Citizen Science Along the Ikpikpuk River


A burst of propane froze the water on my already cold fingers. I was moving slowly, begrudgingly. The pasta was cold by the time our forks reached our mouths, and the warmth of our sleeping bags was the only thing on our mind.

We had cleaned the dishes, locked the bear canisters and stowed everything away downwind from camp. I looked at Joe, my paddling partner, and said what we were both thinking, “Let’s take the water samples in the morning.”

Over 100 miles from any established village, we were eight days deep into Alaska’s backcountry. A small bush plane had dropped us off, and another would pick us up after 23 days. Our trip was both costly and resource-intensive, so we wanted to squeeze as much juice from the expedition as possible.

Beginning a documentary on the migratory birds in the National Petroleum Reserve was the stimulus for the trip, but what else could we do while paddling a few degrees north of the Arctic Circle? We did not have the personality or platform for a fundraising campaign on social media, neither of us were affiliated with a group or university, but it felt like we needed something more.

We settled on citizen science.

So, every evening, one of us would cook dinner while the other would go to the edge of the river with a rattling drybag. We would take our coordinates, wash our arms and hands, and carefully remain downstream and downwind while we filtered 500ml samples of water to later analyze for foreign particles—microplastics. The last thing we both wanted to do on our cold and rainy eighth day of paddling was to subject our hands and arms to more cold water.

After 11 hours curled in our sleeping bags, listening to the wind and rain try and find its way through the tent, we climbed out with all our clothes layered under our splash jackets. The weather had calmed, but nothing was destined to dry out that day. The river, with sediment churned up from the storm, looked like chocolate milk.

For the next three hours, we watched the silty water drip through our filters at a painstaking rate.

Paddling, unlike hiking or mountaineering, gives us a unique opportunity as adventurers. With a boat carrying the weight of our gear, we aren’t cutting ounces as strictly as our peers who bear the weight with their legs. Joe and I used this lenience to pack a few extra pounds—a couple mason jars, ceramic funnel, filter papers, tweezers, aluminum foil and a notebook.

As we were paddling, two other groups, both in the Arctic, were sampling water to analyze for microplastics. The samples would add to a growing collection of data that’s helping scientists track and map the movement of microplastics in our water and atmosphere.

Microplastics are fragments of plastics that measure less than five millimeters on their largest dimension. They are the result of our production, use, and disposal of plastics, and the environmental breakdown of plastics that have infiltrated ecosystems and waterways. Many of these fragments are small enough to evade our naked eye and light enough to be carried on wind and water currents.

The Ikpikpuk River, in the heart of the National Petroleum Reserve, doesn’t flow downstream of any established community. Native allotments, some with simple cabins, sparsely dot the river’s banks, used only seasonally for hunting and fishing. How could there be microplastics and foreign particles flowing in the river’s water? The remoteness made the river an ideal candidate for sampling. If the samples had plastics, then they had to be floating in on the breeze, or more startling, coming upstream in the fish that swam from the depths of the ocean, where we know plastics exist.

Our notebook, lined with columns and rows, recorded coordinates, weather (wind could change the motion of plastics), what we were wearing (shedding particles is inevitable), time of day, description of the location, and duration of each sample. We took a photo of the sample and the landscape at each location. Given our limited wardrobe, each photo looked alike, except for the occasional change in our expression, our thinning faces, and our growing facial scruff.

The process only added to our trip. We paddled and camped in 24 hours of daylight, so the sampling gave us an objective, a purpose. While one of us cooked, the other had an hour to be (mostly) still, processing our journey and appreciating the vastness of the tundra that surrounded us. We carefully waded to the upper edges of our boots. We chased samples that got caught on the breeze. We lost ourselves in the rhythmic dripping of the filters.

Research, just like expeditions, can be expensive. When planning a trip, why not add an element that will benefit the understanding of society’s impact on the places we love to recreate? The cost of the research equipment barely scratches the cost of the trip itself.

Opportunities exist everywhere to partake in citizen science. Community members take “shellfies” (turtle selfies) to help track the vulnerable box turtles in North Carolina. The Audubon Society runs the annual Christmas Bird Count to help gather bird data. And on the Ikpikpuk, we used sampling protocols from the Rozalia Project to ensure that our sampling could provide useful data to the growing wealth of knowledge on microplastics.

On only a few other days was the sampling as arduous as the chocolate milk waters of the eighth day. Usually, the water filtered quickly, and we would dine on sandy riverbanks to close out another day of carefree paddling. Filter papers, wrapped in aluminum foil and labeled with a string of letters and numbers that corresponded to days and locations gradually filled a Ziploc bag.

After 23 days, our pilot picked us up and took us to Utqiagvik, Alaska, where we could shower and eat food that wasn’t rehydrated. We wrangled our boat, paddles, and various gear into checked bags, TSA looked skeptically at our packets of aluminum foil, and we were off to Fairbanks.

In the days that followed, the filter papers that survived the wind, sand, and journey through the Arctic, were in a box on their way to a lab — products of an adventure, hopefully, destined to benefit the places we recreate.


Guest Contributor John Gove is a storyteller who focuses on the intersection of adventure and the environment. Whether deep in the backcountry, or just outside the city, he points his camera toward the stories that take a little sweat and discomfort to tell.