A crew of women make their way through the forest canopy, selecting the best game trail to follow.
Their orange, yellow and red reflective vests pop amongst the greens and browns of the surrounding trees. They pass Rose Hip shrubs and Wild Highbush Cranberry along the way. Some stop to have a taste of the tart crimson fruit. They continue to weave their way through until eventually the trees thin out and they are blocked by a wall of Willows. It looks almost impenetrable, but they push on. Branches snap and whip their arms and legs. Although their movements are making enough of a ruckus, they shout out just in case there are unwanted furry guests nearby, “Hey animals! Here we come!”
One by one the women make their way through the tangle of branches until they emerge into an open landscape with trees and willows sparsely scattered around. Pink Mountain is near enough to gage its pinky hue. The group continue on. The compact dirt they walk on almost instantly transitions into a soft pillow of moss. Each step they sink a little further until their boots splash into the water beneath. They are in a wetland.
WESP in Northern B.C.
Trudging through the backcountry, whether you are out hunting, working, or on a leisurely stroll, you may notice the willows, tamarack tree and the spongy moss beneath your boots, but would you notice the difference between Glow Moss and Common Leafy Liverwort? Do you know what Fairy Puke Lichen looks like? Would you be able to pick out the difference between a diamond willow and a yellow willow? How about whether you are in a swamp, a fen, or a marsh?
The B.C. Wildlife Federation’s Wetlands Workforce (WW) crews have been out in wetlands across the province collecting data for a rapid wetland health assessment. The Wetlands Ecosystem Services Protocol (WESP) is a standardized method for rapidly assessing important natural functions of wetlands. It utilizes over 60 field questions and over 40 office/GIS questions as input to determine 17 functions and attributes of a wetland complex relative to other wetlands in the region. Through WESP, the functions of the ecosystem and other attributes can be rapidly assessed.
In the Peace Region, the WW crew has partnered with Northern Lights College for the practicum portion of the Land and Water Resources Diploma. Students join the crew for a week in the field to help with the WESP assessment. The students help identify the shrubs, trees and moss that make up the wetland plot. They study soil composition and assess water chemistry. Once all the data is collected, the students help answer the 100 plus WESP questions to classify the wetland and provide an idea of the wetland’s function.
Northern Lights College Learning Experience
While in Pink Mountain, the Northern B.C. Workforce crew was joined by WW project manager, Meghan Saunders and Northern Lights College students, Joy Ann Chipesia, Samantha Cochrane and Tamara St. Pierre to assess four wetlands in the area.
For Chipesia, it is her first time out with the Workforce crew. Over the course of the week, she collected the plants she identified to press and preserve them. A memento of her experience and a tool for studying. Chipesia has learned a lot through her practicum with the Wetlands Workforce and through her program at Northern Lights College. This experience will help her in her career with her community, Blueberry First Nation.
“It is very interesting. It is also very eye opening. This experience will help me when I do environmental monitoring for my community. It is very important to learn from this program because it will help us in doing our jobs and in protecting our land and our water resources.”
Cochrane is the seasoned expert of the students having joined the Workforce crew twice before. Students must complete 90 hours for the practicum portion of their diploma and the work at Pink Mountain will provide Cochrane with the hours she needs to complete her practicum.
“I’ve never done this type of work before, and I find it very interesting to be a part of the land. This work has taught me to be more aware of my own surroundings. Before, I wasn’t too aware of the outdoors, but now I look at the world differently.”
Cochrane has enjoyed the experience of not only learning from the crew supervisors, but also teaching them about the traditional knowledge of the plants and the area.
“They want to learn as much from us as we want to learn from them. We have the traditional knowledge and the stories, and they have the scientific knowledge that we want to learn.”
Katie Mitchell, the Field Crew Assistant for the Northern B.C. work-pod has similar feelings to Cochrane on the opportunity the collaboration between the Wetlands Workforce and Northern Lights College has provided.
“It’s been really awesome to work with the Northern Lights College. We have all been able to learn a lot from each other. They’ve been able to teach us things about the wetlands that we didn’t know, and we’ve been able to give them some tools for them to be able to bring back to their communities and help them to be able to protect wetlands in their area.”
St. Pierre is also new to the group, but in a short amount of time she sees how she can apply this experience and knowledge to her work. St. Pierre works in the lands department for Prophet River First Nations.
“I’ve learned so much like the different species of plants, all the different sedges and different mosses. It’s so interesting and diverse. I’m going to take this knowledge and use it out in our territory, because we do a lot of land reclamation.”
St. Pierre is not only inspired by the skills she is learning, but has been inspired by the Workforce supervisors, Rebekah Ingram and Katie Mitchell, “I’ve learned so much. They will pick up a plant and know exactly what it is called, like the scientific name. It’s very inspiring. That’s how I want to be eventually.”
After a full morning of sampling and examining the wetland soil, identifying the plants of the wetland, and sampling the water, the crew find a shaded spot to go over the information they collected. This data helps them classify the wetland and answer the WESP questionnaire, which will give the wetland a score. This score reflects the quality of the wetland’s functions and values. As a team they go through each question and provide their educated answers.
Although exhausted from the week’s work there is a sense of accomplishment and excitement amongst the women, having learned so much about the wetlands in the area. Plant identification became easier each day and the answers to the WESP questionnaire were answered more quickly and with more certainty. Another wetland assessed!
Rebekah Ingram, Field Crew Supervisor for the Northern B.C. Work-pod is happy to be able to provide this learning experience to the students, “It’s been really cool to give the students an opportunity to get out into the field and see a bunch of different types of wetlands across the region. I definitely would have loved to have that experience when I was in school, so it’s really cool to be able to help them out with that.”
For the Northern B.C. workforce crew each week welcomes new students, different wetlands, untold stories, and wonderful experiences. Some faces may be familiar with returning students, but the learning experience is always different in each new wetland they explore.