By: Bethany Hughes
Bethany "Fidget" Hughes and Lauren "Neon" Reed are traversing the length of the Americas by non motorized means, connecting stories of the land and its inhabitants. Follow them at Her Odyssey.
The rhythm of my footsteps, alternating with the click of trekking poles, has become the cadence of my life. I wave hello to the young girl who has paused in the middle of her family field to watch us pass. She is pulling a till, her father ahead of her is plowing with a shovel, her mother in a pollera skirt is crouched behind them, planting. The sun arches low, casting long shadows across the Bolivian altiplano.
Step, click, step, click, got to get to the next town before night fall, step, click, breathe, smell a dead thing. Pull my Buff up over my nose and dig out my phone to photograph a dead dog in the ditch, wait for satellite to hone in on our exact location on this great round globe. A condor circles overhead, waiting for me to be done with my business so he can proceed with his. In that moment I am still amidst all these life cycles.
The wheel of the seasons and latitude dictate our daily life. We have been walking northbound from Ushuaia Argentina for almost two years now, resting during the winter months. We have watched the sheep and cattle of Patagonia shift to goats and now llamas. Crops have transitioned from potatoes to corn to apples to grapes to walnuts to quinoa as we make our way up along the Andes.
Walking the trails, railroad tracks, and roads we pass people working their animals and land, the same as their parents before them and their parents before them. Except now, in some areas, communities have pitched in together and share a tractor, though most of it is still done by hand and in community. If our break times happen to align with theirs we sit and share an apple, orange, or whatever either of us has. Sometimes we are rewarded with a story, sometimes we just watch the lambs caper. Life is hard but unhurried out here, seemingly outside the reaches of time, except for the newly paved highway with trucks full of minerals from the mines hurtling to and fro behind our resting backs.
Now, here we are, Neon and I, halfway across the first continent of a trans-continental traverse––working off their routes, better fit for the knowledge they impart, building on the works they have started. We are honored to feed back into the loop by collecting roadkill survey data for Adventure Scientists, a concept dreamed up by Gregg as he paced these same miles.
All of these cycles, creating the context through which we move, come together and just as quickly dissipate when I have to jump out of the way of a mine truck speeding past. Location found, photo and notes recorded. I take a deep breath and immediately regret it because this dog has been dead just long enough to be at the peak of rancid––but even that will fade. I pocket my phone, grip my poles, and keep moving north.
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By: Dylan Jones
My mind raced as I picked my way through a snowy rhododendron tunnel. It was late March, and I had just returned home to the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia from a 16-day assignment to explore the northern reaches of Chilean Patagonia. I needed a peaceful place to reflect on the whirlwind trip.
For me, the welcoming wilds of Appalachia offer the perfect meditative setting.
To my right, tea-colored water tumbled over sandstone ledges and through chaotic catacombs of gnarled roots and mossy boulders. The thick forest dropped off into a steep canyon, the other side barely visible through the opaque, wintry air. I paused.
The noise of my mind suddenly disappeared, drowned out by the peacefully deafening sound of rushing water. My senses became intensely acute. With each breath, the rich, musty scent of rotting earth flooded my nostrils while the damp, icy air burned in my lungs.
I spun my head around. Blended shades of green, red, and white became razor sharp as every feature of the forest came into focus. I was struck with awe by the rugged beauty that surrounded me.
As I carefully dropped below Elakala Falls, I began to notice the sheer amount of water gushing from nearly every conceivable opening in the landscape. There is so much water here—enough that the region is referred to as the Birthplace of Rivers. The highest ridgelines of the Alleghenies give rise to a spectacular network of waterways that carve deep gorges and wide valleys through West Virginia’s portion of the ancient Appalachian Mountains.
I continued down the near-vertical drop of Shay Run beyond the falls. A jumble of car-sized boulders hundreds of feet below marks its confluence with the legendary Blackwater River, which gets its name from the dark color imparted by tannins in decomposing red spruce and hemlock needles.
My mind came roaring back. I thought about my time in Chile, where I augmented my adventures by collecting freshwater samples for Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative.
Something else struck me. Over the years, I had collected water samples while adventuring in Thailand, Costa Rica, and more recently Chile, but had neglected to sample the gorgeous waterways in my home state. After thinking about Shay Run and that vast network of rivers forming across West Virginia’s public lands, I felt an obligation to change that. I checked the project’s sample map and discovered that not a single liter had been collected in West Virginia. I immediately got in touch with Adventure Scientists to see what I could do. I was told I had until the end of May to submit samples.
Inspired by the empty map and motivated by the ticking clock, I set out on a series of adventures to sample as many recreational rivers, streams, and lakes on West Virginia’s public lands as possible.
I put out the call on social media and recruited two passionate stewards of West Virginia’s waterways to become citizen scientists: Tomi Bergstrom, a Watershed Basin and Project WET Coordinator; and John Lichter, a raft guide-turned-entrepreneur. I received invaluable assistance from friends along the way who provided gear, adventure support, or just tagged along to help document the project.
Choosing my sample sites was obvious: all I had to do was bring an empty bottle to the places in which I spend most of my time. I focused the majority of my efforts in the 1,422-square mile Cheat River watershed. I sampled seven of its headwater rivers and tributaries, with four samples taken during an overnight rafting trip on Shavers Fork—an 89-mile tributary whose upper reaches on Cheat Mountain constitute the highest river in the eastern U.S.
I also collected a handful of samples in central West Virginia on the fabled whitewater of the New, Gauley, and Meadow rivers in a region I frequent for some of the best rock climbing in the country.
Our army of citizen scientists hiked, paddled, biked, and climbed around the Mountain State. By the end of May, we had gathered 26 samples from 11 rivers, seven streams, and two lakes. Thanks to our collective efforts, that empty spot on the sample map now has the highest concentration of samples of any state in Appalachia.
Dylan Jones and Kyle Kent anchor up to rappel down to the deck of a pontoon boat for rock climbing and water sampling on Summersville Lake. The Nuttall Sandstone cliffs of the flooded Gualey River Gorge make for some of the best rock climbing routes in the United States. Summersville Lake, Gauley River National Recreation Area. PC: Eric Fizer
Months passed while we eagerly awaited the results. Considering West Virginia’s tumultuous industrial history and long list of environmental catastrophes, we expected a majority of our samples—especially those taken from larger rivers adjacent to population centers—to be riddled with microplastics. I suppose you can chalk it up to the jaded attitude one tends to adopt after years of witnessing the fallout from acid mine drainage, mountaintop removal mining, and industrial chemical spills.
I was shocked when I saw the results in September.
Of my 14 samples, just five samples from as many rivers contained a total of eight microplastics: seven blue fibers and one piece of transparent film. Of John Lichter’s 10 samples, only two samples from as many rivers contained two microplastics: one blue filament and one transparent filament. Tomi Bergstrom collected two samples; one of which contained one piece of microplastic: a red filament.
To date, around 48 percent of freshwater samples analyzed from the global project have contained microplastics. Just eight of the 26 West Virginia Samples, or 31 percent, tested positive—notably lower than the global average. While regular, comprehensive sampling is needed before conclusions can be drawn, these preliminary findings provide the possibility that West Virginia’s remote waterways and main arteries are comparatively low in microplastic pollution.
But the big picture isn’t as clean: microplastics pose an urgent and serious threat to the planet’s water supply. Although the encouraging results from the Birthplace of Rivers provided a much-needed morale boost to our army of citizen-scientists, we remain steadfast in our mission to spread awareness about the use of plastics in our daily lives.
When the findings of the Global Microplastics Initiative are published in 2018, I plan to be on the front lines in support of clean water.
Learn More on Dylan's West Virginia Microplastics Site
By: Victoria Ortiz
Are some people more prone to accepting change? Changing something requires a level of risk. It means venturing into a new territory where things are outside of your control and relying on one’s skills, creativity, and optimism to succeed. Many of our volunteers actively seek change, not just in their adventures, but also in their everyday life.
One of our Gallatin Microplastic Initiative volunteers, David Breck, made a big change in 2013. He had spent years working as a conservation engineer in Bozeman, Montana, doing stream restoration projects for his co-founded company, Spanish Peaks Engineering & Consulting. In March of that year, however, he and a friend quit their jobs to start a brewery.
To say that Bridger Brewing is a success would be an understatement. When I sat down with Breck and Chelsea Kaderavek at 4pm on a Thursday, almost every table was taken and there was a line to be seated. After tasting their home-brewed ginger beer I understood why – they strive for quality and invest a lot of thought into all of their business decisions, whether it’s how much fresh ginger to include or how to minimize their plastic waste.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles smaller than five millimeters in size that likely pose a significant environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways. Adventure Scientists has amassed the most diverse and likely the largest global data set recording microplastic distribution and concentration data thanks to adventure volunteers collecting samples from oceans and waterways all over the world. Even though nearly 75% of these samples contain microplastics, many people aren’t aware of the issue.
“I was an environmental biologist and I had never even heard of microplastics,” says Kaderavek, who has been leading the charge for Bridger Brewing’s environmental initiatives. “They’re so small, micro, really, that I didn’t give the issue the attention it deserved,” adds Breck.
They reached out to Adventure Scientists to learn more and quickly signed up to take samples for the spring collection of microplastic samples along the Gallatin River and its tributaries.
In mid-March Kaderavek, Breck, and his fifteen-year-old son snowshoed six miles off-trail up a remote stream only to find that their collection site was buried under four feet of snow. They ended up finding open water a bit further downstream and collected their water sample, but the overall volunteer experience had an effect.
“The fact that there are microplastics that far in the backcountry is pretty shocking,” begins Breck, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t have much of a reason to be there unless you were taking a sample, so if they can exist in places like that then they must be everywhere.”
On the back end, Bridger Brewing has also started purchasing 60 lb refillable jugs of locally sourced honey twice a month instead of dozens of 5 lb plastic tubs of Argentinian honey from Costco. They’ve also started dumping all of their individual trashcans into one bag. “A lot of our waste is paper from receipts, so the bags don’t get smelly anyway,” says Kaderavek. “If things get stinky we’re going to have to change it, but it’s been fine so far.”
It can be hard to get customers and our employees (60 people and counting) on board with these changes, but overall, they say they’re getting a positive response.
“What we’re doing is small but I think the public influence could be really big. We’re such a community-driven place and we have a responsibility to this town to raise awareness about this issue,” says Breck.
So what’s next? “We’re looking at ways to compost our food scraps, trying to purchase things locally from places that use less plastic packaging, and are exploring ways to make our summer concert series less wasteful,” says Breck. “And of course, we’re going to continue to be Adventure Scientists volunteers.”
Change begins with individual actions and ripples into the community, business practices and ultimately government policies. We believe that quality data helps drive these changes, and are dedicated to unlocking solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental issues by filling in those data gaps.
Share your ideas for how Bridger Brewing can further improve their business practices and show your support for data driving local change at the Pints for Purpose event on August 28th.
By: Victoria Ortiz
Nearly 65% of the population are visual learners that absorb and recall information best by seeing,* which is why our volunteer training includes both written and video protocols. We develop training materials in coordination with our partners for every project in order to prepare our volunteers for field work.
Our main goal in building training materials is to ensure that our partners get the data they need - meaning completeness, accuracy and consistency. To conduct work in the field, volunteers must pass protocol tests with a 100% score. They also need to retake the tests periodically to ensure continued protocol retention. All volunteers also regularly interact with Adventure Scientists' staff to make sure they are prepared to participate.
For our newest project, Conserving Biodiversity - Pollinators, we worked with Bozeman-based videographer Aidan Weltner to film short, funny (if we do say so ourselves) and informative protocol videos. We went behind the scenes with Aidan to learn more about the creation of this video.
What was the most challenging aspect of this film? The most exciting/fun?
The most challenging aspect of the film was finding flowers and butterflies. Extended rain storms and fickle wind conditions are the nature of late spring and early summer. I learned that butterflies and flowers do not like wind and thus it took us a little longer to film than expected. On top of that, butterflies are hard to catch and even harder to film!
Which part of the protocol was most confusing to you? How did you find a way to demonstrate the proper method via the video?
Illustrating the tagging of flowers that grow in bushes/groups was the most difficult. We decided that it was best to tell viewers how to do this in the voice overs. I didn't think any aspect of the protocol was confusing. It all seemed pretty intuitive!
A short clip from our Conserving Biodiversity - Pollinators protocol video.
Did anything about this filming process surprise you? How has it affected your perception of Adventure Scientists?
I always thought that Adventure Scientists’ projects required a lot of prior experience to participate. Now, I think that people who enjoy recreating outside could and should apply to contribute in these studies.
Edward Abbey used to measure driving time in six packs. How many six packs did it take to produce this film?
At least four. Maybe 4.33
Anything else you’d like to mention/includes?
Bring ankle braces. Those damn ground squirrel dens seem to be easier to find when you're focused on the butterfly flying erratically 10 feet in front of you.
Join our online network of people around the world working together to unlock solutions to pressing environmental issues.
By: Emma Bode
Each year, 8,000,000 tons of plastic enter marine environments*. An astonishing 80% of this plastic comes from terrestrial sources. Among this plastic are tiny plastic fragments and fibers, five millimeters or smaller, known as microplastics. How are these minuscule pollutants entering our waterways?
At the headwaters of the Missouri River, the Gallatin Watershed provides a great opportunity to observe the effects of urbanization on freshwater microplastic levels. Through the Adventure Scientists’ Gallatin Microplastics Initiative, volunteers like myself collect water samples from a multitude of sites across the watershed. These samples are then analyzed for their microplastic content.
A couple weeks ago, Adventure Scientists founder and Executive Director Gregg Treinish spoke at the 2017 National Geographic Explorers Festival. The National Geographic Society celebrates exploration every day of the year, but during Explorers Festival they bring together the most fascinating and innovative scientists, conservationists, explorers, and storytellers to share—with one another, and with the world—how their discoveries and ideas are creating change for the better.
Gregg spoke on the Citizens for Science panel about inspiring the next generation of explorers and activating citizen scientists around the world to help answer critical questions. We hope you enjoy!
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