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Confessions of a Seasonal: Wetland Olympics 2021

Written on: September 8th, 2021 in Outreach

By Katie Goulder, Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program (WMAP)

Olympics Big and Small

The 2020 summer Olympic games. We waited an extra year for them to arrive, ready to cheer on fan favorites like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky in their popular sports of gymnastics and swimming, as well as watch newcomers such as Athing Mu make running 800 m look fun and easy. This exciting international event only happens once every 4 (or in this case 5) years and has us all glued to our TV’s for NBC’s primetime coverage of our favorite sports. But did you know there was a secret Olympics that happened locally every summer?

That’s right! The lesser-known Wetland Olympic games happens every field season from late spring to early fall by local environmental scientists throughout Delaware’s many wetlands. As the 2021 seasonal wetland technician, little did I know that in accepting this job that I would also be competing in rigorous, albeit more obscure, Olympic events while performing my fieldwork duties.

Wetland Conditions

During the summer fieldwork season, the DNREC WMAP team is out monitoring and assessing both non-tidal and tidal wetlands throughout the state. Because wetlands come in many shapes and sizes, each site we evaluate presents its own set of challenges. Forested flat? Thick and thorny greenbrier vines ensnare your feet. Tidal mudflat? The mud may be a foot deep or it may be 3 feet deep. And there is no way to know until you take that step. Saltwater marsh? Changing tides can cause a small creek that was easily traversed in the morning to transform into a 4ft deep channel you have to wade through with your backpack over your head. Overall, working in wetlands provides unique opportunities to develop creative solutions to interesting problems. And thus, the Wetland Olympics were born.

The Events

I feel that the Wetland Olympic events emulate those of the actual Olympic Decathlon events in that they necessitate a combination of strength, agility, and endurance. A few of the most common events that the WMAP team competed in this summer include:

  • Hummock Hopping– Similar to a high-stakes game of “the floor is lava”, one must traverse across a tidal marsh only stepping on the hummocks, or islands of vegetation, that provide more stability while avoiding the hollows of bottomless mud. Under or overshoot your target? Next thing you know your leg is 3 feet deep in mud or water. Which leads into the next event…
  • Boot Balancing– Sometimes it is unavoidable that water spills over the top of your hip wader boots and you become waterlogged. This Olympic event comes into play as you perform one-legged yoga poses in an attempt to drain the water from your boot.
  • Mudflat Slogging– This event occurs while working in a mudflat with little to no vegetation and is the exact opposite of real Olympic speed walking. With every step you take, your foot sinks knee deep in mud and it is all you can do to keep moving at a snail’s pace.
  • High Kick Forging– On the flipside of mudflat slogging, this event requires a bit more flexibility. We break out the High Kick Forging when the vegetation is so thick that you must break through the plants in front of you to form a small path to reach an assessment area. New records of high kick are usually recorded when confronted with thorny plants or vines.
  • Equipment Launching– When the terrain is particularly difficult to traverse or obstacles such as deeper creeks are encountered, you must try to minimize your movement for the sake of efficiency. In these instances, one person will make it to the other side and a teammate will javelin or shotput the piece of equipment (usually marker flags or a tape measure) over the creek so that you can continue to collect the necessary data.
  • Balance Beam– While you may already be familiar with this event from the actual Olympics, there are some modifications in the Wetland Olympics. In our version, the beam is actually a 2×8 piece of wood that we carry out to a creek and lay across in order to cross the obstacle. While our beam might be wider than the one Simone Biles earned her bronze medal on, ours is covered in mud and therefore more slippery which adds 0.300 points of difficulty to our routines.

These are just a few examples of the athletic feats required of the wetland scientists on a daily basis in order to perform fieldwork in a difficult and dynamic environment.

Going for Gold

All in all, it has been a very exciting season working in wetlands throughout the state. I have learned so much about the different types of wetlands, the methods used to evaluate them and the variety of projects to preserve and protect the wetlands that remain and restore those that have been lost. While we don’t have medals in the Wetland Olympics, I can’t imagine a better team to train and “compete” with in each of these events.

When wetlands win, we all win.

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