Category Archives: Field Sites

Sense of Place in Midcoast Maine

Each time the ESS establishes a brief residence in the Midcoast region of Maine, on the Pemaquid peninsula, I bring the students to a local landmark for a study break to learn a bit of local history and gain a ‘sense of place’. Many books and PhD theses have been written about the history of this region. Indeed, the students will read scientific journal articles of seminal works of marine ecology research, at sites we visit on this very peninsula. A perennial favorite site to visit is the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point.

The simple, scenic lighthouse is one of the earliest and most famous of Maine’s lighthouses. It is the lighthouse featured on the Maine State quarter, by popular election of the people of this great state. The lighthouse’s understated beauty is perhaps upstaged by the fantastic rocky promontory upon which it is set. After a few weeks of geology to start the ESS, the students were quick to identify the metamorphic gneiss, with prominent intrusions of igneous quartz and plagioclase.

Most of the students climbed to the top of the lighthouse tower to see the ‘fourth order Fresnel lens’ that produces the light signal. They also visited the little museum with displays telling of the lighthouse and the surrounding region. They clambered over the rocks, and took note of the zonation of organisms on the rocky intertidal zone that will be the subject of their next study.

But the main purpose of the visit here was to open a window into a sense of place. I spent the summers of my youth, and two years obtaining my Master’s degree, here on the Pemaquid peninsula. My relationship with this place is as familiar and  nourishing as with a sibling. There is no hope of creating such a feeling in barely a week with students new to the location. Yet by intentionally encouraging them to incorporate all they observe and experience, through all the senses and via different perspectives, I hope they will look at locations not just as a study site with a narrow focus on the specific lesson, but develop a sense of place, a holistic feeling for the connections between the natural world, the history of human activity here, and their own experience in this space, this time. I hope they develop the capacity to feel the sense of wonderment and awe for this special place, and the special experience of the ESS. Cue the eye rolls, “there he goes again with the wonderment and awe…”

Waves of fun at Cape Cod!

After an adventurous week in Canada we all were eagerly awaiting the next phase of the trip, on the beaches of Cape Cod. Following a long day of driving we arrived in Orleans on Cape Cod the night of September 9th. As we transitioned into the next section of the semester, Marine Ecology, what better place to start than the beach! This past week was dedicated to making beach profiles, measuring sediment distributions, determining wave height and energy, all to establish the morphodynamic state of the beaches. We also surveyed the fauna found at high- and low-energy beaches. Although we were staying on the Massachusetts Bay side of Cape Cod, we compared the different energy levels and other morphometric features between the Bay and ocean side beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

In order to conduct a beach profile, it is necessary to first observe. We noted obvious features such as the shape of the beach, traffic of people, and even birds. Then we went more in depth by measuring sections in which there was a change of slope. This allowed us to divide the beach into its component parts and note changes the in fauna from one part to another. The two beaches we observed were Skaket beach located on the Bay side and Nauset Light beach on the ocean side. We concluded that Skaket beach consisted of low energy system where fauna such as lady crabs, hermit crabs, razor clams, and various algae were present because it was a stable environment. Nauset Beach on the other hand had large waves and no obvious fauna suggesting a high energy environment.

When we weren’t making beach profiles we took advantage of staying right on the beach. We hung out in the sun, went swimming, and most importantly found time to relax. We even saw a few seals! Saturday, September 15 marked the day of our halfway point of the semester. It’s crazy to think of all that we’ve accomplished in 5 whole weeks! The next 10 days will be spent at the Darling Marine Center located in Walpole, Maine, where we will continue our studies on estuaries, rocky intertidal habitats, and mudflats.

Halifax to Cape Cod: 3 States, 2 Countries, 1 Day

     On Monday, September 3rd, we packed up our stuff, left the campground in Fundy National Park, and drove to Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia. Joggins is located on a beach with cliffs along the length of the back beach. We got to see a lot of rocks from the Carboniferous era. Some of the rocks and cliffs had fossils embedded in them. The most prominent fossils were of trees that are related to today’s club moss. We were able to determine that the trees were from a swampy area due to the reddish color (a tropical wet climate indicator) of the sediment surrounding the tree fossils. We also measured the length of the beach in segments, used a compass to find the dip angle of the cliffs along the beach, and then used trigonometry to find the thickness of the cliffs (430 meters) as if they had been stood upright instead of laying on their side.

     Once we finished measuring, observing, and looking for fossils in Joggins, we drove to Halifax, Nova Scotia for dinner and to check in at the hostel we stayed at. Most of our time in Halifax was spent wrapping up the Glacial Geology and Climate Change Class. We wrote a lab report comparing the climates of the Hopewell Rocks and Joggins, we wrote our final paper for glacial geology, and we took our final. We also did some exploring. Dr. Erikson took us to the Citadel Hill, an old fort and historic site. We walked around the fort and through the exhibits to learn about some of the history. We then walked around the outside of the fort for a scientific aspect. The Citadel is located on a drumlin, a glacial deposition landform that looks like a circular mound, created by a glacier retreating and depositing till.

     Lawrencetown beach was another place we visited while in Halifax. The first part of the beach we went to had an eroded drumlin along the back beach. The sediment in the drumlin was a grayish color on the bottom and red on top. We measured the trend of the rocks in the two colored sediments and saw that the glacier switched the direction it was moving while the drumlin was being formed. We then went to another, sandier, part of the beach to walk along the beach, in the water, and show off our cartwheel skills.

     When we weren’t doing homework, taking tests, or learning about glacial geology; we walked along the boardwalk in Halifax, went shopping, played games, watched movies, and visited the public garden. After four weeks of traveling and living together, we’ve transitioned from strangers/acquaintances to friends to family.

     Saturday, September 8th, was our last day in Halifax. We took our final Saturday morning, then drove to Kejimkujic National Park where we camped for the night. We spent the afternoon canoeing and kayaking, then had dinner, and spent the night star gazing. This morning we woke up early, and are making the long trip (two countries, two provinces, and three states) to Cape Cod to start our next class, Marine Ecology, with Greg!

-Caleb Gravel

Fundy National Park: The Tides Have Turned

After our time at Schoodic Point, we loaded up the van and trekked northward up the coast. We made several stops along the way to evaluate the relative and eustatic sea level changes of the region. Of these stops were Machiasport (for sea level change), Jacksonville (for an esker and isostatically-induced relative sea level change), and Quoddy Head, Maine; the easternmost point in the United States.  After a few photos, we continued our journey north to Calais where we crossed the international border into New Brunswick, Canada. From there, we pushed eastward into Saint John, NB to grab a bite to eat before arriving at our destination of Fundy National Park in the late evening.

The following morning, we ventured to the Caribou Plains area of the Park to assess modern climate. We were met by a tall, coniferous forest and a mossy forest floor. This region is considered the farthest southward extent of the boreal forest biome in North America. This biome is characterized by forests like the one before us; wet and mossy with predominantly coniferous timber. These observations are due to the biome’s wet conditions on the climatic scale. Boreal forests are classified as temperate rainforests. This can be attributed to the region’s latitudinal position.  The extent of the boreal forest sits around the northern hemisphere’s subpolar low pressure zone; an area characterized by cloudy skies and lots of precipitation. Amongst the forest was a peat bog. Peat bogs are formed when layers of moss grow upon one another atop stagnant water. The constant moist and low-oxygen conditions prevent decay, allowing new moss to grow on top of old, dead moss, resulting in meters of layered peat. After some time in the forest, we returned to the campground to finish some homework.

A couple days later, we travelled to Hopewell Rocks to assess ancient climate. Hopewell Rocks gave us a glimpse at millions of years of sediment deposits from the Carboniferous Period (»350 million years ago), layered atop one another in the exposed cliff walls. The layers are not parallel to the ground since the earth there has risen in some places and fallen in others due to changes in isostasy (or buoyancy of the Earth’s crust). Using a little high school trigonometry, we were able to calculate the layers to be over 400 meters thick!  To evaluate the ancient climate, we had to look specifically at the sediments within the layers. The majority of the layers contained large river deposits, suggesting the area was characterized by exceptionally wet, and potentially tropical, conditions. We later learned that the region surrounding Hopewell Rocks was located in the tropical region of an ancient supercontinent around the time these deposits were made, confirming our hypotheses.

While in Fundy National Park, we were able to enjoy the beautiful Canadian wilderness, in addition to the widest tide range in the world – up to 54 feet! We also camped for the first time as a group, and I celebrated my 20th birthday with propane stove-cooked cake, courtesy of Dr. Erikson. The good times are rolling and so are we! Next stop: Halifax.

Click here to see 4 seconds of Jarrett’s birthday!


-Jarrett Beaulier


Acadia and Glacial Erosion

After Katahdin Iron Works, we traveled out towards the coast to Acadia National Park, where we stayed on the Schoodic Peninsula at the Schoodic Education and Research Center. Being on the shore, we were able to study the effects both of glacial erosion in the bedrock and of hundreds of meters of sea level change during and since the Pleistocene ice age. There were striations and chatter marks made by rocks embedded in the glaciers grinding across the bedrock. These allowed us to estimate the south-southeast direction of flow of the glacier. At Schoodic Point, we used the principle of cross-cutting relations to construct a relative dating history of a dozen events from granitic magma rising in the crust to basalt cooling to glacial melting to recent sea level rise and erosion.

We took a trip to Mount Desert Island, where we stopped at several places to study the glacial erosion. At Jordan Pond, we saw how the glacier moved over and around The Bubbles (two small mountains with a U-shaped valley in between), causing stoss and lee features on the up-glacier and down-glacier sides of the mountains. The stoss side had abrasion from the grinding glacier and the lee side had steep cliffs where plucking by the glaciers removed giant blocks of stone. The pond itself was formed through the repetitive retreating and advancing of the glacier. That day we also traveled to the top of Cadillac Mountain by van, where the views of Bar Harbor, as well as many of Maine’s islands could be seen.

That evening, we also ate dinner in Bar Harbor (or Bah Habah) and spent some time walking around and enjoying the sights. Because of the low tide at the time we were there, we got to walk out onto the sandbar that leads to Bar Island, which was very cool to walk across, and for skipping rocks too!

The next day, after a midterm exam (yes! a midterm!) we went swimming on Schoodic Peninsula. It was so cold! But the Bay of Fundy, where we are headed next, is going to be even colder! Its very cool to experience each aspect of what we are learning where we are, and I’m excited to find out what we’re learning about next!

Katahdin Iron Works & Testing for Acid Mine Drainage

Before the actual chemistry started, Dr. Emily Lesher showed the ESS group how to properly use the pH and conductivity probe out in the field. After one long day of sediment and water sample collection on Ore Mountain near Katahdin Iron Works east of Greenville and Moosehead Lake, we were all able to determine the concentration of iron in the water samples, and the pH and conductivity for both. It’s called Ore Mountain because of the different metals found within it, such as iron, cobalt, nickel, copper, and silver; it was mined from 1843 to 1890. Now, this mountain is the largest cobalt reserve in the country. Cobalt is known for its beautiful blue color, but it’s also a toxic metal used in cancer treatment and batteries.

Through a series of chemical steps, we were able to analyze the iron concentration of the water samples that the toxic metals had flowed into. A large part of the mountain’s rocks are iron sulfides with trace amounts of cobalt.  Once the iron sulfide reacts with water and oxygen, it produces sulfuric acid, which together with the cobalt, iron, nickel, copper, and silver flows into the streams as something called acid mine drainage. Testing the samples, the pH samples varied from 2.6 (which is nearly the pH of vinegar) to 6.56 (nearly at a neutral pH of 7). It seems that the whole mountain was tainted with iron and vegetation was dead from the many years of mining and exposure to the acid and metals.

Being at Katahdin Iron Works for three days, not every day is full of experiments and extensive thinking, we also have downtime for swimming, canoeing, ping pong, playing card games or just napping! Staying up until midnight by a campfire, laughing and talking. Staying at the dinner table, talking about our day and making jokes.

Riding out the Wave: Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve

After our departure from the Whites in New Hampshire, we headed back to Maine and checked into the Alheim Commons Dormitory at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve on Saturday evening. First thing on Sunday, we headed to Wells Beach (learning can be so rough sometimes)! Upon arrival, we took some time to reflect and observe the area which is often something that we forget to do in our fast paced lives.
We noticed the sounds, smells, what we saw (whether it be man-made structures or how high the tide was), and how the sand felt between our toes or which way the wind might have been blowing. These observations helped us make conclusions as we went to three different beaches.
We talked about the significant longterm effects of man-made structures (jetties and seawalls) and how they can affect the energy or power of the waves on shoreline sediment transport, which then ultimately affects the coarseness and build up of the beach sediment. We estimated the longshore current velocity by calculating the movement of a tennis ball in the water. We concluded that the longshore current was twice as fast in the open beach at Wells and Drake’s Island compared to Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth. This is due to Crescent Beach having more protective barriers such as its swooping shape, reefs, and offshore sand bars which absorb some of the energy of the waves. Sand grains were finest at Crescent because the there isn’t enough wave power to bring in heavier sediments.
The beach is officially not just a place to get sunkissed skin and salty hair. There is A LOT going on from the moment your toes hit the sand to the point they hit the water (but of course we got some down time to get our tan on too).








— Kaitlynn Hutchins

Group of students at mountain hut

Mount Washington: Out of Our Comfort Zone and into the Clouds

Mount Washington Summit, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”

This past week allowed many of us to step out of our comfort zone and test our limits in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mount Washington is the highest peak in northeastern North America and known as the “Home of the World’s Worse Weather.” After riding in a van to the summit, we were given the opportunity to descend from the Alpine Garden to Lakes of the Clouds. Standing right on the ridge, we witnessed the “orographic effect” first hand. It occurs when cold air rises over the top of the ridge, forming a cloud. Then, as the air descends the other side of the ridge, the air warms and the cloud vaporizes. Although it was foggy, the experience was still exhilarating!

Environmental Science Semester students hiking at headwall of Huntington Ravine

We spent the night at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Lakes of the Clouds Hut. We continued our journey down Tuckerman’s Ravine bright and early the next morning. About half way down, we stopped for a “yellow notebook moment” where we applied what we previously learned to our observations.

yellow field notebook
Rite in the Rain yellow field notebook

Tuckerman’s Ravine is a glacial cirque. This means the glacier carved out the side of the mountain. Imagine a scoop carving out a giant mound of ice cream, slowly, over thousands of years. In this moment it was amazing to see that all of our hard work really paid off. Although it was a long, intense journey down, the views of the cirque and alpine environment were absolutely gorgeous. It was something many of us have never been given the chance to experience. So far, this opportunity has allowed us to explore the world from a much different perspective!

Group of students at mountain hut
Environmental Science Semester students and faculty at AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut on Mount Washington, NH

As the first week comes to an end, we’re off to our next stop: Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine.

-Becca Regan

The Adventures of Crawford Notch

On Sunday, August 12th, we met in Portland to depart on our ten week trip to learn new content, explore new places, and experience new things. We headed for the AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch, part of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. We stopped along the Saco River along the way to learn about grain size, the energy of the current, and river depth. When we got to the Highland Center it was cloudy but the views were still amazing!

The first class being covered is Glacial Geology and Climate Change. We’ve been learning about glacier formation, movement, and erosion features. To see real life examples of the concepts, we hiked Mount Willard on our third day. Mount Willard overlooks Route 302 and Crawford Notch with 4,000 foot mountains on either side, a textbook example of a U-shaped valley created by a glacier that carved its way through during the Pleistocene glaciation.

When we aren’t in the field learning, we are in class learning about what we will be seeing in the field. For the last four days, class time has been broken up throughout the day by intense games of cornhole, cribbage, spoons, ping pong, quick hikes, food breaks, and wildlife sightings. On the fourth day of our stay, Dr. Erikson informed us of a bear cub and mom that he had just seen near the Mount Washington Resort. We quickly piled into the van and, sure enough, came upon a crowd of people taking pictures. A first bear sighting for most of us! After watching for a while, we drove back toward the Highland Center and came up on more cars pulled over. Another bear? No, this time a moose! Another first for some of us. Thanks to Jarrett’s moose call we were able to get a good picture with the young bull. What a great first four days with a great group of people!

Stay tuned for more!

-Caleb Gravel

Highlights of the first third

It’s time for me to write a post, since the students are immersed in writing a paper and preparing for a final in Climate Change and Glacial Geology. Yes, it is very early September and they are faced with a paper and a final.  We’ve been on the road for over 3.5 weeks, which puts us 1/3rd of the way through the ESS.  Quite soon, we will finish here (Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire) and head to Popham Beach, where Prof. Greg Teegarden will start leading the students though Marine Ecology.  But before we wrap up here, let me point out some highlights.

Blueberry fields near Cherryfield, Maine grow on deltas that accumulated in a frigid sea when relative sea level was briefly 60 m higher than today about 15,000 years ago as glaciers receded. Joe O’Reilly joined me and Andrew atop an enormous boulder carried to this site by icebergs.


West Quoddy Head lighthouse is the easternmost point in the US. Everyone seemed amused thinking that there were 320 million Americans to the west of us, and zero to the east!


It’s hard to appreciate just how fast the tide can come in. At Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, we studied the 1 km long Point Wolfe inlet.  We were in the flat, middle part of the section when the tide caught up with us.  The water was creeping over the land nearly at walking speed.  Stand still to take a measurement, and the water would rise above our ankles.  Crossing the “little” intertidal stream on the incoming tide got Emma Mills ’19 in water up to her chest.

At Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), we walked along beach cliffs (at low tide!) for about 5 km and through about 5 million years of ancient, really ancient history. These rocks have yielded the oldest reptile fossil in the world at about 310 million years (forgive me if my memory is off by a few million). We were there to look at how climatic and environmental conditions can be reconstructed; these rocks accumulated in a tropical swamp with nearby mountains generating a rich supply of river sediment.  Danielle Martin ’19 found a block with fossilized mud cracks and the toe/claw imprints of a crocodile-sized amphibian; this block was so special the guides added it to the permanent collection in the site’s museum.

fossil rock

In Halifax, the city’s signature historical feature, the Citadel, is built atop a drumlin. The drumlin was formed by glacial ice moving and molding sand and gravel debris into an oval mound.  Several of us enjoyed a nice hour of Frisbee tossing on this late Ice Age feature.

The moonless night sky in the northwoods east of Greenville was absolutely beautiful. Sorry, no nighttime photos, but I’ll include a morning photo.  And nighttime photos wouldn’t do it justice anyways.  The sky (as viewed from boats on the still lake) had so many stars that it felt four-dimensional – I felt the immensity of it as we looked deeper into space to more distant and fainter stars.  Some students saw the Milky Way for the first time in their lives.  Defintely a highlight.


Prof. Emily Lesher led us through an investigation of the chemistry and landscape associated with acid mine drainage. Strictly speaking, this material was part of the Field Methods course, but by now the students are used to switching back and forth between different course content.  Personally, I really enjoyed seeing students engage with new material and another professor.  Many of them will be in Prof. Lesher’s Environmental Chemistry class in the spring, when this real-world example will surely come up.



We drove up Mount Washington yesterday in order to get a view of several cirques created by alpine glaciers, most notably Tuckerman’s Ravine, Huntington’s Ravine, and the Great Gulf. A short walk to the lip of Huntington’s headwall led to more than one reassessment of what “steep” looks like.  While there in the Alpine Garden, we enjoyed a late summer snack of wild blueberries and mountain cranberries.  Some of us, including Jess Selva ’17 and Tyler Allen ’18, hiked over 4000 vertical feet from Mount Washington’s summit down over the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine and out to Pinkham Notch; legs were a bit stiff today!




We’ve endured just over 2000 miles of driving so far. It’s a really long way from Portland to Halifax.  Fortunately, the longest distance to be covered in the remaining 6 weeks will be done on a schooner!

– Prof. Johan Erikson