Best laid plans of algae and academics oft go astray

When you’re stuck in and feel some procrastination is in order … write another travelogue post!

I’ve wanted to spin some yarns about field mishaps. There’s no way we could sample over 45 sites without something going wrong.

For our Northeast sampling leg, I’ve been pondering whether to just talk about the field or someone’s research. But, since this leg was a comedy of errors, I thought it would be a light hearted way to go into the weekend.

The plan was for myself and a student to head north and spend several days scouting sites from New York City north to Great Bay in New Hampshire.

In 2014, I had scouted sites in Maine and didn’t find any Gracilaria vermiculophylla. So, we had a few known populations from work out of Carol Thornber‘s lab, but nothing definite planned apart from Adam’s Point in Great Bay. A Gracilaria road trip was in store.

Then came along a little thing called demonic intrusion … a wicked, amorphous thing that never hesitates to materialize at the least opportune time.

Less than a week before we left, it became clear we needed everyone in the lab as both Erik and I were out in the field. I was bereft of a field buddy and sampling mudflats I’d never been too. Possibly a bad combination …

Even when you have a field buddy, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll not get stuck and be on your own to free yourself. In the end, all the Northeastern sites were sandy beaches with rocks and maybe a bit of mud, but totally workable by your lonesome. Oh hindsight …

But, in the panic before I left, I must have jinxed myself and will, therefore, digress for a brief bit of self-depricating humor.

One of the French sites we sampled had been described as facile. I was accompanied by some erstwhile Gracilariophiles, including my PhD supervisor, Myriam Valero, one of my thesis committee members, Christophe Destombe, and one of our colleagues, Marie-Laure Guillemin.

One person’s easy was quite clearly another person’s mire!

While sampling the first quadrat, I slowly began to sink as I dutifully recorded the percent cover of the wee beasties in the quadrat.

I had never been truly stuck in mud before … and blithely thought I’d extricate myself with ease. I was well and truly humbled.

The more I fought, the more I sunk. My feet slipped out of the right then the left boots of the waders, already too long for my whole 5’3 (1.6 m). The now footless-boots become hopelessly tangled and twisted in the mud.

After 10 minutes, I was no closer to getting out and the blood-red worms traipsing across the muddy furrows I’d made were, frankly, were starting to mock me.

After another few minutes and up to my chest, I succumbed to yelling for Christophe to help … this also happened to attract the interest of tourists walking along the estuary. I had my 15 minutes (literally) of fame while they happily snapped pictures of me digging myself out with my hands!

Christophe tried to lend a hand, but began to get as stuck as me. He fetched a sun visor from the car to serve as a platform, albeit a bendy one.

Seeing the humor after 30 minutes stuck waste deep in the stickiest mud I've ever encountered. One sore back and a broken sun visor later, I was free! Luckily, Christophe Destombe also shares my sometimes unique sense of humor and took these pictures!

Seeing the humor after 30 minutes stuck waste deep in the stickiest mud I’ve ever encountered.

Eventually, I crawled to the shore, re-grouped and sampled the next 9 quadrants … the life of a field ecologist is never dull, but I did manage to keep my new Patagonia vest surprisingly mud free. I’d consider that a win.

Back to the Northeastern leg …

At the very last minute, I managed to line up field helpers in a tightly packed, reduced schedule that would see four sites in four days. Bear in mind this included a lot of driving on the 95!

Did that happen … no …

Jet Blue cancelled my flight and it took a monumental effort to get on the only other departing flight the same evening.

This bumped everything and resulted in 4 sites in 3 days!

The flight was delayed as well so I only got to New Haven after midnight for a 5 am low tide!! I also was never as aware of how loud a rolling suitcase is when loaded down with silica gel and field kit as I was rolling along a street in New Haven at 1 in the morning.

A former Sotka lab tech, Meredith Smylie, and grad student, Alyssa Demko, came out in the field despite the early hour!

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Then, I raced back to Long Island to sample with April Blakeslee. She was in the midst of moving to a new position at East Carolina, but very kindly offered to come to the field with me to a beach for residents only.

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After less than 24 hours on the road, I had 2 populations sampled, but none processed (one population takes a minimum of 6 hours to process when you’re really bookin’ it).

The next day, after the earliest Port Jefferson Ferry (and truly suboptimal coffee), I met up with Nick Colvard, a PhD student in Brian Helmuth‘s lab, and a fellow alumnus of California State University Northridge Marine Biology Graduate Program! He met me in Rhode Island with the cutest field assistant I’ve ever had …

Field work is hard!

Field work is hard!

Then, graciously set up his basement for an impromptu algal lab …

The Nick and Meg Colvard Pop-up Marine Lab

The Nick and Meg Colvard Pop-Up Marine Lab

After 48 hours on the road, I had 4 populations and only 1.5 populations processed.

Early, early the next morning, I met up with Jeb Byers . He and his family were hanging out in New Hampshire and he went with me to Great Bay.

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So, after about 60 hours on the road, I had ended up with 5 populations and only managed to process 2.

Though Jet Blue had conspired with the demonic intruders, it earned some brownie points with its generous (for a price) luggage allowance. 100 LBS!!

Unprocessed algae, no problem, I put into all in my suitcase and 75 lbs later, I rolled out of the Charleston airport with a suitcase literally draining seawater.

One thing this summer showed me was the generosity of my fellow academics. I know I’d jump at the chance to escape the lab/office and head out to the field for a day, but when you’re bogged down, those few hours can be too precious to not be used toward a publication, grant proposal or a course. Yet, time and time again, fellow researchers put aside their busy schedules and came along with us. So, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who dropped what they were doing at the last minute and escaped to the field with us from Japan to Portugal!

 

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About Stacy Krueger-Hadfield

I am a marine evolutionary ecologist interested in the impacts of seascapes and complex life cycles on marine population dynamics. I use natural history, manipulative field experiments and population genetic and genomic approaches with algal and invertebrate models in temperate rocky shores,estuaries and the open ocean.
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