The beginning of fall

Early in the morning with the moon still overhead, I stepped out into the cold and slid shut the door of my apartment. It was too dark to see, so I felt each of the keys on my keychain before finding the right one to lock up. Then, I turned around and stopped to look for a moment. The sky was full of stars.

When I started at Ottawa National Forest in early June, the morning sky was blue and dappled with clouds when I left for work, in July I woke to spectacular red sunrises, in August the mornings were dim with the first hints of light illuminating dense grey mist, and, now, I am greeted by stars. I have never watched the seasons change like this before. 

Over the past month, my-cointern Tessa and I have continued to travel the forest mapping and treating invasive plants. We’ve tackled tansy ragwort, honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, glossy buckthorn, Eurasian watermilfoil and more. Sometimes, we hike all day to visit a few small, remote sites, and sometimes we work right along the roadside treating large patches of weeds where invasive species cerews have made gradual progress year after year. 

On a bright Tuesday, Tessa and I headed out to a particularly dense cluster of invasive species infestations lining Trout Creek. Waders on, we trudged through marsh up to our knees. Growing among the reeds were numerous glossy buckthorn seedlings with shining oval leaves that glinted in the sun. The soil was soft, so we could often pull the invasive seedling up by the roots. As we walked, Tessa and I passed ideas back and forth. These seedlings must be coming from somewhere, we surmised, some larger buckthorn that could produce numerous fruits…  the mother tree. We decided we would find it if we could.

Time wore on, yet our efforts to find the mother tree proved fruitless. We waded back and forth through the infestation area and eventually moved on to some invasive honeysuckle sites further along the marsh. 

When we passed through the buckthorn site again, the afternoon was drawing to a close. Making our way back to the truck to head home, we stumbled into a pocket of glossy buckthorn we had missed. Instead of being knee-high seedlings, the buckthorn here was up to our heads. Most of the buckthorn we’ve treated this summer has been no taller than eye-level. We did see one that was fifteen feet once, though. Even though the trunk was only four inches in diameter, cutting through it with a pocket saw felt like felling a real tree. 

With so many plants to treat, Tessa and I decided we would have to come back to the site another day to finish up. As Tessa bent low, sawing through one last buckthorn, I noticed that the normally green, glossy leaves of the plant had begun turning a deep red from the autumn chill. Looking over her shoulder I got a glimpse of a tree colored that same red. Could it be another buckthorn? I looked more closely, following the tree up… and up… and up. Towering over the rest was a great buckthorn, with a trunk a foot in diameter and a crown thirty feet tall. “Tessa… Tessa,” I said slowly, “We found the mother tree.”  

I snapped a photo of the great tree with Tessa standing next to it for scale. Then, we headed back to the office, excited to tell our mentor, Ian, what we found. Before the season is over, we’ll head back to the site to finish treating the remaining buckthorn, including the towering mother tree.

Tessa stands in a marsh with one hand on a very tall buckthorn with red leaves.
The mother tree (center) towers over Tessa

While the search for buckthorn along Trout Creek required wading through waist-deep water, some weed work requires us to get fully submerged. That’s why on a crisp Monday morning, I helped load wetsuits into the truck along with paddles, life jackets, and flippers. Then, Tessa, Ian, a Forest Service botanist named Katherine, and I headed out to Lac Vieux Desert lake for our last snorkel day of the year.

Our job was to find and pull Eusrasian watermilfoil, a highly invasive aquatic plant. Eurasian watermilfoil has a doppelganger though, native, northern watermil foil has fewer leaflets than the invasive cousin it grows side by side with, but if I hadn’t been told to look for the difference the first time we went snorkeling, I never would have guessed they were two separate species. 

We spent the day searching through the water. When we found an invasive plant, we would gather the long flowing stems into balls and follow them down to the lake bottom. When you apply just the right pressure there, the plant pulls up in one continuous clump without the stems snapping and producing fragments. A milfoil fragment two inches long can go on to root into a whole new plant. 

A figure in a full wetsuit with a hood and goggles stands in front of a lake giving two thumbs up.
Ian took this photo of me suited up in snorkeling gear!

The water was chilly, but we checked in with each other often and took turns paddling the canoe when we got cold. Spirits stayed high. As we swam along the shore, swapped stories on the boat, and admired some sizable snails, the buckets of Eurasion watermilfoil we had pulled piled up on the shore. 

On our first day of snorkling for watermilfoil in the early summer, I had to count the pairs of leaflets of every milfoil I encountered to make sure it was the invasive species. Diving on Monday, though, I was surprised to find I could distinguish northern from Eurasian with relative ease.  Everything from the way the plants moved in the water to the feel of the leaves in my hand set the two apart. 

Realizing this, made me stop and think about how much I’ve learned this summer. Under Ian’s mentorship, I’ve been given an invitation to pay deep attention to the natural world and the knowledge to notice things I never would have seen on my own. Now, after months of spending long days in the forest, I’m beginning to see that attention pay off as I recognize the plants around me and see how they change and grow. I’m sure in June I would have walked right by the mother buckthorn and never stopped to look up. Still, I know I’m just scratching the surface. An opportunity to work with the Ottawa’s Timber crew showed me a glimpse of how much more is out there to notice. 

All summer, we’ve been meeting different people on the Ottawa, developing diverse skills, and getting a glimpse at the different jobs various forest departments take on. To this end, on Wednesday we met with Amanda and Megan from the Timber Crew. They gave us insight into all the different tasks needed for managing commercial timber from outlining the boundary of sale areas, to marking trees along future roads, to protecting valuable areas like wetlands and historical sites. Soon enough, Tessa and I were each outfitted with a paint sprayer on our backs heading through the woods to help lay out the boundary of a timber sale area. 

We followed Amanda and Megan through the woods, marking the stumps of trees they selected with bright orange paint. These trees, they explained, would become the outline of a sale area, showing the purchaser where they could go and where they should avoid. 

I quickly learned that laying out the line is not as straightforward as it seems. Skilled timber markers weigh a wealth of different factors as they set the boundary.  As they worked, Megan and Amanda took care to mark trees close enough together that you could easily follow from one to the next. They kept the line smooth, without too many jagged turns, and always ensured that the areas they marked were wide and flat enough for logging vehicles to navigate and turn around. All the while, they made sure to draw lines that avoided fragile wetlands and left a large enough buffer of trees around sensitive areas to provide shade and prevent erosion. Thinking of visitors, they were also careful to leave a good barrier of trees around a popular recreation lake. As we walked, Amanda and Megan sometimes saw great gnarled trees with knots and kankers and bits of shaggy bark. These they also left out of the sale area when they could. They are of little value for timber, they explained, but provide great habitat for all manner of wildlife. As we traveled, Amanda and Megan were teaching us every step of the way, explaining their thought process and talking us through decisions. 

My favorite thing was watching the pair read the land. They paid careful attention to the plants, canopy, and soil as they decided where to paint the line. Blue cohosh, they explained, a knee-high herb with blue fruits and pointed leaves often indicates good timber trees are nearby; black ash, tall with symmetrical pairs of leaflets, on the other hand, is a wetland species that suggests the surrounding area should probably be left out of the timber sale. They chose each tree we marked with careful consideration, taking time to study the landscape. I’m still not sure of my path after CLM, but, after spending the day with Amanda and Megan, I sincerely hope that I can bring the same level of care and stewardship to my job that they do everyday. 

In my first blog post, I explained that I wanted to know all the plants in Ottawa National Forest. What I meant, though I did not say it explicitly, is that I wanted to know the names of all the plants in Ottawa National Forest. Over the last several months, I’ve learned that knowing a plant involves so much more than just knowing its name. It’s a never ending process of seeing how it changes with the seasons, observing its growth and habitat, and understanding its interaction with the world it makes its home. Realizing this makes me hopeful I can meet my goal. I don’t have to memorize long lists of names. I just have to focus my attention on the world around me, be curious, and take notice. 

Buzzing

Buzzing. A common cacophony throughout the Ottawa National Forest. From the low hum of happy bumblebees, to the erratic zipping of deer flies around my head, to the roar of angry ground wasps, buzzing seems to be all around me. It took a bit to get used to just how many insects were here on the Ottawa, but I will take the buzzing flies any day over the clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us in June. My mentor, Ian Shackleford, gave us fly patches for the backs of our hardhats to combat against the flies. While these patches are not a necessity all of the time, one day in particular there were a few sites that felt like I was under attack, so I decided to give one of the patches a try. The result? After a little less than ten minutes, twelve or so flies had buzzed themselves stuck to the back of my head.

A part of me felt a little guilty for trapping the flies down this way, but another part of me was glad for the reprieve from them getting stuck in my hair.

The buzz of bumblebees is my favorite one, and with so many wildflowers blooming, I get to hear it often. I got the opportunity to work closely with the bees when I joined up with our wildlife technicians for bee monitoring. The technicians are working on part of a study of eDNA, or environmental DNA, to detect what kind of pollen bees may be carrying. We went out and did the traditional collection of bees, which involves netting for 30 minutes, but then we meticulously set out bee bowls (colored bowls with soapy water) in a crosshair pattern. This water (and the insects that unfortunately for them slipped in throughout the previous day and night) was collected the next day and then run through a filter to collect the tiny pollen grains that insects carried into the water. This filter and the insects from the bowls will then be sent to the lab to run PCR to amplify the DNA of the pollen that the water contained. The idea behind the study is to compare the surrounding environment to what is actually caught in the water and what the bees we netted were carrying. One of the most important things I learned from tagging along these days was how challenging field research can be, especially when the study might not have been designed with the specific location in mind and the difference between theory and practice of data collection. For example, the wildlife technicians have had trouble with slugs climbing into the bowls overnight, which creates a thick slime that cannot be filtered. Additionally, it seemed that the detergent they used also created a problem for filtering the full amount of water, but they had limited supplies and could not use more than one filter. These are all problems that will need troubleshooting in the coming years to make eDNA studies more feasible and valid.

A golden crab spider (Misumena vatia) on purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), one of the invasive plants we manage. The flowers of this plant are very beautiful and attract plenty of bees.

I also get to hear the buzzing of bees when I am working on my primary task of invasive plant management. Ian had my co-intern Emily and I help him with the biomonitoring of two weevil species he worked to get approval to release, Larinus obtusus and Cyphocleonus achates. Larinus obtusus, the more abundant of the weevils we found at each site, eat the seedhead of the spotted knapweed, reducing the seed production and seedbank of the plant. This is vital for reducing numbers of a plant that can have viable seeds in the seedbank for at least 8+ years. Cyphocleonus achates is the root boring weevil of spotted knapweed, and much larger than the other weevil we monitored, yet much more elusive. We only found two individuals in our entire day of monitoring, but this still means that they are present at at least some of our sites, a good indicator that they are surviving (at least at some level) the cold winters here.

My mentor, Ian, takes a picture of the elusive Cyphocleonus achates on my finger. He loves posting to iNaturalist!

In the past decade, the weevils have become more widespread, and I spend a few seconds looking for Larinus obtusus whenever I see a large patch of knapweed. I have had pretty good luck of finding them, even when I am not on forest land. However, it is still unclear if they are actually reducing the knapweed populations. At two of our sites, it seemed humans were the reason for much of the knapweed decline, well, more specifically the vehicles of humans. However, at the last site it seemed that native grasses have started to form denser patches again. This could be because of reduced knapweed populations, intentional native replanting, a combination of the two, or completely unrelated. This ambiguity is what intrigues me about ecology and keeps pulling me back in for more… though it does make it challenging for people like Ian to know if his weevils are working.

A close-up of the Cyphocleonus achates that I netted and counted in our sample.

As a grand finale for our day of weevil monitoring, we went to a nearby site of a rare plant, the dwarf bilberry. These plants resemble blueberries, but as the name suggests, they are considerably smaller. They are low to the ground, inconspicuous, and the berries themselves could fit under my fingernail. Sue Trull, the botanist who focuses on native plant restoration, had planted these bilberries, and they have been thriving at the site, so much so that there was a bounty of them (by rare plant measures) to be harvested to send to Toumey Nursery to grow into new plants that could be planted to help bolster the population of bilberries on the forest. While picking some of these bilberries, making sure some remain to expand the site’s population for next year, we decided to update Sue on the bilberries. She replied with elation about their success at the site and offered that Emily and I could try one if we liked. We both felt a little bit important, getting to eat a whole berry of a rare plant (which each contain three to five individual seeds), and we jumped at the chance. I had low expectations for the flavor of these berries based on their appearance (see picture below). I imagined the fruits must be quite dry and have just a little flavor based on their small, wrinkled form, but the experience of trying something so unusual was not something I was willing to pass up. To my surprise, and overall delight, I had underestimated the dwarf bilberry. The teeny tiny berry packed so much flavor, and while it was reminiscent of a blueberry, it was not the same flavor entirely. It almost seemed to be a sweeter, more concentrated blueberry flavor, like the filling of a blueberry pie after it has been cooked down, but without being cooked at all. It seems every day that the forest teaches me something new, provides me with a new flavor of life, or straight up tells me I was wrong before. I am looking forward to all the surprises to come, and all of the growing that remains between now and November, both from the plants and from myself.

The bounty of dwarf bilberries that we picked and will send to the nursery to be grown for next year.

Tessa Fenstermaker, Ottawa National Forest

Doors to a New Way of Life

All too often, I see bright, passionate young people jumping into graduate programs right after their undergraduate degrees. This might be the best choice for some, maybe even a majority, but I’m sure many have also felt the pressure to go to graduate school because you know school is something you’ve been good at, it’s a sure plan, and it’ll buy more time for things to fall into place. I decided during my last year of college that “might as well” wasn’t a good enough reason to go to school for two to four or more years and decide on the niche I would study and fall into the rest of my life. Instead, I have been forging my own path to test out my interests and desires and see what sticks. My adventure started with a year living in Germany, becoming an ESL teacher, and then moving to Las Vegas to try out van life while working for Nevada Conservation Corps. While in Las Vegas, I learned so much about the people in conservation that make all of the concepts and theories that I’d learned in the classroom come to life and the diversity of jobs that it takes to make it happen. Originally from Ohio, I decided I wanted something a little closer to home this summer and fall, and I landed at Ottawa National Forest.

When I arrived, I was immediately charmed by the small town of Ironwood and awestruck by the towering pines. The John Muir quote “Between every two pine trees is a door leading to a new way of life,” came to mind, and it has stuck with me ever since as I stroll and tromp between pines to get to our work sites. I am on an invasive plant crew at Ottawa National Forest, and after a few weeks, I finally feel like I have settled in a bit. Like many other jobs where nature is the office space, our typical day is tricky to pin down. Some days are straightforward: show up to the office, get your maps, get to as many sites as possible and thoroughly look for and treat the invasive species there such as garlic mustard, honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, glossy buckthorn or goutweed. Other days leave me completely open-mouthed that this is my real life and I’m getting paid to do this: try on the wet suits and go snorkeling for Eurasian watermilfoil.  

My co-intern, Emily (left) and I (right) at Crooked Lake in Sylvania Wilderness Area before snorkeling for Eurasian watermilfoil

When starting a new job, I think it’s important to set goals, and what better place to write them down than a blog post for all to see and read. My biggest professional goal, which I have already made huge strides in, is becoming a better navigator. I tend to rely on my phone for GPS quite a bit when I’m driving in my personal vehicle, and I couldn’t tell you which way a road runs. However, invasive plant sites aren’t nicely saved into Google Maps, so we have to use our paper maps to navigate the dirt, sometimes overgrown Forest Service roads. At first, I was nervous about navigating, afraid to take us down a wrong road. I quickly learned two things– 1.) That it’s not the end of the world to make a wrong turn and 2.) How to make less wrong turns. I’m excited to see how my navigation skills will improve by the end of this internship!

Most of the other goals I have are personal and some of them not directly work-related. Here are a few: see a wild bear, catch a fish, see a rare plant, learn and be able to ID 20 new plants (this number will only increase, as I’m learning new plants every day in the dense and diverse forest), and form new friendships while I’m in Ironwood. In the coming months, there’s a lot I’m looking forward to, the change of season with the spectacular colors of the trees, the different invasive species projects, learning about the innerworkings of the forest service, and of course getting to know my co-intern, Emily, and supervisor, Ian, much better. Field work can be challenging, especially because nature doesn’t care if you’re already covered in mosquito bites and your socks are wet, but even through long, itchy, soggy days, Ian always has a smile on his face and arrives the next day chipper as ever, excited for work at 6 am. It’s an enthusiasm Emily and I have taken note of and hope to emulate even a fraction of. There’s still a lot of adjusting I have to do before I feel like the forest is a second home to me, but I’m finding doors to a new way of life every day.  Each one starts to feel a little more welcoming and familiar than the last.

Tessa Fenstermaker, Ottawa National Forest