Fieldwork in the Canadian winter

I just flew back from another week with my collaborators at the Experimental Lakes Area, Ontario to collect more environmental DNA samples. The filters are still in Winnipeg yet to be shipped to me. I haven’t even unpacked my suitcase. But I thought I would share some photos and a few thoughts on fieldwork in the Canadian winter (technically it’s still autumn, but brrrr it was so cold and they already had so much snow – counts as winter for me!).

At first I had problems even getting to ELA as they had experienced a huge storm just three days before my arrival. Thousands of trees were down or even completely ripped from the ground by the high winds. The long road to camp was blocked by countless trees that had to be cleared with a backhoe before anyone could get in or out. I stayed in Winnipeg for an extra day and then we made the long, slow journey to camp. ELA staffers had already been working incredibly hard to clear the road. The many ATV trails that link ELA’s far-flung experimental lakes were completely blocked. It just goes to show that research in a place like ELA is dependent on having a brilliant ops team who are capable of making those routes safe (I joined in the chainsawing effort in my spare time!). I had a chat with staffers and my brilliant field assistant Sonya to make sure my plans were compatible with the limited access. We also had to safeguard against the cold temperatures – triple layers, mittens, toques, and full-body flotation suits.

joanne and sonya

Sampling actually went pretty well considering the access issues and the freezing temperatures. The lakes were incredibly beautiful and desolate – even more so than the summer. The silence (once we cut our noisy boat engine) was complete.

low winter sun 2

I’ve never done fieldwork somewhere so cold before – my previous experiences have been tropical or in temperate Europe. It was quite an adventure getting used to the new conditions but in the end everything went successfully. I learnt some important lessons about the cold – wind chill in a stationary boat is fierce, and handwarmers save dying batteries as well as hands.


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