Shipping from Blakely Island: Biology in the Field

“You have to be in the field, in the forest, in the water to appreciate the field, the forest and the water. I can show you Douglas fir in PowerPoint, and it’s only a small fraction of what you learn when you go out and get your hands on a Douglas fir. It’s literally a breath of fresh air for students coming from Seattle.”

Dr. Eric Long, Professor of Biology at SPU

For a dozen Seattle Pacific University students, the trip to the Blakely Island field station in Washington state’s San Juan Islands will complete a science requirement that began online. These were not biology students but included students with majors from political science to criminology. They stepped off the Paraclete water taxi with little knowledge of science or the outdoors and no idea what to expect. Thanks to Professor Ryan Ferrer, this was about to change.

The Paraclete Water Taxi drops students off at Blakey Pier

“My hope is that they have a different perspective on nature and science in particular… when they vote, when they make decisions about how to treat nature, how to treat their bodies with health care decisions… that they are more familiar with scientific research and decisions. evidence-based”.

Dr. Ryan Ferrer, Professor of Biology at SPU

Seattle Pacific University is a small liberal arts school founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America. It has maintained a biology field station in Blakely for 45 years, offering two-week summer immersion courses and weekend excursions in topics such as forestry, conservation biology, marine botany, astronomy and environmental ecology, as well as a general introduction of five days. to the biology that this group of students will experience. Those of us with homes on the island appreciate the university activities and benefit from the occasional astronomy or deer lecture open to the public. Blakely is unique in offering study environments in two freshwater lakes, the saltwater Salish Sea with its rocky beaches and tide pools, and forested hills carved by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. Populated with black-tailed deer, bald eagles, ospreys, raccoons, squirrels, otters, seals and more in adjacent waters, the island has two concentrated residential areas for about 100 homeowners and one landing strip, but most of the seven square mile island is in its natural state, subject only to selective logging.

“I’m getting a lot of inspiration here, honestly. I wish I had more time to write on my own time.”

Helen Peterson, English and Creative Writing student

SPU Biology Field Station Main Building

SPU Biology Field Station Dock at Spencer Lake

The late Thomas B. Crowley, Sr., owner of Crowley Marine, donated 967 acres in 1976, later building and endowing the field station as a way to preserve much of the island in its natural state and support SPU’s mission to teach about nature and the environment. His talented carpenter, Gordon Plume, built the beautiful field station buildings from wood and rock from the island. The campus, about three miles from the Blakely Marina, includes a dock and raft on Spencer Lake, dormitories, a science lab, lounge, kitchen, dining room, and faculty apartment.

To give students an overview of the island, their arrival day included a trip to Blakely’s highest point, El Pico, which provides a spectacular view of the northwestern San Juan Islands and, in the distance, Isla from Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The first day we went to Blakely Peak…we got to see the sunset…and all the different islands that surround the area and it was great!”

Naide Perez, student of social justice and cultural studies

View from Blakely Peak

The stage was set for the first full day of field class, exploring the forest.

“I have seen many trees in my life, but there are so many trees here!”

Alex Christiansen, political science student

“We learned how to get a small tree core… it was very interesting to find out how to find the age
from a tree!”

Jannice Barbosa-Buenrostro, student of social justice and cultural psychology

“I hadn’t really paid attention to how many varieties of trees there are around you because you spend them so fast. I really enjoyed looking at the different shapes of leaves and bark.”

Helen Peterson, English and Creative Writing student

Having learned the differences between pines, firs, maples, cedars and more about the island’s flora, the students spent the morning of the third day on the university’s raft in the middle of Spencer Lake. After a briefing by Dr. Ferrer on measurements and equipment on land, the class headed to the dock. Professor Ferrer highlighted how basic field collection equipment was compared to high-tech devices that were more difficult to use and, if necessary, repair in the field. Carrying thermometers, devices for measuring turbidity (water clarity), plankton strainers, and water sample jars, teams of three took out canoes and a rowboat to see what the lake contained. I was invited to join Dr. Ferrer in his canoe to observe and learn about the lake he had swum so many times in ignorance!

“I was surprised how few people live here year-round. I like how natural it is.”

Maren Pingree, criminology student

Dr. Ferrer points the way

Students gather on the college raft at Spencer Lake

Each team took turns measuring the clarity of the water by recording the depth at which a black and white disk could be seen on a segmented string, checking for temperature differences between the top and bottom of the lake, capturing tiny creatures on a fine mesh and then a looser one. mesh bag The vibrancy and density of life in the lake amazed the students, who began to see connections to their careers.

“The design of the place is really beautiful… It is making me more aware of our carbon footprint. Maybe the fashion industry can learn something from this.”

Joyce Park, fashion merchandising and fashion design specialist

Dragging a mesh bag to see what lives in the lake. Tiny lake dwellers captured for study in a marked jar

Tiny lake dwellers captured for study in a marked jar with blue ribbon

Measurement of changes as lake temperature increases from the bottom to the surface

The group headed to Horseshoe Lake to take the same measurements and compare the two bodies of water, quite similar although one is teeming with bass and the other with trout. They would spend the afternoon in the lab analyzing their data under a microscope.

Having learned the basics of fresh water, the group spent the next morning on the seashore at Driftwood Beach to explore the saltwater tide pools – the seawater left behind between the barnacle-covered rocks at low tide. Each team selected a pool to measure size, salinity, temperature, distance from shore, and number of observable animals; The teams then chose new groups to test and compare.

One of the largest tide pools at Driftwood Beach

Students climb down a rocky outcrop to find multiple tide pools

Students learn to measure the area of ​​a tide pool with unequal dimensions

“I never realized how many species could live in a small body of water that comes from the beach. I was able to see starfish for the first time!”

Naide Perez, student of social justice and cultural studies

There are other areas of research underway at the field station. Dr. Eric Long has studied the black-tailed deer population here for 16 years. As residents, we delight in seeing deer in the woods and even on our property on a regular basis. Some residents take advantage of the short hunting season to stock their freezers with venison. Deer challenges are well known to suburban Chicagoans, whose yards can be decimated in an hour or two. Here at Blakely, too, students climb down a rocky outcrop to find multiple tide pools. Homeowners should build tall fences to protect their dahlias and daisies, arugula and strawberries

A doe explores our neighbor’s property

A tall fence protects an island garden

What is unique about Blakely deer is their size; they are small compared to their mainland cousins. Although deer are known to swim between islands, Blakely’s herd appears to have stayed apart, mating with close relatives. Its natural predators that once populated the island, including cougars and wolves, are long gone, driven out by early settlers. The herd is hardly affected by the annual hunt and is limited only by the amount of food available. Dr. Long notes that in addition to occasional droughts, the maturing forest canopy cuts off sunlight, reducing the undergrowth that deer prefer. He estimates that there was once a relatively stable population of 500 deer, now about 350. The students do an annual deer count to monitor the population, which is currently declining about 4% a year until they reach a new equilibrium with the food supply.

Although counting deer was not on the agenda for the current group, the students had a very busy week. For their last night at Blakely, they gave presentations on special projects and the results of their research. Their week in Blakely concluded on Friday morning and they headed home on the ship.

The Paraclete awaits its passengers for the 40-minute journey to the mainland on the first cloudy day of the week.

“It has been very different than I thought it would be. I thought we’d be at the field station, talking about things. But we have to do our own research in different places on the island, like a real scientist.”

Dominique Shipman, political science student and philosophy student

“It was so much more than I expected…so much fun…so many bugs but we fought them! I learned a lot about trees. I was able to understand everything we did… it applies to almost everything… It was an amazing experience… very, very informative and really beautiful. The week has been great! I am so sad to leave. Seeing the luggage here is the saddest part. What a great experience!”

Melody Stice, psychology and cultural anthropology student

“To be able to hear the excitement in their voices when they experience the things that they experience here is really very special.”

Dr. Ryan Ferrer, Professor of Biology at SPU

For those of us lucky enough to have homes on Blakely Island, there is value in seeing the island through fresh, young eyes and taking the time to learn about the habitat we disrupt with our homes, boats, and planes. The SPU team is sharing our wealth of nature with the next generation. We have to pay attention.