Think, Thought, Thwim?

Due to having a graduate degree that is perhaps best described as “eclectic,” I took a number of classes outside the standard history curriculum. Now, I was not the only one—one student commuted to the state veterinary school to take a course on “Equines and Man” that was a history of horses, mules, and donkeys, and we had people in the business and hard sciences courses. However, I was the only one who ended up learning surveying and how to measure stream flow.

This involved labs. Hydrological surveys are not done in warm, tidy, indoor labs. Nope, they involve wading boots or hip or chest waders*, practical clothes, and in some cases off-road vehicles. I never got that far, but my crew did get ticks, poison ivy, and mud and water. Murphy being what he is, the first time we did serious in-the-stream surveying, I got to hold the stick.

This is not a euphemism. It was a surveyor’s rod, with a laser-level-receiver attached to the top. Rather than teach us how to use a bubble level et al, the prof had a laser level and associated equipment. It rode in the front seat in a padded, armored box. We rode in the back with the dog crate, or would have if it were legal to have grad-students riding in the bed of pick-ups on the highway. Instead we carpooled.

So, I had knee boots (borrowed from MomRed) and lost the toss to hold the stick once we finished the bed composition survey. Imagine if you will a Great Plains stream, about 6-10 feet below the land surface, about 20 feet or so wide at the widest, depth to be determined. We started by walking along and finding a “representative reach,” one that wasn’t special and that we could get in and out of relatively easily. The prof set up the laser level while we pulled on boots and waders and clambered down into the stream. First we did the bed survey. One person did the tally as the rest of us spread out and stuck our fingers into the stream bed, reporting what we found. Mostly small gravel, as it turned out, a little bit of sand, and I hit silt. I was the only one out of a sample of 100, and caught a little grief about it.

That done, then we measured across the stream from bankfull to bankfull, because “if you don’t know bankfull, you don’t know sh-t.”Next came the tedious, finickey bit. We had to measure two riffles and a pool in order to determine the slope of the bed, so that we could do a full Rosgen Level 3** classification. Three of us had sticks, two recorded, and one manned the level. Another person had a tape measure and kept us honest about how far apart we took measurements. I don’t recall what the eighth student did, and the prof supervised.

We had almost finished and I was standing in a pool, a lower, quieter area, holding the stick very still and trying not to wobble and foul up the measurement. The height read-out is clipped to the end of this 20 foot long stick, really an expandable and calibrated pole. Of course the breeze was blowing, and we were supposed to keep the stick steady in the stream bed and not allow the other end to wag or wobble until the measurement had been read and confirmed and recorded. I’m sure any hikers wondered why voices from below ground level kept calling “three point two five,” “three point three,” and so on.

As I stood there, I realized that my ankles were now level with the top of the stream bed. They had been above said stream bed. I was sinking into silt, in water up to my knees. Cold water. On the up side, the boots didn’t leak. On the down side, getting out of the stream might be a touch difficult.

At last, I could move. Except I couldn’t.  “I need a hand.”


“I’m stuck in silt.”

“No, you’re not.”  The prof looked sceptical and the guys started giving me grief.

I shook my head, “No, seriously, I’m in mud and I don’t want to drop the rod into the water if I overbalance.”

The prof pointed to one of the guys and ordered, “Pull her out.”

The larger male grad student splashed up, leaned forward and his eyes went wide. “She is in mud! And it’s sticky.”

I gave him the rod, which he passed to another student. Priorities, priorities. Then he took my wrist, I grabbed his, he heaved back and I smoothly pulled one foot loose. I stretched that leg far enough to get onto gravel and then, with him stabilizing me, got the other foot loose. I held that boot up so everyone could see the mud.

We finished the survey without further incident, unless you count the prof finding the only patch of poison ivy in that entire third of the state. He had come prepared and washed off ASAP, and didn’t get much of a rash out of it. Then we decamped to the parking lot and had lunch, made copies of the data, and went home.

*Yes, people actually do this sort of thing in chest-deep water if the current is very slow and there are safety people around. Otherwise pricier but safer techniques are used. No one wants to lose expensive equipment downstream with the grad student still attached.

**About a half mile or so upstream of “our” reach, a flow monitor recorded the velocity of flow. The prof had access to that data for us. The water was too shallow to “toss in an undergrad and see how long it takes him to travel a mile downstream.” Apparently calibrating for the slowing effects of flailing arms and legs can be tricky. Plus they make a great deal of noise and disturb the wildlife.


17 thoughts on “Think, Thought, Thwim?

  1. “The water was too shallow to “toss in an undergrad and see how long it takes him to travel a mile downstream.” Apparently calibrating for the slowing effects of flailing arms and legs can be tricky. Plus they make a great deal of noise and disturb the wildlife.”

    At least you were doing it in North America. In Southern Africa, hazards would include crocodiles, hippos and interesting organisms such as bilharzia (“schistosomiasis” or “snail fever” for US readers). Those who’ve suffered the latter have been known to beg for the former hazards, to put them out of their misery.

  2. Brrr. Makes me glad that my surveying times were on dry land. The neighbors on adjacent areas used medium powered lasers periodically, so it meant reading the laser transit scales through protective (colored) goggles. It meant reading 3-4 times to be sure of the digits, a real pain under some cloud cover or light levels. No one wanted to wear an eyepatch to protect the remaining good eye.

    • I was glad the class was fall semester and not winter-spring. Ice on the streams and snow on the ground really take the fun out of it.

  3. First job in High School was working for a local engineering company surveying rural roads in East Idaho for future buried telephone lines. Did I mention it was February, snow, sub-zero temperatures, and occasional wind. This was before lasers, so distance measurement involved a metal tape, aka “chain.” Yep, the “chainman” was the lowest guy on the crew and had the privilege of doing all the scut work. That may have been part of the reason I went nuclear engineering instead of civil.

    • If you ever do historical research into land surveys in Texas, you have to know chains, Texas-chains (the legislature set a different length as the national standard and it stuck around after annexation), varas, and yards. And hope whoever recorded everything was consistent with which measurement was used.

      • So if I want to screw with someone on area data, I convert to something like texas chain-varas?

          • I wonder if I could publish a paper at a high impact education journal about using absurd conversion factors to study each specific problem in a set of units customized to have the scale of the numbers in a range that is easy for humans to grasp.

            Problem is, then I would have to know what the highly impacted journal are.

    • “Occassional” wind on the Snake River Plain?
      In February?
      Was there an inversion, or did anything under 15mph just not count?

  4. A random observation: whoever said “still waters run deep” never encountered the Platte River.

  5. Heh, with ‘my’ luck, I’d have found the ONE water moccasin in the entire area as it bit me in the butt while holding the rod!

  6. That’s one of the things (moccasin) I didn’t want to see underfoot, while I had the reflector. In the Florida panhandle, didn’t want to hear brush parting for something large, feral, and porcine. Or, the range gator making its morning rounds. No one had a .308 handy.

    Not sure if strong wind and frostbite are worse than skeeters, ticks, chiggers, and Big Ugly. Glad I don’t have to choose any more.

  7. Your comment on equipment and the grad student reminds me of the old quip about how an engineer is more expendable than his equipment since it had a serial number and he didn’t.

    • The US Forest Service manual for stream surveying and classifications really does suggest that the level ride in the front seat and the dog and everything else goes in the pick-up bed. I got the feeling that no bureaucrat ever saw that page. 🙂

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