What is the similarity between a field trip and the spa? This is not a trick question. Lots of matches can be made. For me, returning this summer from Parc national de Plaisance, Quebec, I felt like I had received the full works: the algae, mud and sun treatment.

A researcher hands a mussel to a colleague in a patch of water lilies in the Ottawa River. The colleague holds a ruler, a bag and a notepad.
Isabelle Picard is handing a native freshwater mussel to Jacqueline Madill for measurement. The Ottawa River, which runs through the Parc national de Plaisance in Quebec, is Jacqueline's own vision of a spa. Image: Maude Coté-Bédard © Maude Côté-Bédard/Parc national de Plaisance

Isabelle Picard, a scientist who studies native freshwater molluscs, called on local colleagues to count freshwater mussels in the Ottawa River where it passes through the park, which is located between Gatineau and Montréal. Jean-Francois Houle, who works in conservation and education for the park, is interested in acquiring environmental data in order to best protect and conserve the habitat. One species, the pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus), has been considered rare in the Ottawa River since its discovery in 1863. Yet it thrives in Parc national de Plaisance. Is this park a refuge for the pink heelsplitter? We needed to document the population size and find out if the population can reproduce.

Dr. André L. Martel, Efflam Guillou and I were invited from the Canadian Museum of Nature because of our previous experience with quantifying mussels from the nearby Rideau River and Gatineau Park. We also had Maude Coté-Bédard and Jean-Marc Vallières, technicians from the park, and Frederick W. Schueler, Ph. D., a Research Associate at the museum.

A woman in the river lifts a metal frame from the water.
Isabelle Picard lifts a 0.5 m by 0.5 m metal quadrat off the bottom of the Ottawa River. This tool is used for sampling mussels. Image: Jean-François Desroches © Jean-François Desroches

So there we all were, rubbing shoulders together, curious to see what we had in our quadrats (our sampling tool). The river water was rich with algae and detritus. Visibility was poor, so we had to use our fingers to feel whether any mussels were on top of the substrate. Also, to make sure that we did not miss anything, we dug to a depth of about 5 cm to feel if any adults or juveniles were buried. Some large specimens were found even below that depth. When we got to hard clay, we found that somehow the determined bivalves dug themselves very deep, snug burrows. I was covered with clay and mud for four days. That made my skin much smoother than normal.

I am what they call ‘vertically challenged”, but I do not see this as a problem. To make sure that I can reach the bottom, I used my snorkel gear. In a very relaxed position, I could stretch out and spend hours happily letting the day slip by as I searched and fed my curiosity.

We found the exotically shaped pink heelsplitter, which I had never seen live before. Also lots of tiny juveniles of many species—healthy, perfectly formed, and probably confused about being temporarily in the air for the first time in their lives.

Up to her waist in a river, a woman examines a small shell that she is holding. In her other hand is a mask and snorkel.
Isabelle Picard closely examines a small shell. Image: Jean-François Desroches © Jean-François Desroches

It was very pleasant staring at these reclusive mussels. They close in a hurry, sometimes catching bits of bark or eelgrass between their valves. As I searched, I floated, and my hair caught lots of algae. I washed my hair each evening, yet it remained silky. I suspect that algae naturally conditions hair.

A pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) on the bank of the Ottawa River.
A pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) enjoying a photo op on the beach in Parc national de Plaisance, Quebec. Image: Maude Coté-Bédard © Maude Côté-Bédard/Parc national de Plaisance

A scientific study takes a lot of time and effort. Data will be compiled and analyzed later, in the comfort of the office and lab, but in the field, days are long. When under water, over many hours, we start to shiver. So, we took breaks, collecting GPS data, adding comments to our field notebooks, refuelling and recuperating. Beautiful weather helped. The sun added not only warmth, but also a little colour to the scientist.

Did I mention massage? All that digging, swimming, listening to beautiful bird songs, seeing lots of blue, green, brilliance in my eyes! My muscles are so relaxed I could not tense up if you pointed a gun at me. Yes, right now, it feels good to be a biologist.

An adult pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) mussel in a woman's hand.
Maude Coté-Bédard holds an adult pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus). The length of the freshwater mussel is approximately 10 cm. Image: Jean-François Desroches © Jean-François Desroches
A juvenile pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) mussel and a bar indicating the scale of 1 cm.
A beautiful juvenile pink heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) from Parc national de Plaisance, approximately 2.2 cm in length. Note that the juvenile closely resembles the adult (shown above). Image: Jacqueline Madill © Canadian Museum of Nature

For more information on the pink heelsplitter presence in the Ottawa River, you may consult: Isabelle Picard, I., Desroches, J.-F., Schueler, F.W., Martel, A.L. (2009). “Modern Records of the Pink Heelsplitter Mussel, Potamilus alatus (Say, 1817), in the Ottawa River Drainage, Québec and Ontario, Canada”. Northeastern Naturalist163(3): 355-364.

Online version of the article.