It’s Saturday morning, March 23rd, and I’m in my red truck headed east on Highway 412 toward Huntsville. The temperature is in the mid-30s, it’s foggy, and a light mist is falling. Winter is making its last stand. The forecast is rain. I’m nursing myself through the last couple of days of a cold. Let’s just say it’s a perfectly miserable day.
The green canoe is still leaning up against the fence in the back yard. Back in “the day,” I would have been headed out to some headwater stream in the Ozark Mountains for a day of whitewater. Not anymore. These days, my speed is a little less energetic. The fact is I’m headed to Huntsville to teach the 2013 crop of Master Naturalists about our water resource. After four years of doing this gig, I have the routine down. Here’s how it goes: We spend half of the day in a classroom, then we have lunch, and then we head out to a local creek to get some hands-on experience. Heaven help me, but I’m secretly praying for the rain to come on in so I can declare inclement weather and forego the afternoon session. No such luck, though. It stays cold and misty.
The Master Naturalists are a special group of people. To start with, they dedicate ten Saturdays in late winter and spring to learning about our ecosystem. Then they each pledge to give 40 hours per year of volunteer service to some environmental cause. The program is not just about water; they cover the gamut of the natural sciences. Classes include astronomy, geology, climatology, herpetology, ichthyology, entomology, ornithology, mycology, hydrology, eco-regions, mammals, tree identification, native plants and wildflowers, and nature journaling. At the end of it all, they can tell you what each of those –ologys are, and they can discuss each in depth. The students range in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies. They hail from a variety of professions and political persuasions. Overall, they tend to be very knowledgeable people with educational backgrounds from high school graduate to doctoral level.
The morning went well. We discussed the special properties of water, then followed the flow from precipitation down to the watershed into our streams and finally to our lakes. We don’t bother going all the way to the ocean. This is Arkansas after all. I kept looking to the sky hoping for rain. After I finish talking about lakes, Jason Kindall, my co-conspirator in this operation and executive director of the Beaver Watershed Alliance, gives a lesson on stream biology. He focuses on the bugs that live in the stream.
Noon came, we ate our peanut butter sandwiches, and … no rain. Then 12:30 came, still no rain so we headed out to Pine Creek in the Madison County Wildlife Refuge for our in-stream session. The temperature was low 40s, light mist. At least there wasn’t a lot of wind.
Pine Creek is a beautiful little Ozark Highlands stream. It’s spring fed so the water is crystal clear and cold. The stream only flows a couple of miles before it joins the flow of Kings River. The spot where we hold the training has a bluff perhaps 50 feet tall and set back from the stream. There are several caves in the area, too.
I pull up in my red truck, park, and get my waders out of the bed. These are the waders that I used when I was doing research on streams back in graduate school. I notice a small waterfall, a couple of feet high, and above that, a slab rock where it is easy to cross the stream. In a couple of steps, I remember why I haven’t been using these waders. Henceforth, they will be referred to as my sieves. My feet are going to get soaking wet. That’s just great, I think. Oh well, at least I had the foresight to wear some good, thick wool socks. The students dutifully follow me across the stream. These guys are hard-core! If only they knew how much I was suffering. (Maybe I’m being a little dramatic here, but it’s my blog and I’ll fuss about leaky waders if I want to!)
Streams are wonderfully complex ecosystems. To fully appreciate stream ecosystems, you have to look past the surface. Then you can see the complexity of the flow creating diverse habitat opportunities. When you look deeply into a stream, you can understand the importance of the bed material and why it is what it is. You start to see the interaction between the stream banks and the stream itself. In short, you see that there is much there besides just water. The objective of the in-stream exercise is to make the students aware of that complexity, to encourage them to think critically about the different aspects of streams and to increase their awareness of the various stream characteristics.
The exercise starts with a discussion of the watershed. We had just driven down from the headwaters and the stream flowed along the road most of the way. Few had noticed the beaver dams. Like I said, the objective is to increase awareness. After discussing the watershed, we lay out a study “reach” two riffles and two pools long, then we walked the stream. The assignment is “notice things.” We look at the different flow conditions: pools, glides, riffles and runs. We look at the condition of the banks, searching for signs of erosion. We look for large woody debris and we look at the bed material. The students are starting to get the idea. They start to point things out themselves. When we finish the walk, I ask the them to take out their journals and draw a sketch of the stream, then to fill in any important data and their thoughts. The point of the exercise is not to make them artists but to increase their awareness of the place. Next, we complete a habitat ranking for the stream. The ranking looks at 20 different characteristics of streams and provides criteria for scoring each characteristic. The scores are then added to give an index of habitat quality. All 20 of the students are now in the water measuring rocks, estimating percentage of riffles versus pools, and so on and so on.
When the habitat assessment is complete, Jason takes over. The class collects samples of the aquatic community by kicking up the gravel and capturing what washes out in a net. (Some folks call this “bug kickin’.) They take their catch to the shore. Then they start sorting bugs by species. The highlight of the day is an immature Ozark salamander. The bugs are sorted out and a score applied based upon the diversity of the community. This year we were overwhelmed with small mayflies. Perhaps we just happened to be there the day they hatched.
The last exercise is to measure the flow in the stream. Flow is the product of the cross-sectional area of the stream and the velocity of the water. Cross sectional area can be measured with a tape measure and a graduated walking stick. To get the velocity of the stream, we have to float oranges downstream over a specified distance. By measuring the time required for the orange to float through the distance, the speed or velocity can be calculated. Several trials have to be done to get an accurate estimate of velocity. My voice is fading rapidly. Thankfully, Angela Danovi from Ozark Water Watch is there to help out.
By 4 o’clock, my voice is gone. We pack up our gear and head for our trucks. The students are talking about how they never realized there was so much to a stream. I pull off my wading sieves, wring out my wool socks, and put on dry socks and shoes. Then I get into my red truck and head back to Springdale. As I head home, the rain starts to fall in earnest. I am now pleased that I didn’t let a little inclement weather spoil a good day in the Ozarks. Aren’t you?
To learn more about the Arkansas Master Naturalist program, go to their website: http://home.arkansasmasternaturalists.org.