By Maggie Newell, Backcountry Water Monitoring Trip Leader
What are you looking for in a paddling trip? Do you prefer to meander up winding rivers or to pond hop through the St. Regis canoe area? When I started paddling Adirondack waters, I reveled in mountain views across open lakes and listening to the call of my favorite aquatic companion: the common loon. This season, however, my focus has shifted from looking across water to underwater as a guide for ADK’s (Adirondack Mountain Club’s) Backcountry Water Monitor Project (BCWMP).
The BCWMP surveys backcountry ponds and lakes for aquatic invasive species (AIS). Species become invasive when they are introduced to areas where they were not previously found. This can wreak havoc on an ecosystem, as these species are often transported without their natural predators and diseases, so they are able to grow unchecked in their new home. As a result, they outcompete native vegetation, damage the food chain, and can grow into dense mats across lakes, making them unpleasant to swim or boat across. Once an AIS has taken over a lake, it is very labor-intensive and sometimes nearly impossible to remove.
Early detection is the key to successfully combating AIS in the Adirondack Park’s waterways. The BCWMP surveys pristine backcountry ponds to catch any invasive plants early on while there are few plants and eradication is still possible. Water monitoring trips consist of a backcountry guide (me!) and a small group of volunteers. After hiking or paddling to our survey area, we paddle with our eyes trained on the bottom while zigzagging our way around the perimeter of the water body. Using the sun to illuminate the bottom, we can often identify species from above but, when the bottom isn’t visible, we toss a rake head on a rope to the bottom and pull up anything that may be growing there. Before each trip, I closely study each of the target species—those that we are most likely to encounter as invasive species—memorizing their key feature before going out so I can confidently identify them if the moment arises. So far, I am happy to report that no AIS have been detected after surveying our first three ponds of the season.
Despite constant study, aquatic plant identification is still a major challenge. Aquatic plants don’t follow the same rules as terrestrial plants; some, for example, have one shape of leaf below water and another above. Observing them from above adds to the challenge: am I looking at one plant or two growing very close together? Last week’s survey to Pink Pond put my identification skills to the test. Most ponds that I’d surveyed previously had a few varieties of plants that we identified quickly and continued to then find around the pond. Pink Pond, though, was bursting with diversity. Each rake toss seemed to pull up a new puzzle for us to solve. My favorite discovery of the day was Common Bladderwort, a native easily mistaken for the invasive Eurasian Milfoil. But, unlike its invasive doppelganger, Common Bladderwort is actually a carnivorous plant. The small bladders on its stems each have a “trap door” covered in sensitive hairs that trigger the opening of the bladder when an insect brushes by. This causes water to rush into the bladder, trapping the insect inside. Who knew all of that was going on underneath my canoe!
If you are interested in volunteering with our Backcountry Water Monitor Project, you can learn more and register here. To learn more about aquatic invasive species in New York State, visit the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program’s web page.