Once a month from May to October, Laura and Bryan Emerson squeeze into their blue tandem kayak surrounded by $4600 worth of scientific equipment and paddle out to the deepest section of their remote lake to measure water quality. An hour or so later, they fly the samples and notes via their 1954 Piper PA-20 to a staff member of the Mat-Su Borough Volunteer Lake Monitoring program, who meets them at a roadside lake in order to whisk the time sensitive samples to a lab near Palmer.
|Kayaking out to test the lake water|
photo by Howard Feldman
To date, the Emersons are the only volunteers monitoring an off-road lake, and the program coordinator, Melanie Trost, would like to recruit additional flyers for the summer of 2015. “Even people who cannot do monthly water sampling can help with occasional observations,” says Melanie. “We welcome reports of dumping, pollution, and invasive plants in our lakes and rivers. One concern is old polystyrene docks, which beavers and muskrats chew and burrow into, and the sun deteriorates, releasing the little foam beads into the watershed where it looks like food to birds, fish, and mammals. Pilots can tell us what they see on a particular time and day at a lake they visit.”
For monthly volunteers, the process works like this: Laura reads the GPS to ensure that the kayak is positioned in exactly the same spot as previously. There, Bryan drops anchor and waits for the lake bottom to settle. Meanwhile, he calls out from the stern his observations about the weather, air temperature, wind direction, water color, and any floral or faunal wildlife. Laura takes notes on a four page form. These monthly notes, year after year, capture the dates on which annual visitors, like pond lilies, equisetum, pond ribbons, spider mites, are most prolific. In 2014, sadly, they recorded no nesting pair of loons, as in every prior year. Will they return? Have changes in the vicinity of the lake deterred them?
During Bryan's 42 pre-flight safety checks, Laura pours the lake water into two jars for laboratory analysis of chlorophyll and phosphorus levels and packs them in a cooler topped with ice. Then she calls Marie Filteau, the Watershed Technician, to confirm delivery of the water samples to her at Willow Lake in half an hour.
“Alaska offers many opportunities for volunteer “citizen scientists” to share observations about water quality, earthquakes, and populations of loons, bats, and other creatures,” notes Laura. “It is more satisfying to contribute my nature notes to a large database for analysis than to store them only in my personal notebooks. I really enjoy participating in the Mat-Su Lake Monitoring Program. And, let's face it, like any pilot, my husband is always looking for an excuse to fly!”