By Danny Szydlowski
“You’re a PARAFAC master!” declared Mahmud Hassan, the research technician who was teaching me how to measure and analyze the quality of dissolved organic matter. I grinned back at him. It was nearing the end of my time in Montréal, and I had finished nearly everything I had planned to do in Canada. I learned PARAFAC, a way to identify the types of compounds making up organic matter in samples, led a workshop to teach my hosts some techniques for working with time series data across timescales, and had a chance to meet with several other limnologists in the city and talk about lakes. In my free time, I explored Montréal–it was easy to get around either by metro or by foot. I wandered through areas like the old port and watched ships passing by, or stopped in Mont Royal Park on sundays to listen to the crowd of musicians who always gathered to beat their tam tam drums for hours on end. Of course, I also ate an extraordinary number of bagels–Montréal is known for their wood-fired bagels and after trying them it made sense why they are so famous.
But after all this and my summer in the city, I still had one more item on my to-do list: I wanted to spend some time in the field and learn about soil. Thinking about soil freezing and how it influences organic matter is an important part of my LOREX project, and I needed an opportunity to put on my terrestrial ecologist hat. So, the last week of my trip, I packed my bags and joined Maude Camiré, a master’s student in my host lab, to leave the city and drive up to the University of Montréal’s field station.
The Station de biologie des Laurentides (SBL) is located just a bit over an hour’s drive from Montréal, but even though it’s located so close to the city it couldn’t have felt more remote. Thick forests of birch, spruce, fir, maple, and pine surround a network of lakes whose shores are dominated by large boulders, immovable ever since they were deposited there by glaciers thousands of years ago. The main station is located on the shores of Lac Croche, or Crooked Lake, which is well-studied by the limnologists of the University of Montréal.
Maude’s research focuses on the relationships between soil, microbes, vegetation, organic matter, and the flow of water–it felt like she was studying everything! As an ecosystem ecologist, I deeply appreciated this holistic approach, and I hoped to learn from Maude about how to better measure the connections between the land and aquatic ecosystems. We began our time in the field setting up groundwater wells at sites selected to represent different types of vegetation. Maude explained to me that the type of trees overlaying a site can influence the type of microbes and the type of organic matter in the soil, which might affect the quantity and quality of organic matter transported to the lake. After digging the wells we characterized the vegetation at each site, which was a new experience for me as someone who spends most of their time on a boat. I followed Maude around with a clipboard as she rattled off the name of each tree in a 20 m by 20 m quadrat, some in French, some in English. One plant she pointed to and said “I don’t know the English name for this plant, so we’re going to call it the ‘don’t touch’ plant.” It was poison ivy.
After vegetation surveys, we turned to the soil. Maude took out her homemade corer and took a large plug of soil from the ground, which she pointed to as she patiently explained to me the different soil horizons and how water might flow through each layer. I sat there below the forest canopy and listened, amazed at all of the connections between the land and the water.
We eventually took a break from the lesson to eat a watermelon on the boat. We hadn’t brought a knife with us so Maude cracked it open on one of the boulders that stood guard on the edge of the lake. Covered in soil from digging the groundwater wells and sticky from watermelon, we decided to go for a swim to wash off. As I drifted in the still water, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Even after a day of terrestrial ecology, I still found myself back in the lake.