Field Work O’Clock

For most people, October brings fall leaves, balmy weather, and a transition from summer shorts to heavy pea coats.  For me this year, October brought my first season of field work as a graduate student studying lake trout in New York State Adirondack State Park.

Lake trout generally spend most of their time in cold, deep water, but swim to shallow rocky beds in the fall to spawn.  Our goal this fall was to catch, tag, and release as many spawning lake trout as possible to estimate population size.  Although my taste in literature is a far cry from John Steinbeck, the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” currently comes to mind.

I arrived in scenic Tupper Lake, NY on October 3rd, spending my first week in the field learning how to handle boats, work nets, and identify, measure, weigh, and tag fish species.  During my time here I have also become familiar with basic car maintenance and the proper way to heal a badly bruised tailbone (following a nasty fall on a slippery boat dock ramp).  I can completely relate to Sarah’s plumbing and carpentry “training” for her graduate work in Grogingen.  Of course, I have also spent the last four weeks learning how to (or not how to) catch lake trout.

At the moment, we are averaging a lake trout per week.  This is a particularly bad statistic considering the man hours and effort I have spent trying to catch the slippery little devils.  The options are as follows: the fish are not spawning yet, the traps are not in the right spawning areas, the traps are not working correctly, or the fish are smarter than I am.  At this point, I am leaning towards the latter.

If not catching lake trout was bad enough, the weather has taken a turn for the worse.  I arrived in the Adirondacks during fall color’s peak.  The sunbursts of orange, red, and yellow made the forest feel warm and full of life.  But that was four weeks ago, and now almost every tree is bare.  Snow has arrived and I have switched my ski jacket and waterproof yellow overalls for a neon orange one-piece survival suit.  A typical day on the lake now includes two layers of thick wool socks, waterproof boots, long underwear top and bottoms, sweat pants, two layers of fleece, a down vest, gator, gloves, and hat… with the survival suit on top.  Just moving with all of those layers is a workout!  People who study tropical fish are onto something.

The lake has been cold, but it has also been beautiful.  The combination of crisp fall air, snow flurries, dark, clear water, and the stark beauty of bare trees surrounded by untouched landscape is breathtaking.  Surely a bit of cold is worth the landscape that impressed the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I was hoping to see a black bear or moose this field season, but both have eluded me.  However, I have twice seen Follenby Pond’s resident adult bald eagle, an impressive sight even from a distance. 

In addition to spending copious amounts of time on the lake, I have been continually driving back to the Montreal area for class each week.  The constant moving, driving, and working has been exhausting.  If the nets are empty tomorrow morning, I will have to start taking a serious look at alternative methods for estimating abundance.  So is the way of field work, and I suppose life in general.  Most things do not work out exactly as planned.

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