After four years of sitting up front at the MBI office, watching my colleagues go out and come back in from their journeys in the field, I was invited to join on a day trip to the wetlands of southern Ohio. I was thrilled to be asked. So much so that I went out and bought new gingham pink muck boots. The date was set and I was ready to go!
At 7:30am on a gorgeous day in May, the MBI Executive Director, Administrative Manager, Wetland Ecologist and Administrative Assistant (me!) were on the road. It was a 2-hour drive of the other three telling field stories and chitchatting about past travel experiences. I sat in the front seat listening and wondering if I should have stayed back at the office. I worried that this was going to be a long day of trying to keep up with this gang of pros.
Upon reaching our destination we met with our friend, Jon Srofe, who was going to guide us through the area for the day. We suited up. I decided to wear my hiking boots like the rest were doing and leave my flashy muck boots in the truck. I felt like I fit in now! …And then everyone put on backpacks or satchels with lunches and snacks packed. My food was packed in a grocery bag with ice packs; I brought a water belt and energy beans for the field. It didn’t occur to me that we were going to eat out there. It was my assumption that we would either be done by early afternoon because we were going to only one major site or that we would come back to the truck for lunch because the site was not too far away. So why would they haul their day’s food with them?
I soon found out why as we headed out. Or rather, headed up!
The first half mile was a hike straight up a steep, crumbling, slippery, red clay path with a deep gouged crack down the center of it. It was too narrow for our full-sized truck or a regular-sized vehicle. We had to journey on foot. Along the way, Jon told us about a man who has lived at the top of this hill—yes, he referred to this as a hill—for many years alone and that once a week or so someone will come up in an all-terrain vehicle to bring him supplies. I thought he was joking. An all-terrain vehicle would even have significant difficulty making it up this way. I did not believe him until we reached the plateau and were greeted by the man’s playful pup. I guessed this was the top of the rigorous climb as we paused to pet the pooch and survey a vernal pool.
We continued up. Although the inclines were more manageable and we hiked more quickly from this point on, we were ambushed by raspberry thorns, poison ivy, and other thorny branches. I observed that this was definitely not Jon’s first time in the field. Not only did he know his way through the woods and have guidebooks on hand, he also brought a walking pole with him. More so than using it for walking as I presumed was his intent, he used it more frequently to hold back thorny vines and test the questionable muddy spots for me as the rest of the group knowledgeably trailed ahead through the foliage. We ventured through a couple of wetland areas filled with various types of grasses, sedges, and vernal pools. We listened to and identified birds, amphibians, and plants in these areas. In the vernal pools we found tadpoles, salamanders, and other insects that indicated a healthy habitat. I almost forgot about all the scrapes and mosquito bites I was collecting as I took in all the natural beauty.
As we approached the third wetland site, the three up ahead slowed down a bit and we eventually stopped. This was the main event. This was what we drove and hiked all morning to see. It was worth it.
Our crew leader, Wetland Ecologist Mick Micacchion, surveyed this new plot. He crouched down and pulled out his clipboard and instruments. We must have spent an hour there while he took meticulous notes, measurements, and filled out detailed evaluation forms. It was fascinating to see Mick in his element. I was impressed that in that time he hardly moved at all, keeping the same crouch position as he jotted away. My legs hurt just watching him. Pete, MBI’s Executive Director, was enlisted to help him as he collected data. (This may not seem like a big deal to some, but trust me, assisting is an important role.) He stood beside Mick the whole time holding the instruments for him and providing his own observations. The rest of us scoped out the surroundings and waited for Mick to finish.
When the actual work of the day was over, we took our time to explore deeper into the woods, heading down on a muddier, thornier, more ivied trail than the way we had previously walked. We took a break on the bank of a creek to slosh the mud off our caked boots and to eat our lunches—or pop a few energy beans and think about lunch waiting back in the truck—while soaking in the beautiful weather and resting up for the long hike back.
Eventually we decided to go back up the trail; getting stuck in or slopped up in slippery mud along the way. Again we took our time and stopped on several occasions to check out something that caught our attention; a vernal pool, a cluster of interesting plants or flowers, and a lake at the top of a hill that we had not seen on our initial trekking until we came to the threshold of the trail. Here we stopped one last time before making that final descent to the truck. Our adventure in the field was drawing to an end.
Ready to be at the bottom of the road, Mick and Pete were first to set off down the slope while Allison, Jon and I fell a good distance behind them. It was at about the halfway point that the three of us came across a large tree, freshly fallen and completely blocking our way. Even though it was obvious that this collapse had happened in the last few minutes and one would think that we would have heard it, there had not been a peep. Curious to learn if Pete and Mick had also encountered this road hazard, we picked up the pace to meet them at the truck. Turned out that the tree crashed right in front of them! Clearly, we had had enough excitement for the day and it was time to go home.
We said good-bye to Jon and set off back to Columbus. Allison and Pete rested in the back and I sat up front again with Mick. I thought about all that I had learned during the day about my co-workers, wetlands, and made a mental list what to pack next time for a day in the field. In one day out with them, I acquired so much more than I ever would have if I had spent the day in the office. It was a long, strenuous day that I would not trade for anything.
If you ever have an opportunity to spend a day in the field with the employees of Midwest Biodiversity Institute: take it! You will have a blast with them and take home much more than thorn scratches and achy muscles. I guarantee it.
Thank you, Mick, Allison, and Pete for inviting me to join you! I am already looking forward to our next field adventure. Thank you, Jon, for staying by my side and for the wonderful company. The day would not have been the same without you there.