Thursday, December 7, 2017

(mostly) Unedited

Instead of trying to consolidate many days worth of stories, I thought it might be worthwhile to include an actual entry. Hopefully this helps demonstrate the true spirit of daily field life on the Big Lake.

I've injected it with important contextual information (found in brackets), some of which I only learned WAY after the fact. 

-ejh, 18 October 2015

Tuesday, 14 July 2015, late

I am just finishing in time for the nightly drum circle. What the....

[It's Ramadan, and every night around 1am, a pack of children roams the village banging on pots (?) to wake folks up so they can end their daily fast. Unfortunately, the timing usually aligns with that sacred hour we finish lab work and can finally call it a day.]

It was an incredibly amazing day. Scary at times but we live to tell the tale.

Maybe DEET kills foot fungus?

[The Fungus seems angrier at night, when we're out of the water and sitting down. Adding to our misery, mosquitos direct their efforts to our swollen, burning feet while we process fish.]
George opts for the salt water and toothpaste solution. Unfortunately it doesn't work and actually made it worse.
This morning I set off with Pete and Magoti to launch the Hobo at S1 and get snails along the shoreline villages for anthropogenic N. It didn't go well. But...

[This little snail collection could turn out to be super cool. Nitrogen from humans looks very different from other sources, and snails living near villages pick up that tell-tale sign in their tissues. By grinding up a little piece of foot muscle, we'll hopefully be able to relate village population size to local nutrient pollution in the lake. To do this, we literally pull up to a village, Magoti asks a local to take us to the grossest place in the lake (the place where they wash dishes, bathe, use the bathroom...), and Pete snorkels around to look for snails. Ick. Meanwhile I collect water samples from the boat.

Hobos are loggers that measure temperature until some distant point in the unforeseeable future when we collect them again.]
This lady found Pete highly amusing. She also knew where to find the snails.
Notable events of the day, to be elaborated upon later:

* We didn't sink the Zodiac, but we tried. 

[The waves in the south are NOT MESSING AROUND and seem to be trying to break us. It was funny, at first, when the boat started to fill and Magoti and I casually laughed it off. But the waves didn't stop, and soon I started bailing water with the cooler, our stuff started floating away, and I finally screamed over the wave crashes at Pete to get back in the boat so we could leave. Turns out he'd lost a fin in the chaos, but we got away in time. Barely.]

* Giant fish at S1--remember to tell/show Solomon. 

[Solomon (friend and expert on all things fishy) says it's Polypterus endlicheri, one of the most primitive ray-finned fishes. They also have ganoid scales, which is apparently a Big Deal.] 
This is one TAFIRI folks caught in a gillnet a couple years ago.
* 2m waves. Deadly anchor. Teaching Magoti how to ride in the waves.

[It's an art, really...riding in the Zodiac and not ruining your back in the process. We somehow acquired a larger-than-necessary anchor that keeps bouncing towards me with every wave we hit, and a broken and/or impaled foot or popped boat seem inevitable.]

* Ring nets.

[We were just about to call it a day when we happened upon a legal but very questionable fishing method known as "ring netting." The target: tiny baby dagaa (sardines that sustain millions of people around the lake), that left to grow a bit bigger could have been harvested at many times their current size.

The scene scarred and horrified poor Pete, who got in the water to see the scene up close:

"With every pull of the net, the scales of the baby dagaa were scraped off and would billow out in clouds, along with the heads or decapitated bodies of fish that had started to squeeze through the net. The water became silver-flecked for many meters around the net, and a massive feeding frenzy was underway below the net, drawing all manner of cichlids as well as sardines."]
All those little specs are baby degaa scales, bodies, heads...
* Swimming with BRAZILLIONS OF DAGAA!!!!!

[I hopped in the water for a chance to swim with literally billions of tiny fish. It's one of the most incredible things I've experienced.]
The GoPro was acting up, so I had to keep checking that it was on. I couldn't NOT record this!
* Boat fulla dagaa

[We saw the full harvest from one of the ring nets. It was shocking to see so many fish, but again, the catch could have been so, so much bigger had they just waited until the babies grew...

One of the fishermen asked me to say hi to Obama, which I intend to do, next time I see him.]
* The atoll--such an incredible place. Kuhe and barbs and really pretty Tropheus.

[There's a magical place we're calling 'the atoll' that is as close to pristine as I've seen in the lake. We'll go back there again, someday.]

* Sibwesa kids watching Pete swim.

[Having a tall white guy come to your village and snorkel around is easily the most interesting thing that can happen on a random day in July (or ever). Onlookers watched as Pete swam back and forth in front of the beach, searching for snails.]

* Every single part of me hurts. I'm basically one giant bruise.

[I'm quite certain I have a broken sternum. More on that soon.]

Monday, September 28, 2015

It was the best of times...

So many times in the past few weeks, I've made myself sit down and try to write a blog post about last summer's field expedition, and (frustratingly) the words just won't come. My new friend Katie (a key field member and all-around wonderful person) described what I'm feeling as this:

Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness
Katie! My sunglasses later got accidentally offered up to the lake in sacrifice.
Spot. On.

In the past, writing has been this thing I looked forward to at the end of a long field day to make sense of what happened and ensure I wouldn't forget anything (In general, I write for 80-year old Ellen, whom I can only imagine will find entertainment value in these musings). The trouble now is that it's all over, the drama of the individual day is masked by knowledge of how it all got resolved, and enough time has now passed that I can look back on it all with a feeling of "Yeah...that was hard, but it was all so WONDERFUL, all the time! How LUCKY we are to have worked in such a place!"

But it wasn't all wonderful. Not all the time. There were days that absolutely sucked, when the waves broke my spirit and ribs, I cried from frustration, and I wasn't sure I'd go home in one piece.

But yes, at the beginning, it was wonderful.
Little did I know this was the LAST time I'd have free time...
And so finally, at long last: The Beginning

It always cracks me up to look back at photos from the start of a field season. Legs are shaved, beards immaculately trimmed, hair washed and combed, stain-free clothes that smell like soap instead of dank water and body odor.

The Tanganyika dream team! Left to right, back: Rita, Msafiry, Ellen, Mgoti, Ishmael, Colin, Gadiel, Pete. Front: Georgie and Katie
Transit went a little something like this:

Three planes, 16 hours in the sky binge-watching a year's worth of movies, and too-few, all-too-short naps interrupted by offerings of meals and free booze ("Really, you're feeding us AGAIN?") I normally plug in earphones and buckle in for the long haul, but this time I'm befriended by an old Indian man from Denmark whose attempts to become my new best friend feel more endearing than annoying (but also prevented me from finishing 'Interstellar' en route to Amsterdam). Brush teeth in the Schiphol bathroom (me) and stock up on a year's worth of duty-free stroopwafels and chocolate (Pete). Arrive to the familiar conflicting smells of burning garbage and fruit trees, the calling card of Dar es Salaam, almost 24 hours after leaving Madison. Meet Colin-from-TNC, sleep, board another domestic plane, and...

...voila! Kigoma*. On the shores of the World's Greatest Lake. Easy peasy.

It's been 2 years since I set foot on this continent, and things are strangely, reassuringly (?), pretty much the same with some notable exceptions: there's a new couch store where the chipati shop used to be, and 3-wheeled motorcycles have overtaken the taxis as the popular (read: cheapest) way to get around town. That mostly covers it.

In general we accept an effortless familiarity that lets us believe we belong here. Kind of.

According to our preplanned field schedule, we have 2 days to get All The Things ready before we're whisked off to Mahale, and there's much to do. Our top priorities include...

1. Staying out of Kigoma jail: to that end, become a regular visitor to the immigration office to make sure our paperwork's all in order (and develop renewed respect for poor Benja, who was given this unenviable task every year up until now)
2. Making sure the Zodiacs still float and the motors start. When they don't, service said motors.
3. Visiting long term storage/assessing how much of our gear's been stolen since our last visit. Risk hantavirus exposure and sift through 2 years worth of rat poo to locate key pieces of research gear in unlabeled action packers
4. Saying goodbye to the the people we love back home; we're going off the grid.
5. Becoming best friends with the collection of strangers that will become our field team
6. Enjoying tolerating weak pilsners at the Prison Bar with aforementioned strangers to make the work day stop
7. Desperately seeking a New Kigoma Experience, play volleyball at the prison with random locals

So #5 and #6 were my personal priorities. If you're going to spend 30 days with people in the field, it's much more fun if you like each other.
This summer we're part of TNC's ongoing initiative to protect one of the most incredible places on this planet, that is, Mahale Mountains National Park. It just happens to be a few hours south of our usual field site near Kigoma, and back in 2012, we did the baseline surveys for the Tuungane project. Up until then, I didn't know places like this still existed, and having seen what lies below the water, it's impossible not to give everything you've got to make sure it stays safe.
After a long drive, we finally see the lake!
Our vessel! And we're off to the South.
Back then, we found a sharp divide between what could persist within the park boundaries, and the shocking reality of what exists just outside.
This is what happens when you cut down all the trees and sediment ends up in the lake. (Photo by Saskia Marijnissen) 
On paper at least, our summer agenda seems...tangible. As long as Life conforms to our rigid field schedule, gear never breaks, the weather plays nice, and no one gets hurt.

All of those things were pretty big assumptions, it turns out.

The tough stuff lies ahead, but for the moment, there's only the unwritten future, and in the present Now, there's no reason not to smile.

*Click the link. DO IT! The song is damn catchy. And hilarious. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but apparently these guys are a Big Deal in Tanzania.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Dangerous Animals Club

"Total blackness, starry sky, warm water, silence and waves. It was perfect."
-Field diary entry, 8 July 2015

When I try to make the days of last summer fit into some coherent order in my mind, all I'm left with is a jumbled mass of random scenes (which is, I suppose, the fate of all memories), and so...

I'll abandon chronology and jump 10 days into our summer chronicles with the tale of what will forever be known as...

"The Scariest Thing That's Ever Happened To Me, Ever"

or in benign field terms:

"How S8 Came To Be Known As Crocodile Island."

*Spoiler alert: my story involves a crocodile...*

This is a BARBUS, not a croc (obviously). But this gives you an idea of how bad the GoPro footage was...
Jumping right to the middle of a story without context is a gutsy move, but I suspect I'll get around to discussing the reasons why we returned to the lake in a future blog post. Plus there are a few years of backstory to draw upon if you're new to this blog.

First off, if you've never heard of Stephen Tobolowsky (yes, the creepy guy on Glee Season 1 and Deadwood, among other things), stop reading this immediately and go check out 'The Tobolowsky Files'. His stories are sincere and endearing, and my hope is that if I listen to him long enough, I'll become a wiser, more Zen version of myself. Seriously...

Awhile back, he wrote an episode called "The Dangerous Animals Club" (which all parents should listen to) about his childhood in Texas collecting deadly animals with his buddies.

I thought about that title a lot this summer, since for awhile, almost every day, we'd encounter some kind of deadly creature while going about the business of Collecting Data. And I somehow found myself an honorary member of a club I never wanted to be in.

So there I was...


The scene:

a sliver of a moon on a cloudless night, far from the boat, a crappy dive light and a GoPro in hand to collect what I assumed would be documentary-worthy film footage of docile cichlids. At night, the fish let you get really close.

The waves at Kalya had been kicking our collective asses for days*, and the Tanzanians on the team made a (convincing and surprising) argument that we should camp on the beach following the night fish collection and resume sampling early the next morning (and avoid dashing our boat against the reef when attempting a return to shore at 3am).

We were attempting to collect 6 of every type of fish species in this particular spot in the lake which, at first glance, seemed to have not just lots of fish, but lots of types of fish. Since we were entering a new part of the lake this summer, the food web collection became priority one ('Amass a food web collection!' appears to be a standing lab order whenever we start working in a new part of the world). I've described this in detail elsewhere, so I won't go overboard on explanations, but when you add in samples of what each fish eats, you get some insight into how all the living parts of this system are connected. Since we have to kill the fish to get the samples (...), this summer we added on some additional metrics, like DNA, fatty acids, etc. to make those little deaths all the more worthwhile.

Our fearless captain, Mr. Kabumbe (who's not afraid to Shut It Down if waves threaten the boat)
Camping on the beach meant packing up all our stuff (i.e, several hundred pounds of gear) post-dinner, leaving port without the aid of daylight, pitching our tents on a vacant beach, and casting off again for the big rock island where we'd been collecting and processing fish for the past days.**

Isotope days go long, but the scenery's nice if you remember to look up once in awhile. Plus the locals get a kick out of the spectacle. It's a pretty sweet setup, complete with plastic tables and chairs. (Photo by Katie Wagner)
For the record, since nothing (EVER) happens fast in Africa, it's now about 11:30pm. And we haven't actually started 'working'.

Pete and George were off collecting fish via SCUBA (you catch different fish at night than during the day), and since no one felt like hopping in the water with me and there were several hours to kill before we could conceivably sleep***, I decided to venture forth solo.
Really. What's the worst that could happen? (Photo by Katie Wagner)
When all of a sudden, 10 feet in front of me, was a crocodile.


I spotted the claws first.

Then my brain registered the body and scaly tail.

And in that moment, I learned that I'm a flee-er, not a fighter.

We were never really briefed on what to do in this situation..., so I did a 180 and hauled ass back to the boat.

According to the video, the whole scene lasted just over 7 minutes. That includes me stalking fish for the first 3 and a lively discourse about whether and HOW we should warn the others once I got back for the last 2...

...because George and Pete were still out diving.

Meanwhile, across the water by the big rocks, we saw red eyes on a dark head swimming away from the islands towards land, so we're probably all "safe". And more importantly, I had witnesses.

George and Pete eventually surfaced but were generally unfazed by the news and promptly headed back underwater****.

I saw the footage for the first time a couple days ago, and it's disappointing to say the least. The sad combination of camera and dive-light angle prevented a good shot of the croc, and even my cichlid footage is pretty...meh.
Back on the boat, long-arming a barbus George caught in the net, generally no worse for the wear (photo by Katie Wagner)
...and playing with crabs (photo by Katie Wagner)
We saw what we assumed to be the same croc the next day, basking lazily on a rock and on a typically toasty African afternoon. He was probably only 8-feet long, tops...but underwater everything's ~33% bigger, so I maintain that I had reason to panic. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition...or running into a giant reptile whilst out swimming.
Slightly less scary in daylight (photo by Katie Wagner)
* Kalya, it turns out, is famous for its Big Waves. On the journey from Kigoma, we were forced to take shelter for a few hours so the waves would die down and we could commence the voyage (which had been far from smooth up until that point). Since "we" didn't add any flex days into the schedule, this would prove problematic later on.

** For the record, I was NOT on board with this plan, much as I love to camp, on account of the lack of a bathroom and having questionable bowels...

*** George can make a tank of air last a shockingly long amount of time.

**** George said I probably would've only lost a finger at most in the encounter. Still, I'm fairly attached to my digits. And for the record, I don't believe him.

Monday, August 3, 2015

I forget where we were

A few months ago, I'd apparently convinced myself that after 3 field seasons on the world's Greatest Lake, experiencing something novel would be all but impossible.

Thankfully, as per usual, I was brilliantly wrong.
Thirty days and a thousand stories later, I'm lounging on my deck back in Madison with some gin, soaking my fungus/blister-ridden feet in salt, and nostalgically looking back at photos and videos... trying to convince myself that the last month actually happened. People keep asking me how it was, and the word that immediately comes to mind is "hard". Not to be overly dramatic, but coming back alive AND in one piece didn't feel like a given this time.
Trenchfoot. It's for real. 
The Internet was largely absent for large chunks of the trip and more of a myth than reality during the remainder. And when 14-hour days became mandatory, I abandoned the notion of blogging and devoted all my daily free time to sleeping.

But I am a lover of stories, and even though my tales from the summer will be have to be reconstructed from the late night, so-tired-I-feel-drunk scrawls of journal entries, there are stories I need to tell. And over the next couple months, I hope to share field notes from our wild, hot, African summer on a lake that's more magnificent than we can ever hope to understand.

In the meantime, I'll force my body stay awake when all it wants in the whole wide world is to sleep, abandon my inclination to hoard toilet paper, and try to remember that most people shower more than twice a month. And I will hesitantly resume a life that feels safe and tame and a little bit dull by comparison.

Stay tuned.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The important places

As field season draws nigh, I figured it was high time to fire up the ol' blog after months of neglect. Let's call this Episode I (of many) in the field chronicles of #2015Ellen.

Tonight I watched an incredible short film by American Rivers ("The important places"), and if you have 10 minutes to spare, I promise it's VERY MUCH worth your time. It made me feel all the feels I usually try to stifle, which is to say, watch it with a hanky nearby.

Or maybe it's just me.

Because it struck a chord.

Today, after much fuss and many pointlessly long discussions about timelines (since it was important to most folks to spend as little time as possible away from family), we finally have virtual tickets in hand, and we (the old field team, minus a very key member*) are going back to Lake Tanganyika. 

It's happening. And I should be excited. 

Should be...excited...

There was a quote, in the film, that won't leave me, and it sums up why I've been more...hesitant about returning to a place that I love.

"Sometimes we get stuck, in eddies and in life. Currents that won't let us go. Places we shouldn't be."

Tanganyika is one of my Important Places, and it's also my eddy. 

I have the sinking suspicion I'm not supposed to be there anymore, and so I'm treating this summer as my chance to say goodbye. The Sirens call of new adventures, somewhere else, is barely audible, but very, very real.

"Open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever."**

Stay tuned.

*BENJA IS NOT COMING THIS YEAR!! I still can't believe it. 
**Prevalent theme throughout "All The Light We Cannot See," which I HIGHLY recommend

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The end, and a beginning

This is it, the last entry in the field log from the Pacaya-Samiria (a mere 5 months after it all ended; I am nothing if not prompt...).

When I got back to Madison last August, I wrote a post that was meant to bring all the loose bits of memory and science and friendship that happened in the Peruvian Amazon together, and to a close.
All the stars we can't normally see
But in the end, that morose gem (written at 4:30am when I was Very Sad and couldn't sleep) turned out to be a mushy piece of garbage. And since this blog aims (above all) to shed light on the art of field science, I will sum up our summer on happier note.

In the end, there were just too many pictures to choose from to make a consolidated album (since the worst possible thing you can force on people you love is perusing thousands of vacation photos). So instead, I took this challenge as an opportunity to finally figure out the magic of iMovie (file it under 'painful attempts at becoming a Mac person') and spew my favorite memories into one giant...piece of art(?).
Thanks, Iquitos, for letting Nico and I become our own art!
If you find yourself with 4 minutes to spare, have a look-see at this photo tribute that's chockablock full of Things I Love, including:

Fishes (lots and lots of fishes...)
Lovely faces that continue to make me smile
BEN HOWARD! (He's so good I'll mention him twice.)

I think Peru changed all of us in ways we couldn't have predicted, and despite my attempts to tell our story, no life-changing experience can be meaningfully reduced to a series of anecdotes. So we go home, remember fondly, and begin again, thankful to those who joined us on the journey.

Todos mi amor, jungle friends; thank you for fishing with me ;).

Until we meet again...

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Todos los pescados..."

It's winter in Wisconsin, and since convalescence has atrophied my leg muscles to the point where I can't do anything fun outside anyway (and I live in fear of my skis...), I find myself in front of this here computer more often than I'd like. And for the first time in a long while, I have time. Lots and lots of time...
This arrangement happened organically while I was cleaning, and it feels very apropos. 
And so, at long last, I've begun the monumental task of sorting through all ~1500 pictures I somehow managed to take (and steal from others) during my time in Peru.

For the record, I'm inherently against the concept of taking pictures to facilitate memory..., but in this instance I'm willing to make an exception because it helps tell the story. The fish community of the Pacaya-Samiria is one of the most diverse and understudied in the whole wide world, and my hope is that this record serves as a snapshot in time to document the tiniest fraction of what's lying beneath the surface. In a very literal sense, at any given moment, we could have pulled a species of fish from the river that was completely unknown to science, and that is truly amazing.
Case in point: Pool and I still don't agree on what this fish is...
So for the fish-lovers and the apathetic alike, click the link and behold: "Todos los pescados of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve (Peruvian Amazon), captured during 2 months of the summer when the water was falling fast." This album features whole fish, parts of fish, fish teeth (I'm admittedly obsessed), people holding fish, and a very special photo of a tree that can KILL FISH (true story). I promise to add captions eventually so it's a better resource...

I tried so hard to sell the kiddos on just how cool these fish were, but hopefully the pictures tell the story better than I ever could.

Thank you, as always, for reading.