury project. Three FIELD Teams set out to different locations of the state to visit 11 streams for the day.

SEneca

Picture of sign showing 4.0 million gallon-average daily consumption of water (mostly for fracking) by Seneca Resources

Jenn and I ventured back into the “Lions Den” – an area of State Forest and State Game Lands Northwest of Emporium that is highly utilized by Seneca Resources for Marcellus shale natural gas extraction.

If you recall from previous posts, there is a significant presence from Seneca workers, truckers, and a security force in this area (e.g. kiosks and checkpoints along state forest roads), which hindered our progress. Last time we visited this area we were driving a van with “Juniata College” written on the side, which was effectively announcing that we were “outsiders” not involved in the Marcellus shale development/extraction. Once we passed one security kiosk and were asked who we were, where we were from, and what we were doing….all subsequent kiosks and many Seneca employees knew more about us, than we did about them or their works status.

kiosk

Example of a security kiosk set-set up along state forest roads and at wellpads. We observed these units are moved around quite frequently, depending on activity in the area.

This time was different. Because we were going in multiple teams, I drove my personal vehicle. My vehicle happened to be a 16 year old full-sized pickup truck with a Wyoming front license plate. The difference in perception by everyone we encountered was almost unbelievable. Instead of questioned looks, we got nods and waves by employees, and security personal waived us through without a second look. As we drove past one security checkpoint with the window down, we were even told to “have a nice evening guys” as were leaving for the day.

So, what was the difference? Camouflage-I was driving a vehicle that matched the general description of most of the workers vehicles. We blended in, looked like we belonged, didn’t draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves, and as a result were quite efficient in getting to 5 streams largely unnoticed. In biology, mimicry (or more specifically mimesis) is when an organism uses camouflage to blend in with its surroundings in order to dupe its predators. For example, insects may look like twigs or branches, or brook trout have coloration patterns that help them blend into the bed of the stream.  In both cases, this allows the organisms stand a better chance of going undetected and surviving in their environment.

Greenlee Run Mouth Brook11

Picture showing brook trout camouflage

In some ways this is exactly what happened with us yesterday, we were using mimicry to help us remain undetected, survive, and thrive in our environment. I have to laugh at the irony that the very subject matter I teach about in the classroom played out with us in the Lions Den.

Stay tuned for more,

Chris Grant  

 

Looking back and moving forward

Looking back, over the past two weeks we have spent significant time visiting a number of streams in the Juniata River watershed as part of the Unassessed Waters Project. The aims of this project are to document fish assemblages in previously unassessed streams, in hopes of finding naturally reproducing brook/brown trout that would allow for reclassification of streams and long-term protection of these populations and watersheds.

fishbucket

Picture of a bucket of brook trout captured while working on the Unassessed Waters Project

Since the start of summer, we have assessed 70 streams across central and northern PA to date, and 22 of these we found wild trout populations; allowing for probable reclassification within the coming year. Our goal is to assess over 115 streams for this project by the end of summer.  To find out more details about this aims of this project, check out the description for “Finding Brookies” under the ABOUT tab.

Moving forward, this week we are starting STREAM WATER WEEK. Sounds harmless enough, but it is arguably the busiest few days of our summer work on the Marcellus and Mercury project. Over the course of 2.5 days we aim to visit 25 stream sites to collect water samples that will be analyzed for Mercury (Hg) concentration.

labHg

Picture showing team effort in the lab to filter and prep samples for Hg analysis

Solid teamwork, attention to detail, and collaboration are absolutely necessary to ensure success. More specifically, we start Monday morning with three FIELD teams going to different stream sites (at varied distances from Juniata). Teams return at varied times and an additional LAB team is prepped and ready to filter and preserve water samples for later analysis. The first FIELD team usually arrives back at the lab late afternoon, and successive FIELD teams arrive every few hours. Shortly before the first FIELD team arrives back at Juniata, the LAB team “starts” their day and they work into the wee hours of the morning (with help from the returning FIELD teams). We aim to keep this up for 2.5 days, so that we can process and prep all samples for overnight shipment (by end of day Wednesday) to our collaborators at United States Geological Survey (USGS) Mercury Research Laboratory in Wisconsin. This type of quick turn-around time is necessary to ensure quality samples and valid data.

field Hg

Picture showing sample collection by the by FIELD team

Hglabalex

Picture showing sample filtration by the by LAB team

There are four different measures of Hg we look for in stream water. First off we are interested in both organic (MeHg) and inorganic (THg) forms of mercury in stream water (for more information check out previous post entitled Why Mercury?). We are also interested in knowing what percentage of these forms are dissolved in the stream water (like sugar in coffee) vs. particulate (like backwash in your coffee). This is done by using a filtration setup that separates out the particulate on a filter, and allows the dissolved to pass through. Then for each stream, we send a bottle and a filter to the USGS to be analyzed for MeHg and THg. Once there, the USGS uses different methods to determine concentrations among these forms (for more information: http://wi.water.usgs.gov/mercury-lab/)

In addition to the tight schedule, long hours, and field stories generated from this experience, there are also interesting terms associated with this work. Here are two:

clean hands dirty hands- I remember first learning about this methodology and thinking that this name was quite peculiar, and wondered whether I would get to be the clean or dirty hands in this procedure. In actuality, this is a simple, but important method of collection and preparation of samples that helps to keep contamination risk low. (http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2000/ofr00-213/manual_eng/collect.html#clean)

teflon- while most people have heard of this in reference to cooking eggs with a non-stick frying pan, for our purposes this is referring to a high density plastic that we use to ensure no contamination/alteration of Hg concentration in water samples.

Stay tuned this coming week for some short, but interesting blog posts at odd hours from the field and in the lab.

Chris Grant

Young of Year

While working on the Bells Gap Headwaters Project earlier this summer we were joined by two avid fly fisherman, Todd and Noah Davis, who spent the day working along side us. In addition to the significant help with our field work, they had a wealth of knowledge about this watershed, it’s history, and the best places to drop a fly in the water. Todd, an accomplished poet and English and Environmental Science Professor at Penn State, shared this poem entitled Young of Year (partially inspired by his time in the Bells Gap watershed) with us and has allowed us to post it on wildsonfrack. We hope you enjoy.

photo

Young of Year

 

 

Salvelinus fontinalis

 

 

By the time you hold the native in your hands it is you who has been caught; you who shines, and feels like silver; you who came, long ago, from water; you who suddenly can’t live without this beautiful river.

                                                                                                            —David James Duncan

 

 

The water’s footsteps descend the stairs

of the mountain, digging pools

where native brook trout feed and lay down

their seed in redds, where even more water

forces its way up through gravel

ushering in the young-of-the-year.

 

Springs rise everywhere in this stream,

struggling to forgive us the mines we tunneled

and left behind in a century we try to forget.

Part way up the mountain acid mine drainage

seeps from the punctured side of the ridge.

Iron sulfate sweeps down and banks

its orange flames in a grotesque tongue

of deceit. Scientists call it a “kill zone.”

Nothing lives in its wake. We walk

more than a mile downstream

before we see the first crayfish

and further to find a lone brookie.

 

I spend most of my time searching

for these native fish. My wife asks

what I wish to do with them.

It’s not about hunger, although

a few times each year I build

a small fire in a ring of stone, melt

butter in a cast iron skillet. How easily

the pink and white flesh departs

from needle-thin bones and fingers

bring quivering meat

to the tongue, sweet muscle

that lashed the body to the current

and now fixes itself to the threads

of my flesh.

 

 

I suppose another kind

of hunger causes me to cradle

them, to long for a connection

with that life hidden

in rock-seams, the breach

of boulders, white foam

of oxygen fashioned by water

falling over downed beeches

and hemlocks.

 

At fifty my eyes have begun to fail.

Before it all goes dark

I want to take in

the dimensions of each fish,

arrange their bodies on moss beds

and capture what I’ve missed

in a photograph. I’ll return to

these pictures when sleep

offers no reverie as improbable

as the dream of creation

and the forever-shifting fantasy

of evolution that caused this Atlantic char

to convert, to become landlocked

in a creek most mapmakers ignore.

 

We all worship something.

I’ll take the beauty and strength

of these fish, holy and godlike,

with backs vermiculated

so you can’t see them as they fan

above strewn rocks at your feet.

 

I’ve caught myself praying to them,

hoping such prayers might help them

save themselves, and because I can’t

escape the religion of my youth,

I still believe God is one, or at least three-

in-one, the world drenched by the Holy

Spirit of this fish’s colors.

 

 

Stepping along the bank,

I crush wild mint with my boot.

The fragrance rises into the June air,

reminding me of the mint we grew

at the back steps of the farmhouse

and the friend who would drape

his fish in these pungent

leaves at the bottom

of his creel, keeping the fish

fresh for the evening meal.

 

Consider each cell trembling

in my hand as I hold this precious

fish that gives me faith; or the scales

that cover its side and quake as it fights

at the end of my line; or the life

that runs through rushing water,

and the gravity that forces that water

down the slope of this mountain

in which these ever-moving bodies

bless us with their unceasing

 

If you’ve been in a room

when someone dies

after a long illness,

then you know how

sight recedes, how

the dying fade from

the physical body, the silence

somehow different: not the lack

of sound but its absence.

 

In high school I read about

the transmigration of souls,

and later in college

about how the sun would go out

and the earth would cease to be.

I wonder where these souls will go

when that day comes.

 

 

Here the hermit thrush breaks

the stillness as it praises

the river and all those that reside

within its banks. I’ve seen the bird’s notes

written in a field guide as oh, holy holy,

ah, purity purity, eeh, sweetly sweetly.

Who could argue with that?

 

I wish I could sing a few of the bird’s notes,

but only a croak flies out of my mouth.

As vast as the green world seems

when I’m inside this seam of forest

that was nearly destroyed,

I know we’ve been left a fragment

of what ought to be here.

 

So many of us have the urge to travel

long distances, to escape the place

we were born or find ourselves

consigned to. I don’t drive my pickup

more than ten miles in any direction.

The news of the universe I’m interested in

is written on the sides of these fish.

 

At the edge of the riffle’s white curling

I count three brookies looking up

for a terrestrial to float by, a chance to dart

skyward, to sip the surface with open jaws.

As these fish grow older, longer in tooth,

I understand better what Wang Wei wrote

after the death of Yin Yao: Of your bones

now buried white cloud, this much remains

forever: streams cascading empty

toward human realms.

The Fracks of Wrath

My time working with the Grant Lab has come to an end. This blog will continue to be updated with information about the Grant Lab’s progress as they work on the Marcellus & Mercury project and other research endeavors, but I won’t be the one posting anymore. I’ve had an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience surveying streams in the Pennsylvania Wilds, so I thought it would be appropriate to write one final exit post about our research adventures this past month.

The 2014 summer research team

The 2014 summer research team

I think one of the most important things I learned through this research is about how unpredictable field work can be. On some days the sun would shine all day and we would get four streams done, and on other days it would storm so much that we couldn’t visit a single site. While we were lucky enough to see all sorts of wildlife (like elk, turtles, and porcupines), at other times nature seemed to be slightly more antagonistic to our cause (like when we had to go out of our way to avoid rattlesnakes, or bushwhack through dense thickets of thorns). Even when nothing out of the ordinary happened, the days were still long and both physically and mentally challenging. That being said, it was still a lot of fun, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget my experience in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

creek

But what still stands out to me the more than anything else that happened in the past few weeks was our interaction with fracking itself. The sheer volume of development being done in the Pennsylvania Wilds just for the sake of fracking is absolutely astounding. The hundreds of tanker trucks, all of the security kiosks constantly communicating via radio, the supervisor who threatened Dr. Grant with a gun – in comparison to many of the peaceful, pristine streams that we visited during our work, all of this fracking development seems almost surreal.

dozers

But I suppose any kind of industrial development will always seem at odds with nature; those two things do not usually mix very well. It isn’t fracking development itself that necessarily bothers me – I’m not opposed to progress, especially when it is concerned with valuable resources that our society needs to function. I’m more bothered by the manner in which the fracking industry is developing at an exponential rate in the Pennsylvania Wilds and across the country. For example: are all of the security personnel and thinly veiled threats really necessary? I understand that these are multi-million dollar companies making humongous amounts of profit off of this method of natural gas extraction, so some manner of security is required, but I also find it somewhat unsettling to see these powerful companies doing all of this work without being absolutely certain of the environmental consequences.

fracking7

In 1939 John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” a novel about the struggles of an agricultural family during the Dust Bowl and the height of the Great Depression. The family is forced to close their farm and seek employment in California not only as a result of the economic depression but also because of changes in the agricultural industry, such as large companies stepping in and utilizing new methods to ensure efficient and profitable farming. The title of the book comes from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song written by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe during the Civil War, which calls for justice to be brought upon those who have brought destruction to the land.

The whole time I was doing research up in the Pennsylvania Wilds, I couldn’t help but be reminded about the events of “The Grapes of Wrath.” We don’t know for sure if fracking is having any kind of negative impact on the environment, and it could very well have no effect on anything at all. But regardless, when I look at the bigger picture (and as I experienced it myself), something just doesn’t seem quite right.

- John Dubensky

Where the Stream Ends (video)

Today was my last official day doing field work in the Pennsylvania Wilds with the Grant lab. We only managed to survey one stream today before the sky unloaded a storm upon us, but luckily we managed to  visit a good amount of sites earlier in the week so we are right on target.  While my time working with the Grant lab has come to a close,there is still more work to do and there are more posts to come – just not as frequently. Because of this occasion, we thought it  fitting to share this video with  everyone.  Click the picture below to check out the video.

releasevideo

- John Dubensky

Back into the Lion’s Den

Today we returned to the campus of fracking sites that we visited last Thursday, when we were indirectly threatened with a gun by a supervisor. As busy as the roads were that day, filled with all kinds of tanker trucks and work vehicles, for whatever reason the place seemed near deserted today. We came across a number of different wellpads that we didn’t even notice last week, which is astounding to me. There has to be at least ten different wellpads in this area alone, and keep in mind that each wellpad can legally contain multiple wells.

Another wellpad

Another wellpad

We ended up surveying another four streams today, putting us at a great number for the week – plus, we also have tomorrow to get some more work done.

Dr. Grant briefing us at the first site

Dr. Grant briefing us at the first site

We also came across another fracked stream today that had the same orange tinge to it that we’ve seen at several different streams this week. Again, we aren’t positive what is causing this kind of coloration, but it’s doesn’t appear to be from natural sources.

chips1

chips2

We also had some more run-ins with some wildlife today, including an impressive bull elk.

elk

Bull elk in the forest

And as we left the final stream of the day, we encountered yet another timber rattlesnake, though this one wasn’t as big as the one we ran into last week. Click the picture below to check out a video we took of the snake.

rattlesnakevideo

Also, it seems as though we were very close to crossing paths with some kind of bear (again).

bearsign

On the way back to the homstead, we also saw a man being reprimanded by a police officer. Because the man had a chair in the middle of the road and was near a heavy fracking traffic area, Grant suggested that he might have actually been protesting fracking development. Tomorrow, we’ll be embarking on our last official day out in the field for the week before heading home for the holiday and, I think, a well-deserved break for all of us.

- John Dubensky

The Grind is Real

“Alright everyone,” said Dr. Grant, as we loaded up the van at around eight in the evening, preparing to head back to the homestead. “Good job today. Four streams, that’s not too bad. Who’s up for another?”

Everyone laughed because thankfully, we knew he was joking.

Eleven Hours Earlier

We unpacked everything from the van in preparation for the first stream of the day. The hike ended up being pretty difficult, given the steep descent on the way down (which isn’t easy on the knees) and the steep ascent on the way back (which isn’t easy on the calves). When we finally did reach the stream, our arrival was hailed by the rattling of an annoyed rattlesnake. We heard the rattle of the snake but couldn’t see it, so we made sure to avoid the log where the noise had come from.

This stream, which has been fracked, had a weird orange tinge and an abundance of periphyton that Dr. Grant noted was not there last year. We also caught a significantly smaller number of trout in this stream than we did last year – while in 2013 we caught 43 brook trout, we only managed to catch 18 this year.

Stream tinged with a strange orange color

Stream tinged with a strange orange color

Abundance of periphyton at the same stream

Abundance of periphyton at the same stream

The next stream we visited required a much shorter hike, and we got all of the data we needed without anything out of the ordinary happening. As we left the site, we came across a seep similar to what we saw at one stream on Monday. However, today’s stream has not been fracked, but wellpads were developed.

Seep

Seep

The last two streams we surveyed we hit one right after the other, without returning to the van. It ended up being quite a trek hiking to the first stream (we had to cut through a large thicket of thorn bushes), and then hiking to one more stream before finally making one long final hike back to the van (up a few very steep hillsides and then finally back through the thorn bushes).

stream2

Despite how tired everyone was (especially by the last stream), we were able to work through everything very quickly and efficiently. It’s interesting to compare our long, busy day today to the first week we had out in the field – I doubt we could have managed four streams in one day back then, especially with all the hiking we had to do. Despite all of the aches and pains we have, we’ll have to work through them tomorrow because the week isn’t over quite yet.

- John Dubensky