Field Sightings

I have been doing field-based ecological research for over 15 years.  However, my time with Juniata students in the PA wilds always exposes us to something new and different.  I thought I’d take a chance to post a few pictures of some of the interesting things we have encountered along the way.  These are things seen while on the roads and in the woods, and often add a bit of joy to the long field days.  You may have to click on some of the pics to get a large enough view to see the important detail.  Hope you enjoy – Chris Grant

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Traffic- a large bull elk blocking our path to one of our stream sites

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Chainsaw Helicopter- a helicopter with a large hanging boom with multiple rotating circular saw blades. Used to trim trees along power lines with rough terrain- google it!

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Giant tortoise- found in The Wilds but originating from South America

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Aliens- apparently Canada Geese are our leaders

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Fawn- newly born fawn bedded down under the bank in a stream

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Moral dilemmas- the devils highway or narrow way?

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The Pot of Gold at the end of the Rainbow- returning home to Juniata College at the end of a long field day.

From Jurassic World to Backwoods Sampling

This post was created by Nick Weit, a research student and recent Juniata College graduate who is attending Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine this fall.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

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My brief sampling experience during June 17-19th was anything but normal. The story begins on Wednesday night at 6:45pm. I had just bought a movie ticket for Jurassic World in the Huntingdon Cinema’s Clifton 5 and had sat down with my friends in our seats when Dr. Grant called me. After a quick discussion, I was informed that the sampling van had broken down in Tionesta, PA and that I was needed to drive there in order to shuttle members of the field team back to the Homestead in Benezette, PA. After Dr. Grant explained the situation to me, I quickly got a refund for my ticket at the cinema and drove home in order to pack. At this point, the term ‘pack’ was an overstatement; I only threw a few articles of clothing in my backpack. Since it was a two and a half hour drive to Benezette and it was already past 7pm, I needed to leave as soon as possible. I grabbed my backpack and peanut butter and jelly supplies, jumped in my car, and I started driving North towards Benezette. The first two hours of drive went by quickly; however, the last half hour was a little eerie. I was driving along winding roads through the woods, and I only passed a few cars in over 20 miles.

Once I arrived in Tionesta, I realized that I finally had service and I was able to utilize my Google Maps app to find the actual parking lot where the broken down van was parked. The directions that I followed brought me to down a dark alley, which seemed completely deserted. I noticed that I was behind a larger building, and I assumed I was on the wrong side of the building of the correct address. I drove around the building and, sure enough, I found the broken down van with the field team. As soon as I arrived, we packed my car with the Electrofisher and other important equipment. My car was completely packed with only enough room for myself, Dr. Grant, Kelsey and Jada to squeeze in. We then began the next leg of the trip to the Homestead. This drive seemed to go quickly since I was able to converse with my passengers about their crazy day, hearing all about the field sampling, the van breaking down, and how everyone spent their last few hours. Again, very few cars were on the road, and it seemed that a majority of the life on the road was various animal species, especially deer. We finally arrived at the Homestead around midnight. Once we arrived Dr. Grant grabbed his keys and began driving back to Tionesta to shuttle the remaining field members to the Homestead. After my car was unpacked, I made my bed on the couch and fell asleep within minutes.

The following day was a great smorgasbord – learning experience and work out due to the hiking into various sample sites. At each site, I took water chemistry data, and I helped with acquiring methane and isotope samples. After all of these samples were collected and put on ice, I then helped with fish sampling as well as picking macroinvertebrates from the kick nets. My responsibilities encompassed a lot of methods including measuring fish lengths, weighing fish, extracting liver samples, clipping fish fins, and sorting through the kick net for aquatic macroinvertebrate specimens.

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Bucket of brook trout and crayfish after first pass of electrofishing

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Brook trout captured during electrofishing

The actual fieldwork was extremely fun because there was always something to do, keeping you on your toes. The time seemed to fly by, even when traveling between various sample sites because I was constantly consuming water and food. Overall, the sampling Thursday went smoothly because the weather was great and all the field members pulled their weight. It was dark by the time we returned to the Homestead, but everyone was happy and still full of energy from a day with no complications. So, after the blood plasma samples were finished being spun down and composited into collection tubes, we gathered around the TV for a few episodes of Bear Grylls. We began watching the outdoor survival show, but I was sound sleep after the first episode.

Overall, I thought my field sampling experience on Thursday and Friday were well worth the long drive Wednesday night. I will always remember those days because it began very unexpectedly and went by so fast. However, I learned various important ecological sampling methods as well as gained valuable friendships in between.

Hope you follow us to receive all future posts!

-Nick

Flatlanders Finding Fish

The following post was created by Chris McLimans a Biology student working in the Lamendella and Grant labs.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

The particular field day I am posting about actually began at 12:03 AM in the Juniata College Van.  Dr. Grant and I were sitting outside the Benezette Hotel- a short drive from where we were staying – to borrow the nearest WiFi to attempt to “fix” a problem that arose.  More specifically, we were requesting HELP in the form of dry ice, since our 40-pound block had disappeared much faster than usual. We drafted an email to a select few hardy individuals-who were back at Juniata College-and may be up for the challenge of delivering a cooler of dry ice within 12 hours of the email to a remote location in the Elk State Forest via only GPS coordinates of the vans location.  He remarked to me that this is an insight into what it takes to make field biology work and how it can be logistically difficult. I noted the amount of time and hard work that is necessary to perform successful research as we sat in an empty parking lot after a long day of field work. We hoped our ‘mayday’ email would be received in time for someone to be able to make the special delivery.  We discussed how it would be a quite a feat if dry ice arrived, given we would have no contact with anyone (cell or email) once we left the parking lot that night, and navigating to the remote GPS coordinates from several hundred miles away and involved >10 miles of dirt road/trail navigation on poorly marked roads.

Waking up at 6:30 AM I ate my breakfast, packed my lunch and bag of supplies for the day. We loaded ourselves into the van and headed off to Mocassin Run. We arrived at the site and I strapped the pack affectionately known as Uncle Fester to my back carrying supplies plus an extra battery for the electrofisher, bringing the pack to roughly 30 pounds. This may not seem like a lot but with the terrain we had to hike and climb, it was not going to be an easy hike. We made our way back through the forest to the slope, which was a roughly quarter mile climb at >50 degrees over the course of the slope.

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Research team hiking into Mocassin- the easy part of the hike.

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Looking at final descent to Mocassin- a 1/4 mile long 50+ degree grade section through thick mountain laurel

We performed our sampling and I began to process the collected fish. I was tasked with performing field dissections on a few select brook trout in order to collect small pieces of liver tissue. This tissue will be used to determine which genes are “turned on” in each fish, and to compare which genes are active between the fish of different streams. Specifically we are interested in seeing if differences exist between streams that have fracking in their watershed and those that do not. This can help to determine if there is any genetic impact on these brook trout where fracking is occurring. For my work, having this tissue as well as all of the other stream characteristic measurements, such as temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen, will be vital to understand how fracking is potentially impacting these ecosystems and thus the trout populations.

We finished all of the sampling and began the hike out of the site; the climb out was going to be much harder than hiking in since it was through dense mountain laurel going up. Once again we strapped on our heavy packs and began the climb. There is really no accurate way to describe the climb to convey the difficulty of climbing a slope that is at such an angle that standing up straight is nearly impossible without holding onto a tree or falling backwards, and crawling is the only possible way to proceed, as tree limbs and mountain laurel snag onto your pack, scratch an pull at you as you pass through, and knock your hat off.

We successfully climbed out of Mocassin and walked back to the van, hoping to see someone waiting with the dry ice we requested just 12 hours earlier. There was no one. We approached the van and set our packs down, enjoying the relief of standing only under our own weights, we rounded the back of the van and saw a blue cooler. We knew that cooler could only contain one thing… dry ice. After the climb we had just performed this was an incredibly uplifting and exciting thing since it meant the feat of finding the van using only the coordinates had been completed by the reliable research student-Aaron Kulig.

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Research team ecstatic to be back to the van in one piece!

The group completed the final site for the day, Dutch Hollow, which was only slightly less complicated to hike to than Mocassin. We again performed our sampling tasks efficiently, I collected more liver tissue samples to bring back to the lab, and we hiked out after a hard day of work. While in the moment of the hard days we can lose sight of the ultimate reason why we are working so hard, but in the end being able to put in the long hours to protect the wild places of Pennsylvania is worth the sweat and sore muscles.

Sizing up the Day

The following post was created by Devin Beck, a Juniata College senior Environmental Science student.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

This being my second summer working in the Grant Lab, I was excited to get back up into the northern woods of PA. I was also excited to start collecting new data for a morphometrics project that is one new aspect of our research on the potential impacts of Marcellus natural gas extraction. A few other students and I will be looking at the morphometrics-or variation in shape-of brook trout in streams with various levels of  fracking within their watershed. While I have already started working on the research, we are in its infancy as far as results.

A quick peruse of the literature has turned up very little research done on the effects of pollution or contamination on fish shape. One of the few things that I did find was unpublished research on the morphology of brook trout affected by Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD) by Dr. Shawn Rummel, of Trout Unlimited. He and collaborators looked at mouth size and body shape in relation to AMD, and found some very interesting results. This study has helped us to develop ideas that we hope to build upon for this project.

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Brandon, Maria, Jada, Devin and Allison preparing to process brook trout for morphometric analysis.

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Brook Trout in the process of being pinned for morphometric analysis

On Tuesday we first assessed Little Wolf Creek, which is located in the Allegheny National Forest, just a short walk behind a gated dirt road, near what appears to be an unofficial makeshift shooting range. We caught a number of “brookies and a number of brown trout as well.

The presence of brown trout in this stream is interesting, as they are not a native species. Brown trout were introduced into Pennsylvania in 1886 from parts of Scotland and Germany, and have become a dominant species in many of the streams and areas they were introduced. It has been observed that many streams once only inhabited by wild brook trout are now largely occupied by brown trout. Brown trout can often outcompete native brook trout for food source-helping brown trout to thrive in streams where they co-habitate. Brown trout are also more tolerant of higher temperatures in streams than brook trout are, brook trout can generally survive in water that is up to 20 degrees Celsius, while brown trout can withstand higher temperatures. Last year at Little Wolf only one brown trout and eight brook trout were caught. This year we caught ten brown trout eight of which were young of year (trout that were born this past winter/spring) and only seven adult brook trout. These young brown trout and the size/age distribution of brookies and browns suggest brown trout are reproducing at a faster rate than brookies, meaning more competition and pressure for the brookies in Little Wolf Creek.

After assessing Little Wolf we drove to Bear Creek, located near a state road parking lot where multiple construction vehicles were parked. When we pulled in, one man asked us, “Ya’ll goin fishin or something? What’s with the ghostbusters get-up?” as Allison shouldered the electro-fisher. We laughed, told him a little bit about our project, and then started our short hike to Bear Creek. Once we arrived at the stream, we did the normal run through of data collection including physiochemical stream water measures, stream water methane isotope collection, microbial sampling, periphyton and sediment collection, crayfish hunting, macroinvertebrate kicknet sampling,  electrofishing, fish processing, brook trout morphometrics, brook trout blood collection, and brook trout liver collection and fin clips for genomics work.  By this point in the summer, everyone had found there groove-and we started to work well as a team towards efficiently collecting data from each site.

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Bear Creek

Since we were planning on hiking Moccasin and Dutch Hollow the next day, two of our hardest hikes, we decided to end the day at Bear Creek around 6:00PM and head back to the homestead. Everyone went to bed relatively early to rest up and prepare for what what was to come.

It seems crazy to think that the summer is almost half over! Keep checking in for the next post!

Independence Day for Brook Trout

As the 4th of July is just a day away, I though it was fitting to share this video of us releasing a brook trout back to the stream.  These fish are one of the main reasons we feel so strongly about conducting research on the impacts of Marcellus shale natural gas extraction.  Much like the thirteen United States of America in the Declaration of Independence, we hope to enable the brook trout to escape from any negative oppression of fracking, and live wild and free.  Click on image below to see the video of a brook trout being released back into the PA wilds.

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-Chris Grant

Dead Man’s Lick to Slenderman

This post was written by Maria Fernanda Campa, who is an Energy Science and Engineering PhD student at the University of Tennessee’s Bredesen Center (bredesencenter.utk.edu) and a collaborator on the Marcellus project through Dr.Terry Hazen’s Lab. She is particularly interested in the energy-water nexus associated with unconventional gas extraction, and the tolerance and/or bioremediation capabilities of subsurface microorganisms to fracking fluids.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

It was 7 am and the homestead already smelled like coffee and breakfast. There was a palpable energy in the environment, people were packing lunches and loading the van. As I took the first step down the stairs, I realized my legs still felt like spaghetti from the hikes through Moccasin Run and UNT to Birch Island Run the day before. I smiled proudly, “we survived Moccasin Run!”

Our first stream of the day was Dead Man’s Lick, a site that the group has visited in the past. A year before the group observed active drilling within the watershed, and by this summer fracking had begun.

It was a quite enjoyable day, and the stream was very accessible. Dr. Grant took extra time, to make sure the students that hadn’t tried a particular technique got the chance today. This was particularly exciting for me because that day I was taught how to electrofish! The electrofishing machine looks like something straight out of a Ghostbusters movie (see picture 1 and 2). Someone carries a backpack-size machine that spreads electrical pulses though the water using a pole with a wire loop. The small current temporarily “stuns” the fish near the pole, so it can be a bit easier to catch them with a net. I was able to catch most of fish that came my way (yay!), but a couple escaped.

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Brandon, Grant, and Maria electrofishing and capturing brook trout

Once I was done applying my new electrofishing skills, I went back to what I was there to do; get water samples for methane concentration and methane isotope analysis. We are interested in testing if there is methane in the streams, and if there is detectable methane, we want to know if the methane is naturally occurring in the streams or if it is coming from the subsurface as a result of fracking practices.

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Water sampling. Jada is filtering water for DNA and RNA collection. Maria is collecting water for methane analysis.

We took a bit longer than usual collecting the samples in this site, as we were all learning new techniques. Then while conducting fish morphology, we began discussing experimental design and different techniques that could help us answer the same scientific questions. After some more fun scientific discussion, we loaded the van and headed to our next stop, UNT to Naval Hollow.

UNT to Naval Hollow had a well pad near the stream that was cleared and prepped, but not fracked, when we sampled the stream last summer. I was excited to finally collect some non-fracked control sites for my study, as it seemed all the control sites in my list had started fracking operations recently. However, as we began sampling the stream, Grant immediately noticed that the stream pH was significantly lower than last year. After collecting the samples, we stumbled upon the well pad, which was actively being fracked. The well pad held 10 wells! I had never seen an operation so big! It was the first time I have seen an active fracking operation, and it seemed like at least some of the wells were already producing flowback water.

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UNT Naval Hollow Well pad last year

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UNT Naval Hollow Well Pad this year

It is also worth noting that there were a lot of solar panels being used to harvest energy for the operation. It was an interesting juxtaposition of gas companies using renewable energy to extract fossil fuels. The irony of that, does not cease to amaze me.

Then we headed to the last site of the day, Potato Creek, a site that already active fracking within its watershed. The water was a funky off orange color, and there was some foam floating around, which I was told that is how it was last year.  After finishing with water collection for methane analysis (figure 3), I helped out with the collection of macroinvertebrates. To do this I disturbed sediment (danceing around while kicking the stream floor) while Jada hold a kick net so the sediment (and macroinvertebrates) float into the net. After filling our kick nets, we headed to a flat area of land to pick out the little critters. As we started picking, we noticed the sun was starting to set. This made me happy as I finally got an excuse to use my headlamp. Once our headlamps were on, we gathered around and finish collecting the macro invertebrates.

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Potato Creek

This was the first day we were able to make it to three sites in one day, satisfied with the productivity of our day, we packed the van and started our drive back to the homestead. As the road turned pitch black, Devin started talking about things and stories that scared her the most (SLENDERMAN!). This started a conversation of horror stories and deepest fears. As we reach the homestead around 11 pm, we all ran inside and did not look back, in case the fracking slenderman was behind us.

The Devils Highway Ends at a 19 Hour Long Field Day

Drafted by Devin Beck, Jada Hackman, Allison Lutz, Chris McLimans, and Nick Weit. The authors are Juniata College summer research fellows from the Lamendella and Grant Labs.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

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Wapiti, more commonly known as an Elk, we observed while hiking to our first stream site.

After a rough start to this week’s expedition with thunderstorms and heavy rain on Monday, Tuesday started out as another typical field day in the Wapiti’s Woods. A light drizzle fell as we inhaled our breakfast and crammed the van with our equipment and bodies at the Homestead in Benezette, PA. As we careened along the winding state forest roads, swaying left and right from the sharp turns, the rain started to pick up, but this wasn’t going to stop us from acquiring some water samples at Bear Creek, Little Wolf, and Indian Run. Unfazed, we worked collecting water samples, taking water chemistry measurements, and then electrofishing once the rain subsided. We found white suckers, redside dace, blacknose dace, fantail darter, slimy sculpins, creek chub, and the most exciting catch at this stream was mountain lamprey. After processing the brook trout from this stream, it was time to load the van back up with our waders and equipment. We had grown accustomed to the pungent smells of stale sweat, fish, swamp mud, and wet feet from our work, so they didn’t bother us as we proceeded to gobble down our lunches and snacks on the way to our next stop.

En route to Camp Run we traversed The Devil’s highway, Pennsylvania Route 666, or ‘Triple 6’ as the locals call it. In the cramped van we suddenly heard a consistent and concerning popping and banging sound coming from the front end. Thinking it was a flat tire we pulled off, parked the van, and looked for the flat tire. (Brandon was excited to show off his tire changing skills.) It turned out, however, that the sound had originated from the engine.  The smells of gas and combustion hit our faces as we approached to open the hood, and we inspected the engine and underneath the van for anything that looked problematic, but did not observe a menacing looking problem. It was 3 pm, we had no cell reception from any of 3 different carriers, and the closest towns were nearly 18 miles in either direction. We started walking in hopes of finding a residence, cell reception, or anyone to help out. Quoting the infamous survivalist Bear Grylls, we “took positive steps” to bring some humor to our predicament and also passed time by chewing and spitting sunflower seeds. We walked down the road not knowing how long it had been since we passed the last sign of civilization.

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View back at Juniata College van sitting alongside triple 6

Few cars passed us as we walked, but none stopped to check on our condition or why a group of seven people were walking in the middle of nowhere—although we couldn’t really blame them as we looked quite weathered. Finally, we reached a bridge and saw an older fellow fishing with his grandkids. Dr. Grant approached him and introduced himself, the group, and explained our situation. The man, Jim, agreed to drive Grant to his camp in order to use his landline to arrange for the van to be towed and for us to hopefully be rescued. We watched as our professor rode away with this bearded man in sandals and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt and stayed behind at the bridge to keep an eye on his grandkids who were fishing. After nearly an hour and a half of waiting, Grant and Jim returned with only a small bit of good news—that the van would be towed the following morning—but still no pick up for us. We hiked back to the van once again, wondering what we were going to do and questioning whether we would have to sleep in the van for the night.

Once we arrived back at the van Grant weighed the options and decided to try to drive to the nearest town, 18 miles away. The van ride to Tionesta was disturbing with the eerie sounds and acrid smells coming from the engine; it sounded like it was continually backfiring. At one point the van was shaking a lot and smelled of strong gas fumes. The gas pedal was pegged most of the way, but we did not break 45 mph, and were unsure if the van would make it. After an arduous climb up to a ridgetop, we were able to coast into Tionesta, PA around 6 pm. We stationed the van at a Farm Fresh grocery store parking lot and made numerous phone calls to figure out who was coming to “save” us. Since it was approaching 7 pm, Grant decided we should go eat before everything closed for the evining, so we walked to a local gas station. The subs, while simple, tasted amazing after our excruciatingly long day.

After dinner, we sat on an old church pew bench outside of the gas station awaiting rescue.  A passerby we met while waiting resembled Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty.  He pulled up on his nifty electric scooter to talk to us. Grant’s attempts at humor were not received, because when Grant asked to buy the scooter to drive it nearly 90 miles to Benezette, “Uncle Si” answered with all seriousness, “Well, I’ll have to check the charge on the battery first.” After a few more minutes “Uncle Si” left, peeling out of the parking lot with tires squealing and almost ditching it after hitting the curb… we all tried to restrain ourselves, but couldn’t help but laugh at the scene.  Another gristly onlooker from an open car door nearby chuckled and said, “That little bugger is pretty fast, huh”. We went back into the gas station, grabbed some ice cream and coffee, and finalized plans to get back to Homestead:  Nick, a recent Juniata College grad, was coming to “save” us.

Nick had just sat down in the Huntingdon Cinemas Clifton 5 to watch the new Jurassic World movie, when he received a distress call from Grant. This call stated that the entire field team and all of our samples and supplies were stranded in Tionesta, PA. Grant asked if he could immediately drive up to Tionesta, locate the field team in the Farm Fresh Foods parking lot, and transport us to the Homestead. So, Nick urgently left the cinema (and his two friends to drive home), pack, and make the 2.5-hour expedition to Tionesta. Nick arrived at the Farm Fresh Foods parking lot around 10 pm to the sound of barking dogs and a star filled sky and found the entire field team hanging out around the van in the dark.  Upon arrival, we swiftly packed Nick’s car with as much equipment as possible, only allowing small spaces for Grant and two team members (Kelsey and Jada) to barely squeeze into seats. After stuffing the car to the gills, Nick began the 1.5-hour excursion from Tionesta to the Homestead. This drive was filled with very little signs of human life; however, there was a multitude of animal life, including deer, elk, possums, and foxes. Finally, they reached the Homestead at 12 AM.  Grant unlocked the front door and immediately left in his car to travel the 1.5 hours back to Tionesta to pick up the remaining members of the field team.

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Research team waiting in parking lot to be picked up by Nick

While waiting for Nick to complete the first leg of the relay, and drop off the first few team members, the remaining team members waited in the van knowing it would be at least 3 hours until their pick up. Allison, Brandon, Chris, and Devin passed the time by napping, talking, and testing Brandon and Chris’ falsetto while singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. Around 1 am the headlights of Grant’s car came flying into sight as he entered the parking lot. Everyone quickly packed up his car and squeezed in for the trip home. It was after 3 AM when we finally returned to the Homestead and pulled out the essential gear that was packed in the car.  We paused to take in the clear cold night and the brilliant stars in the sky before collapsing in bed.  The thing about field work is, you can have every little detail planned out, but the unexpected is always a possibility—a 19-hour field day filled with marginal scientific data collection, but tons of experiential learning.

On the Road Again

This post was created by Allison Lutz and edited by Chris Grant.  Allison is a 2015 graduate of the Juniata Biology department.  She is a co-author on one peer-reviewed journal publication and is lead author on a second, recently submitted publication from her senior thesis.  Allison was recently accepted into a graduate program at Georgia Southern University set to begin this fall.

On the Road Again

Anticipation for the arrival of summer and ensuing field work on the Marcellus project had been building up to this week.  We left for the first site at 8:00 in the morning and arrived at the top of the trail around 10:30. The first hike was down a trail and then across a log bridge through a verdant field of green ferns. We crossed a few smaller tributaries to Stone Run along the way to the exact sampling point. The hike went well and didn’t take much longer than 30 minutes. We then set up our equipment and started electrofishing the stream, however, as we are preparing to sample the stream we could hear the ominous sounds of thunder all around us-but we were spared a thorough soaking. We finished electrofishing and started to process fish but we realized we forgot anesthetic in the van…so I proceeded to hike back to the van to pick it up. Once I returned we processed all of the fish and everything went well considering a few new tasks when processing fish this year. We first anesthetized fish to take pictures for a morphometric component (which uses a computer software to measure parts of the fish for further analysis), then we collected the blood of the fish for later determination of endocrine disrupting contaminants, then a small piece of liver was collected for an RNA component, and finally a fin clip was taken for an ongoing population genetics component of the Marcellus project.  The process requires a lot of hands and careful attention to what is going on at all times but it’s really fun to be a part of this process.

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Example of pinning anesthetized fish for morphometrics

We then packed up for our hike out, and Brandon went down to the stream to release the fish we did not keep back to the stream.  In the process, he knocked over a dead tree, and a small resident was forced out of his home, it was a flying squirrel! It posed for pictures and then we were on our way to the next stream.

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Flying squirrel scared out by Branden

We arrived at Coldstream and dark clouds were starting to roll in behind us, but we decided to head down to the site despite the moderate length hike to the stream. We made it down the hill and into the small hemlock forest that surrounds Coldstream, but we were not spared from the thunderstorm this time. We continued on to the sample point but it was pouring at that point so we could not begin electrofishing due to the danger of electrical shock from the electrofishing backpack (not to mention the danger of getting struck by lightning). We initially waited for enough breaks in the thunder to collect macroinvertebrates (which can be done in the rain) but every time we went to put on our waders the thunder decided to announce itself. We waited it out and eventually the rain slowed down (and the thunder stopped) enough for a quick photograph of the drenched researchers and then we began sampling.

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Researchers soaked after heavy downpour at Coldstream

We finished collecting fish and brought them back to process them under a makeshift rain coat tent strung across overhanging branches, which proved enough to keep out a lot of the rain. Even though we got soaked we still had a great time; nothing beats a day in the field even if it ends with everyone getting rained on. I hope you all stay tuned for the next blog post!

Allison

Breaking the Mountains

Breaking the Mountains

As we gear up for another field sampling in the PA wilds to assess the impacts of Marcellus shale natural gas extraction on stream ecosystems, I have begun reflecting on past conversations about our research.  Over the past five years, I have spoken with quite a diverse group of people including landowners, hunting/fishing club members, outdoor enthusiasts, directional drillers, well pad supervisors, private security personnel, policemen, state and federal game land managers, scientists, and legislators.  These conversations have varied from cordial to confrontational and have been as informative as the results of much of our scientific research.

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Many of my pre-conceived notions or first impressions about how a particular group of people would respond were wrong.  One example is about a conversation that I had with several members of a private hunting camp we ran into in the backwoods of Moshannon State Forest.  Largely because of the media’s depiction of fracking being aligned with political parties, I assumed that these two friendly sportsmen from the Wilds of Pennsylvania would be of the “drill baby drill” mentality.  Through my conversation I quickly came to realize that while these two fellow sportsmen were indeed conservative (and likely republican), they were not pro-Marcellus.  In fact, quite the opposite was true.  They began to explain how the spring that used to provide fresh drinking water to their camp had all but dried up since the recent development of a well pad located just a short distance uphill from their camp.  They expressed to me their concern for the feasibility of being able to continue to use the camp with the shortage of water, as the shift to a “dry” cabin would mean a considerable change.  Further, these elder sportsmen voiced concerns over this having cascading effects, causing their sons to lose interest in visiting the camp and carrying on the sportsman tradition for future generations.  I feel like the students and I learned as much from these sportsmen as they did from us on that day.

Out of all the conversations that I have had, there is one that stands out as the most straightforward and poignant.  So, it only makes sense that this conversation was with a 4 year old.  We crossed paths with a young boy and his father while we were on a sampling trip in the PA Wilds and he asked what we were doing.  I tried to wrap my head around how to explain our research to someone who did not yet grasp the basic principles of science, let alone energy demands, politics, money, and the all-encompassing topic that is Marcellus Shale.  So I tried to explain in simple terms the process of fracking, why it is important, and why it is also important to protect the last remaining wild streams and forests in Pennsylvania.  I said nothing more than necessary, and was careful to not bias his interpretation by suggesting or imposing any of my personal beliefs on the subject.  To my surprise, after a few moments of silence the boy posed a question to me that was both simple and profound. He said “Why are they breaking the mountains?”

I leave you with that thought as we set of for another field season.  I hope you check in with the blog, as we will be posting weekly updates about our expeditions and sightings over the next few months.

Christopher Grant

Holy Water

Hello all, we have the distinct pleasure of including this essay on wildsonfrack.  It was written by Kimi Cunningham Grant this past summer and published in the most recent issue of the literary magazine, Whitefish Review, and just released earlier this month.  I hope you enjoy it!

Holy Water

Beneath where we stood, there was disruption, activity deep below the ground, the outcomes of which are still not fully known.

I’ve always wanted to love fishing. As a girl, I’d go with my father, who found no shortage of opportunities for my brother and me—sunfish at his friend’s pond; bass from his boat on the lake; trout along the skinny, twining streams near our home in central Pennsylvania. When I was a teenager, I even took fly-fishing lessons, and, with my instructor along an open pond in Colorado, I learned the technique of back casting fairly quickly. I loved the way you could train your arm and wrist to learn such precision: the motion, the acceleration, the white line rolling across the water. There was music in that. I asked for a fly rod for my fifteenth birthday.

Unfortunately, despite my good performance at my fly-fishing lesson, back on the overgrown banks at home, back where there was real fishing, the truth became clear: I was no good. My father taught me to roll cast, but still, I caught my line in the branches that arced over the water. Often. After a while, I sensed that my father, despite his abundance of patience, was not particularly fond of having to scamper back through the dogwood to untangle me, again and again. When I was along, there was little time for him to fish.

Though I failed at fishing, my brother excelled. In those days there was little that maintained his attention the way fishing did; he’d rise early, come home late. He never grew tired of it. Having caught his limit for the day, he’d return, and in my parents’ kitchen, line his fishes up on thick stacks of newspaper to clean, their skin shiny and bright as Christmas bells, their smell thick in the house.

Maybe I was destined, then, to marry someone who loves fishing—or, more accurately, , someone who loves fishes. I’ve spent numerous vacations watching my husband, Chris, fish: red drum on the surf in the Outer Banks, cutthroat in the Sawtooths in Idaho. A fat, orange-fleshed lake trout in the Wind River Range. On occasion I’d toss in a line too, but mostly I’d watch, settled in the grass nearby, or perched on a rock, happy enough to observe.

Chris, a field biologist whose most recent research examines the potential effects of Marcellus shale fracking on stream ecosystems, disappeared for a few weeks each summer, heading to the remote Pennsylvania Wilds, where he and his team of student researchers shacked up in a homestead that had no television, cell phone reception, or internet. I’d never gone with him on these trips, where, among other things, he caught brook trout. Of course I’d heard the stories about these adventures; I’d seen the photographs of the black and tan rattlesnakes stretched across gravel, the bull elk who stood in front of the van once, chin raised, as if daring them to proceed. I’d seen plenty of trout photographs, too. “Look at this one,” Chris would say, pointing out the coloring, or the patterning, as if I should be able to see the difference between one brook trout and the next. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Though I couldn’t quite sense that beauty, I’d nod: “Sure is.”

Three years into this research, I finally had my opportunity to join him. We met up with the team of Juniata College student researchers at a district conservation office, where we shuffled seats and headed to our first stream. As we trundled over the wide, gravel road, the dust rocketing into the June sky behind us, we passed metal gate after metal gate, well pad after well pad, owned by various companies and painted different colors.

To my surprise, these well pads, now in their finished, working form, were relatively inconspicuous and tidy, each one a trio of metal tanks sitting atop a wide, cleared space with a few additional pump-like looking objects nearby. I guess I’d envisioned something more massive, something uglier and dirtier. And yet—out here, with the oaks towering and the ground thick with mountain laurel and huckleberry, with the boulders draped in moss and the loud hurry of stream water ringing—something about the abundance of the well pads, so many of them dotting public land, the state forest, and the Allegheny National Forest, too, with their warnings and phone numbers and locked gates, did feel, well, menacing.

We pulled the van off the road and parked in a patch of grass, where the students, with a military sense of order and focus, unloaded a vast amount of equipment—long white nets, an electrofisher, buckets, scales—all of which they reloaded onto themselves. We followed an old road, which was not much of a road anymore, but a swath where timeworn ruts held water from the abundance of May and June rain. Tadpoles scuttled as we came close. In a handful of these puddles, a gray-purple, oily sheen clouded the surface. We wondered: could that sheen be from one of those three stern green containers near where we’d parked? It seemed so out of place here, miles from where any motorized vehicles traveled. A student scooped up a sample in a clean bottle.

A mile in, we arrived at the 100-meter reach of stream the researchers were now assessing for the third year in a row. I slipped into a pair of chest waders and followed Chris and two students downstream, where I was then given safety instructions and a net.

The first fish turned up right away. “There! Right there!” the three of them shouted, pointing to a flash in the snarling white stream. I obliged, thrashing my net through the water, but the truth was, I hadn’t even seen it. My mind shot back to childhood, when my brother would reel in fish after fish, while I slumped along the shore, waiting for help, my line snagged in a branch. Clearly, regardless of the gear—fishing pole or net—I was not cut out for this.

But then I caught one. And another. Two small brookies. A big one. I scraped up crayfish, too, their brown claws raised like Pentecostals. When we’d finished the 100 meters, another student joined Chris to count and measure the trout. This year, there were half as many as last year.

I asked if I could touch one of the trout.

“Of course,” Chris said.

“Are the fins sharp?” I asked, remembering the razor-like fins of bass, the spots of blood on my brother’s hands.

“No.” (He seemed surprised that I would ask such a question.)

As I plunged my arm into the white bucket, the brook trout darted about the cold water, too quick for my inexperienced hands. It glided through my palms, cool and soft. Delicate and lithe, tigered fin on its top, burnt amber fin below, body spotted with red within blue circles, it was—there was no other way to describe it—beautiful. The team took their measurements, holding each trout carefully along the ruler, placing it onto the scale, and plopping it back into the bucket.

When they were finished, I asked if I could help release the fish. I clambered back down the steep bank, and it was there, kneeling along the stream, sinking my hand into that bucket again and grabbing one of those magnificent little creatures, that I felt I understood, for the first time, that fascination, that love, that had taken my father, my brother, my husband. As I held the trout, its body lissome and glimmering against my palm, my four fingers wrapped tenderly around its belly, as I then opened my hand to set it free, back into that stone-bottomed, glinting water, I could almost forget, for the briefest of moments, that just up the hill from this place of perfect isolation, hundreds of those tall metal cylinders collected waste. That a gray-purple sheen glistened in the puddles we’d passed. That beneath where we stood, there was disruption, activity deep below the ground, the outcomes of which are still not fully known.

But with my knees pressed into moss, ferns sighing, water singing, there was a holiness—and this is what I think my father, brother, and husband had all at some point felt, and loved—a holiness compelling enough that, in that instant when the trout shot off into the riffles, slipping back to where it belonged, all was right in the world.

Kimi Cunningham Grant