From classroom to creek: Two Pembroke Academy students wade into streams of Bear Brook State Park

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas, along with biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond.

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas, along with biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy biology teacher Gregg Whitmore carries a net  at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their  aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond.

Pembroke Academy biology teacher Gregg Whitmore carries a net at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas along with biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their  aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond.

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas along with biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas along with biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their  aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond.

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas along with biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy student David Popa looks at a Black Fly larve as fellow student Megan Katsirebas and biology teacher Gregg Whitmore looks on at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their  aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond.

Pembroke Academy student David Popa looks at a Black Fly larve as fellow student Megan Katsirebas and biology teacher Gregg Whitmore looks on at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas and biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavilion pond.

Pembroke Academy students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas and biology teacher Gregg Whitmore look over the catch at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavilion pond. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas listen to biology teacher Gregg Whitmore  at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their  aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond.

Pembroke Academy student students David Popa and Megan Katsirebas listen to biology teacher Gregg Whitmore at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring at the dam of the pavillion pond. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Pembroke Academy student Megan Katsirebas rolls up the netting at the dam at Bear Brook State Park.

Pembroke Academy student Megan Katsirebas rolls up the netting at the dam at Bear Brook State Park.

Pembroke Academy student Megan Katsirebas rolls up the netting at the dam of the pavillion pond at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring.

Pembroke Academy student Megan Katsirebas rolls up the netting at the dam of the pavillion pond at Bear Brook State Park on Saturday morning, May 18, 2024 during their aquatic monitoring. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By JEREMY MARGOLIS

Monitor staff

Published: 05-25-2024 9:03 AM

Modified: 05-29-2024 11:19 AM


Pembroke Academy biology teacher Gregg Whitmore’s license plate reads “-TROUT”, an ode to the amount of time he spends in rivers as both an avid fly fisherman and researcher. On an overcast morning last Saturday, Whitmore was knee-deep in Lower Bear Brook, a wide, rushing stream in Bear Brook State Park, with two Pembroke Academy seniors in tow.

Wearing greenish-gray waders slightly ripped from a previous tumble in the same river months earlier, Megan Katsirebas splayed a white net wide, while David Popa moved around purposefully several feet upstream.

“What you’re doing is you’re just feeling the bottom with your feet, and you’re just trying to move rocks or you’re trying to flip them over with your toes and just scrape your feet along the bottom,” Whitmore described. “And as you do so, all this stuff is going to get swept off in between your legs and get caught up in the net.”

That “stuff” is an assortment of insects and crustaceans – from dragonflies to shrimp – which, when analyzed, aid in assessing the health of the entire ecosystem.

Once per month since last October, Whitmore, Katsirebas and Popa have traveled to this spot – as well as to six other locations in the sprawling 10,000-acre state park – as part of a multi-year aquatic bio-monitoring project. Whitmore has employed this technique for 25 years to assess freshwater quality across the northeast, but this year was the first time he invited students to join him for a significant portion of the project.

After the trio gathers their sample at a given location, a process that takes about 10 minutes, they pour it into a pan and sort through what they have captured, attempting to separate the target organisms from everything else. Sometimes, there are surprises – some more pleasant than others – such as a dead baby mouse collected last week. (“That has never turned up,” Whitmore said, tossing it aside.) After the researchers pair down their sample, they pour it into an alcohol-filled mason jar and move on to their next location.

Back in Whitmore’s classroom, the students separate organisms one by one and divide them by class. Whitmore ultimately does the legwork of identifying the insects and crustaceans by species, a painstaking process that can take days for even one identification.

Popa said the learning curve of the lab work has been steep but gratifying.

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“At the beginning, we didn’t know what we were looking for,” said Popa, who is heading to the University of New Hampshire this fall to pursue a degree in biochemistry. “As you get more experience, you get better, especially by organizing by class. . . . It’s just rewarding to be able to look into the pan and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what this is.’”

One organism Popa enjoys is the dobsonfly, a massive insect that can bite in its aquatic form, found most commonly at the research group’s Suncook River sample site.

Katsirebas and Popa were the only two students to sign up for the aquatic bio-monitoring independent study course, which is part of Pembroke Academy’s grant-funded Animal and Plant Sciences program, run by Whitmore. The program, launched this school year, also includes other extended learning opportunities and courses in wildlife biology and botany. It is set to expand next year to include additional courses in ecology and natural resources, some of which can be taken for college credit through Southern New Hampshire University. The significant budget cut Pembroke sustained this spring will not affect funding for the program, Whitmore said.

Though the Bear Brook project is not set to end until early next year, last week’s sample was Katsirebas’s and Popa’s last, since they are graduating. What the trio has found so far is promising.

“I came into it expecting high water quality, and so far that’s what we’ve seen,” Whitmore said.

That assessment is based primarily on the existence of three types of insects: mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, all of which were present last week. If the water was suffering from pollution instead, its conditions would change, making it inhospitable for these organisms, and more hospitable for others, Whitmore said.

In addition to positive news about the health of the state park’s water, the team has also been able to identify some organisms that were not previously known to live in this region, such as a type of dragonfly that had only been previously found as far south as the White Mountains.

“A lot of these groups are really not well studied, so when we get a huge chunk of intact land like this and we do a comprehensive study, and we say these are the exact species that are living here, it really gives you more information on just the ecology of that species in general,” Whitmore said.

One species that required no proof-of-life is the black fly, whose larvae form a gelatinous consistency that is every bit as unpleasant in aquatic form as the flies are when airborne, Whitmore said. But as Whitmore, Katsirebas, and Popa sifted through their collection last week, Whitmore pointed out that he wasn’t seeing any.

“Yeah, because they’re all in the air,” Popa responded.

Whitmore, who at times has also brought students out to do one-off sampling closer to school, said he loves the surprises that come with this sort of fieldwork.

“I really like the looks on their faces when they see what’s in that pan,” he said. “They’re never expecting it and when they see all the different types of insects that come out, and how big and scary some of them can be, it’s pretty interesting.”