July 18, 2007
I have have just returned from what may be my last UNAVCO project... but may not be, so don't get too worked up about it. I am planning on going part-time sometime in the next couple weeks, and am still looking for adventure but am ready to pursue a few of my non-GPS interests and have a little more freedom. If you have any great projects for me involving theater, video, journalism, field work, writing, photography, or, you know, saving the world, let me know.
As for this last week--well, the project gets a superlative, which I guess Americans are known for, as my friend Larry (Canadian) and I discussed just a couple weeks ago. Said the lead scientist on the project to me one day, "I bet this is the wettest project you've been on." He's right. At the time, we were standing ankle-deep in water in a bog in northern Minnesota where he's been working for the past thirty years. It may have been raining even when he said this, much to my delight. That is sarcasm. In fact, I wasn't delighted by the rain at all, which graced us with its intermittent presence three out of our five days in the field.
This was a bit of an odd project, compared to what I usually do. It was actually quite standard, except that we generally work with science groups who want their GPS instruments on the most solid ground possible (unless they're working on ice). In this case, there was no solid ground. Everything in the area of interest is in varying degrees of mushiness. Saturated plant matter, and more of it, and more of it, which is what you're apt to find in a peat bog. Turns out peat bogs emit methane, and this researcher, Paul Glaser, of University of Minnesota, wants to measure that methane output. As the group learned from a similar experiment in 1997 (which UNAVCO also helped with), the whole bog goes up and down as gas comes out of solution (bog goes up) and then is belched out into the atmosphere (bog goes back down). These events take place over short time spans of only several hours or so. By measuring this up and down motion of the bog with GPS, they are hoping to be able to estimate the volume of methane released.
So without solid ground into which to install the instruments, they came up with another option: They install on trees. They trim the branches on a reasonably sized spruce, lop it off at a reasonable height, and mount the GPS antenna to it. The tree, rooted into the bog, goes up and down as the bog goes up and down, and the GPS antenna goes up and down as the tree goes up and down, so there you go.
We did the work by helicopter (you can't drive through this muck) and stayed at night in tents outside the once-active and then once-mouse-infested hatchery building on the shore of the upper Red Lake.
We staged equipment in the half of the building that wasn't full of hand-blown glass vases used for fishies back in the day.
Every night except one, we ate dinner in a restaurant down the road--the only restaurant, which was much better than nothing. Lots of the local specialties, which are walleye (a fish) and wild rice. The wild rice farmers took the seed from the true wild rice growing along the lakeshore and planted it in paddies in this area. For breakfast and lunch, we ate cerial and sandwiches made from fixins we bought in Grand Rapids on our trip north. And we drank water--on hot days, lots of it. The hatchery building didn't have running water anymore, so we peed outside. For more delicate matters, we grabbed the car keys and drove down the road to the campground and made use of the facilities there, or saved up for the restaurant in the evening.
[The group: U. of Maine grad student Josh Rhodes, U. of Minnesota lead scientist Paul Glaser, Rutgers grad students Jay Nolan and Andy Parsekian, and myself. Not pictured: Pilot Lee and helo tech Jeff.]
I wasn't a fan of the rain or of trying to work low to the ground without getting wet, and I definately wasn't a fan of the thunderstorms coming through or the mosquitos and black flies, but there were a few things on this project that I was indeed a fan of.
One was having Josh on the project; he worked on building cell towers and as an auto mechanic for several years before going to school. I want him in the field with me EVERYWHERE. He did all the hard work / physical labor, while I did the finicky stuff like building cables and wiring the systems. And while he was in the field solving field problems, he was also on his cell phone with his wife troubleshooting plumbing problems at their house in Maine. Sheesh.
Another was the midwestern sunsets. The last night, Josh and I finally got to watch one from the roof, where we'd gone to work until we realized we couldn't do what we'd set out to do. It was a nice excuse to relax a little.
And oh yeah--the one night that we didn't go to our local restaurant, we went to a restaurant an hour away in Bemidji, where we needed to visit the Home Depot. And my new sweetheart, pictured below. He's tall.
When we got back to Minneapolis, Paul showed us the 45th parallel,
and took us by some cool sculptures which were a little playground in the evening light.
I then proceeded to have a lovely time out on the town with my Minneapolis friend Tracy, but there isn't any proof, I mean there aren't any pictures of that. So you'll have to take my word for it.