by Riley Steinbrenner
Her first day on the job, I found my housemate Kaela Amundson—a microbiology undergraduate at UW-Madison—hunched over a blacktop counter in the station’s main lab next to a cranking, electric-mixer-sized machine that sounded like it belonged in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
But it definitely wasn’t producing any everlasting gobstoppers.
With tweezers in both of her blue-latex gloved hands, Kaela prodded at a piece of filter paper sitting atop a graduated cylinder attached the machine. The cylinders filled with a brownish-yellow liquid akin to that of sewage water.
“Whatcha up to, Kaela?” I asked from the doorway, slowly inching my way in.
“Oh, just filtering some bacteria,” she replied. “Wanna see?”
Kaela explained that the machine was straining bacteria out of water taken from a nearby bog (a kind of wetland filled with water, sphagnum moss and the peat that accumulates underneath it) which seeped into the graduated cylinders. “You see that brown liquid on the paper? That’s the bacteria!” she said, eyes-widened in enthusiasm for the microscopic creatures.
Kaela is working this summer for UW-Madison graduate student Alex Linz, who is part of Trina McMahon’s Microbial Observatory lab at UW-Madison, and had gathered this sample from one of her study bogs earlier that day as part of an attempt to learn what different microbes make up a bog ecosystem and what it is, exactly, that they do there.
“These will be sent off to Madison for DNA extraction,” Kaela said, as she rolled together the saturated filter paper and precisely packaged it into a little, plastic vial.
“Alex will be training me how to take samples from our bogs this week,” she continued, pointing to one of the many translucent jugs of water. “I’ll get to go out collecting by myself next week, so we’ll see how that goes!”
A week later I found myself with a newly-trained Kaela as she drove a station vehicle over a bumpy, dirt path in the thick of Trout Lake’s western shoreline en route to capture some wild bog bacteria.
“We have five locations where we sample from each week,” Kaela explained during our roller coaster of a car ride. “Trout Bog—where we’re going right now—Crystal Bog, North and South Sparkling Bog and Mary Lake Bog.”
When asked why she and Alex were collecting bacteria, Kaela said the samples are used by different labs at UW-Madison studying the microorganisms.
The DNA gets extracted from most of the bacteria samples, which is then used by labs throughout the UW campus for tests like genomic sequencing.
Soon enough, we arrived at a worn-out patch of the forest that has clearly had its fair share of off-roading joy rides over the years..
After parking the truck, Kaela went around back to gather the equipment for bacteria sampling. Not expecting anything too extreme for microbial sampling, she pulled out three, two-meter PVC pipes that stuck out of the trunk.
“Whoa, these are huge!” I said.
“You’ll see why when we get out there,” she told me, swinging a hiking backpack over her shoulders.
Grabbing the life jackets, I followed Kaela as she effortlessly weaved down a long stretch of boards laid out atop the damp soil all the way to the dock, where we arrived at an overturned boat sitting on the platform.
Squatting on her hands and knees, Kaela peered over the edge next to the boat.
“Oh no! It’s in the water…I was told not to leave it in there.”
Curious, I joined her in looking under the boat. She rummaged through the shallow water inches above a mat of sphagnum moss and grabbed hold of a lock.
“Aha,” she said under her breath while unchaining it from the dock.
“Now, this’ll be the fun part,” Kaela said as she dug her fingers under the boat.
With a swift lift and push that looked far too easy, she settled the boat up on its side and atop the calm waters of the bog.
“Phew,” she let out. “OK, that was much better than last time.”
As Kaela gathered the PVC pipes, rope, jugs and, of course, the holy grail of limnological equipment—a Secchi disk—I plopped the life jackets and oars inside the boat.
Distracted by the tranquil beauty of this secret-garden-esque sampling location, I put one foot in the boat to get a good shot of the field site—not knowing it would also be the site of my bog baptism.
Lifting my foot, I swung the right side of my body over the now slightly drifted boat onto the dock—or, on what I thought was the dock. When I stepped out, I soon learned what Kaela meant when she warned about the “deep parts” of the bog.
My right foot clipped the edge of the wooden platform and, in order to salvage the camera-bearing right-side of my torso, took a left step backward into the bog.
With a loud “Oh gosh!” I managed to catch myself right before the water reached the trimming of my shorts.
Kaela whipped around. “Are you OK?!” she asked.
“Ha yeah, I could use some water proof paper though!” I replied, holding my notebook over the bog to let it drip dry—or, rather, damp.
“Do you need to empty your boot?” she asked.
“That’s not something you hear everyday,” I thought with a smirk while seasoning the dock with rogue bog water courtesy of my left shoe.
After that fiasco, which Kaela’s advisor, Trina McMahon–head of the McMahon Lab in UW’s Department of Bacteriology–jokingly refers to as a “bog baptism,” we finished loading the boat.
Grabbing one of the two oars, Kaela started paddling us out over the pleasantly calm, mosquito-less waters.
“You sure got a nice field site!” I said.
“Yeah,” she replied, smiling off at the treeline where a bald eagle soared overhead. “I love coming here—it’s so peaceful.”
“You see those two buoys?” she asked, as we approached the middle of the bog. “That’s where we’re headed. The buoys to the right are LTER’s.”
The LTER, or Long-Term Ecological Research project, is part of the National Science Foundations program to collect long-term data on ecosystems across the U.S. We host the North Temperate Lakes site, where conditions on a collection of lakes and bogs have been monitored since the 1980s. The LTER “base crew” is another team on station made up of two undergrads, Sydney DeMets and Camryn Kluetmeier, as well as two TLS staff, Pam Montz and Tim Meinke.
“I really hope they didn’t need the boat today…” Kaela said, remembering she forgot to check this morning to see if base crew had already signed up to use this boat—the only one docked at the site. “This shouldn’t take too long though!”
A few minutes later we glided towards the buoys.
“Can you please hand me that?” she said, pointing to the Secchi disk. But instead of plopping the black-and-white disk in the water to measure clarity, she looped it around the buoy.
“This’ll be our anchor!” she said.
“Alright, time to see what’s in our mystery bag…” she continued, digging shoulder deep into the hiking backpack.
Like a magician pulling an endless string of braided handkerchiefs from a top hat, Kaela fished out a wooden coil of raggedy, weathered rope, another coil of thinner wire attached to a sensor and a handheld electronic measuring device.
Clipboard in hand, she started jotting down information.
“Name: Kaela. Date: What day is it?”
Looking down at my watch, I answered, “The 21st.”
“June 21st. Location: Trout Bog.”
“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to the device Kaela held in her hands.
“It measures dissolved oxygen (DO) and temperature in the water,” she explained, adding that there will be a noticeable difference in the two measurements as the device goes deeper in the water.
Dissolved oxygen means the amount of oxygen in the water. Because bog’s have very low DO, fish do not flourish in this ecosystem–but some kinds of bacteria do.
This shift marks the change from the epilimnion—or top of the bog, which contains more oxygen and is warmer—to the hypolimnion—or bottom of the bog, which contains less oxygen and is colder—Kaela said.
“That’s why, when you’re standing in a lake, you can be freezing cold on the lower half of your body, and warmer towards your shoulders,” she said.
Before sampling, she had to find where this stratification of the two layers occurred.
Using a plastic pipette, she added droplets of water on the device to calibrate it.
“Oh, not percent, I want militers per meter…” she muttered as she changed the units in which dissolved oxygen is measured. Equipped with a sensor attached by wire like a microphone, Kaela slowly lowered the sensor over the boat’s edge, it broke the calm, glass-like surface of the water. Ripples radiated from the spot where she deployed the sensor, probably the bog’s first—and only—disturbance of the day.
Kaela explained that she was marking the temperature and DO every half meter for the first five meters—where stratification of the epilimnion and hypolimnion is more likely to occur—and every meter after that until the sensor reaches seven meters below the bog’s surface.
“Stratification usually occurs within the first one to two meters, with a 10 to 15 degree difference in temperature,” Kaela said.
After taking the measurements, which she will later catalogue into an Excel spreadsheet, Kaela reached for the wooden coil of weathered rope. Before setting it down on the seat next to her, she rewound the sensor attached to the DO/temperature device.
“There’s a rule on boats that anything that may tangle, will tangle,” she remarked, as if remembering the first time when she learned this the hard way.
After placing the sensor and its neatly-wound cable it back in the mystery bag, Kaela rummaged for a screw, two nuts and two washers.
“The first time I did this by myself, I forgot the screw—and sampling was much more difficult than it needed to be…” she said.
Reading the confusion on my face, Kaela replied with a “You’ll see.”
Once she affixed the screw to the side of the boat, she reached for one of the PVC pipes nestled next to us on the bottom of the boat.
“Now, this is the fun part,” she said.
“More fun than unloading the boat?” I replied.
Swinging the first of the three, two-meter PVC pipes onto her lap, she hooked one end of the weathered rope to a black valve at one end of the pipe, but suddenly turned of her head towards the dock.
“Did you hear that?” she said with a concerned look on her face.
Squinting towards the dock, expecting the see a black bear on its hind legs ready to let out a gut-wrenching roar—but seeing nothing—I replied with a quizzical, “…noooo…Why?”
“I think I heard a car,” she said.
Upon a second inspection through the thinning trees, I saw tail lights illuminate the trunk of a slowing moving vehicle.
“Oh, I just saw a black truck, like a fleet vehicle…you think it’s LTER?” I asked, remembering Kaela had mentioned that base crew also sampled on this bog—in the boat we were using.
“…well…that—that could be any black truck…” she said, trying to convince us both that it wasn’t LTER. “But if it is them, I can make this quick.”
After a couple minutes of debating like Sasquatch hunters if that was indeed a black, Chevrolet Colorado lurking beyond the branches, Kaela refocused and continued constructing the bacteria trap.
Once she attached the rope to the first pipe, she swung the tethered pipe over the edge and hooked a metal key-ring on the pipe around that screw on the boat’s edge.
“You can see my dilemma when I forgot the screw last time,” Kaela said, explaining that the screw holds the first (and bottom) pipe in place when she attaches the next two pipes.
“I had to juggle the pipes without the screw, and they can get pretty heavy. Here, lift this,” she said, pointing at the bottom pipe anchored to the screw.
Not expecting much, I leaned over to unhook the pipe and picked it up using more strength than I thought was necessary, letting out a long, “Oooofff!”
“This is insane!” I said, after settling it back on the hook.
“Crazy, right? I’m definitely getting a workout this summer!” Kaela reached over and grabbed the second pipe to anchor it onto the first.
“It’s like a giant straw you put in the water,” she explained. “Except there are valves to open and close it at different points.”
These different points, which are valves placed at either ends of the pipes, will separate the epilimnion and hypolimnion parts of the bog sample.
“We’re essentially taking a cross-section of the bog,” Kaela explained. “So [keeping the valves tight] is not one of those things where close is good enough, you have to be sure.”
After locking the second pipe on, she set it down into the bog.
“That’s six meters!” she exclaimed.
Like a daring balancing act on America’s Got Talent, Kaela reached over and stacked the third and final PVC pipe on top of the two already submerged.
Once secured, she lowered the six-meters of pipe into the water. Hearing voices from the dock, I turned my head.
“Oh no, it’s base crew,” I said, making out Sydney’s beige Patagonia sweatshirt inching closer to the water’s edge.
Kaela’s head shot up and over her shoulder, “Ahh, I knew I should’ve checked to see if they needed the boat,” she muttered under her breath.
“I’m sorry, Syd!” Kaela yelled out. “Do you need the boat? I’m almost done!”
“Oh no, we don’t need it!” Sydney replied. Luckily for us, she and Pam were doing sampling from shore.
With an audible sigh of relief, Kaela went back to sampling.
Holding onto the weathered rope in one hand and the longest straw in Vilas County in the other, Kaela pulled the rope towards her when she saw water filled the pipe to the top—closing the bottom valve and entrapping the cross-section of the bog’s epilimnion and hypolimnion inside.
“That wasn’t too bad!” I said—too early.
“Well…now I have to shut the middle valves and this one is the hardest…” Kaela said, hugging four-meters of the pipe between her chin and collar bone as she tugged at the valve connecting the bottom and top two pipes.
Shutting the valves will enable Kaela to deconstruct the pipe, and empty the cross-section sample into jugs labelled “epilimnion” and “hypolimnion,” which is necessary to keep separate for future lab analysis of the bog’s bacteria.
After several tugs and grimaces, Kaela was able to completely shut the valve to start taking apart the six-meter pipe.
“I’ve only done this one other time by myself,” she said, holding the four-meter end of the trap in her right hand and steadying the bottom pipe’s hook on the screw with her left. “So, it’s just kind of…tricky…”
If one, two-meter pipe filled with water was heavy, I couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kaela to unlatch two of them at once—stretching way over her shoulders—while keeping the boat steady enough not to flip over. And she does this by herself–five times a week.
While taking in the serene landscape, I saw Kaela lurch forward in my peripheral vision, swinging the now loose six-meters of PVC pipe over her lap and hurriedly setting it on the opposite side of the boat with a loud thud.
As we rocked back and forth on the bog, I recomposed myself to find Kaela looking over the side of the boat.
“Crap,” she muttered.
The screw was empty and Kaela held onto the weathered rope for dear life.
“Ah man…” she laughed, strangely calm given the fact that the bottom pipe of the bacteria trap was now slowly sinking to the bottom of Trout Bog!
“Oh no, did you lose it?!” I exclaimed.
“No, it’s still tethered to the rope,” she replied. “It got unhooked—I had a feeling that might happen.”
She slowly reeled in the pipe with a self-deprecating laugh, “Yeah, we’ll just have to re-sample.”
“Wow, you’re handling this really well!” I remarked.
“Ever since I started working in the plant pathology lab at UW, I’ve noticed I’ve gotten more calm in situations,” she said. “I tell myself, ‘OK, just figure out how to fix it.’”
Listening to Kaela made me remember how valuable to is to take on new and diverse experiences. You learn life lessons in every job you do, no matter if it relates to your major or future goals. If it weren’t for her plant pathology lab job, she may have handled this situation much differently—and not in a good way!
After a smooth re-sampling, it was time to empty the bog water into the separate “epilimnion” and “hypolimnion” jugs.
“Can you smell that?” she asked while emptying out the hypolimnion layer.
“Yeah, it’s pretty nasty,” I said, wondering if I’ve just officially become the odor-tester of Trout Lake Station.
“That’s the sulfide and methane!” she responded with enthusiasm.
“At least the bacteria don’t have noses…” I thought, happy that evolution was on their side.
After capping the jugs, Kaela had to do one more measurement using the poster child of limnology: the Secchi disk.
“How do these even work anyway?” I asked, starring at the two-by-two checkerboard of a circle.
“All you do is lower it in the water, and record at what depth you see it disappear,” Kaela explained, as she did just that. “It measures water clarity. Wanna try?”
Channeling my inner Art Hasler, I gently lowered it down over the boat’s side until the black-and-white quadrants disappeared into green-tinted water. My fingers followed the blaze-orange beads that dotted the Secchi disk’s rope every meter.
“1.5-ish.” I said, a little unsure.
“That’s about what I got too!” Kaela said, as she recorded the number on her data sheet next to hers. With that, she packed the secchi disk/makeshift anchor back into the mystery bag, and paddled us back to the dock.
“So that’s pretty much what I do for every bog,” she said when we arrived, lifting the jugs out of the boat. “You should see Mary Lake Bog—that’s twenty meters deep!”
Doing the quick math, I responded, “Ten PVC pipes?!”
“Yep! I still have to do that one this week.”
As I carefully eased my way off the platform, Kaela reeled the boat back up and onto the dock with a few tugs in a stance akin to Wonder Woman—of the Wetlands?
We grabbed up the equipment, life jackets and oars, and walked the plank back towards our car, passing Sydney and Pam along the way as they collected LTER data.
Walking behind Kaela, who carried the jugs of fresh Trout Bog epilimnion- and hypolimnion- water in both hands, it amazed me to think that these hefty samples will be sieved out to mere milliliters of pure bacteria on a piece of filter paper no heavier than a feather. Even more impressive, the bacteria will be sent out to researchers across the state as a baseline for groundbreaking microbiological research at UW-Madison. And no matter how challenging the job gets out in the field, it’s pretty cool Kaela gets to tell people she captures wild, bog bacteria–with a straw.
Now that’s a conversation starter!
by Riley Steinbrenner