Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Humdrum labor

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the part where I tell you all about my boring, soulless toil. In this entry, you'll get to see some very mundane tools and read all about the pointless busywork we use them for, as well as the lethargy I fight to get through the day. And really, I gotta say, my workplace is the worst part. Check out the break room.

Do YOU see a coffee machine?

Ok it isn't all that bad. Fact is, I get to do important work that I feel good about, and it really is fascinating and entertaining on multiple levels. The people are great, the scenery is spectacular, and I have a lot of fun tromping through forests and streams all day. Yeah, you come home exhausted after 12 hours of this, but however hard you work, however tedious some of the tasks are, can you really have a bad day in that kind of setting? I don't think so. Maybe this is just my perspective as someone who spent an unfortunate amount of time in a cubicle under fluorescent lighting, and maybe it'll wear off after I've done a whole season of this work, but I just really enjoy getting paid to go hiking.

Ok, time to get down to brass tacks. Let me tell you about some of the tools we use, and why. The very first thing we did in the field was retrieve temperature loggers that have been in the streams we're monitoring for about a year now, download their data, and redeploy them.

 That's me, waist deep in rushing water, holding up the housing and weights that were chained to the roots of a streamside tree, about to pull the logger from the housing. So the reason stream temperatures are important is because there's a range within which salmon eggs and young can thrive, and there are lots of temperatures where they don't do so well. One element of the habitat monitoring project, naturally, is to track temperatures.

To secure the loggers in place, we can cable them to a stable structure like a tree root, epoxy them underwater to the side of a boulder that looks unlikely to move, or drive a thick metal stake into the ground (often through cobbles the size of my fist) and chain it to that. These loggers need to be weighed down so they stay in the water year round (keep in mind that water levels fluctuate dramatically over a year), and need to have a cable and housing strong enough to withstand the beating delivered by all the boulders and cobbles that roll downstream throughout the year.

Yes, we lost a few. Sometimes you find a frayed bit of cable, sometimes you find nothing. I was talented enough to actually lose one after I'd retrieved it. I was fiddling with the housing, trying to get the logger out, and it just slipped. Three grown men chased this tiny floating piece of electronic equipment, about the size of my thumb, through waist deep water, struggling not to trip and top our waders. It was downright comical. We lost it, though, as it entered a mess of debris on the bank and we couldn't find it after that. Later, I did top my waders just trying to get across the stream, and we also found the second dead baby deer facedown in the water in two days; the site was thereafter known as "Pablo's Lament."

Another favorite tool of the trade: the viewing scope. This is basically a big PVC tube with a clear plastic lid on one end, which you use to check out the rocks, pebbles, and sand under your feet in the water. This tool is needed because when salmon lay their eggs, they need to do it in a place with larger gravel or cobbles that water can still flow through. The eggs grow and mature in the spaces between the rocks, sheltered from predators, and oxygenated by the constant flow of the water. If there's too much sand or silt or clay or mud, the eggs choke out and don't make it. So in order to tell if a stream is good spawning habitat for salmon, we need to be able to examine the substrate and see if eggs would survive there. Unfortunately the device is impossible to use in a dignified manner, as you spend a lot of time getting your bum photographed by coworkers with an inappropriate sense of humor (that is, me).

Say "Hi," Seth!

Anyway, more to come soon. I wanna tell you all about the other exciting tools we use. There's a whole bunch more, like the "sun eye," a camera with a fish-eye lens that we use to measure how much direct sunlight a stream gets through the year, the ever-useful stick-with-a-ruler-on-it, and the whole pile of surveying equipment you saw in use in the video from my last post. 

I hope this entertained and enlightened, at least a little. Please leave comments and tell me your thoughts, ask questions, or hurl invectives. How else will I know I'm loved?

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Hello, all!

For any who don't know, I'm Pablo. I have a Bachelors in Applied Ecology from UC Irvine, and a Graduate Certificate in Fisheries Management from Oregon State University. I have worked for consulting firms and governmental agencies, as an ecologist and a hazardous waste technician, in California and in Oregon. I am a husband to one brilliant woman, father of two wacky kids, and housemate to many interesting people.

I don't know if this site will be anything more than a diary of sorts, or if, you know, people will actually read what I put up here, but I'm writing because I feel like it. I know there's no shortage of environmentalist blogs out there, and no shortage of outdoorsy blogs, and there is far better science writing out there than I could ever hope to match, but I think I may have something worthwhile to contribute to each of those sub-genres. I expect to occasionally use this space to record random thoughts that occur to me in the course of my work and my outdoor excursions, and occasionally to write about scientific publications that catch my eye. If I'm lucky, I may actually get to interview a few people about their work.

I am currently working for the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission on the Columbia Habitat Monitoring Program (happily known as CHaMP), which seeks to implement a standardized monitoring protocol across 26 watersheds of the Columbia River Basin in order to evaluate the quantity and quality of tributary fish habitat available to salmonids across the Columbia River basin, not to mention changes over time. It goes without saying that this is an incredibly cool project with long-term implications, and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it. Here's a little video the CHaMP folks put together:

My whole upcoming summer is gonna be wading in gorgeous streams in eastern Oregon, measuring every possible parameter of fish habitat, and hanging out with my crew. After that, I get to spend another season and a half post-processing all that data. I hope to coherently explain the how and why of some of what I do, the hands-on aspect of it, and the bigger picture of the effort. I may even talk a little about my time at the field house with coworkers, tell you a bit about their interests and pursuits.

This space will be under construction as things change and grow, so come back often. The more visits I get, the more I'll be encouraged, tempted, cajoled, enticed to write. Please do let me know what you think as things progress.