Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Stream Team in Late October

Late fall turns out not to be the most comfortable season to begin one's experience with stream monitoring, but I was determined to finally get my hands wet (and keep my feet dry).

The drive up to the selected stream passed with discussions about ladybugs eating aphids and grizzly bears swarming to eat ladybugs in the mountains. On one side of the car stood thousands of larch trees, green and yellow stripes blanketing the mountainside. Larches, I learned are one of the only deciduous conifers. On the other side, sprinkled in with the evergreens were what appeared to be birch, with dark branches bearing suspended sprays of yellow leaves.
The sky alternated dropping pellets of water and  letting the occasional sunbeam peek through the clouds as we drove.

After a few moments of uncertainty we came upon our section of stream.

       The team unloaded the equipment from the trunk and we tugged on our waders. My waders required a bit more tugging than everyone else's, as I, with my smallish feet, had to use the kid size waders, which happen to come with attached waterproof overalls. My feet fit very comfortably but my legs were slightly too long and my thighs squeezed (very) snugly inside. The difficulty of bending my knees made for some interesting walking strides. Conveniently, however, a pocket was situated on the front where I stowed my camera.

       The bank closest to the roadside was steep, composed of  large black boulders. The strongest current ran along this same bank, forcing us to step into the deepest part of the river, the water trying to pull us along downstream. Resisting the current and carefully treading over the slippery rocks, all three trans-sections were successfully strung across and staked down.

       Perhaps the easiest measurements to take consisted of measuring the current water and bank-full depths of the stream, as this did not require us to get our hands wet, and slush was not yet falling from the sky. Some hail had formed high in the atmosphere and partially melted before gracing us with its presence. Fortunately the precipitation ceased (for the most part) before the tossing of the grid and counting of "pebbles".

     The grid toss measurement counts the number of patches of fine sediment. We came up with low numbers, as the stream bed was mostly covered in rocks. Plunging our hands into the water to retrieve the grid was our first encounter with the frigidity of the stream, as our waders (and wader-overalls) protected our bodies nicely. In my pairing, grid toss was followed by pebble count, which required hands to be dipped into the water 100 times total to pick up and measure rocks. My partner and I, in sympathy, took turns with this. Our hands quickly flushed red and numbed. We could barely hold the pencil and clipboard, let alone write numbers into a tiny set of boxes. Our results for this measurement came out looking like the scratchings of a child just learning that numbers each have their own shapes. (The warm pocket of my wader-overalls came quite in handy at this point for my hands.) However, this produced some interesting finds.

       Several rocks we picked up had small, squishy, translucent green globules attached to their undersides. Upon investigation (asking Rebecca) my partner and I learned that these were actually a type of algae. While dreading reaching my whole forearm into the deepest section of the stream I saw, sitting in the shallow water over one of the boulders on the bank, what I assumed was a red crayfish. Through the water distortion it appeared to be about three inches. It swam away moments after realizing I had noticed it, just as I was fumbling to get to my camera. (Not being familiar with the area, I looked up what types of crustaceans lived in Montana and found several pictures of crayfish which appeared much like the one I saw, but not anywhere near as red.)

        As we were finishing up our tests and unstaking the trans-sections the sun came out, brightening the larches in the distance. Rebecca pointed out two tall thermoses of hot water, which we poured into mugs and used to warm our hands. The hot water doubled to provide well-deserved hot chocolate for the ride back, which we paired with homemade chocolate chip pumpkin cookies. Talk was lighthearted, about plans for Halloween, and I contemplated that freezing in a stream together with other people creates a sort of camaraderie despite the fact they were strangers just hours before.

-Cassie Sevigny, new WEN volunteer

View on the way back to WEN office.