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A Special Place: Meanook

In the rolling country that is today at the geographical heart of Alberta, the Cree knew of a special spot. "Meanook," they called it, which means "a good camping place." The name has endured, continued by the people who settled in the area and adopted it for their small community.

And Meanook continues to have a special appeal: on the edge of the community is today located a complex providing the most extensive facilities for aquatic and terrestrial research on the Western Plains.

Located a few minutes south of the town of Athabasca in a 214-hectare National Wildlife Sanctuary, the University of Alberta's Meanook Biological Research Station provides researchers ready access to both excellent field sites and well-equipped laboratories.

Part of the Station's appeal is its location. It is in a sparsely populated area of the boreal forest with a wide range of terrestrial, aquatic and wetland habitats nearby. Researchers have easy access to a number of lakes, mature stands of trees, cultivated land, and the areas of transition between the various habitats.

The other attraction is the research complex itself. Its name may conjure up images of a primitive field station, but the reality of the Meanook Biological Research Station is far different. "No other university field station west of Winnipeg has the analytical facilities of Meanook," asserts its director, zoology professor Ellie Prepas.

Prepas is a specialist in limnology (the study of freshwater and its flora and fauna), who pursues an active research program, much of it based at Meanook. In addition, she keeps busy as the director of the University's newly-created Environmental Research and Studies Centre on the Edmonton campus.

Prepas firmly believes that Meanook, which receives a portion of its operating funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, has the potential to become a major centre for environmental research.

At present, the Station comprises 12 permanent buildings and two trailer complexes on a landscaped site ready for daily use, year round. The site features a flume and three experimental ponds and the Station's laboratories are equipped with experimental and holding tanks for fish and can accommodate analyses of aquatic and terrestrial organisms from bacteria to birds. A fully-supplied chemical laboratory (gas, air, vacuum, double-distilled water and a fume hood) can handle limnological and other analyses. Among the most sophisticated equipment is a double channel auto-analyzer, used to determine ammonia and nitrate levels in water samples, and a liquid scintillation counter to measure radioactivity.

The Station's ancillary facilities include a workshop, computers linked to the University's MTS system, storage space for field equipment - the Centre has a four-wheel drive truck, a variety of boats and motors, all terrain vehicles, trailers and so on for use by researchers - and a SCUBA area. Future plans include expansion of the aquatic facility to include three more controlled outdoor ponds, the addition of a classroom, and the provision of increased accommodation.

As it is now equipped, the Station can provide accommodation for 37 full-time researchers. Meals are prepared in a well-furnished central kitchen and two satellite kitchens. The central kitchen is staffed by a cook from May until October; at other times, individual residents prepare their own food or work out food preparation arrangements.

The Station also addresses the recreational needs of those it accommodates. Its recreational facilities include a volleyball court, a ping-pong table, a television room and trails for jogging and cross-country skiing.

Development of the biological research station at Meanook began in 1983. Most of the buildings were already constructed, but they had been abandoned since 1979-from 1916 until 1979, what is now the Meanook Biological Research Station had been a geophysical station operated by the Government of Canada. After that facility was closed, the land it had occupied was turned over to the Canadian Wildlife Service, and four years later that body granted the University a 49-year lease to the former geophysical station building site for the purely nominal sum of $1 per year.

In the first two years of its tenancy, the University committed about $800,000 to the restoration and refurbishment of the abandoned facility, says Prepas. Since that time, the research facility which was developed has more than proven its worth, she adds.

In addition to the University researchers from departments such as Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Forest Science and Microbiology and from Faculte Saint-Jean-who make the two-hour trip north from campus to work at Meanook, the Station has accommodated researchers from government, public research institutes, and private industry.

Ongoing studies at Meanook involve peatlands ecology, boreal grasses, the behavioral ecology of chickadees, and the improvement of water quality in lakes, rivers and farm dugouts. In addition, Prepas notes that a legacy of the former geophysical station is a complete set of meteorological records dating back to 1916. This database, she says, is being continued and has tied the Station into a network on long-term climate change.

This summer Prepas will begin a new stage in her research investigating lake liming as a way of controlling algae and improving water quality. This work, which is based at Meanook, is being supported by a recent $240,000 grant (spread over three years) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, which had previously committed $160,000 to a complementary lake aeration project.

Also beginning at Meanook this summer is ground-breaking research related to habitat fragmentation in the boreal forest. This work, under the direction of zoology professor Sue Hannon, is commencing with a University seed grant made available through the Canadian Circumpolar Institute on campus.

"These are just two examples of the kind of research that is encouraged both by Meanook and the new Environmental Research and Studies Centre," says Prepas. "With the growing importance of environmental research, Meanook is proving to be a very good investment for the University."

Published Summer 1991.

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