Packrafters tackle invasive water plants

Photo - Paul Smith’s College students harvest invasive waterplants from a canoe. (Photo provided by Adirondack Watershed Institute)

SARANAC LAKE — A talk at the Blue Moon Cafe Tuesday night, presented as part of Celebrate Paddling month, introduced Adirondackers to a new way to manage aquatic invasive species.

Sydney Aveson, SUNY Plattsburgh graduate and redoubtable ice hockey player, encouraged the audience — mostly paddlers of one stripe or another — to help the lakes and ponds by practicing citizen science.

In a program piloted by Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute, Aveson has been packrafting throughout the forest and collecting data in remote ponds and lakes.

Aveson, who came to the Adirondacks seven years ago from California, said she fell into it while climbing the peaks.

“I found myself not trying to race to the top,” she said. “There’s so many opportunities to explore beside the high peaks, besides bagging a peak.”

While hiking, she stopped to check out a pond, and then another, and began to wonder why she was hurrying.

“There was a real mental shift for me,” she said. “It’s the reason why so many of us are here. We love it. The first step is wanting to take care of it.”

Packrafts are ultra-light inflatable rafts that can weigh as little as a few pounds. When you’re not floating in them, they can be deflated, folded, and carried in a backpack. They’re popular in the western United States but not well known in the Northeast. Packrafters combine hiking and boating, and AWI has them combining with collecting data on invasive species as well.

Aveson said she got started with a workshop on identifying invasive aquatic plants. She showed the audience several aquatic invasive species of local concern: Eurasian watermilfoil, Asian clams, spiny waterfleas and hydrilla.

Eurasian watermilfoil has already invaded Lake Flower and many other lakes, and is regularly beaten back by hand-harvesting. Hydrilla, which like Eurasian watermilfoil creates dense mats of vegetation that crowd out native species and decrease fish habitat, is spreading in the southern part of the state, “but it’s the only one not in the park yet,” said Aveson.

Most invasive species of concern are already in Lake Champlain.

According to AWI, “A species is considered ‘invasive’ when it is alien to introduced locations and causes detriment to the economy, environment and/or human health. It is estimated that AIS cost the United States over a billion dollars a year.”

For example, Aveson said hand-harvesting Eurasian watermilfoil in Upper Saranac Lake has cost $700,000 over the last six years.

AWI maintains 167 inspection stations at water bodies in the Adirondacks. The stewards at the decontamination stations and boats launches for the Adirondack Watershed Institute are paid positions. They instruct boaters on what to look out for and help them clean off their boats to prevent plants parts or specimens hitchhiking from one waterbody to the next.

“You want to make sure you take off all plant matter and put it back in the water body you’re taking it out of,” said Aveson. “If there’s mud, rinse it off.”

Aveson said last year they inspected almost 100,000 boats, of which between 3 and 4,000 had invasive species on them. The stewards will help clean the boat, with hot water if needed. They can flush the live unit, lower unit and ballast tank in addition to cleaning the outside.

“Most invasive species are transported in the interior of the boat,” she said. Aquatic stowaways hide in bilge water and inside the cavities of the boat.

After flushing or washing, the boat should be dried. Ideally, it should dry in the sun for five days, but towel-drying is acceptable. An audience member asked if air-drying on the highway would do it.

“Just because you’re on a highway doesn’t mean you’re getting it all,” said Aveson. “At the Lake Placid inspection station they found a boat that came from Buffalo had a specimen dried out from the previous summer.”

Although they’re getting some funding help from the state, resources are limited and the inspectors could always use more help.

Another audience member asked Aveson what she sees in the future. “Can you win?” he asked. “What’s ten or 20 years from now look like?”

Aveson said, “You can contain it.”

She envisioned more people getting involved to contain and control invasive species. “Anybody can be a citizen scientist. ‘Real’ scientists need all of us.”

In her work with the AWI, Aveson and the other pond monitors hiked from pond to pond, some as many as 10 miles apart. At each pond they carefully raked plants from the bottom, identified them, and logged in the data. Many Adirondack ponds are free of invasive species, and they hope to keep it that way.

“We want to get a baseline,” she said. “Ideally, all the ponds would be surveyed every three years.”

She said volunteers can choose the area they want to work in. “A lot of people like to adopt a body of water and they go back year after year.”

For those who have difficulty identifying plants, they have an app. “You’re not alone in the operation,” she said.

The Backcountry Water Monitors project of the Adirondack Mountain Club is hoping to reach 60 ponds this year and is looking for interested citizens to get involved. They list and identify invasive species on their site (https://www.adk.org/backcountry-water-monitors-project/ ).

The Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program’s website (http://adkinvasives.com) provides information on invasive species. They can also be reached at 518-576-2082.

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