At every stage of modern Whitehorse history, Spook Creek has been the trash bin of progress.
A Second World War army base dumped barrels of oil and cable spools off an escarpment into the creek in the 1940s. A defunct oil tank farm leaked hydrocarbons into the soil above the creek for decades thereafter.
Now consumer society has opened a new line of attack against this quiet wetland.
The buildings at the bottom of Two Mile Hill are commercial sprawl at its most bland—a grey amalgam of big box stores, car dealerships, gas stations and fast food franchises.
A vast parking lot has sliced the creek in half, forcing the water to flow in heated culverts beneath the asphalt.
But before this new age takes a further toll, a national Envirothon sparked a creek-focussed research competition among students from four Whitehorse schools.
“We wouldn’t be seeing any immediate impacts since (the buildings) have been newly developed,” said Melanie Tate, 17. “That’s why we need to keep taking water samples because someone could change, or something could start leaking into the (creek).”
The students took water samples, measured litter and interviewed the companies that run the nearby buildings.
“They all had some kind of system to deal with their cooking oil if they were a restaurant,” said Tate. “They would get (the oil) in jugs and fill them back in.”
The Chrysler dealership has a tank to separate different oils on their lot, said Tate.
“But right where they’re doing repairs on vehicles, there’s a nice downward slope that leads directly into the creek,” said Ben Barrett-Forrest, 17.
The lower end of Spook Creek, on the eastern side of the sprawl, was, literally, trashed.
The students measured garbage along two sections of the Millennium Trail, one paved and one gravel-covered.
Some it was blown into the creek by the wind. Some of it was just litter.
On the walls of Wood Street School, the students have plastered maps of what they found, with red dots indicating the kinds of trash they found.
“All the ones with the black circles were McDonald’s,” said Tate, pointing to the map. “That’s kind of saying that they’re over-packaging or that people are just dropping it.”
This is despite the trail having trash cans along it.
The students researched the effects of the Second World War American military base.
“There’s piles of sticks that were pushed down, a lot of barrels and cables and spools,” said Barrett-Forrest. “It’s kind of an interesting debate over whether it’s garbage or whether it’s an artifact.”
A lot of those artifacts made their way to the bottom of Spook Creek near the Yukon River, but many of them have been cleaned up.
During the second half of the 20th century, an oil tank farm leaked hydrocarbons into the ground.
A lot of that oil has also been cleaned up, but hydrocarbons remain stuck in the soil.
“There are higher levels than what hydrocarbons in a healthy creek should be,” said Angela Burke, 17. “It’s sitting right above the groundwater table.”
“Basically the only way to get it out is to dig it all up,” she said.
Burke’s group focused on taking turbidity and hydrocarbon tests in the water.
They took three samples at four sites.
A clear tube with an X at the bottom is used to measure turbidity.
The students filled it with the creek’s water. Water was then poured from the tube until the X became visible.
“At the very top of the creek it was about 90 centimetres,” said Barrett-Forrest. “That’s a lot of visibility in a creek.”
At the bottom visibility was about one centimetre, he said. Some of it was silt, but other elements exacerbate the water’s natural opaqueness.
“When you see the clear, pristine water running out of the stream at the top, you do kind of expect that it would stay pretty similar going down the hill because there aren’t that many foreign pollutants,” he said.
“But then when you do see it at the bottom of the hill and see how thick it became, it was kind of surprising.”
The good news is that the water isn’t terribly polluted at the moment.
The students looked for different invertebrates to measure water quality.
“It showed that they lived in pretty good water quality,” said Tate.
High levels of plecoptera, caddis fly larvae and nematoda indicate that water is fine at both the top and the bottom of the creek.
A group from FH Collins secondary School put together a petition for more wildlife protection in Spook Creek.
“We definitely support it,” said Barrett-Forrest. “I think they got about 200 signatures.”
The experiments gave the students a glimpse on how older generations dealt with trash.
“It is interesting to look at the contrast between 50 some odd years ago and now,” said Barrett-Forrest. “Because the mindset has changed quite a bit. But has it changed that much?”
“We say things like, ‘We don’t do that anymore,’” said Tate. “But then you look at it and the same people are littering.”
Whitehorse’s increased population and consumerism have made it worse, creating new threats to Spook Creek, said Barrett-Forrest
“Fifty years ago, people weren’t picking up bags and throwing it in the woods, but now that’s a common problem,” said Barrett-Forrest.
The experiments offer a picture of the creek’s health before a new manmade pressure has an impact.
“We talked to people on the trail who have lived here for 30 years and they thought it was really sad that the coyotes and foxes couldn’t go down to the creek anymore to drink,” said Tate.
The Envirothon was part of these student’s Grade 11 experiential science class, and they hope the project continues in the future.
“One research effort is a good start but without continued research, it’s really doesn’t do much good,” said Barrett-Forrest. “You need to keep an eye on the creek to make sure nothing breaks down.”
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