Sunday, July 06, 2008

Interlude I: 080626

No travelling today, on my lone day between Part I and Parts II through IV. Rather than describe the boring things I did today to tidy up from Part I and re-pack for the rest, I’d like to present some musings on some of the features of my summer and where I’ve been so far.

The Daily Grind

Matt convinced* me to get into a rather odd but highly productive routine. Early morning starts, of course, followed by a large hot breakfast, collecting all day with no breaks until the motel in the evening, and specimen processing until bedtime around 11:00 or midnight. Note the lack of lunch: big breakfasts and big dinners spaced about 12 hours apart is a surprisingly easy schedule for me to get into. We supplemented through the day with large amounts of coffee and Gatorade. Coffee came mostly from gas stations, except of course the free-refills at wherever we ate breakfast. American gas station coffee is hit-or-miss: a few BP stations had excellent coffee, while “Smoker’s Paradise” in South-central Florida offers pretty weak swill, made slowly. The best coffee was consistently from Pilot truck stops. We love Pilot, for their enormous signs, their 24-hour services, their excellent and abundant coffee, and their map selection (see below). The only downside at Pilot is their policy of requiring a Zip code for credit card prepayments; my attempts at using 90210 and 99801 (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) always resulted in the computer telling me to “see cashier”.


* I say “convinced”, but really I had no choice: Matt was driving at lunch time.

Vehicle


Our transport for Part I, a 2008 Pontiac Grand Prix, was nearly perfect for our needs. The rental agency, Enterprise, calls it a “full size sedan”. By the second week of the trip, Matt and I had the car packed just the way we needed it, and we could get out of a motel room and be on the road in less than five minutes. The cryoshippers were wedged behind the front seat, a nice secure place for them. Our suitcases went on the back seat, with the space in the middle comfortably holding my camera, water bottles, and a few other odds-and-ends we frequently needed. Matt’s coolers filled most of the trunk, along with our boots and waders and the short handled nets. The long handled nets fit diagonally across the tops of the back seats, an awkward arrangement that we became adept at putting together rapidly. The front passenger seat’s foot-well stored the current maps and our notebooks, along with the GPS unit and any open packages of snacks, and the odd random magazine. Matt and I settled on a stable territorial boundary for our beverages: he had the anterior cup holder, I had the posterior and slightly more dorsal one. This arrangement allowed us to rapidly deploy everything we needed at collection sites and when we arrived at a motel each night.

I don’t think South Georgia will ever really be removed from that car. It will probably always smell faintly of lake.


Lodgings

We stayed at a variety of motel chains during this trip. Red Roof Inns, Travelodge, Best Western, Comfort Inns… they’re all pretty much interchangeable. Almost all of the big chains offer free wireless internet and continental breakfasts. A few offer hot breakfasts, which we never took advantage of, preferring the larger portions and faster service of Waffle House or (especially) IHOP. Interestingly, motel rooms are standardized in their layout to the finest detail. Of the 16 2-bed rooms we stayed in, all but two had the sink outside the bathroom, a fine idea, and all but one had the same basic layout: walk in the door from the parking lot (or upper balcony), facing two beds, with the window and attached air conditioner immediately on your right (most often). The small table and two reasonably-comfortable chairs would be between the air conditioner and the first bed. The television and usually a bit of counter space were opposite the beds, and the sink and counter occupied the far wall, with the toilet and shower room next to it. Matt and I got very good at exploiting this arrangement efficiently, moving the table and floor lamp to a good position for both of us to work. We also put most motel rooms through their paces pretty thoroughly (not like that, sicko), putting solutions down the drains that the designers surely never envisioned (aquatic plants are good at clogging drains; we learned this early and commenced filling the tiny garbage cans with rotting swamp guck).

Motel rooms are designed for relaxation, but Matt and I were too busy for such niceties. Many motels offer swimming pools, exercise rooms, and other amenities that we utterly ignored. We would arrive at a haphazardously-chosen motel, usually based on signs on the interstate, typically between 6:00 and 7:00pm. We took turns; generally one of us would walk in and ask for “a room with two beds”, since neither of us was clear on what a “double” room actually involves. Prices ranged considerably, from a low of about $60 (Miamisburg) to a high of $150 (Savannah, Harrisburg). Price may be correlated with proximity to a major city or tourist zone. Then showers, out to a nearby restaurant for dinner, then back to work. Matt extracted further amphipods as well as mites and a few other critters from “sweep samples” taken at most sites using a lightbox, while I had to move my still-kicking specimens into cryovials for flash-freezing. A small table with two chairs, a floor lamp, and a clear path to the bathroom were sufficient for our needs each evening. This sorting and freezing generally took about two to three hours, so some nights a longer, more relaxing dinner (e.g. Outback Steakhouse) was paid for with a later night staring into a light bulb.

Other People

We met no other scientists during this trip. Almost all of the people we saw and talked with were fishing, and asked us what we were doing. Frequently, this question was phrased as “What’re y’all doin’?” or “Are y’all gettin’ bait?”. Yes, thick southern accents were universal during our travels. Even the friendly guys fishing in Northern Georgia who were from Illinois had heavy southern accents. There is an odd mismatch in the South between the accents held by many people (fishermen, waitresses, crazy and less-crazy old men) and radio and television personalities. For some reason, radio DJs and local news reporters have very weak or nonexistent southern accents, while their call-ins had the same drawl as we met every time we bought fuel or ordered breakfast.

Everyone was very friendly and polite, and we experienced no rudeness or hostility of any kind. Southern hospitality is justifiably famous, and we had a good time with all of the people we met. When we explained what we were doing, generally by stating “We’re collecting bugs”, people seemed basically interested. Our most crowded site was at a river near a spring in Northern Florida, at a boat ramp that is also popular with swimmers and other people just being outside for recreation. Here, we spent some time talking with a family who all seemed genuinely interested in our work. Our least crowded site was Palestine Lake, Florida, where we saw no other evidence of human activity beyond the boat ramp, which was deserted except for ourselves.

Geography

The distinction between “subtropical” and “warm temperate” is clear as one moves through Florida. In South and Central Florida, there were dogwood trees everywhere, providing a distinctly subtropical flavour to the landscape. In northern Florida and southern Alabama and Mississippi, the forests changed to drier patches, with more conifers. Coastal Georgia had trees festooned with lichens, as one would expect based on pictures of (for example) Savannah. These were also abundant in Florida. Florida is ridiculously flat; I expect the entire state to simply disappear under the Atlantic Ocean as Global Warming continues. It is also obviously heavily populated: at no time were Matt and I more than about 20 kilometres from a town or city of more than 10 000 people, and paved roads criss-cross the state everywhere.


Collecting Sites and Maps

Our best collecting locations were boat ramps and a few particularly good under-bridge creek sites. I’ve mentioned a few times the good maps we had. DeLorme is a company based in Maine that produces a series of books named “Road Atlas and Gazetteer”, for each state. These map books are excellent, showing highways, minor roads, and some dirt roads, as well as topographic contour lines and creeks and lakes. Creeks were important to have on our maps because we could use them as landmarks when driving on poorly-signed rural roads, as well as planning potential sampling sites (i.e. under bridges). But of greatest value on these maps were the boat ramps. Boat ramps are good. We like boat ramps. They provide a place to park, easy access to the water (that avoids snake-concealing tall grass), and often an abundance of amphipod habitat a.k.a. green slime. Many boat ramps charge fees, from about $3 to $7, to use, but we only paid once, since we didn’t actually have a boat.


Animals

As far as charismatic megafuana is concerned, we saw alligators, a probable cottonmouth snake, several turtles, assorted frogs and tadpoles, armadillos (mostly dead by road-kill), many turkey vultures, and lots of other birds I can’t identify. Among the non-target invertebrates, we saw too many dipteran larvae (maggots) to count, probably mostly Chironomidae, along with other aquatic insect larvae or nymphs for dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies, and caddisflies. We also met a large number of orthopterans, including of course the largest insect I’ve ever seen, hordes of grasshoppers (Matt: “We’re surrounded by grasshoppers!”), and some big katydids.


Summary

In short, I had an excellent collecting trip through the South-eastern USA. I collected lots of things successfully, my cryoshippers didn’t thaw, and we saw lots of interesting things.

6 comments:

King Aardvark said...

Crap, I should have read this summary post before asking the food question in the other post. Whoops.

TheBrummell said...

No worries, I like to pretend to maintain the fiction that I'm actually posting these things the night of.

Mike said...

I'm glad to hear you had an enjoyable and productive trip!

I look forward to the updates on the Norther leg of your work!

Carlo said...

I'm glad to hear that things went well. I don't know if I could do the whole 'only two meals a day' thing... It reminds me too much of traveling with my parents when I was a kid. I'm also glad that you blogged about it, it was enjoyable reading your posts, even if I didn't have anything to contribute comment-wise.

Once you're done the whole shebang, we'll have to get together so that you can tell me about everything in more detail!

King Aardvark said...

No worries here either, I like to humour by reading them in order.

TheBrummell said...

Carlo: Yes, at the end of this summer (i.e. late August / September) we need to get together and hang out. I have become video-game deprived of late.

Your highness: I'll try to get some more posts up soon. Feel free to comment on any and / or all of them if so inclined.