Tuesday, May 31, 2011

You think you know a river

Since leaving Lillooet, we've made two big detours on two long days of driving to sample tributaries off the beaten track. Since Highway 97 leaves the Fraser for long stretches between Lillooet and Prince George, getting to our sampling sites sometimes involves considerable travel on gravel roads into somewhat remote areas. The Chilcotin River (see last post), was one such site. After sampling the Quesnel River yesterday morning, we took another long gravel road drive to the Blackwater River (and saw some wildlife on the way - see photo), so named for its tea-colored hue due to high concentrations of dissolved organic matter. But instead of living up to its moniker, we found the swollen Blackwater to be turbid and light brown, just like every other site we've sampled so far this trip. Along with the Thompson, Chilcotin, and Bridge Rivers, which we had until now known as relatively clear-water tributaries, the Blackwater has taken on this characteristic muddy freshet nature. Chris chides us for promising that certain sites will look different and our predictions have all been wrong!

However, each site still has a distinctive particulate/dissolved size spectrum, giving it a certain filtration behavior (some samples tend to clog the filters quickly because of high concentrations of colloidal material, which does not necessarily contribute to the water's "muddiness"). Bernhard is processing our sample from the Blackwater right now, and it is clogging filters faster than any sample yet, which makes me want to keep writing to perhaps postpone my own shift...

We are now based in Prince George for a few days, sampling the many tributaries that drain to the Fraser in this area; today's sites included the Bowron, Willow (see second photo), and Nechako Rivers. In addition to our regular sampling routine, last night we tried our hands at lignin extraction. Using solid phase extraction cartridges, we processed a few liters of Chilcotin water, which Yvonne Feng will analyze for lignin concentrations. We hope to try this again if we can tolerate processing much more of our Blackwater sample.

In case you missed my earlier petition, there is still time to register your wager for the maximum water level of the Fraser at Hope! There has only been one entrant so far and I refuse to award an uncontested competition. The closest guess will receive a mystery prize, which may or may not be related to rivers or Canada or chemistry. You'll never know if you don't try... Yesterday's max level was 8.67 meters, and you can consult Environment Canada for recent trends.

Monday, May 30, 2011

It's a little bit country

Touring the Fraser Canyon is as much a cultural experience as a scientific one. Something about wide open spaces creates a different sort of atmosphere than what you're likely to find in the city. We wouldn't necessarily notice this difference from the comfort of our van driving between our sampling sites. But the towns we visit that provide food and shelter along the way each offer their own ambiance. In most cases, this involves some mix of frontier and aboriginal flair.

En route between Lillooet and our sampling site on the Chilcotin River today, we stopped for breakfast at the Hat Creek Ranch, where the proprietors of the restaurant and (apparently) historic ranch have gone to great lengths to emphasize the western attributes of the site's surroundings and roots. Not leaving out a single detail, they even had "Rawhide" playing in the background. Before moving on, we were reunited with the busload of Australian tourists who followed us to breakfast just yesterday in Lillooet (where they appear to have made quite an impression, see first photo). Also spotted on the road today were a rodeo in progress and countless pastures of grazing cattle, and all before Williams Lake (the rodeo capital of B.C.)!

The real highlight of the day was driving through the Chilcotin canyon. The area looks completely different from what we saw on our last two visits (summer 2009 and fall 2010). Instead of sparse bunchgrass dotting the vast sandy-brown landscape with the milky blue-gray Chilcotin River running through the middle, we found the hills dusted with green grass and the Chilcotin a muddy brown color. After sampling, we paused to admire the beautiful landscape (see second photo) before continuing on to Quesnel.

The Chilcotin has always been our nemesis when it comes to filtering out our precious particles. True to form, the filters we use to collect water samples on-site clogged before we could fill all our bottles. Then back in the hotel we discovered that our pressurized filtration units could only filter about half as much water as they did for previous stations before clogging. But given the stark visual contrast in the Chilcotin between our visits, it will certainly be worth it to compare the chemical nature of these particles with those collected at different times of year! The water passing through the filters is also visibly colored, so we hope to save some for lignin concentration measurements as well.

After just one night in Quesnel, we will head to Prince George, which will serve as a "base camp" for most of our remaining stations. Stay tuned for more exciting tributaries, a new team member, and more pictures of sunshine (fingers crossed)!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The canyon walls are high and hard to climb

Since the last post, we've covered quite a bit of ground. After finishing our Hope station yesterday morning, we hit the road for Lytton, stopping at Hell's Gate on the way. Hell's Gate is a spectacular spot near the end of the Fraser Canyon where the river narrows to the point that, at high flow, it is as deep as it is wide. The result is a torrent of rapids and massive whirlpools. Whole trees rush by and collect in backeddies, forming huge debris rafts. The view is quite spectacular and, despite the occasional drizzle, we were joined by many other tourists at the visitor's center.

The next stop was Lytton where, in the past, we have efficiently sampled both the Thompson (the Fraser's largest tributary) and the Fraser mainstem at stations very close to one another. We soon encountered trouble, however, when we discovered that this beach site was now completely inundated, and we could not reach an area where the Thompson and Fraser were completely separated. Consulting our map, we decided we needed to head upstream to find an accessible site. Eventually we arrived at Goldpan Park and got down to sampling. The sun even made a brief appearance, and Chris took a break from shooting cool underwater videos to document the science action (see top photo).

Trying our luck again in Lytton, we returned to our site at the reaction ferry, which is out of operation during the freshet because of unsafe current speeds and debris flows (which leaves a stretch of 130 km between Yale and Lillooet without a crossing of the Fraser). Sampling here was also not feasible because of the high water! (see second photo) So on we drove to Lillooet...

This morning at the Bridge River above Lillooet we encountered yet more difficulty finding a sampling site. This time, the high flow of the Fraser created a small branch of flow over what we previously knew as land, which was flowing back some ways into the Bridge River. The possibility of mixing between the Fraser mainstem and the Bridge tributary made us wary of this site, but the canyon walls through which the Bridge flows are nearly vertical everywhere, so we had no alternatives. So we collected a few samples at our original site, and enjoyed the scenery (including a bald eagle stalking a portion of river for its lunch).

Tomorrow we move on yet again. Unfortunately, we must leave Lillooet without a visit to the Jade Museum, one of our favorite stops in the Fraser Canyon. The Lillooet area is a historic mecca for minerals; more recently people have started exploring its jade deposits, but back in the 1860s the town served as the jumping-off point for erswhile gold miners. Many businesses still have a gold rush flavor: Goldpanner Restaurant, Hotel de Oro, Mile 0 Motel. Most of the easily mined gold has already been removed, but some people still carry the torch for the Fraser gold fields - we even met such a man in Hope!

Friday, May 27, 2011

The thing with feathers

There was much rejoicing when we learned that our gear had finally arrived at UFV this morning. Not a moment too soon, as we were rearing to hit the road and start some serious sampling. After an elaborate game of 3-D tetris to arrange all our gear and personal effects in the minivan, we were off!

Stop #1 was Pitt Lake. Shrouded in fog on a regular basis due to the steep valleys surrounding the lake, Pitt always has a sort of mystical charm to it. Which is important, since we also always seem to get rained on there. But we used the conditions to iron out the kinks in our sampling routine under real circumstances. We also caught sight of a few great blue herons, which was a treat.

Leaving Pitt, the skies cleared up and we were feeling optimistic for our second station, Harrison Lake. Pitt and Harrison are two long, deep glacial valleys that contribute the majority of the flow to the Fraser in the floodplain, delivering heavy rainfall runoff from moist Pacific air and considerable snowpack from the Coast Range mountains. Just looking around at these two sites we could see how much snow is still locked up in the mountains, suggesting that the rising water level of these tributaries and the Fraser mainstem will continue for a bit longer. We were surprised to see how much higher the water level at our Harrison sampling site was today than we have ever seen it (see photo). The boat ramp at Kilby Park is completely submerged, as is the entire shore of the beach and many trees.

Driving to our final stop for the evening offered even more stunning vistas of the high flow condition of the Fraser River. The river is visibly pushing up against its banks and many of the mid-channel islands are partially submerged. We drove into the town of Hope to discover that our previous sampling site was flooded to the point of being inaccessible. But we quickly found a friendly proprietor at the nearby RV campground, who welcomed us to sample where we could find access. We accomplished the first half of our Hope station, filling large carboys to be filtered later. While the water poured into our carboys, we watched in awe as the mighty Fraser rushed by in front of us in the hazy evening light. Pleasant thoughts to keep our spirits up for the long filtration session that followed.

I am currently accepting wagers for exactly how high the Fraser's water level (at Hope) will get by the end of the freshet. Today's maximum was 8.28 meters. If you wish to make an educated guess, visit Environment Canada Water Office. Gentle readers, place your bets!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sea of complexity

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter C: condensation, coffee, chutney, contrafibularities, and clogged filters.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that field research is dictated by Murphy’s Law. No matter how well [you think] you’ve prepared, reality will do its best to throw a wrench in things. This is why we spent the better part of the last two days tinkering with malfunctioning batteries, in line at the customer service counter of Canadian Tire, rescuing chemicals from waste disposal, and on the phone with customs brokers. Fortunately, despite the fact that none of the supplies we shipped for our sampling have arrived yet, our collaborators at UFV were ready and eager to provide their time and supplies to get some science done this morning. We got to watch new and seasoned members of the time series team try out the recently expanded sampling procedure at Fort Langley. Working together like a well-oiled machine, the students split into teams, leading each other in a variety of new and familiar techniques. Over the past year and a half, small groups of students have visited Fort Langley monthly to weekly to collect samples for nutrient and major ion concentrations and strontium isotopes. We can’t overestimate the value of the dataset that this has generated; the temporal resolution and sustained presence of this work is unprecedented and would not be possible without the commitment and enthusiasm of the UFV students and their faculty mentors. This year’s hydrograph is very different from last year’s, so we can’t wait to see what these samples will reveal the second time around!

With a little luck, today we will be able to get going on our tributary sampling and will end the day at the mouth of the Fraser Canyon. And with even more luck, our first encounter with frigid waters will be on the banks of the river, rather than under the shower faucet at the hotel (although I am interested in opportunities to earn honorary Greenland Points). Our fate may rest equally tenuously in the gloved hands of certain athletes vying for a chance at the Stanley Cup. If the Bruins win Friday’s playoff game, pitting Boston against Vancouver in the final next week, we may soon need to hide our Massachusetts roots when meeting locals in B.C. Perhaps science can be a force for unity in a world torn apart by professional sports.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fiddleheads and forts

Welcome back to the Fraser River expedition blog! Over the next three weeks, we will be posting updates and musings on our experiences collecting samples from across lower British Columbia. For information about our previous expedition last October, see the posts below.

Bernhard and I flew into Vancouver yesterday and today we were joined by Chris Linder, a photographer who will be documenting our expedition. In lieu of science, today we took the opportunity to meet up with local collaborator Steven Marsh from UFV and daughter Sarah, undergraduate students Garrett and Jenna, and John from Nature Conservancy Canada. We met at Sumas Mountain, one of many small peaks jutting abruptly out of the Fraser floodplain near Abbotsford. This afternoon, John gave our group a guided tour of a small patch of stunning intact old growth forest on Sumas Mountain.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter F. Wandering through the forest was like taking a step back in time. After leaving the logging road, we followed a barely detectable trail over rich, spongy soil and surrounded by towering cedars and maples. Every surface was covered with moss and ferns. There was no trace of nearby civilization: the hum of Highway 1, the rattle of passing trains, or even views of the towns below at clearings quickly faded away. We stopped at trees that have been dated to many hundreds of years, and one so old its age isn’t exactly known because the center has rotted out. However, John explained that this could all change in a matter of days, as developers are eagerly pursuing permits to begin clearing the native vegetation from this area in order to build homes on five-acre lots, which are already creeping up the side of Sumas Mountain. The Nature Conservancy has been fighting this campaign in an effort to preserve the critical habitat found in this small area, which is home to a number of endangered plant and animal species found nowhere else in Canada.

The other important F word today was Fort Langley. This historic town boasts the title of the first European settlement in the lower Fraser Valley, established as a fur trading post by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1827. As such, it bears historical significance in the province, which was on display at the reconstructed fort (a National Historic Site complete with period character interpreters) and during today’s Victoria Day parade. For us, Fort Langley is notable as the site of our time series sampling (near the old ferry dock), which has been carried out by UFV students and faculty since fall 2009. We will report more on the incredible dataset these students have helped generate when we return on Wednesday.

Of course, the most important F word of our expedition is Fraser, the river that connects people and ecosystems across lower British Columbia. This year is special because we are sampling during the freshet period, when the water flow peaks due to spring rainfall and snowmelt in the mountains. It should be an exciting time to see the river!