First Impressions-A blog from Deckhand Mitch McLean

Blogger of the Day- Mitch McLean

Mitch teaches Kate Riley how to navigate the narrow channels of the St. Lawrence.
Mitch teaches Kate Riley how to navigate the narrow channels of the St. Lawrence.
Mitch joined the Pangaea crew in June and eased himself quickly into becoming a trusty deckhand and  educational programming assistant. Lovingly known to us as “Miatch” and “Mitch Cut-a-bunch”,  Mitch came to us from Portland Oregon, where he recently finished an environmental science degree. Mitch wrote this thoughtful piece on his experience as a part of the crew for last week’s Freshwater Research and Scientific Communications Course.

By Mitchell McLean

Crew learning the lines on the first day on board Sea Dragon
Crew learning the lines on the first day on board Sea Dragon

When I first received the posting for my current internship with Pangaea aboard their sailing vessel Sea Dragon, I immediately checked out the website. This last leg of our journey was a major determining factor for wanting to get aboard; an undergrad course taught by two leading professors and researchers of the Great Lakes region.

Dr. Bill Edwards preparing Sea Dragon for the locks
Dr. Bill Edwards preparing Sea Dragon for the locks

Bill Edwards Ph. D. and Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY Fredonia were set to introduce students to the ecological perils the Great Lakes region faces. Only six months out of receiving my BS in Environmental Studies, the Great Lakes were frequently used as case studies in many of my invasive ecology and toxicology classes. I now find myself looking upon the continental sea of North America,  and observing how we are now laying the ground work for a baseline for plastic pollutants.

Eight days ago, the crew-Captain Eric Loss, first mate Shanley McEntee, expedition coordinator Asta Mail and I- sat eagerly on deck waiting to meet the eight students and two professors joining us for our Freshwater Research and Scientific Communication course.

You could see the first impressions of each on our faces as they strolled down the dock towards the boat. Will they get seasick? How will they handle boat life? Though initially relevant, these questions quickly became moot. Within hours, any anxieties became indiscernible as we became a cohesive team. To the uninformed observer we might as well have been together for months aboard Sea Dragon. The students quickly adjusted to new sleep cycles and their daily duties aboard.

Paul Helm works with students as they look at benthic ecology on the shore of Sugar Island.
Paul Helm and Dr. Bill Edwards work with students as they look at benthic ecology on the shore of Sugar Island.

The lectures were interesting and thought provoking as we learned of the history of the Great Lakes region and the series of events that has led to their current state. We were introduced to the variety of research instruments we would be utilizing to collect our data. My favorite being the Van Dorn sampling device, a section of PVC like tubing with inverted toilet plunger-like end caps that would snap shut to collect a water sample at a given depth- so simple but effective. Each student took turns practicing using each device under the searing sun.

We were unfortunately unable to sail for the first half of our journey from Montreal to Toronto, as the dredged channel was too narrow to maneuver in. The lack of sailing did not deter from the excitement of the journey as we began to enter each lock that would raise us vertically, like an elevator, towards Lake Ontario.

Then the day came when the narrow river channel gave way to an ever increasing expanse of fresh water, and for the first time in weeks, the crew was unable to see land. Watching Captain Eric Loss run through the basics of sailing and educate the students and instructors on the process of raising the main sail was inspiring. Eric was finally back in his element, his excitement was infectious. Each crew member took their place, some pulling, some grinding, none safe from the sassy words of encouragement from the Captain. The winches groaned, and the main sail began to rise with confidence, the deck erupted in excitement as it reached the top. From there on out we sailed our way to Toronto tacking back and forth across Lake Ontario.

Students were now able to put to use their newly gained knowledge, for along our way we were able to collect invaluable data on water quality and plastic concentrations. It was hard to believe as we began to see Toronto in the horizon, first the CN tower and finally the rest of the Toronto skyline that our journey together was coming to a close. One student remarked that we had become a family in the short time aboard Sea Dragon. I can only hope that they will carry their experiences with them, and become the change they wish to see in the world.

Our first chance to raise the sails, on the fourth day of our adventure.
Mitch oversees the students as they raise the sails for the first time.