Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Magnificent Struggles of the Mudflat

Matt after a few hours on the mudflat

We arrived at Lowe’s Cove just as the tide was beginning to flush away the mudflat. We left the Darling Marine Center a few minutes ago and all of the students had begun to feel the stresses of research.

Matt asked Dr. Greg Teegarden, “What should we bring to the cove?”

“This is a learning exercise and I want everyone to follow their proposals and bring what they think they need. If I tell you what to bring and what to do, this becomes a cookbook experiment, which has less value than struggling to figure it out,” replied Dr. Teegarden.

By the looks on all of the students’ faces I could tell they were not impressed, because sometimes it is easier to be given information than to figure it out yourself. Nonetheless here we were just about to step onto the mudflat. Greg had just delivered suggestions about the rambunctious technique required to travel efficiently on a mudflat. At this moment everyone made haste and took their first steps on to the deceivingly stable, stinking, gait-hindering mudflat.

At this time I was scurrying around the upper rocks trying to find the perfect placement for cameras to capture all of the activities. It all happened so quickly. I watched carefully as everyone took his or her first few steps onto the mudflat. I watched Dr. Teegarden race onto the mudflat with grace and proficiency, while Matt slumbered onto the mud, finding it nearly impossible to move. When I compared the techniques of the inexperienced students to the experienced waddle of Dr. Teegarden I was fascinated.


I wonder how long it will take before someone falls?

The thought had just passed my mind when I looked out and saw Erin screeching as her center of gravity went back, but her feet stayed deep within the grasp of the malicious mud. I watched as Erin’s automatic balance correction mechanism attempted to correct the fatal misalignment of her body. We often take for granted the amazing mechanisms that are involved in keeping humans upright. From my vantage point I could clearly see Erin’s body struggling to stay standing. As she realized her feet could not shuffle to keep herself from falling her arms flailed out and began to create concentric circles in the air, as though she were attempting to fly like an eagle in the sky. Unfortunately, the end was the same for many of the ESS students, a butt covered in mudflat mud.

Just as this scene ended another began, this time it was Nhu. Nhu always has a fantastic reaction to new situations. This day was no exception. As Nhu took her first steps onto the mudflat you could hear her squealing at the new experience. As she attempted to adjust her gait and take the advice of Dr. Teegarden, I could see her mind begin to wonder if Dr.

Nhu experiencing the mudflat
Nhu experiencing the mudflat

Teegarden was giving true advice, or if he was simply bring everyone onto the mudflat for his own mischievous experiment. As Nhu scrambled across the mud, I watched almost as in slow motion. She took a step and went to lift her back right foot, but the mud grasped it like a mother holding her child’s hand while they crossed the road. Nhu attempted a correction, but the laws of nature had already made the decision, she was going to fall into the mud. As her knees made contact into the mud, I later found out that her expression was one of disgust, anxiety, and amusement.

I could continue with the many accounts of the struggles of the mudflat, but I want to keep some stories for people to share when they return. I will leave you with some advice for when you go onto the mudflat. Some of this advice is from Dr. Teegarden, and some of the advice is from my own accounts and experience from this day.

  1. When you walk on a mudflat, keep your center of gravity low and walk with pep in your step.
  2. When you are walking on a mudflat, know your destination and don’t stop, otherwise you will feel the hands of mud come upon you.
  3. If you do stop, do not forget you are on a mudflat when you get ready to start moving again, otherwise you could fall flat on your face. Instead when your foot is stuck, simply twist your heel out and up. This will help break the grasp of the mud.
  4. Never travel alone. If there was one revelation I noticed with the group traveling on the mud was how everyone relied on the help of friends to pull each other out of the mud (see video of Erin for an example)
  5. Do not forget to have fun. The mudflat is a place to study and gather information, but from my brief experience yesterday, it is also a place to have fun.

-Robert Michaud

Visiting a Maine Icon

When Dr. Johan Erikson and I (mostly Johan) planned out the Environmental Science Semester, one of our goals was to incorporate what I’ve been calling “collateral learning”. One form would be experiences that did not seem to have a direct academic content purpose, but nevertheless created an impression, or formed a memory, that both enriched the student experience and perhaps looped back to things they have learned or will learn.  With this in mind we made a side journey to the iconic Pemaquid Point Lighthouse.

The simple, elegant lighthouse and keeper's house.
The simple, elegant lighthouse and keeper’s house.

True confession time – this is the region where the summers of my youth were whiled away in blissful exploration, long before mobile phones and e-mail accounts or social media intruded upon one’s ability to leave the world behind and drink in the experience. It was perhaps naive of me to imagine that our group would be struck with that sense of child-like wonder by a simple hour-long visit. Yet, the enthusiasm with which the students sprang onto the rocks and fanned out to explore, marvel at rock formations, look for critters, or get lost in the sunset gave me  hope that a little bit of wonder would cut through the whirlwind of modern life and settle in our minds.

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When I told the students that this was one of the most famous, most photographed or depicted lighthouses in the nation, there was some healthy skepticism. After all, it looks so simple and plain, no red stripes, no grandiose house attached. We later confirmed that this is the lighthouse depicted on the Maine state quarter, from the currency series of state quarters. Some were interested in the history, and in the fate of lighthouses in the modern era. No one could fail to take interest in the fantastic rocky point on which the lighthouse is set. When I asked, “What would Johan say if he were here?” there was a great combination of eye rolls and friendly groans, but also smiles and chuckles – one part “Really? Academics again?” and another part appreciation of the life we academics lead, viewing the world with one eye on the wonder and beauty, and the other through the lens of our training and discipline. I think in the end, the students managed to keep their eyes on the wonder and beauty, and that’s just fine for this episode of collateral learning.


Half way. Location Ocean Point Boothbay, and New Harbor, Maine; Date is September 19th.

Rocky intertidal, Does that sound fun to you? Maybe, maybe not, but to a marine or environmental scientist whoa is that exhilarating. For all the non-scientists out there I’ll first explain what the heck a rocky intertidal zone is; it is the area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide. Abundant with life this place was stirring, waves crashing and creatures crawling. We arrived at ebb tide to race and get our data collected before the tide came back in. We took distance and inclination for a profile of the zone, and analyzed the flora and fauna, counting each and recording everything we could see.


After furiously typing away at our keyboards for the third paper in three days we were in for a real treat. Low tide was at 2:30pm. With our brains exhausted, our professor Dr. Teegarden decided to take us for an electrifying escapade. A scientist’s playground, a quarter acre tidal pool flourishing with life! This was the Rachel Carson Salt Pond preserve in New Harbor. After spending all day on our computers, getting out and just playing with what we’ve been learning about was great. Then for an extra special treat we were treated to a feast of lobster, clams, and steak galore. The best cure for our paper writing frustration. All in all, I’d say today has been a pretty great day.


Abundant with life this place was really stirring,

We arrived at neap tide this place was wild,

Waves a-crashin, creatures a-stirrin,

Bare feet be warned, barnacles might bite,

But we weren’t there for just fun the professor said work!

Work we did sir, but not without fun,

A day on the beach can’t be not fun.
Stay golden,

“Till next time”

-Michael Gallagher

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