The science in our front yard

A micro ethnography of Windermere water scientists

By R. Lorin Inglis

On the morning of September 30th, I had the opportunity to meet up with two scientists who are very interested in the creeks and groundwater around the Windermere area. It was cold, but without a breath of wind, it was a great day to head out into the crisp morning air and do some science! Armed with knowledge that I would be creek sampling – and that this endeavor would require the use of waders, I pulled into a parking lot near Windermere creek to meet up with, Shannon McGinty, Program Coordinator with the Lake Windermere Ambassadors. The Lake Windermere Ambassadors are a community based non-profit organization whose goal is the protection of Lake Windermere in perpetuity. After arriving at the meetup spot, Shannon introduced me to groundwater analyst and scientist, Carol Luttmer, from Living Lakes Canada. The three of us made the short trip to the sampling location near the town of Windermere, where the first snowfall of the season had left just a trace amount amid the yellowing leaf litter scattered around Windermere Creek.

For most people who come to Windermere, the lake is the focal point. Streams in the area generally don’t usually generate as much attention or enthusiasm of residents or cabin goers. With its proximity to the well-populated city of Calgary, Lake Windermere draws thousands of visitors, especially in the summertime, and offers myriad other outdoor activities year-round. It has become a hot-spot for mountain recreation. The purpose of our sampling trip was to take some samples from Windermere Creek and gather important information about the health of the watershed. As the name implies the creek flows down the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and runs right through a residential area at the periphery of the Windermere town site. Here it’s surrounded by a smattering of homes and cabins, and as I recently learned, the term CABiN also refers to the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network protocol. The program, which involves the collection and identification of specific species in a given area is a tedious process of sample collection followed by careful laboratory analysis. Visual identification of taxonomic classification (genetically similar critters), is a sort of who-is-who genetically and was the running protocol for examining samples since the program’s inception. Now the process is done using eDNA.

The process of getting critters into jars for the purposes of eDNA analysis can be a bit of a dance. As we descended on Windermere Creek, Shannon delegated out the job of timekeeper to me and asked Carol to watch for hazards in the creek. What followed was a sort of genetic shuffle. Shuffle, not referring to the recombination of chromosomes you learned about in grade 12 biology; this was an all-out backward-boogie through the creek. With a net in hand, the act of feet shuffling through the creek upturned sediments, pebbles and dislodged small invertebrates from their home on the creek bottom. All were cast into the flow of the creek, potentially coming to rest in the sample collection net. After three minutes of intense cardio – in the name of science – a slightly out of breath Shannon McGinty emerged from the stream with a net full of sand, gravel and leaf debris.

This process of sample collection may seem ostensibly ad hoc but one of the things I picked up on immediately about the process of creek sampling is the commitment to controlling collection and analysis methods on the part of the scientists. Following the scientific-method with aims at generating a reliable representation of data, methods of collection are standardized to eliminate confounding variables and boost accuracy. With creek sampling, this translates into things such as careful sterilization of the net and waders, the timed collection duration, and the attention to geospatial details such as pinpointing exact sample locations. Further, all measurements, such as creek flow rate are taken with a diligent precision – right down to standing on the same submerged brick in the stream – which Shannon intuitively knows the location of.

After collecting samples, the contents must be analyzed in a lab. This analysis is where the process has recently been updated to include cutting edge eDNA science. Thanks to the diligence of genetic scientists who have created a library of eDNA information about specific aquatic invertebrate species, finding out what types of organisms are present in a stream have become a lot more efficient. Because eDNA analysis has entered the CABiN sample tool kit, it is now possible to decode the genetic material present in any given creek sample. The samples that we braved the cold for will be subject to this faster and more accurate method. This, in turn, will lead to a better picture of species diversity. These snapshots in time generate valuable scientific information that we can all use to discover changes taking place in the creek and more broadly allow for further inference about macro watershed conditions related to a variety of factors including climate change. Because of the sensitive nature of invertebrates, they are for streams, what the canary is to the coal mine. They indicate the health of an ecosystem and changes taking place within it. Looking at these bio-markers is critical in our understanding of the local ecosystem. Human beings are an important part of this natural balance and as consumers of water, ought to be concerned with both species’ preservation and water resource sustainability. With such an important task at hand, I asked Shannon how folks from the community could get involved with this type of work.

“We have lots of opportunities for people to get involved, from joining us for a lake or creek sampling, to attending an event we put on, to being on our board of directors. The Ambassadors are a community-based organization and want to ensure we are always serving the community. So, if anyone wants to get involved they can join our mailing list or follow our social media pages for updates, or just reach out to us and let me know how you would like to get involved,” she said.

Before leaving the creek, I noticed the location of one of the Lake Windermere Ambassadors probes was affixed to a much older looking apparatus. I learned that it was a relic from a government creek monitoring system which was decommissioned many years ago. I was happy to see the Lake Windermere Ambassador’s well-maintained probe standing firmly adjacent to the old one. On the way back from the creek, I asked Shannon what the most rewarding part of her scientific work is. She said that at this time of year, she spends a lot of time in the office working on logistical aspects of her program.

“So, when I get out into the field with volunteers who are interested in learning more about water quality, threats to our watershed, and finding ways to improve it, that is very rewarding. We have a very diverse community of year round, seasonal, and tourism based residents, and I have had opportunities to connect with people from each area. Overall I have found that everyone I talk with has an interest in keeping the creeks and the lake healthy, and that is really motivating.”

After departing from the creek sampling area we made our way to a residential well, located on an individual’s front yard. The well, which had been rendered unsuitable to produce adequate water was now, with pump replaced by probe, a site of scientific groundwater testing. Carol from Living Lakes Canada took me through the process of testing barometric and water pressure present in the well. We also collected data on temperature and water levels inside the well. Thanks to the marvels of technology, some of this information was accessible to a smartphone simply aimed at the well casing. However, just to be sure, the data was all verified after lowering a specialized measuring probe into the well which transmitted an audible tone when the probe reached the water. We were all pleased to know that the information displayed on the smartphone was verified to be strikingly accurate.

Carol was made aware of the well site after attending a local environmental symposium called the Wings over the Rockies Festival. There she connected with the landowner who voiced concerns about the well. This is part of what is so fantastic about the collaboration of different NGOs, citizen scientists, and other groups interested in our watersheds. Scientists love to talk about data. It’s their language and an opportunity to use it lights up the eyes of even the most austere researcher. My two scientific guides for the day were not stuffy scientists – but they did love data! As soon as I expressed an interest, Carol pulled out charts and graphs from her vehicle and began to generate all kinds of stats about the testing she has been working on.

Doing this kind of science and working in non-profit takes a level of dedication and a love of nature which is inspiring. After chatting with Shannon more about her day-to-day, I realized that the quality of scientific research and data collection relies on more than just committed individuals. Equipment is vital to the operations being carried out. The tool kit of the scientist is as important as the skill and diligence of the user. The Lake Windermere Ambassadors and the Living Lakes Canada, programs need the support of their communities in a two-fold capacity. One, information such as the sharing of individual, First Nations, and land-owner experiences help add to enrich the scientific discussion and process. Secondly, support for these organizations and their operating needs is critical, both in terms of public discourse and funding.

Science doesn’t just happen in labs and offices. It happens in our back yards and sometimes in our front yards. Setting priorities of sustainability are no longer limited to certain political or environmentalist narratives. Protecting our watersheds falls simply into the category of the sensible thing to do.

Just before we left Windermere creek for the day, a brilliant red flash from a small solitary kokanee salmon made its way upstream against the flow of the river – a tribute to the tenacity of a determined species.

Written by R. Lorin Inglis. Lorin is a student at the University of Calgary in the faculty of Arts, in the disciplines of Philosophy & Anthropology. A micro ethnography, as it is written here is a snapshot of what it is like to do creek sampling science from a participant observation perspective. This Micro ethnography is not intended as a complete work of Ethnographic research.

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