Monday, July 27, 2015

Flowers and Field

Posted by Kim

I drove by Meanook on my way to the airport this weekend.  I’m not sure why.  I suppose I knew it would only take a few minutes and I wanted to see an old friend and drive down dusty roads.  Through the chained gate I could see all the old buildings, quiet and abandoned.  I could almost hear the laughter and the power tools and see people playing street hockey in the pickup-truck-laden parking lot.  The grass was mowed, and flowers bloomed behind locks and barriers and cameras designed to keep such riff-raff as me out. I was simultaneously happy and sad- but mostly sad.  Time keeps ticking on, and so do we - evolving with the challenges and difficulties that change with the days and years.  

I was heading home from a week of field work.
Our living space this year is better than we could have ever hoped, given our motel experience last year.  We have open space and a beautiful kitchen and it is fairly close to the lab.  I talked a little bit about the house earlier on the blog and I only have good things to say still.  Our crew is also fantastic.  They are a great group of people and there are many stories, but it is about the time of year when folks start thinking about the end, and the big push needed to finish up the work.  Thoughts of home or vacation or anything but field work start creeping in and it is far enough into the work for everyone to really start to get a handle on each other’s personalities (such a variety of I's and E's!) and what makes each other tick and maybe even what buttons to push here and there.  I learned many things, even this week. Kelly, for example, LOVES to pick wild berries. John likes to talk about conspiracy theories with Graham. Agrima is totally into watching Wall-E, but no one else is. Rob carries swim trunks in his field pack. Sharon and I are least likely to be psychopaths.   We all have our quirks, but I think we all like Saskatoon pie.   I was pleasantly aware of how well folks were getting along and how dedicated and good natured everyone is.

I'm proud of our group, and I’ve missed these people.  I’ve missed the bogs and the bugs and the drives, even, in a strange sort of way.  I’ve definitely missed the work.  There is nothing like spending the day tromping around in a bog.  You sort of take it for granted when you are there full time doing it day in and day out, but these visits are good for me to keep my perspective alive.  It was a good week of work for me and I am glad I could go.  

There is much left to do, but I know the crew will have fun doing it and that all is well there in the middle of Alberta.  The flowers are blooming and the grass is cut and the Saskatoons are ubiquitous, ripe, and being picked.  

Good luck, everybody!!

A view of Athabasca

Friday, June 19, 2015

flights, weddings, mineralization.

After surviving my flights from Philadelphia that were filled with bear hunters and spirited battles for the armrest the size of a chopstick, I’ve arrived for my fourth summer in Alberta. Many of my friends don’t understand what it is about this place that draws me away from the city in the summertime. I do, admittedly, miss out on some things by being absent. (I’ve reached the age that people I know are seriously adults, so I’m missing five (5!) weddings this summer.) Aside from getting me out of buying someone a meat tenderizer (Card: May your love remain as tender as this spiked hammer will make your steak), I love it for many reasons—the smell of spruce trees, the glimpses of wildlife through a truck window, the river that rolls through town on the journey from its glacial origin in the Rockies—that and so much more. I get to do work that brings me outdoors every day, and makes me feel as though I’m doing something I truly care about that has a positive impact on the world as a whole. The other thing that keeps me coming back year after year is the experience of living in community with other people who are passionately working alongside me. I started as an undergraduate assistant and then began my own research as a graduate student last summer.

My project focuses on nitrogen mineralization, or the conversion of organic nitrogen found in decaying organic material into the chemical form preferred by plants and microbes. Spoiler alert: not very much of it happens in our bogs, partially because the organic nitrogen in dead things decays very slowly. The other reason is that thus far we’ve measured net rates: that is, what’s left over when you don’t include nitrogen-hungry microbes’ intake. This summer, I ‘m going to start experimenting with gross rates, which will tell us how much mineralization happens total. Obtaining those numbers might help illuminate plant-microbe competition in the bog and avoid confounding different processes together.

This job also gives me an excuse to take photos of some of nature’s weirder plants, lichens, and fungi. Here’s a couple from my collection.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Field Work Time!

A doe and her twins visit and eye us slyly from the yard:  we are their new neighbors at the bottom of the hill that angles sharply up to Athabasca University.  Instead of 18-wheelers and rowdy road workers waking us up in the mornings (last year’s motel fun), I found myself this morning moaning about an industrious woodpecker that roused me a tiny bit too early.  Our digs have improved by orders of magnitude.  Athabasca University has again made our arrival so welcoming; and this summer, we hang our hats in a building they own and maintain.  It is nestled among trees and open space and we are making it our own until our season ends this fall.  The kitchen has a commercial gas stove with 6 burners, two fridges, two sinks, two dishwashers, 1 gas oven, and 2 convection ovens.   Need I say more?  We are living in luxury.  A big shout-out to the folks that have been working so hard to make our arrival such a wonderful experience.

Our crew is arriving in two waves this year.  I am here with 5 other folks and we have been fixing things, settling in, and prepping for the summer.  The second wave arrives on Saturday (two days!) and includes not only a seasoned grad student (hey, Julia!), but also our new crew of field techs who will be experiencing bogs for the first time!  Logistically, it is a tricky thing to balance airport runs, maintenance work, site construction, and isolated research tasks, so this year we decided to mix it up with airport runs.  We look forward to the whole crew’s arrival so we can start the summer fun.  Meanwhile, today, a small group of us are heading up to Fort McMurray to set vegetation growth markers, swap out precipitation collectors for the summer and put together a new site.  We hate to leave our cushy digs in Athabasca, but we look forward to squishing through the bogs.  Our first site up is a bog we call Anzac.  It is one of my favorites. 
This is an image of part of our walk to the site, but we have yet to arrive there-- right now I am in the truck and I am happy to report that we just passed a bear – our first bear of the season!  Construction continues on the road to Fort McMurray and bear sightings along this strip are fewer than they used to be as there is a lot more dust and big construction vehicles to deal with. We will have a very busy day tomorrow as we head into the Fort Mac area where the construction is ridiculous and the air is even more dirty, but we look forward to the work and visiting our old bog friends. 

Welcome to Alberta 2015!!!