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Field Work is Not for the Faint of Heart

As Duquesne's point person for 3RQ and self-appointed conduit for cool information on our 3RQ doins’, I am aiming at getting as many of our participants here at Duquesne and among our partners in the community to tell the stories of their experiences outdoors, in the water, and over the fields as they work on water quality.  To launch this mini-series of stories, I am not able to resist making our first contribution to the 3RQ blog the following tale by our graduate student Oliver Dugas.  As you’ll see, it is far too much fun to pass up—for the reader, or editor (me.), at least.  As for the author, well…

“Field work is not for the faint of heart. I took a hiatus from it after accepting a position in an environmental microbiology lab but when I was approached to work on the 3RQ project I was happy to return. I had been out on three sampling trips for this project before and experienced optimal weather conditions. It felt great to be working in the outdoors again. I forgot that the weather does not always plan itself according to your scheduled sampling days. I was trained for this project by Dr. Beth Dakin of the biology department at Duquesne University. She always suggested getting an early start because the field is unpredictable and it is better to have deal with issues during the daylight than the night; worst case you finish early and have the rest of the day to yourself. I now treasure that advice.

I had my equipment packed the night before and I was up and in my car by 6:00 am. The sky was clear and it only appeared to have sprinkled a bit. I knew going into the day that the forecast called for rain but I was not prepared for what transpired. I turned on the morning radio program that I typically listen to and started my commute. All the jockeys talked about were flash floods. Apparently, if you could call in sick or go to work late, today was the day to do it.

I sampled my first two sites, Allegheny Lock and Dam 2 and Pine Creek, without obstruction. There only had been a few measly rain drops. As most people do, I blamed it on the meteorologist being wrong again; they can never seem to get it right. It wasn’t till I was approaching my third site, Buffalo Creek, that I realized that I passed my judgment far too quickly. 

Now, as a student finishing on my master’s at Duquesne in the Environmental Science and Management program, a streamlined program aimed to get a student a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in five years, I am no stranger to the field. I have always volunteered to go out during that time duration but nothing quite prepared me for what I was about to experience.

As I neared, the rain began to pour down in sheets. I figured it was just rain and that I would fine if I got a little wet. I proceeded to the normal parking pull off on the side of the road while I mentally prepared to do the job as quickly as possible. I didn’t realize that it had been raining in this particular area for far longer than previous areas I had visited. The creek was high; really high. And lightning and thunder was ringing out louder than I have ever heard. I parked, took a deep breath, and ran out of my car. I circled the vehicle and opened up the trunk to grab the YSI multimeter and the collection bucket. I sprinted to the side of the road and recognized that the stream bank that I normally transverse had vanished and that the water was a few feet down the bank under the road. I could not reach it without falling into the fast moving waters myself. I ran back to the car to grab a piece of rope so that I could hurl a bucket down below to grab a sample of water. I returned to the edge and tried with all my might to toss the bucket down below. I almost lost the bucket to the current. As I was desperately and pathetically trying to reel the bucket in without loads of vegetation and sediment, a bolt of lightning struck a tree nearby and it fell beside me, completely blocking the road that I had just traveled down. I retrieved the bucket with nothing but mud and returned to my car. I knew that the mud would not pass through the filtration unit used to prepare the sample that would be analyzed by the laboratory that we send it to and so defeated I sat in my driver-side seat to regroup. It was then that I did the only logical thing I could think of. I called my parents.  I just wanted to hear their reassuring voices to talk me back into confidence. Unfortunately, because of the weather and rural area I had no service and so I did my best to assess the situation. I sat and listened to the radio but nothing but emergency announcements passed over the air waves. They told me to seek higher ground.

As a young man, I try to act as brave as possible but given the circumstances I was scared. After failing to call my superiors and my sampling counterpart, Lauren, who was tending to her sites, I knew the show must go on. I returned to the bank as composed as I could and released the bucket once more. This time I was fortunate to hit water. After all there was a lot of it to go around. I made my way back to my car, filtered the lab sample, filled the raw water sample container, and I was finished. I put the samples in the cooler, ran to the driver side door, put the keys in the ignition, and put the car in drive. I had to venture further down the road considering the road to my rear was blocked.

I made it out alive and full of adrenaline. The road ahead was clear and I finally had a phone signal to make the necessary calls. Instead I called my friends to inform them of my thrilling experience. It was at that moment driving in the rain that I wanted to pursue a career as a storm chaser.  Fortunately (unfortunately), my other sites were not nearly as invigorating. Working in the lab I forgot how exhilarating working in the field could be. In the end it was about one important goal; science. This project is determined to retrieve data to fulfill the greater quest of knowledge and understanding and I am happy that I was a part of it.”                                                                                                     
---Oliver Dugas


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