Often overlooked unless you’re drying it for a fire, driftwood is quietly shaping the natural landscape.
Researchers Natalie Anderson and Alicia Sendrowski are in the Beaufort Delta to study and understand how an innocuous piece of the scenery plays a bigger role than most would expect.
“People don’t think about it at all, it’s just there,” Anderson said.
She discovered her passion and later started her PhD on the subject in 2012 when she experienced a massive “wood flood” while kayaking. It was a large congested mat of logs floating down the river. As an avid paddler who was often on the water, she was fascinated.
Anderson never planned to get a PhD or become a scientist.
“My time on the river sort of led me there,” she said. Whether kayaking or on the land, “you’re not necessarily studying it. You’re there. You’re internalizing it, I think,” she said. That intimate knowledge of a place feeds into knowing what questions to ask.
For the uninitiated, wood transport affects water levels and the volume of the stored wood. These systems can create “really intricate and fascinating shorelines, really complex environments,” Anderson said. Without the driftwood, it’d be a simpler landscape.
Consequently, river basins in the U.S. stripped of their river wood as result of development create a skewed picture of environmental health. That might be a consideration when developing along river basins in the NWT, she said.
Driftwood also helps supply food webs: bugs and fungi eat it, creating sustenance for other parts of the ecosystem.
From another perspective, Alicia Sendrowski is spearheading the research’s mapping of the Delta. She uses satellites to image the landscape, but typically that sort of capture would require an aerial picture from a drone or a plane.
Those shots are buttressed with community work and an understanding of how driftwood works on the ground and interacts with people’s lives.
“When we first say we’re going to study driftwood, they’re like, ‘okay it’s over there,'” Sendrowski said. However, those personal experiences and records can often go beyond the imaging.
They’ve also visited and met with local people in Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Aklavik is the last community.
And indeed: “In all of these places, people are at first like, ‘why study driftwood?'” Anderson said.
“But they quickly go into lots of stories about their time on the land and whether the driftwood was doing this or that, or things are changing,” she said. “It’s been very insightful to hear from everyone.”
Driftwood is easy to talk about, because it’s still an important part of people’s lives. For example, in Tsiigehtchic, residents said they pay attention to the wood because they collect it and set it out on the banks to dry for firewood.
Understanding the effects of driftwood, however, can go toward explaining why back bays may be clogged off, with associated impacts on the environment – just for example.
The researchers plan to give back by sharing their studies through pictures and story-formats, rather than graphs, they said.
These connections were also helpful when a dog ran off with Anderson’s shoe in Tuktoyaktuk. She only brought a single pair and hopping around or wearing slippers wouldn’t cut it.
“It’s cold,” she said.
Posting on Facebook, community members quickly assisted, offering up shoes that were unfortunately too small. Anderson already suspected that a dog poked its head under the tent fly and ran off with it, so when a resident contacted her say it was by the dog house, she was rightfully optimistic. The resident came by and returned it.
“The whole community really rallied around the missing shoe,” Sendrowski said.
For both researchers, those relationship and studies underlay an important part of the region’s environment. While overlooked, “driftwood is part of the story of why the landscape looks the way it does,” Anderson said.