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.
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.
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.