Down to the Estuary

We have made it to our 8th destination of this journey! We are currently at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine. Here we have been thrown into the deep waters of Advance Marine Ecology course at full throttle. Our first objective was to learn about estuaries and to find what sort of patterns we could find. Rather than picking up a textbook and just assuming the material given to us was true, we went out and gathered data ourselves.

The Darling Marine Center is right along the Damariscotta River, which is one of many estuaries along the coast of Maine. As soon as we filled our bellies with fruit and omelets, we took the quick walk down to the dock where Captain Robbie was waiting for us. Once informed of the safety protocols and what to do in various emergency situations, we took off to the head of the estuary.

To understand just a small piece of an estuary ecosystem, we used a Sea-Bird conductivity temperature depth (CTD) profiler. With this instrument we collected temperature, fluorescence, dissolved oxygen levels, salinity, and much more from just this one ring of machine. Along with the CTD profiler, we used two different nets to catch phytoplankton and zooplankton. These samples were taken from six spots along the Damariscotta River from the head to the mouth of the estuary. By using all of this data we created profiles for the Damariscotta River the fall season. From these profiles we can discern patterns in the forces that shape the distribution and abundance of the organisms.

On this trip we saw porpoises, seals, Bonaparte’s gulls, common loons, and many more! Back at the lab we got to see our strange and intricate shaped phytoplankton and zooplankton. We also got to find some Acartia tonsa which is Dr. Teegarden’s favorite little zooplankton with their beautiful blue “bowties.” Speaking of ties, we all learned how to tie a bowline knot!

I can definitely say we got lucky with another great professor from Saint Joseph’s College of Maine. Not only have we been thrown out to explore natural landscapes, but also to learn how to be effective and efficient workers. As Albert Einstein himself would say, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”

- Erin Wright-Little

phytoplankton Erin & CTD photo CTD data  photo 2

Just another day at the beach

Popham group on sand flat                Popham dig

I arrived to relieve Dr. Johan Erikson in our tag-team stewardship of the intrepid ESS student group on Wednesday September 10th, finding a group that was well into relaxation mode, after a full session of geology and sprint to the finish with a paper and final exam.  Nothing like a beautiful day at the beach to recharge the batteries. However…… The ensuing day we were back out to perform a beach profile of the dynamic Popham Beach face. The afternoon was all about waves and tides, and now we all can recognize spilling, plunging, and surging breakers, and relate them to the beach slopes we measured in the morning.

As sure as the sun rises, we are moving back into field exercises and experiential learning. As I stated to the students, my ulterior motive is to ruin them for ever going to a beach and just enjoying the beautiful scenery, letting the mind empty. Rather, I would have their minds be restless, constantly looking at patterns, asking “what processes could have produced that pattern in the sand? Why do the shorebirds only seem to forage at the low tide mark, and what are they eating? How did those air holes form in the upper intertidal?” Then, if I’ve done my job well, they’ll think of an explanation, and ask themselves “How might I test whether my explanation is correct?”

Popham morning work

Over the next two days they explored the various nooks and crannies of the sandy beach ecosystem, looked for organisms, and strove to correlate organism distribution with the physical forces that shape the beach ecosystem. That, and a good deal of cooking and eating, enjoying social time, trying to get the measure of the new guy, and transitioning to the ecological perspective. In the first few weeks, they have clearly evolved into a well-oiled machine of meal preparation and community living – most impressive. It’s also wonderful to see the “collateral learning”, such as “bad idea to pour the corn/cream/melted cheese leftovers down the drain when there’s no garbage disposal.” Thankfully there’s no predicament that seems to be beyond Bobby Michaud’s capacity to solve.

Rusty Streams and Clear Lakes in Northern Maine

Some of the most amazing adventures we have had so far happened at Gorman Chairback! Gorman Chairback is an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut in a township of Northern Maine, near Katahdin Iron Works.  We learned about the effects of iron-mining pollution on local organisms with our guest professor, Dr. Emily Lesher.  We sampled 3 different areas and used special nets to collect microinvertebrates (bugs), before recording how many we found. We also took pH levels of those areas and found out that the area with the most iron pollution had the least amount of organisms living there and the lowest pH values (i.e., more acidic) than the other places.  It was interesting to see that there was more algae in the polluted stream than in the better water, probably because the microinvertebrates that graze on the algae couldn’t survive in the polluted stream. I (Nhu) fell into the stream while wearing waders, which ended up filling with water.  So that was an experience!

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At Gorman Chairback, we also went canoeing on their incredible lake, as well as paddle-boarding, kayaking, and swimming.  The food there was beyond our expectations.  It was so delicious and great.  They used fresh produce from their gardens that they picked half an hour before dinnertime.  They made their own bread for everyone’s lunches every single day.  Some of the things we got to eat were: beef brisket, chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting, grilled vegetables, raspberry pie, almond pastries, and so much more! They had a sauna, really great (and warm!) showers, and composting toilets.  What was really cool was that they only use solar, propane, and wood as their only sources of energy, since they are 100% off the grid.

Erin and the two of us stayed in our own cabin right on the lake.  It was the best night of sleep yet!  There was a woodstove, two beds, paintings on the walls made by past guests, branches for hooks on the walls, a wash basin with a matching pitcher, windows, and a great view of the lake when you woke up. Both mornings, we awoke to the sound of loons and at night time,  we watched the moon reflected off of the lake like a mirror.  It was so serene.


On the last day, hours before we left for the White Mountains, the majority of us went out by either a kayak or a canoe to a far off island on the other side of the lake.  Some of us explored the island briefly, and found that it actually had a house on it.  As we were coming back, Dr. Erikson suggested a balancing game in the middle of the lake.  The object was to stand up in your kayak or canoe, without falling into the water. Dr. Erikson went first, and flipped his.  With the help of Bobby, Erin, and Ayla, he was able to empty out the water that had started filling his kayak and get back in.  Next, Bobby attempted doing the same, and was successful in almost standing in the kayak, without flipping it.  Ayla tried it next, and did the best, as she completely stood straight up in her kayak and sat back down, all without getting any water on her.  We all shared some laughs and headed back to pack the van.


We stopped for ice cream at Gifford’s Ice Cream in Farmington, Maine.  It was so good, because it was a hot day, and we had been all cramped in the van for a while. We were ready to go off to our next destination classroom, the White Mountains of New Hampshire!

- Nhu and Courtney

10 Days in Canada

Gotta love Canada, eh? We had some interesting adventures in our northern neighboring country. We started out our journey in Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick. There, we braved the swarms of man-eating mosquitos, survived a 20 mile bike ride around the park (well, mostly), and made it through the hot sun and waves of the beach. There was one accident on the bike ride…Andrew Merlino somehow managed to kick off on his cruiser a bit too fast, causing it to spin out, scraping up his hands, creating a smiley face of scabs (Dude Gravelstar). Erin, forgetting that there weren’t any hand breaks on the bike, came crashing into him, shouting “Sorry!” as she careened into his back tire. Both sustained minimal injuries, but survived the ride. Nhu wore he super-heated bug armor, protecting her from any bugs who dared to challenge her.

ESS gravelstar

During the nights, those of us who stayed up watched the flawless night sky, awed as numerous shooting stars flew across the sky.

Our next destination was the lovely city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we stayed in a great hostel. While there, we visited a beach in the nearby town of Lawrencetown. There, we scaled the loose dirt of a drumlin, measuring the sorting of the sediment and rocks, the strike and dip and trend and plunge of the exposed oblate and prolate rocks, and mapped out the profile of the cliff-face.

One night, the moon appeared, after not having seen it for almost a week! Though we got many strange stares, we managed to snap a picture or two of the lovely light. While in the city, we all got to try poutine…I don’t think my tastebuds will ever be the same after that scrumptious snack! On the last morning, we packed up, and picked up some Tim Horton’s, because how could you go to Canada and not have some Timmy Ho’s while you’re there, eh?

ESS Carboniferous tree

We made our way back to New Brunswick, to Fundy National Park, making a pit stop at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. There, we toured the shoreline with our guide, Dr. Melissa Grey, finding ancient ferns, 300-million year old “trees” (actually club mosses), roots, shells, and even giant centipede tracks! While we were at Fundy, we visited the Hopewell Rocks, amazed by the wave-eroded structures, impossibly standing on their narrow bases.

ESS Hopewell

Sadly, the trip to Canada came to an end far too quickly, though we continue to travel to amazing sights! Who knows what we’ll find next?


Glacial crunch time

ESS at Tuckerman

It’s not all sunshine and awesome natural laboratories, but there certainly are a lot of each!

The first course of the semester, Climate Change and Glacial Geology, is wrapping up right now.  Students just turned in their research papers, which had to be on a climatological or glacial process for which they had seen evidence at some time during the past 3+ weeks.  They are writing on topics as varied as carbon sequestration (as seen in 300 million year old coal deposits) and glacial abrasion (seen in lots of places where glaciers have left their mark on the land).  Now they have to study for the tomorrow’s final exam.

We’ve had some great venues in the past week:  Fundy National Park in New Brunswick for some of the world’s biggest tides, Katahdin Iron Works in northern Maine for acid rock drainage with Dr. Emily Lesher (and some nice canoeing), and most recently the top of Mount Washington for both climate and glacial features.  After tomorrow’s exam, we’ll go to Popham Beach (Maine), where Dr. Teegarden will lead them in Marine Ecology.

- Johan Erikson

A mother of eight

The toll of many long days and long nights and early mornings.

The students of ESS are all fast asleep in the van during one of our many early morning car trips.

I open my eyes; it is 5:10 in the morning and it is time to start the day of travel. I think to myself, I hope everyone didn’t stay up too late last night because today is going to be a tough day. As I slumber out of my top bunk in the hostel in Halifax, my mind begins to race. I want to make sure to get started early so we can efficiently move out of Halifax to our next destination.

As I stagger down the stairs, I fully expect to see Johan Erikson any minute. I am sure he isn’t sleeping much at this time because of the long trip ahead of us. As I round the corner away from the stairs, I walk into Courtney. She is struggling up the stairs with her enormous dry bag, one of the foundations for the roof rack. One down, seven to go. I grab her bag and shuffle it to the van, which is parked less than two meters from the hostel’s entrance. There it stands, tall, blue, and with the faces that so many people gawk at when we drive.   This reminds me of the hundreds of questions we get when we drive: “Where is Saint Joseph’s College?” “What are you guys doing in Canada?” “Whose faces are on the van?” “Do you know the people on the van?” “How come your face isn’t on the van?” The list can go on and on.

As I am unpacking the mountain of bags that had collected inside the van from the night before, I am remind how much stuff is crammed into this tiny space. I begin to have quite the collection of bags outside the van when Dr. Erikson makes his way outside. It is 5:30; we need to leave in 30 minutes and there are still seven unaccounted for students! I continue to work with Dr. Erikson for another 15 minutes and I still have not seen any more students. It is time to see the progress being made by my lovely children.

I make it back inside and to the lower floor of the hostel to check on the ladies. One part of me thinks they will be up and glowing and excited to see me as they walk right past me to the van. The other part of my brain, the left and rational part of my brain, cackles at this thought, knowing full well that when the door opens, I will see three wonderful faces crushed into soft pillows. I grasp the door handle and turn it, the anticipation KILLING ME! The door opens and… everyone is sleeping. Bummer, that would have been nice. I wake everyone and tell them they need to be out by the van in five minutes. The faces of panic erupt.

Back at the van after waking the crew, faces of sad, tired students grumble their way through the door.

“Hi mom,” groaned Alana

“Morning mom,” said Erin in a rough voice.

Being called mother as a male 23 year-old recent Saint Joseph’s College graduate is an interesting experience, but one that I feel happy to hold. As everyone makes their way to the sidewalk, I can sense the rushing feeling begin to flow in as I realize 6:00 is approaching quickly and we still need the big bags on the roof. Finally I see them… It’s a car! It’s a plane! It’s the big bags coming! Dr. Erikson is up and on the roof before I can get the courage and focus to lift the bags. I heave and strain and lift the first dry bag to the roof and Mike helps me lift it and hold it until Dr. Erikson can pull the monstrosity up. We continue to lift the bags up until all of the bags are on the roof and safely tied down and secured for the long trip.

Now in the drivers seat, I look back and see everyone piled into the van in a conglomeration of bags and sleepy faces. With my navigator to my right and the snoring beginning to echo through the van we pull away from the hostel and off to the many adventures ahead of us. Another successful packing, only eighteen minutes late, not a bad start.

The trials and tribulations of caring for eight full grown college students is not an easy task, but when you see them come together and accomplish simple tasks like packing a van, you are reminded that the learning process and growth is great, is necessary. I was in their shoes only a few years ago and that process is hard, but the reward is rich.

- Robert Michaud

Beach Party!!

ESS at Kouchibouguac beach

Our tired group woke this morning to shaking tents at 7:30 a.m. (by Bobby and Dr. Erikson). Breakfast seemed to have a flavour of DEET mixed in because of all the bug spray we put on to deter the swarms of mosquitoes. After that we had a lecture on atmospheric circulation patterns.

Then we went to Kelly’s Beach (here in Kouchibouguac National Park, New Brunswick) just a 2 minute drive away. Except it wasn’t all play and instead much our time was spent measuring the beach profile. We measured the slope of the beach from the crest of the beach berm down about 40 m to the water, and then underwater for another 90 m all the way out to a shallow sand bar. For each part of the profile, we determined variations in sand sizes using a stack of sieves. When we had some down time it was nice to cool off in the ocean (to our surprise a bit warmer than at home) considering how hot the sun was. Unfortuanetly some of us got a bit burnt from the sun’s rays. We had some great finds out at the sand bar, including crabs, hermit crabs, snails (some small and some quite large) and most interesting Andrew caught with his hands an unsuspecting flounder (a strange looking flat fish with both eyes on one side of their head).

Bobby delivered our usual lunch of cold cut sandwiches to the beach, this time treated with oreos. After completing our profile for the afternoon we went back and had a dinner of chili and pasta with cornbread and salad. Dessert was amazing (strawberriy short cake).

Tonight is on our third night of actually camping (10th night total). We’re making it along really well and excited for the many days ahead.

- Matthew Pfannenstiel

Night Skies

We spent the past few days at Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick, looking out on the relatively warm waters of Northumberland Strait (toward Prince Edward Island).  I’ll let students write about our days.  Here, I’ll just comment on our nights.

Stars.  Wow.  I think this part of New Brunswick participates in a dark-night initiative in which they intentionally minimize the amount of nighttime illumination.  That means fewer bright signs, downward-directed lighting, and dimmer lighting in general.  The effects are spectacular.

For several clear nights in a row, we could see not only the big, bright stars, but even the myriad little ones.  I saw constellations that I haven’t seen in years.  Milky Way?  Oh yeah, bright from horizon to horizon.

Satellites? Oh yeah, 2, 3, and sometimes even 4 satellites could be seen simultaneously, some moving in parallel paths, some in criss-crossing paths.  Some brighter and moving fast, others dimmer (farther away) and moving slowly.

And then of course, there were the shooting stars.  August is a good month for shooting stars in general, and we weren’t disappointed.  On two occasions I saw a flash, rather than a streak, which probably was a shooting star coming almost directly toward us, rather than across the sky; sorry, no photos!

The price for the beautiful night sky was collected by the mosquitoes.  But they were really only bad from 2 hours before sunrise and sunset to 2 hours after sunset and sunset (and sometimes in the middle of the day if the wind wasn’t blowing).  The campfires certainly helped, and the skeeters pretty much disappeared by the time we got to dessert and games of Liar’s Dice.

The academic content is getting a bit thicker about now, with a recent labor-intensive beach transect and a lab report on bedrock fracture patterns due tomorrow.  Fortunately, frisbee on the beach and good food soften the discomfort.  Hard to believe, but they have a mid-term exam (for Climate Change and Glacial Geology) on Friday.

- Johan Erikson

First Day in Canada

Saturday morning, we got up and our objective was to clean out most of our food supplies, because we could not carry most things across the border. We left our “home” at 7:40 and when we had to cross the border into Canada, thankfully they did not have to search the van. However, we did have to wait around for 40 minutes getting our passports checked. We entered Canada at 11 and because of the hour ahead time difference, dinner was at a late hour that night. We had lunch at Saint John, in New Brunswick. We all ate a variety of foods from the public market and a few of us even ate in the park. As we were walking around, we came across people from all over the world that were carving stones and making sculptures out of them. If you ask me, I thought it was pretty neat! Nevertheless, we got back in the van and drove for another 3 hours till we reached out destination in the campground of Kouchibouguac. On our adventures driving there, we almost squashed a Prius, came very close… Once we got to the campground, we had to put up tents, and that was a struggle for those of us who were new to camping. So, yeah that was our day of fun.


-Courtney Couture

Dropstones and Blueberries

Today started off with a delicious breakfast of waffles, with fresh (store bought) blueberries, strawberries, and bananas.  We hit the road in our SJC van around 8:30 am.  We were headed to Cherryfield, Maine, which deceivingly is actually the “Wild Blueberry Capital of the World”. On our way there, we passed the Wyman’s of Maine factory.  Anyone who buys frozen blueberries in Maine knows that Wyman’s is the brand you buy. As we passed the factory, we smelled the scent of blueberries in the air.  We also drove past many of Wyman’s blueberry fields, one of which was getting watered, spraying a little bit of water onto our windshield.  There, we stopped to look at the land, which was actually a flat delta and the highest elevation in that area.  Normally, deltas are not the highest spot in an area, so this was an interesting location.  We looked at the type of glacial sediments on top of the bedrock, which seemed to be mostly sand and gravel.  We also looked at really colorful geology surficial and bedrock maps, learning about ribbed moraines and how they were formed.

Then, we moved onto another location in the area and Dr. Erikson used “conveniently placed” road dirt to teach us about triangulation and how to determine position using it.  He told us that before GPSs were invented, scientists based property lines off of data they got from measuring angles and distance between certain plaques on the ground.


After that, we drove to a field to look at erratics, which are rocks that are not where they are supposed to be.  There was an entire field of them, all of various sizes, but one literally stood out to all of us.

This large erratic was a dropstone, meaning that it once was a part of a glacier, but floated away from the glacier, inside of an iceberg.  As the iceberg melted, the rock fell out and dropped on the submerged delta. This specific rock was about 5 m high and 5 m across. A bunch of people wanted to climb it, and looking at the challenging climb it took them to get up to the top, it was not an easy one to say the least.  All around the boulder were fields and fields of blueberries.  We may have been trespassing, but we are not sure of that. Some of us picked a few of the lowbush blueberries and some of us climbed up on top of the rock.  Some of us did both.  Either way, it was a fun day for all of us.

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-Nhu Vo