Monday, September 10, 2012

A Song of Water and Fire: Our last week of fieldwork in northern California

We just finished up our last week of fieldwork on the Klamath River for the summer under billowing smoke clouds and circling helicopters. We were down at Grider Creek, one of my thermal refugia sites along the Klamath, fishing for juvenile steelhead, and also taking in our front-row view of the fire across the river. The “Goff Fire,” as it’s been named, is one of many dotting northern California this summer, and has been burning for a several weeks now. It was quite a scene—huge piles of orange smoke and the occasional flaming tree, helicopters zipping back and forth above us carrying big buckets of water on long lines, and the air tasting like a campfire. It brought back memories of being evacuated from our house in Yosemite a few years ago, the clouds yellow and ash falling from the sky as an uncontained fire moved imperturbably closer. I was out preparing to lead a backcountry trip at the time, and had the unique experience of getting a call from Pete, my husband, asking “I’m packing—what do you want me to save?” I couldn’t think of anything, besides my computer. I’m not sure I want to over-analyze that.

Smoke from the Goff Fire.
Luckily for us now, the river was separating us from the fire, and simply added to the drama of fieldwork. We wrapped bandannas around our noses and gamely embarked on our fieldwork, constantly expecting the helicopters overhead to pull out a loudspeaker and order us to flee. I felt a little jealous of the fish—or perhaps just more able to empathize with their experience of algae-filled, oxygen-depleted water. We were down at Grider Creek to catch juvenile steelhead and Chinook for DNA samples—I’ll run some stable isotope analyses on these samples later to find out if the fish are relying on the river or the tributary as their primary food source. My two summer field assistants—Jordan and Kyle—were there, along with Jeremy, my fly-fishing guru, up from the Santa Cruz NMFS lab to help me catch my fish. Leaving Jeremy and Jordan to their fly-fishing “work” on the river, Kyle and I e-fished the creek. Electro-fishing is used in fisheries work a lot—you wear a battery backpack with a long metal pole attached that puts a small current through the water, momentarily stunning the fish so you can scoop them up with a net. For me, it always elicits mild feelings of guilt, as if I’m secretly cheating at something… but that is quickly outweighed by 1) the joy of getting enough fish for samples, and 2) how ridiculously fun it is to scoop up lots of fish. Kyle soon proved himself an expert netter—or “Ninja-netter,” as we dubbed him—even diving headlong across the stream in pursuit of an already awake and fleeing fish, and managing to net it. Jeremy and Jordan managed to catch enough fish in the river—even landing a half-pounder each!—so that we were able to head upriver, away from the fire, to my other site at Beaver Creek.

Jeremy with a steelhead from Grider Creek area.
We’ve spent most of the summer at Beaver Creek, my main refugia site. It’s a beautiful spot, teeming with fish, kingfishers and mergansers, flocks of darting swallows in the evening, and the occasional posse of river otters. It’s supposedly still one of the prime steelhead fishing locations in the world. We camped nearby the creek, and woke early for a full day of fieldwork, fueling ourselves with the habitual bacon, and deep-fried eggs (Kyle’s specialty). On the agenda: fishing/seining for steelhead and Chinook, dismantling and packing up all our radio-telemetry gear, and retrieving the 50 or so water temperature loggers we’d put out at the beginning of the summer. These loggers have been the bane of my summers since first starting fieldwork in 2009, and I’ve tried everything from Olympic weights and huge amounts of orange flagging to long lengths of chain and rebar stakes as a means of deploying them so that they don’t wash downriver, and so that I can find them again 2 months later. You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard. But you’d be wrong. The sediment moves and often buries the loggers, the orange flagging gets covered with a brown-green algae scum, and by August the water visibility is at about 2 feet because of the blue-green algae blooms from the reservoir. The method for retrieving the temperature loggers, therefore, is to snorkel round the site, at first following the directions on our map that seemed so well drawn and clear at the start of the summer, and eventually just swimming round and round in circles, searching semi-blindly for the missing loggers. The search this year was complicated slightly by the rotting beaver we knew was floating somewhere down in the refugia pool—we’d found it dead on the bank earlier in the summer, and tried to push it downriver to get rid of the stench. The river current wouldn’t let us get rid of the creek’s namesake that easily though, and sent it right back into the eddy that forms the refugia pool, where we knew it had been lurking for the past month. The feeling of swimming blindly through murky water, diving down to the bottom to search for loggers, and wondering if at any moment you might bump nose-first into a bloated decomposing beaver, was surprisingly creepy. Luckily, Jordan was brave enough to take on that area of the pool. Thank you, field assistants.

Eggs frying in about 2 inches of bacon grease. Ah, the smell of summer.
We finished up by evening—a long final day in the field, and a great way to end four wonderful summers spent on the Klamath. It’s been quite a journey, one that I’m sure I’ll reflect on more in future posts. But it seemed somehow fitting that my last week of fieldwork should bring together some of the key elements that shape our western landscape—fire and water. And now, armed with mountains of data, I can begin the next step of deciphering this story, this story of fish and heated rivers in a changing landscape. Or, if you are a George R. R. Martin fan, this Song of Water and Fire.


  1. Why did you throw the dead beaver back into the river? lvb

  2. Because it was sitting on the bank right where we do our telemetry work, and it stank.