From the planet’s northernmost pinnacle to a South American salt desert, we dare you to go somewhere different.
Cape Breton made it on the list!!
It’s a normal part of every summer vacation: Head to the beach, pick up a few seashells, and take them home as keepsakes.
To be honest, I never even considered this. I’ll think twice when collecting seashells from now on…
I’m currently working on my MSc in Biology, in a lab that focuses mainly on Atlantic salmon. We do a lot of fieldwork, and it dawned on me the other day that many people might not know what that entails. Here’s a monster post of some of the things I’ve done in the past months.
One way to capture adult salmon is by “seining” large holding pools. This is where adult salmon collect before making their way to their spawning grounds. Seining involves dragging an enormous net through the pool in an attempt to capture some of the fish, and it is often very cold work (hence the heavy wetsuits).
“Broodstock” just means “fish that will provide eggs and milt”. Hatcheries often keep their own captive broodstock year-round as a guarantee that they’ll have eggs in the fall, or in order to track the health of different genetic crosses. The Miramichi Hatchery captures new wild broodstock each year in an effort to maintain genetic diversity. Their initial egg survival also happens to be a lot higher, since wild fish are more likely to invest as much as possible in the health of their eggs (captive fish can get lazy).
The problem with capturing new, wild broodstock each year is that sometimes the fish don’t want to be captured. If your timing is off, you could end up with nothing (which is what almost happened this year).
Another way you can attempt to capture broodstock is with a fyke net. This is a large, tube-like net with several “trap” compartments and two large wings that can block off small to medium-sized streams. Rebar is a must most of the time…
Fyke nets are usually used to capture downstream- or upstream- moving fish (depending on which way you set the net). We presumed that adults would be moving up into the spawning grounds in smaller streams, although you can also use the net to capture downstream-moving salmon smolts (or, juveniles moving to the ocean).
Once the fish are captured, they’re transported back to the hatchery in a large, oxygenated tank on the back of a pick up truck driven by two crazy boys from Miramichi.
Safety does not necessarily come first…
Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon are capable of multiple spawning events. That is, they do not die after they deposit their eggs. Therefore, unlike Pacific hatcheries, we have to be very attuned to their spawning readiness and handle them with care to ensure they can return to the ocean alive.
Salmon wrangling can be tricky business.
Once the female fish are anesthetized, the eggs can be harvested by gently pushing on their abdomens.
Of course the fish are released afterwards, to return next year and spawn again!
The miracle of life then happens in the stainless steel bowl, once the male salmon has been prompted to release his milt. I can never cook with those bowls again…
The eggs are then left in cold water for about four hours to “water-harden”. These eggs have evolved to deal with a lot of stress in the first 24-48 hours of their lives, given that the spawning frenzy kicks up some pretty hefty river substrate. It’s said that you can take a water-hardened egg, throw it on the floor repeatedly, and then wait 5 months for the fully-formed, healthy, baby salmon to hatch out of it. I highly doubt this, however the principle is correct – all handling of the eggs should happen during this 24-48 hour window.
Close attention should be paid to keep track of who their parents are – we don’t want any Jerry Springer situations in the fall.
The eggs are then dipped in a scary black solution of Ovadine and water (glorified iodine) in order to disinfect them – giving them the best shot at survival before planting them in the river or raising them in the hatchery.
Once the eggs have water-hardened, we can begin separating our controls (to remain at the hatchery incubating in “ideal” circumstances) and mixing our river-bound eggs. SO EXCITING!
Instead of counting out 50 000 eggs, we can use weights to get a estimate. Yes, that is a frying pan.
We take them to their new river home (full of hard-won, pre-dug holes) and bury them in honeycomb Scotty Incubators. This is mainly so we can find them again and assess survival, but also to prevent the spread of fungus from dead eggs to live ones.
All the incubator loading happens streamside, and can take a long time unless you have an awesome team like this one (they paid me to say that).
It also helps if you don’t have qualms about child labour.
Or working in the dark…
An array of instrumentation was also deployed in the rivers – we have temperature probes in the surface water and the gravel, dissolved oxygen meters, conductivity meters, water level loggers, and ice observation cameras. Once everything is in place, the waiting game begins. I’ll be checking my sites once a month to take observations and download data from some of the more finicky instruments, then removing half the incubators in March before ice-out and half in May post-spring melt.
That computer cost $200 and has reportedly survived -35 degrees, being dropped in a mud puddle, a flipped snowmobile, and a car crash.
When those incubators are retrieved I’ll be able to calculate relative survival in each site and take subsamples of the eggs to examine their embryonic health and development. It’s a lot of jargon, but I’m pretty excited about it.
Other (less interesting) stuff that isn’t my project:
Other fieldwork is cool too, I guess.
Another common way to catch downstream-moving smolts is using a “smolt wheel” or “rotary screwtrap”. I’m not entirely sure why this is considered a good method, but apparently the movement of the water rotates a giant screw that drives the fish into a small box at the end. For some reason they are rendered incapable of escaping. Sounds like witchcraft to me.
Right now this guy is running an experiment where he compares the olfactory sensors of resident juveniles and ocean-moving smolts to see if there are any differences. The running theory as to how salmon find their way back to their spawning grounds is through olfactory “imprinting”, and he plans on addressing it.
Some projects require electrofishing which, contrary to popular belief, usually does not harm the fish. A pulse of electricity runs through the water and stuns the fish, causing them to be swept downstream into a lip seine. Holding the lip seine often requires finesse which I do not possess.
The electrofisher is often rather finicky and I also do not possess the finesse to fix it.
I’m also not very experienced with species identification so the job of processing our catch often goes to people with more species-ID finesse than I.
On these trips I usually end up cuddling the study specimens rather than doing any real work.
There are many other types of fieldwork we do here, but there simply isn’t enough room to cover them all! (Also, I don’t have pretty pictures of any of our other methods…)
So that’s all for now, folks – stay posted for updates about winter fieldwork and my salmon babies!
In other news, my most recent trip to the hatchery included THIS:
THOSE ARE THE BEGINNINGS OF SALMON BABIES!!!
I feel like God.
Images courtesy of Nelson Cloud, Tommi Linnansaari, my craptastic camera, and my iPhone.
Achieved the impossible – a picture at Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse without tourists!
My secret? Go in November.
Hawk Beach, Cape Sable Island, NS
After a short time at home to collect myself, I was back on the road to Nova Scotia (it seems I’m having a love affair with the province…). This time I was on my way to Cape Breton for some camping with my friend, Michelle, and two lovely border collies – Mara and Blitz.
Here they are enjoying a joke together (probably at our expense).
After a long drive (~ 7.5 hours from Fredericton), we arrived at our campsite on Indian Brook, just south of Ingonish. We stayed at the Cabot Shores Resort and Campground, mainly because it was dog-friendly. To be quite honest, I wouldn’t recommend it – the manager is laid back to a fault, and other staff members seem aloof. It almost feels as though you’re bothering them while asking completely valid questions (i.e. “Is there a source of potable water nearby?”). It’s also not a particularly spectacular site, even though it’s along the stunning Cabot Trail. If I were to do the trip again (and without dogs), I would stay in either the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, or at the northern tip of the island at the Meat Cove Campground. If travelling with dogs however, the Cabot Shores allowed them to roam off-leash which was a godsend with two energetic border collies.
Despite my complaints it was on a river which, for two major river nerds, was AWESOME.
After listening to our tents and rain tarp whip around in what seemed like hurricane-level winds all night, we woke to an eerily calm morning. Blitz (my charge for the weekend) decided we were getting up around 5:30am for a pee, so we took a walk down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Shortly after, we broke out the swank-iest camp stove I’ve ever seen – double-burner, propane, with built in wind guards. So we made french toast with strawberries, bacon and cafe mochas. In the middle of the woods. Need proof?
This was clearly glam-camping. Glamping.
After some brief hangin’ in the tent, we decided to make our way to the Ingonish portion of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It only cost us about $20 for a two-day pass, and it was definitely worth it. We only wanted to do a small hike at the time, so we headed to Middle Head. It’s a trail that runs past the Keltic Lodge, a swanky resort and golf course complex, out into Ingonish Bay. The path itself is pretty well-maintained, and I would recommend hiking it during the off-times, as there can be quite a bit of traffic.
There are a lot of squirrels too, so be careful with your dogs!
The views are quite spectacular (especially if you get a few moments of sun)!
It’s a great background for dog-modelling, too.
That afternoon, we decided to foray into watersports. We took the dogs stand-up paddle-boarding down the stream to the lake. For real. Blitz seemed to enjoy it (except when she took a fall off the side and got her paws wet), however Mara was a harder sell. Even still, here’s proof:
After successfully exhausting the dogs, we headed back to the campsite for maple chicken curry and an attempt at a fire.
The wood was wet, ok?? No judgement.
We woke up to rain. Lots and lots of rain.
Visibility was particularly awesome. I’m sure there’s a gorgeous view in there somewhere.
I’ll give it some credit – when correctly placed, fog does enhance mountains…
In light of the weather, we decided to pick our way up to Meat Cove, stopping at shops that looked interesting (we stopped at a LOT of pottery places… Michelle has a problem). For anyone visiting Cape Breton, it is my personal opinion that Meat Cove should be on your list of places to see. Especially the hike to Little Grassy – the views are on another level, and the hike is only about 20 minutes. We did it in a brief break in the rain.
That being said, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who gets severe vertigo or is afraid of heights. I had a pretty rough time up there, despite the beauty.
I’m forcing a smile and clinging to Blitz for dear life. What you can’t see is the sheer drop-off about a foot behind us.
It also didn’t help that Mara enjoys pulling while on her leash, and refuses to understand the concept of cliffs or gravity.
The views, combined with the interesting hike up, make Meat Cove a must.
Once the rain started again, we went back to the campsite for some relaxing fetch, followed swiftly by naps.
We decided to drive the entirety of the Cabot Trail before heading home. Possibly the most stunning drive of my life, the Cabot Trail provided vista after vista after vista. I highly recommend it to anyone in the area. Do the whole thing. It’s so worth it.
Especially within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, there are regular lookouts with plenty of parking so you can safely admire the views. And trust me, you’ll want to take some time to enjoy them.
There are also plenty of fun stops for the geology, biology, and history nerds alike. Here’s the Aspy Fault, a spectacular 40km strike-split fault.
We also walked the “Bog” trail, which allows visitors to observe this plateau wetland from a wheelchair accessible boardwalk. At 410km elevation, boreal and taiga forest mixes and landscapes become increasingly barren. There are orchids, insect-eating pitcher plants, and some awesome stunted cedars (which Michelle lovingly nicknamed “scrumplies”).
Beware of the fog and winds, however, as weather can change in the blink of an eye on the plateau barrens.
Another great stop is the Lone Shieling. It’s a replica of a Scottish stonemason’s hut in the middle of Grande Anse valley and a patch of old-growth deciduous forest protected for it’s incredible cultural and environmental significance. The forest itself is truly beautiful – the small patch that the public is allowed to see, that is.
The cathedral-like forest is made up of young, bright birch peppered amongst majestic, 350 year old sugar maples. A must see for the tree-lover.
The western coastal portion of the Cabot Trail is by far the most iconic. The road winds along the edge of the mountains, showing off both ocean vistas and stunning alpine scenes.
The Skyline Trail came highly recommended, however it is not pet-friendly. Above is a photo of part of it from the highway. Yes, you do hike up on top of that bald mountaintop. Apparently it provides the most amazing views in the entire park. I will definitely be returning (sans dog-friends) to hike that one.
We ended our trip with a quick stop at La Bloc beach to give the dogs a final taste of ocean air, and to dip our toes for a few minutes before returning to our real lives.
All in all, I highly recommend Cape Breton as both a road trip destination to be seen comfortably from a car, or as a challenging hiking and camping experience. Although it was delightful to have our dog-friends with us, I would recommend leaving the pets at home should you drive the trail as it is a long one and some of the best trails are not pet-friendly. That being said, this trip did alert me to the joys of a well-trained dog. Blitz is very lucky to have an owner that cares so much about her. It was a joy to be her keeper for the weekend! And with regards to the weather, I think it added to the landscape’s ambiance. I would recommend bringing solid rain gear with you should you decide to camp or participate in wilderness activities. Apparently our damp experience is not unique…
In other news – the big chop is coming up! If you’re interested in donating your hair to a good cause, check out Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program. They only require 8 inches, and it’s a great reason to shake up your look. Stay tuned for the full report – it should be in the next week or so…
Kejimkujik Seaside, NS
Sorry I’m a bit late this week, but I have excuses! My first supervisory committee meeting is coming up this Tuesday and I’ve had to prep. I swear. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
And so continues the story of my recent sojourn around Nova Scotia:
From Shelburne we ventured forth through the Acadian Shore. On a bit of a whim, we decided to pay a visit to Cape Sable Island. It is a small island (connected via a causeway) off the southern-most part of the Nova Scotian Peninsula. It’s also quite close to it’s namesake, Sable Island – a protected National Park that requires special permission to visit and is host to a herd of wild horses! Not to mention a massive collection of wrecked ships.
Cape Sable Island is populated with a few fishing villages that follow the same vein as those on the South Shore, yet have a patina of credibility the others lack. The houses and sheds here are weather beaten, leaning on one another with rusty, lichen-encrusted roofs and paint clinging to their window frames. Unlike the cheerful maritime perfection of touristy Peggy’s Cove or charming Lunenburg, Clark’s Harbour and Clam Point offer an honest peek at maritime fishing culture. These communities are regularly battered by the cruel North Atlantic, and actually rely on their fishery rather than the photo opportunities so cherished by tourists. In my opinion, Cape Sable Island is a hidden gem of the Nova Scotian coast, and I’d like for it to remain that way.
We found the best beach in the world – Hawk Beach at the bottom of the island.
It doesn’t look like it, but the wind was blowing, salt spray was tangling our hair, and a chill immediately devoured us. It was perfect. THAT is how you should experience the North Atlantic.
Unlike Peggy’s Cove, I strongly suspect these traps washed up on their own. This also meant there was plenty of excellent beach-combing opportunities…
The beach also offered us a brief glimpse of a flock of endangered piping plovers!
I also recommend North Point Beach (above).
As you can see, the dramatic rock formations were only outdone by the intimidation tactics of the incoming weather system.
That night the Digby Pines Resort provided welcome shelter and one of the most beautiful meals I have ever eaten:
My oysters. Swoon.
Mumma’s salad, featuring monster scallops.
I went whole-hog with the seafood. Just ate a plate of scallops for dinner.
Mumma’s delicious lobster risotto.
After our brief stay in Digby, we decided to take the scenic route back to Fredericton. We drove along the Fundy Coast to Wolfville, home of the beautiful Acadia University. Red brick, ivy and white trim, it screams academia in the same way the limestone walls of Queen’s or the majestic lawns of UNB do. The only thing missing was a lunch date with my friend – we missed her by a day!
We also picked up some delicious produce from the Annapolis Valley – just in time for peaches. Could this trip get better??
Yes, it could. In my opinion, you cannot visit the Maritimes without spending some time admiring the Atlantic performing one of it’s most awe-inspiring phenomena – the Fundy Tides. One of the best places to do so is at the top of the Bay of Fundy, in either New Brunswick at the Hopewell Rocks (which I, unfortunately, have not yet visited) or in Nova Scotia at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs or Five Islands Provincial Park. We spent some time at the latter, and it was truly awesome.
At low tide, the flats seem to stretch on forever.
And the opportunities for nerdy biology moments are endless!
And yet, within a matter of minutes, the tide rushes towards you with alarming ferocity. This is after only 30 minutes.
After admiring the Atlantic one final time from Parrsboro (in my opinion, something you can pass over without missing much except the tides), we made the trek back to Fredericton. I took a three day sabbatical from travelling only to return to Nova Scotia with two dogs, some tents, and a similarly-named friend. But that’s next week’s story.
Unrelated, yet delightful:
Cape Breton was so beautiful! Stay tuned for a full account of it soon…
Pictured above (from left to right, top to bottom): Middle Head Trail, Cap Rouge Lookout, Le Bloc Beach, the Aspy Fault, Little Grassy Mountain at Meat Cove.