I spent years fighting with alder trees. They grow in dense thickets that form tangled and terrible walls of vegetation on the banks of streams. As an invasive species biologist, I study sea lamprey, an invasive fish in the Great Lakes region. I had always seen alders as one of the hurdles, literally and figuratively, in getting my field work done — until one day they became my savior.
The “uniform” for fish biologists working in streams takes some getting used to. Waders are the base layer, onto which our equipment, backup batteries, and replacement parts for the electronic equipment we ask to work in water, are a necessity. As is a lunch. All of which are clipped on our person with an assortment of clanking carabiners before walking, climbing and wading into the stream. Like a kangaroo, we also use our waders as a waterproof pouch, stuffing data sheets down our front and we always have lots of fun small things tucked away in pockets, like measuring tape, electrical tape, and - every day except this fateful one – writing instruments to record data on our waterproof Rite in the Rain paper.
Before this day, I cursed alder trees (or are they really bushes? Or thickets? Whatever the botanical classification, they were the enemy). For example, I had lost countless pair of sunglasses walking into the shaded overgrowth; many an alder had stolen my glasses from the top of my head, never to be seen again.
When a beaver dam would block up a stream or it would become too deep to pass, we would lose so much time having to climb up a steep bank, fighting alders all the way. And then crash back down a few meters downstream, which should have been easier with gravity on our side, but it wasn’t.
In small, shallow streams, the alder branches leaned into the sunshine, creating a near tunnel of branches across the water. Spiders love these just-barely-not-touching-twigs as holdfasts - perfect places to build their webs. Imagine walking down the stream, looking down so as not to trip or slip on the rocky bottom, carefully collecting data and WHAP! Spider web to the face. Regain your balance, brush yourself off, go back to collecting data and carefully walking and WHAP! Spider web to the face. It is
as fun as it sounds.
On this fateful day, we had been dropped off along the Carp River in Canada, early in the morning, by the field truck we shared with the rest of our crew. In this area, the river has a really steep embankment and the stream bed would best be described as “ankle breaking rocks”. Beyond the river lies a swampy marshland with every step threatening to pull you down into the slurping mud.
My field partner and I made sure we had all our equipment that day, including our electrofisher, the trusty back-up battery and electrical tape, datasheets, bug spray, sunscreen, and lunch. We loaded ourselves up, clipped on our gear, and waved goodbye to the truck. We would meet up with the rest of the team eight hours later and four kilometers downstream as we collected toward to the meet-up point.
We crashed and thrashed and fought through the alders, finally reaching the stream. It wasn’t until we were ready to begin filling out our datasheets when we realized our mistake. Neither of us had anything to write with.
Our options were simple: 1) do nothing for eight hours, 2) climb up and out of the stream and hike through a wet swamp for 4km to reach the truck and then do it all over again to get back, or 3) figure something else out. Our only real choice was 3 – if for no other reason than we would never live it down if we did 1 or 2. The teasing from our lab mates would be relentless.
Our first thought: Blood. Could we cut ourselves and use our own blood to record our data? We quickly realized no, though our biggest hurdle may have been not being able to actually cut ourselves with anything we had.
Second attempt: Rocks? Is there some kind of coal like rock or sandstone that would leave a mark on the paper? No dice. The soil was really clay-based and our waterproof paper didn’t like anything we could find.
Then, it dawned on me. I had a vision, inspired by my experience breaking twig after twig, branch after branch as I fought my way through the alders. Each one had a tiny, dark brown center – a dark pith... like a pencil. Could we write with it? Would the waterproof paper allow it to show up? I broke off a twig, dragged it across the paper and IT WORKED!
We spent the day breaking twigs and branches off to get sharp ends and collected data for eight hours and four kilometers using our alder pencils.
I have never cursed an alder thicket since, though I now use my electrofisher poles to clear spiderwebs and I wear my sunglasses on a strap.
Heather Dawson is an associate professor of Biology at the University of Michigan – Flint. She studies aquatic invasive species management and fisheries management focused in the Great Lakes region.
Heather's Plant Love Story was told to Rebecca Tonietto, 2015 Smith Fellow, Plant Love Stories co-founder and Assistant Professor at University of Michigan - Flint, and written collaboratively.