August 2, 2005
"I'm too old for this!" "I wanted to do this WHY??" "Can I change my plane reservations-for tonight?" "Did I tell my boys Goodbye, and I loved them, and what kind of girl I want them to marry?"
To get to the tidal creeks, you park the truck as close as possible on the road and walk across gorgeous expanses of Spartina (smooth cordgrass) marsh, finding your way through this sea of green to the testing sites with a GPS. Guy and Anne and numerous graduate students manage this on a daily basis. I have the utmost admiration and respect for them. (You also couldn't pay me enough money to do this for a living!) I took one step into the marsh, and buried one leg to the knee in "plough" mud (soft sticky mud that sucks the soles off your shoes and threatens to turn you into detritus when you get too tired to go on). Five minutes (well, it seemed like it) later, I had managed to extract one leg and bury the other. This continued ad infinitum! I had a 5-gallon bucket that I was instructed to lean on while pulling my leg out (since it wouldn't sink). That worked pretty well-I developed 5-gallon semicircular bruises on both arms, and only got stuck every other step! It was utterly exhausting, and embarrassing to realize that not only are you no help whatsoever, but you're holding up the whole process-which has to take place on or about low tide! Welcome to the exciting life of a field researcher!
Collecting data takes two days for each creek. There are three sampling areas, one intertidal and two subtidal. Guy and Anne (NOAA scientists) handle the intertidal, and DNR (Department of Natural Resources) samples the other two areas by boat. At each site, there are three sampling zones. On Day One, which I missed, water and sediment samples are collected, and a YSI sonde (a sampling instrument which continually collects water quality data on 6-8 parameters) is deployed to collect data for 24 hours. Temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, water depth, etc., change with the tidal cycle, and all are collected with the YSI. The second day, seining is done at each site, and the water quality sampler is retrieved.
Guy and today's graduate student assistant didn't get stuck very often-more experience, bigger feet?-and also didn't have as much trouble getting themselves unstuck-definitely younger and stronger than me! At one point, I was literally stuck up to my waist, and didn't think I was ever going to get out-very frustrating, and not much fun, either! I really only helped with one seine, and the next most helpful thing I did was hand out plastic sampling bags (and let's not forget I carried the bucket!)
Seining, for anyone not familiar with the process, is dragging a net with weights on the bottom and floats on the top, collecting everything in the water column. We walked over a measured distance spanning the creek from side to side, recording the size and depth of the creek to estimate the volume of water sampled. The catch included small fish, crabs, various species of shrimp, etc.-remember the tidal creeks are marine nurseries!
When we got back to the lab, it took about an hour to clean our equipment and sort the seine samples and put them in preservative. I was wearing old jogging shoes and the mud really did suck the soles completely off; tomorrow I'll wear the "boats" (utility boots) that are available. At the hotel, I washed out my clothes in the bathtub a dozen times trying to get them clean; at best, they became a uniform gray color. The rinse water was bright green (from all the diatoms?); the marsh is definitely a productive ecosystem. After a short nap-I was exhausted! I went out to find a WalMart to try and find gray tee shirts and gray socks, so I wouldn't ruin any more clothes. Tired as I was, I didn't sleep well-dreading the next day...