Where Science, Nature, and Beauty Co-Mingle

From the Fall/Winter 2016 Friends of Acadia Journal

By Natalie Overton

On an overcast Monday in July, I found myself in the passenger seat of a National Park Service vehicle, contemplating the brown fuzzy dice swinging from the rearview mirror. A personal touch, I suppose. Sam, project leader and designated driver, flipped on the turn signal as we exited yet another crowded parking lot. Abandoning a fruitless search for parking at Jordan Pond, we settled on second-best and much more secluded Seal Cove Pond. The goal of the day was to make some significant headway into the sample collection portion of the ponds research project—which is to say, do some fishing.

This research is a follow-up on a project that started about 20 years ago when mercury tests revealed that Hodgdon Pond contained the second highest levels in the nation. Back then, everyone understood that mercury was being carried on prevailing winds from the Midwestern coal-burning power plants. Though the source was assumed to have been identified, people were perplexed that Hodgdon Pond could have outrageous mercury levels while nearby bodies of water like Jordan Pond showed levels far lower.

The reason was found to be twofold, lying both in the patterns of air circulation along the coast of Maine and in the role of wetlands in the distribution and transformation of mercury. The elemental mercury in question is released into the air as vapor from anthropogenic sources like combustion in power plants. Mercury in this form can remain in the atmosphere for a year, so global air circulation systems can transport it essentially anywhere. As Mercury-vapor-laden air crosses the continent from west to east (swirling northeastward from May to September as it approaches New England, to make a beeline for Maine) it holds onto the mercury until it meets air coming off the Atlantic Ocean. At this point mercury will fall into ponds and wetlands along the Maine coast after seemingly “skipping” those further inland. Coastal wetlands and marshes, like those surrounding Hodgdon Pond, are “well-known hotspots for storing mercury (Hg) and converting it to its more toxic form, methylmercury (MeHg),” according to Ariel Lewis, an M.S. at the University of Maine, who wrote her dissertation on Hodgdon Pond’s mercury levels. Mercury from the air and from the wetlands is distributed to nearby water bodies and undergoes bioaccumulation, its levels increasing as it travels up the food chain.

Once the results of the study were published, Midwestern power plants took precautionary measures to protect the environment, installing scrubbers and other equipment in an effort to reduce their pollution. More recently, however, researchers have found that aerial mercury is reaching Acadia all the way from China, a source once thought to be too distant to affect Maine.

To re-test Acadia’s mercury levels, my brother, John, and his peers will be sampling from six different locations, including Hodgdon Pond, taking at least twelve individuals of each fish species included in the study: Small and large mouth bass, all types of panfish, brown bullhead catfish, brook trout, lake trout, and landlocked salmon. These samples will be sent to a lab and their flesh will be tested for mercury. The mercury levels will be measured alongside the age of the sample, determined by the size of the otolith, a certain bone in a fish’s ear.

While the study’s findings will serve as strong data resources for potential regulations, legislation and further research, the study itself has minimal funding. As a result, I find myself standing in the grass at the edge of Seal Cove Pond behind my 15-year-old brother and co-volunteer, with Igloo cooler in one hand and a box of worms at my feet.

Sam went over into some reeds, hoping for a bird sighting, as John cast out onto the glassy pond. A moment after his worm hit the water, John felt a bite and jerked back, reeling in hard. “This one’s a keeper,” he said, and as he turned around my eyes were caught by the glistening, feverishly flopping red-breasted sunfish. I stood there, entranced, as it slowly dawned on me that a few minutes ago I had casually volunteered to be the fish butcher—a decision I fully regretted now. (Though I might add that this experience resulted in a more humane, and dare I say morally sustainable, method of dispatching the samples.) I knocked the fish on the head with a rock and transferred it to a neatly labeled Ziploc bag and into the cooler. It struck me that this fish was the first of hundreds we would take from these waters by the end of the project.

This is all in the name of science, I reminded myself. But my thoughts were still troubled. Weren’t these the very animals I was trying to preserve? Wasn’t my purpose to enhance their environment and help them thrive? I thought about what would happen if the results came back as many researchers are predicting: with still-high mercury levels, sending waves of consequences out to the town’s water facilities, the fisheries, and several levels of park management. How ironic that the same pollutant that sullied these waters years ago became a twisted protector of the environment, helping to shield these now-quiet shores from the millions of vacationers that come to Acadia each year. I cast a momentarily envious glance over at Sam, who had set up his telescope and was happily squinting after a particularly evasive loon.

Having exhausted his chances with the wary fish population at our current location, John announced that we had to go to Duck Brook. I checked on our only sample, making sure it was good and dead, and watched my brother as he packed up his equipment. He moved quickly and I admired the focus, perseverance, and professionalism that he had shown in this project. So used to a fidgety, distractible boy who couldn’t make his own lunch, I was happily surprised that he had found his place here, at least for now.

At a Friends of Acadia event the other day, I was trying to explain to a family friend how I felt about this project; not the one my brother was working on, but the writing I was doing for FOA. I was standing there, straining to grasp the soul of the parks: why park visitation has increased by more than ten percent each of the past three years, why, on sunny days, both sides of the road are lined with parked cars, and why the equivalent of small talk at a farmers market is “so, are you planning any hikes or swims for today?” I wanted to get to the heart of our pride and devotion to our park, to explain this phenomenon to her as I saw it, and to write about it when I sat down at my laptop that evening. She looked at me expectantly as I feigned a gracefully thoughtful expression, attempting to mask my internal struggle for words.

For the right words.

I thought about my discussion a minute earlier with David MacDonald, the president of FOA, who had told me that he and his son had been fishing that day, and that while the mackerel weren’t very big, his son had insisted on bringing them home for dinner. As he recounted his story, I suddenly saw his sun-soaked day trailing behind him and behind everyone else on that lawn, who’d been boating or swimming or hiking, sporting little smiles and sunburns, eager to bring their stories, their Acadias, to share.

Somehow I had found the words. It didn’t matter that there was an aggressively obese seagull out there, being overfed by every tourist stopping to see the view. I cared a little less that when I drove around with Sam there was no parking to be found. The noise and the sunscreen smell and the crowds receded into the background, taking my disillusioned cynicism with them. The park is a playground for memories, for Kodak moments, for glimpses of inspiration. It is also a place where science and nature and beauty co-mingle, and where a boy like my brother can find real joy doing real work to protect it. That’s what I was writing about. Acadia National Park has become so loved that it has been woven into the fabric of the good times when our souls glow. It unifies us, and if put into the right hands, Acadia will serve to teach generations to come an understanding and genuine appreciation for the natural treasures of our world.

And that, in not so many words, was what I told her.

NATALIE OVERTON is studying Political Science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she is a science and technology reporter for The Daily Nexus, the school newspaper. She spent last summer reading, hiking, and volunteering for the Friends of Acadia Journal.

Photos by Natalie Overton: (Top and bottom) Natalie Overton savors the summit of South Bubble. (Middle) John Overton prepares his fishing gear during mercury-study sampling in Acadia.