This article was published 17/10/2014 (2526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EXPERIMENTAL LAKES AREA, Ont. — The mist hugging the lake swirled aside as Julian Polimeni sloshed in chest-high waders through the marshy shore searching for leeches in his quest to save the planet.
It’s 6 a.m. in northwestern Ontario, and it’s glorious.
Polimeni had staked out four lakes with leech traps, using pieces of liver as bait, his traps consisting of ultra-sophisticated, high-tech scientific devices such as tin cans, a milk jug and a Gatorade bottle, each with a rock for ballast.
Did he get any?
Not quite an Eureka moment or a for-the-ages pronouncement, but then Polimeni is not a world-renowned researcher. He’s a high school student — set to enter Grade 12 — on this just-before-dawn August morning.
Polimeni was one of five St. John’s-Ravenscourt School students who spent two weeks at this global gem just the other side of Kenora, conducting their own experiments alongside young scientists in what their teachers and the Experimental Lakes Area crew hope will become a regular summer project offering students two very serious credits.
SJR teacher Matt Henderson plans to make a pitch soon to Manitoba Education Minister James Allum and Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals for approval and funding help for as many as 20 high school students to spend six weeks at the ELA each summer, earning credits in biology and global issues.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Experimental Lakes Area.
As much overused as the word "unique" can be, the ELA is unique in the world.
It’s a complex of 58 pristine lakes south off the Trans-Canada a few minutes west of Vermillion Bay — utterly magnificent lake after magnificent lake glimpsed through the forest of a 30-kilometre gravel road leading to a cluster of labs and dorms.
In 2013, the Harper government decided to close down the ELA and its $2-million annual cost to the Canadian treasury.
For more than 40 years, scientists have used the ELA as a controlled freshwater laboratory to study pollution, climate change, acid rain, global warming — examining scientifically what we’re doing to every element within the ecosystem and how, possibly, to stop and reverse the damage to the planet.
The ELA is slowly back up and running since the end of April when the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) took it over, with financial assistance that includes the provincial governments of Manitoba and Ontario.
There are 11 full-time scientists working out in the bush so far, with more to come.
Sitting around Hungry Hall, the laid-back cafeteria and meeting centre, the young scientists chatted casually about the changes they’ve seen already — little chance the media would have been allowed on-site when the feds ran the show, even less chance any of them would have been allowed to talk to the media. And high school students working alongside them? Well, scientists never rule out anything that hasn’t been exhaustively researched, but, still...
Henderson said getting a handful of his school’s brightest students onto the site for two weeks started, as do all great ideas, over a pint shared in Osborne Village with IISD executive director Matt McCandless.
The students paid $2,000 apiece for their time at the ELA this summer; other visitors pay $140 a day for meals and a dorm room.
"In subsequent years, we want to make it accessible for all students," said Henderson, who will "... say to their ministers of education, ‘Hey, it’s pretty cool, would you like to be on board?’
"The immediate success is pretty exciting," Henderson enthused.
McCandless said many of the scientists already there chose to leave Fisheries and Oceans Canada when the IISD resurrected the ELA.
"We thought, what more could we do? Education," he said.
There’s finite lab and dorm space, finite space to work on the lakes, but 20 high school students from across Manitoba and Ontario could be earning credits next summer if Allum and Sandals are willing to sign off.
SJR teacher Dean McLeod was up at 5:30 a.m. to accompany Polimeni.
There’s really no protocol for such an extended field trip, said McLeod, but he reckoned a student shouldn’t be out alone on one of the lakes — there’d been a nearby bear sighting, and McLeod couldn’t imagine what he’d tell Polimeni’s parents if the leeches had been waiting in ambush and overpowered the lad.
And besides, said McLeod, trekking through the mist-shrouded forest over the rocks and twisted tree roots and bracing pure air of the Canadian Shield, it’s worth getting up just to walk on such trails between lakes.
Polimeni came up with three leeches in that particular trap: "That’s about average, I’d say. I’ve got another highway leech."
It goes without saying such a leech probably has a 17-syllable Latin name that doesn’t mean highway, but this leech has spots down the back that look like the dividing line on a highway.
"Certain species, you can see colours under their skin. This one’s got weird red compartments under his back," Polimeni said.
Back in the lab, he examines them under the microscope, measures, and counts.
And then? What fate befalls the leeches?
"I release them back."
PETA, stand down.
If you’ve ever had a leech stuck between your toes at the lake, latched on and sucking you dry, handling them might sound somewhat icky, and even dangerous — some of these are several centimetres long.
But, said Polimeni, he’s learned 90 per cent of leeches don’t bite, which seems counterintuitive considering their bad reputation. "I’ve been picking up these leeches this whole time, and I haven’t been bitten at all."
Leeches, like everything else in the ELA, from the tallest tree to the tiniest micro-organism, is connected to everything else in the ecosystem.
"They decompose things, they eat them, they get eaten by fish," Polimeni said.
The first day there, he was looking for tadpoles, but instead caught a leech, and asked the scientists, "Are leeches studied here? Everyone said no."
With a chuckle, Polimeni piled on the ickiness factor which we’re betting would similarly not have fazed David Suzuki: "They puke a lot, the morning after eating the liver, they puke it up."
It’s 10 p.m. and the lake is ablaze with moonlight and starlight as Connor Stadnyk sets sail.
McLeod is along, as is student Hanna Bohm who is research assistant on this voyage — and also fellow rower, as it turns out, when the outboard motor quits.
Like every lake in the ELA, this lake has no artificial structures along its magnificent shores, though there are monitoring stations anchored on the water. Guided by a headlamp, Stadnyk headed for a spot where he could anchor.
A group of the young IISD scientists sat around a firepit back on the beach, overhead the Perseid meteor shower was just cranking up for the night, and a bright unblinking light zoomed across the sky from horizon to horizon — could the crew of the international space station spot us out on that lake?
Stadnyk explained he was looking at the tiny animals that would be at different levels in the lake.
Because fish rely on sight for feeding, "A lot of zooplankton like to hide at the bottom while the fish are feeding. At night, they go up," he said.
Zooplankton are incredibly tiny animals, which in turn feed on incredibly tiny photoplankton — plant life. "If I had one on my hand, there’s no chance you’d be able to see it," Stadnyk said.
Stadnyk was out on the water at various times of the day and night, gathering samples at different depth levels. "I’m hoping to see which zooplankton are where, from day to night.
"I have to get them on a microscope and count them one by one," he said.
Alas, the zooplankton do not survive the experience, they sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
He’s observed seven or eight species so far, Stadnyk said that night in August, and under a microscope, well, just be glad these things haven’t mutated, at least not yet: "Some of them are very scary — they’re very scary, small monsters."
And why does he do it?
"Everything, the photoplankton, the zooplankton, the fish, are a circle, and then the fish are eaten by us.
"You see a lake, you say it’s just a lake — there’s so much going on in the lake, it’s fascinating."
A 15-minute super-bouncy ride from the ELA complex back towards the Trans-Canada lies one of the lakes on which Matthew Fogel is measuring differences in temperature at various depths and their possible effect on oxygen production.
"I’m measuring the algae growth — I need to know if the temperature is different between the lakes," he said, as IISD summer student Soleil Grise piloted their small boat to one of the anchored monitoring stations.
Fogel and Grise had been out on Lake 373 (the ELA’s naming procedure is somewhat lacking in imagination.)
"I want to see if the oxygen level is affected by the shallow lake. When there’s too much phosphorus, then it becomes a problem," Fogel said. "I was always interested in environmental science. I like how all the work contributes to the big picture... see how it fits into the whole ecosystem."
Fogel slowly let out a 20-metre chain on his nifty-looking RBR machine — don’t ask, because Grise said it doesn’t stand for anything. Every metre or two, he gave readings to Grise, who logged them the old-fashioned way.
Grise said when agriculture products spill into water, scientists need to know the effects, the precise ones, not just the obvious generalized problems: "It means the algae will overfeed themselves, and then you have die-off."
The oxygen loss kills the fish, she said: "It’s the classic Lake Winnipeg story."
A science student at the University of Waterloo, the Winnipeg-born Grise was at the ELA as a summer student on the lake-sampling team. Within the lake, "There’s a competition all the time — it’s quite hectic," she said. "At one per cent light, nothing can photosynthesize.
"We’re looking for a decline in the oxygen at some point," said Grise, soon noting that very fact with data from Fogel.
McLeod said ELA researchers insert devices into fish bellies rather than the old-fashioned tagging that relies on fish getting caught and fishers reporting the tag. They literally follow the fish in 3D on their laptops, seeing where it goes and where it is at any given moment, thanks to the monitoring stations on each lake.
"Lake 239 is the most quantified lake in the world. No lake flows into it, only rain and the snow melting, nothing from another water body," McLeod said.
Students all have the same textbooks and curricula and they all have good teachers, said Grise, but facilities are crucial to learning at any level: "In high school, you’re limited by your lab experience."
Hanna Bohm is seriously into pike fins, performing delicate, intricate surgery in the lab.
She cut rings on fins of fish to check their age, employing tools designed to cut jewelry in order to slice off very small pieces taken from live fish.
"You can determine what length of time the lifespan of fish would be in a certain lake. I sat here for four hours this morning slicing them," Bohm explained. "I’m seeing if there’s any variation. You can see the aging on them."
Meanwhile, Wilson Ho was looking at bacteria growth on various substrata, slogging out into the lake to retrieve samples. The materials were pretty inexpensive — he used rocks and whatever else was close at hand. "We picked mulch, aquatic plants, also some dried-up leaves... to get a better understanding of the ecosystem."
McLeod loves all this, marvelling at how the students were completely focused every minute in ways they wouldn’t be on top of their game in the classroom every second of the day.
And he loves being at the ELA.
"I rake the beach at night — I love to see what’s walked by," the teacher laughed. "If I’d got involved here when I was 20, I’d still be here."
The complex is not opulent by any means, but some of the equipment is atop the charts — the labs are housed in buildings whose exteriors suggest a Second World War barracks, while within, they’re superb.
The ELA can handle about 90 people in university-quality bare-bones dorm rooms. Each residence has several showers, with a large lounge and fridges, stoves and microwaves for staff who want to augment the meals served in Hungry Hall.
A shuttle makes the four-hour run into Winnipeg each weekend.
You can even swim on one of the beaches five minutes’ walk from the dorms — sandy bottom, cool water that’s remarkably clear.
Everyone leaves vehicles open with the keys in the ignition, to ensure a quick getaway in a forest fire. There’s a board on which people post their names if they’re going away from the camp. And there’s a firebreak surrounding the camp that has an extensive sprinkler system to lay down a large fire barrier of soaked trees and ground.
And then there’s the meteorological and atmospheric chemistry monitoring site, a name that hardly begins to capture the magnitude of the devices that cover an elevated rocky outcrop of the Canadian Shield the size of a football field. They’re anchored deep into the rock, looking deceivingly frail in the face of freezing winds that can fell trees, a listening post for our weather and our sky and for the health of our air.
There’s only a handful of such places in the country, and the Harper government would have moved this one.
A kilometre or so back towards the highway, off a path to the west and up a hill, sits all this unbelievably expensive scattered equipment — and the bizarre juxtaposition of people wandering around holding phones aloft to try to get a single bar, while some of the brightest people in Canada hunch over with plastic buckets picking wild blueberries. Plus, of course, the camp dog to ward off bears.
IISD project manager Pauline Gerrard works out of Winnipeg — the non-government organization also has offices in Ottawa, Denmark, Geneva and Holland.
The ELA has had a skeleton staff maintaining some level of monitoring since the feds started shutting it down — it has only been officially back up and running since April 1.
"Next year, I can see there being more research staff here," Gerrard said. "We’re going into strategic planning in the fall. There’s a fair bit of winter research that could be done, that hasn’t been done."
Already, daycares are making the trip out from Kenora to have a look around, and the ELA would welcome schools — noting the limited capacity of the facility.
"I’d like to see an established series of field courses. This place has inspired so many people — it’s a Canadian gem," said Gerrard, who speculated schools coming some distance might want to schedule significant visits to other gems such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Maybe even go to Churchill, too, mused Henderson.
"I’d like to promote material that can be used by teachers," Gerrard said.
"We want to engage with the treaties in the area," said Gerrard, who’s talking to the Seven Generations Institute, the thriving education organization formed out of Thunder Bay by bands across northwestern Ontario: "I think it would resonate with them."
Lee Hrenchuk had a good job with Fisheries and Oceans Canada — yet she walked away, to stay with the ELA.
"I was offered another job with (the Fisheries Department) — I decided to stick with the ELA," said Hrenchuk as she chilled out in the camp’s cafeteria one August evening before heading out to a lakeside firepit. "It wasn’t my dream to always have a job with the government, it was to work here."
A graduate of Vincent Massey Collegiate, with her undergraduate degree from the University of Winnipeg and her master’s from the University of Manitoba, Hrenchuk is dedicated to what the ELA is all about.
"We have a lot more control over the direction we go in now," she said.
"We have one full ecosystem study" looking at the impact of ongoing decreased rainfall and drought.
In one lake that flows into another, "We’ve dammed off the inflow and blasted a big channel. We’re increasing the time water stays in the lake, from one year to 10 or 11 years."
It ties in to a study of the effect of water warming on lake trout dating back to 2010.
"The laboratory vs. the whole ecosystem we have here — the potential is limitless in the issues we’re able to address."
Would these SJR students want to spend six weeks of summer at the ELA earning two Grade 12 credits, if their pilot project gets expanded?
In a heartbeat.
"Before, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue science as a career. It’s solidified that decision," said Wilson Ho. "Without this experience, I’d still be lost. That Harper cut the funding for the Experimental Lakes Area is really disheartening."
You learn more by doing, added Bohm, who’d never have seen the quality of equipment anywhere else or interacted with such personable brainiacs. "They’re all super-friendly — I would definitely do this for six weeks, it’s awesome."
"I’ve never sat in a boat in the middle of the night and heard absolutely nothing," said Stadnyk. "You start with, how does this work, a big open question.
"Today I got my daily dose of science at breakfast," he laughed. "We’ve kind of just broken the surface. You can tell there’s a lot of passion behind it — you really need to experience it, to understand why people want to save it."
Polimeni found it really cool how people with PhDs talked so easily to kids still with a year or two of high school to go.
"There’s no hierarchy. I’ve always been interested in the science behind sustainability. We can all sit together and communicate; the information can go both ways," he said.
Matthew Fogel had never known if classroom enjoyment would be the same in an applied situation — he does now, how it all works together, how all the science and research "contribute to the whole picture.
"It’s all related — what you’re doing has impact, it has meaning," he said.
"You need to be here to appreciate what they’re doing. People need to know more about it."