Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nothing gold can stay

After three fast-paced days of sampling and filtering, our expedition has finally come to an end. On Monday we finally got into the Fraser River, thanks to Metro Port Vancouver, who once again offered the services of their Port Fraser patrol boat in the delta. We collected a total of 300 liters of water at different depths in order to determine how well-mixed the suspended particles in the river are. We then returned to the hotel to begin the filtration marathon.

Tuesday we met the UFV students at the time series sampling site in Fort Langley. The students seem excited about the expanded sampling protocol (including dissolved organic carbon, radiocarbon, deuterium, trace metals, and DNA samples, in addition to the major ion, nutrient, and strontium isotope samples they have collected for over a year already). We hope that they are gaining valuable experience and scientific inspiration in the process! We also appreciated their help in processing samples today and yesterday in the lab. We spent the better portion of the last two days at UFV filtering our massive water samples, not an easy task in the face of stubbornly leaky equipment and quickly clogging filters. But the team effort made the work easy and by the end of the day, we had generated an impressive set of extremely clean water bottles. We're looking forward to diving into another set of fantastic samples back at WHOI!

Things I will miss about B.C.:
  • the mountains, everywhere
  • salmon on every menu
  • the awesome UFV students (special thanks to Jenna for helping with filtration and lignin extraction ALL DAY today)
  • Stanley Cup fever (especially Tyler, the charmingly belligerent Canucks fan on the SkyTrain)
  • the wonderful cafes/bakeries in every small town we visited (Wendel's in Fort Langley, City Blends in Abbotsford, German bakery in Lillooet, Granville Coffee in Quesnel, Books & Company in Prince George, the Beanery in McBride, the Swiss Bakery in Valemount, and of course Packing House in Spences Bridge)
And for those who entered the "How high will it go?" water level contest, although the freshet is not quite finished on the Fraser, the maximum level recorded so far at Hope was 8.75 meters. The lucky winner will be treated to a free slideshow of pictures from our trip, with commentary! Or, if they would rather watch paint dry, cookies. But I should point out that this was the lowest estimate, and judging from the considerable snowpack still locked up in the mountains, I would wager that it might rise more yet...the adventure never ends!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Up in the air

We are now firmly back in the Fraser floodplain, gearing up for our final sampling sites. Saturday was our longest driving day of the expedition, over 700 km between Valemount and Langley. Along the way paid another visit to the Hell's Gate rapids, which gave us a chance to scope out afternoon lighting in the canyon, an important attribute for our next day's activities...

Yesterday was perhaps our most exciting day. We had the opportunity to take a small plane flight over the lower portion of the Fraser valley. The plane was operated by LightHawk, an organization that provides volunteer pilots for conservation and scientific missions. Our pilot, Hunter Handsfield, met us at the Abbotsford airport, and soon we were up in the air gazing down at the Fraser from hundreds of feet above! The views were absolutely spectacular: gliding upstream, we saw the rugged peaks of the Coast and Cascade mountains surrounding the flat floodplain, then the opening of the canyon as the Fraser curves north, and finally the stunning contrast at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers at Lytton. I was especially surprised by how widespread patches of clearcut logging were in every forested area we saw. We then turned south and passed over the delta at Vancouver where we looked down on the mixing of the muddy Fraser River plume with the blue waters of the Strait of Georgia. In a matter of a few hours we had gained a totally new perspective of this area by being able to see the transitions between mountains, canyon, floodplain, and estuary all at once. And our photographer Chris captured some amazing images for his multimedia piece before returning home to Seattle.

Today we are sampling the delta; we plan to collect large volumes of water in a depth profile for filtration to characterize the suspended particulates. We look forward to a long day or two of filtration to follow...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The end of the road

In between our sampling stops over the past few days, we have had the opportunity to take in some of the natural beauty of the zone through which the Fraser climbs up from its flat northern peneplain, through the Rocky Mountain trench, and almost to its source high in the Rockies. During this transition, the river valley courses through a broad meandering floodplain with mountain walls on either side (the Rockies to the north and the Cariboo to the south), which gradually constrict in until the mighty Fraser begins to resemble a large mountain stream bursting off a mountainside. The landscape in this region is characterized by spectacular pine forests, blanketing the steep ridges green below the treeline.

In many places, vast swaths of dead and dying trees are visible from the highway, evidence of logging, forest fires, and mountain pine beetle infestation. Driving between Prince Geroge and Valemount, we made a stop at a special area called the "Ancient Forest," a relatively small and rare patch of intact primary forest. The trees in this area are enormous and surrounded by lush undergrowth, almost as verdant as the old growth forest we visited outside Abbotsford earlier in our trip. Later at one of our sampling sites, we took a short jaunt up a trailhead and found huge ferns covering the ground like a tall layer of grass (see photo, grad student indicates scale). For contrast, at a different site in the Rockies the next day, we saw fallen trees with exposed tunnels burrowed by pine beetles which likely killed the tree. The combined stresses of human disturbance and the spreading pine beetle infestation in these forests paints a bleak picture for the ecosystem in this region over the next few decades, although the overall natural beauty of the area is still stunning.

I've been trying to brush up on background knowledge during this trip by reading An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People by Arthur Ray (which is a great book!), and one section describing the acquisition of land by the nascent British Columbia government from local native groups seems to set the tone for how natural ecosystems (and people) have been treated by the dominant culture for the past few centuries here and in the rest of North America. In describing how the Hudson's Bay Company should handle Native land claims, future B.C. governor James Douglas wrote "you are to consider the Natives as the rightful possessors of such lands only as are occupied by cultivation, or had houses built on... All other lands are to be considered waste." It's hard to think of a more inappropriate word to describe the natural ecosystem value of something like an old growth forest in this basin.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pass the DEET

A wise man named Eddie Izzard once said "I'm covered in bees!" I think we can all relate to this scenario after today's sampling experience, during which we were attacked by hordes of ravenous mosquitoes. It did, however, prove a powerful of incentive, as we've never collected samples to efficiently! We suspect that the high water levels across the basin have created large areas of inundation here in the northern peneplain region, meaning lots of stagnant standing water, i.e. mosquito breeding grounds. We're hoping that as we gain elevation tomorrow heading into the Rocky Mountains, the insect threat level will decrease.

I wanted to use today's post to talk about a new sample we've added to our repertoire for this trip. The main focus of most of our samples has always been to characterize the geochemistry of river water and sediments. But that's only part of the story. A river system is comprised of inorganic and organic components, which includes living organisms. We don't yet have a comprehensive idea of the biological communities living within the river: phytoplankton and algae creating plant matter, invertebrates feeding on plankton, and microbes consuming organic matter associated with particles. So this time we are collecting a special filter sample (first photo) from which DNA will be extracted by Marco Coolen and his lab at WHOI. This will serve as a broad "who's there" survey of the microbial community living on the particles we collect for chemical analyses. It will be interesting to link this biological information to the geochemical picture we have of the Fraser basin and attempt to understand which organisms and metabolic processes may be transforming the chemical signatures we measure. And it's always fun to work a little outside your scientific comfort zone!

Our team also has a new member: incoming WHOI student Sarah Rosengard, who joined us yesterday by flying straight from her graduation at Brown to Prince George. She's jumped right into the action helping collect samples and filter back in the hotel room. And fortunately her first day wasn't entirely mosquito-filled misery; conditions at our first sampling site, the McGregor River, were pleasantly bug-free and sunny (second photo).

Tomorrow we have a long drive to Valemount, a small town in the Rockies, which will be home base for our last few sampling sites in the headwaters before we head back to the floodplain. The residents of Prince George bid us farewell tonight with an impromptu parade of music and cheering from cars passing by our hotel. Well, it might have been to celebrate the Canucks first Stanley Cup final victory over the Bruins, but I think it's open to interpretation.