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.

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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.

Flying squirrel at Stone Run

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