By Phoebe Gross
I wander slowly through the Salmon River Estuary, squinting in the golden evening light, marsh grasses tickling my bare legs. Small, meandering channels weave through the banks, hidden beneath the vegetation. On any other day, I would be wearing waders and sturdy boots. But today, the warm, balmy weather invited me to don shorts and my favorite bright yellow crocs in case I have the chance to swim across some of the deeper channels.
Approaching our next site, my feet start to sink deeper and deeper into thick, cold mud. The squelching of my plastic sandals intensifies. Just as I’m deciding to try a different, less muddy route, the mud has stolen one of my shoes. I stand like a flamingo as I frantically dig through the dark sludge. But my croc is nowhere to be found. The tide is rising, at my ankles. Water pours into the sludge-filled hole as I dig. Black, greasy mud coats my arms up to my elbows. The tide is now up to my calves. Reluctantly, I abandon my search and head home, walking awkwardly back to the truck with one shoe.
Estuaries are constantly changing- with the seasons, river flows, and tides. Within the course of a day, the lowest tide reveals expansive low-lying mudflats dotted with marine algae. At the highest tide, the mudflats disappear, and vegetation in the upper estuary starts to flood. Witnessing such fast-paced, dramatic shifts has been fascinating, and has made field work both exciting and challenging. We need to carefully plan our field days so we can access parts of the estuary that are only navigable at specific tides. Just as we work in response to the tides, fishes must also navigate tidally inundated habitats. On the evening I lost my croc, we were working on a project investigating juvenile salmon movement in response to changing tides.
I return early the next morning at low tide to search for my croc eaten by the estuary. A thin mist hangs over the estuary, and low water is glassy and clear. Finding the same spot proves to be easy, as the mud is so deep and thick that my footprints from last night are still there. While this may seem surprising coming from an estuarine ecologist, I hate touching soft, gooey sediment. So I start my search using a stick to dig through the knee-deep sludge. But after thirty minutes, no luck. A message from my field crew lets me know I need to be back in the truck in ten minutes to start sampling. In a truly last-ditch effort, I plunge my hands into the elbow-deep mud and start digging. Suddenly, I feel something hard, and pull my very muddy but no worse for wear croc out of the mud. I found it!
Why was I so excited to find my silly shoe? Plastic sandals are each to replace, and let’s be honest, there are better colors out there than bright yellow. Perhaps it was because these crocs have carried me through all my favorite field experiences- frog surveys in the Sierra Nevada mountains, catching gobies on the Pacific Island Moorea, and now these incredible two months on Vancouver Island. They hold all the things I love most about being in the field: spending all day hiking and swimming through beautiful, remote places, observing organisms I’ve read about for years, and laughing with my crew about stupid things that only come out of spending everyday together. Field work can be exhausting. But nothing can replace being in the systems and seeing the organisms you’ve dedicated your life to studying. It has always been and continues to be a big source of motivation to continue pursuing the science I do. I hope my yellow crocs continue to carry me through many more years of field work to come.
I made my way back to the truck to show my field crew and held up my muddy plastic sandal in triumph. The sound of cheering carried far into the still morning air of the estuary.