Carmen Harjoe peers into brush along Eccles Creek in search of toads. She and her assistant, Jules Cooch, came to Cordova, Alaska to do research on amphibians, which appear to be declining. Since there has been virtually no research on amphibians of the Chugach Area in the past, however, they are unable to determine any trends in the population numbers. “Alaska Fish and Game and the Forest Service were really interested in looking at the status of their toads, and they have a few historic observations of toads. What I’m basically doing is rechecking to see if they are still there,” says Carmen. “That can kind of give us an idea of what’s going on with these kinds of populations, since most of what we’ve heard is purely anecdotal.” Carmen and Jules began their scientific inquiry in response to the stories about toads they’ve heard from Cordova locals.
Dan Jenkins (left), Jules Cooch (center), and Carmen Harjoe put on waders in preparation for their trek down Eccles Creek near Cordova, Alaska. "It's just stunning." Jules says of the area, "If you like to travel, science can be a really cool career, because you get to go to a lot of remote places."
Carmen Harjoe stops at the end of a 100-meter transect in Eccles Creek near Cordova, Alaska to collect water samples. She’ll filter these at the U.S. Forest Service bunkhouse, where she, Dan, and Jules are staying, then bring the filters back to Oregon to run EDNA tests, which can show if amphibians have passed through that water within two weeks of the water collection.
Carmen Harjoe pulls a 100-meter measuring tape downstream to set up water samples of Eccles Creek. As an undergraduate at University of Missouri, Harjoe focused on ornithology, the study of birds. Then she took an opportunity to do basic research on amphibians. “I was fascinated by the places we were going to collect animals and study their behavior,” she says. Now she’s getting a doctoral degree focusing on diseases and pathogens in amphibians. “It’s funny how things you expect to do, they don’t really pan out…I should be an ornithologist!”
Near the end of Eccles Creek, where it runs into the ocean, grassy wetlands replace dense forests. Dan Jenkins, a biological technician for the Cordova Ranger District and self-proclaimed “gun slinger” walks alongside the creek, keeping watch for bears. “I get tossed around on various projects.” He says of his work. “It’s more or less a novel experience each time, which is what I really enjoy about it.” And as for the day-to-day parts of his job? “It’s wet,” he says.
Jules Cooch (left) and Carmen Harjoe enjoy a short celebration when they reach the end of Eccles Creek. They found no toads today, but still have the water samples to analyze when head back to Oregon State University. Their spirits are untainted, “I’ve never walked a creek straight into the ocean before,” says Harjoe excitedly, “That was frickin’ cool!”
Wading through Eccles Creek is not as easy as it may sound. Carmen Harjoe crawls over fallen debris on her way back to the car. “That’s field work,” she says, “It’s full of lovely surprises.”
Back at the Forest Service bunkhouse, Carmen Harjoe brings water samples to the “bedroom lab,” a pump and sample-processing system she and Jules have set up on the table between their two beds.
Carmen Harjoe prepares water samples that she will ship back to Oregon State University to be analyzed for remnant amphibian DNA. “These are my filters. So some of these are .45 microns, which is unbelievably small, and also .22 microns, which is even more unbelievably small.” Pumping the water through these filters takes about half an hour per sample. Preparing the nine samples she collected today from Eccles Creek will take hours.
Carmen Harjoe displays the finished product of the water samples she collected today at Eccles Creek. After pumping a liter of water through the fine mesh of the filters, she folds them so they fit into tiny tubes. These will then be sent back to Oregon State University, where she’ll analyze them for remnant amphibian DNA, or in her own words: “crush the crap out of [the filters] and do a DNA extraction…Then I'll be able to tell what was in the water when I took the sample.” This process can tell her whether or not toads have been around the area within the past two weeks. “That's so crazy that you can do that.” She says.
Marv Van Den Broek has lived in Cordova with his wife, Mazie for more than four decades. When his kids were young, they would go to ponds to collect and play with tadpoles. “There were hundreds; it would be black, and we brought some home and kept them in a little aquarium,” he remembers. “Since then, my last sighting was 8 years apart. I don’t know where they went. How could they go from hundreds to this very limited thing? We're lucky to see one now. Very lucky.” Until Carmen Harjoe’s research is published, anecdotal evidence like Marv and Mazie’s is all the Forest Service has as a reference for toad populations.
Mazie Van Den Broek lives with her husband, Marv, in their log house in Cordova. “One of the other reasons that I really enjoy living here is that there's a direct contact between our lives and how we provide for our lives…I make a lot of the things that we eat and a lot of the things that we wear…[There’s] a very good connection between our lives and our environment.” She and Marv were among the first to notice that toads seemed to be disappearing around Cordova.
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