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Springtime in Fort McMurray

Most people choose to go snow shoeing in the forest on their weekends when they are away from work. I am fortunate enough to be able to snowshoe through beautiful snowy landscape for my work. I never thought that completing my Master’s in hydrology would include snow shoeing through the bush, sometimes for upwards of five hours, to reach a site where I would measure snow depth (and it was very deep in some places). In mid-March, I drove up to Fort McMurray Alberta to be in the field for an unknown period of time as the snow melted. The purpose of this mission: to track snowmelt on seismic lines to understand how these anthropogenic features affect natural processes.

As happens with most field work, I went into this trip with an amazing plan. I was going to measure snow depth and weight to get the snow water equivalent, set up ablation lines to track the melt, and dig snow pits to see how the layering changed on seismic lines. I was going to pair this study with my sites from last summer, but as I soon remembered, plans must be flexible when in the field. Due to a lack of snow removal, one of the roads we would drive down in the summer was inaccessible, adding 45 minutes to an already long walk, consisting of trail breaking through meter deep snow, up hills and through dense forest. Needless to say, my first day in the field was long; about 12 hours, and most of it was walking. The discouragement set in quickly; how could I get any work done if literally half of my day was travelling to sites? I got back to the house that night and sullenly went to bed to try and get at least six hours of sleep.

Snow pit with yellow tape measure showing 72 cm of snow

The next day felt no better. A 2.5 hour drive one way to this next site was equally as discouraging as the walking the day before. Everything took longer than anticipated. Snow pits were very quickly understood to be a write-off, setting up ablation lines took much longer than it would be to measure them, and weighing the snow tube was extremely annoying. I arrived back at the house just as late as the night before.

Man wearing snow shoes laughing and holding a large tub filled with snow on a scale

I hit my breaking point very quickly on day three. An eight km hike into the site felt never-ending, but fortunately the walking was made easier by snowmobile tracks, though none passed us to offer a ride. Upon reaching my site, I was upset to discover that these same snowmobiles that had made the trek significantly easier had also destroyed my site. Huge banks and divots marred the landscape, where I had hoped I would find a blank covering of snow to measure. We walked further down the line to see if we could identify any untouched areas, but we were out of luck. We walked back, happy to have a somewhat shorter day, but discouraged by the lack of data collection.

Tires tracks through snow, trees in the background

Since those first three days, the trip has become significantly easier. I get to enjoy the peaceful silence of winter in the boreal forest while slowly watching the landscape change from winter to spring. The days are much shorter now as well, having completed the set-up, and we can usually finish a day in about five hours. I have learned many lessons since the beginning of this trip, including where my breaking point is, and how important being flexible is when making field plans. I am enjoying the ease of the trip, yet am looking forward to returning in the summer, when everything is green and alive again.

-Lelia Weiland


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