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What You Can Do to Help Lake Superior

Editor's note: To investigate the pressing issues facing Lake Superior, our communications coordinator interviewed three people experienced in managing (as much as one can) and monitoring the environment in three locales around the US part of the lake. In this special feature you'll learn how environmental conditions have changed and ways you can help protect these natural areas.

A kayaker rests in a pool near the Scoville Point Trail on Isle Royale National Park.

A kayaker rests in a pool near the Scoville Point Trail on Isle Royale National Park.

The natural resources of Isle Royale National Park (MI), an island in the western part of Lake Superior known for its dynamic wolf and moose populations, are under the care of Jack Oelfke. His responsibilities run the gamut from air quality to water quality, research, wilderness management, and fire management. Tettegouche State Park (MN) is the largest park along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Gary Hoeft cares for the natural resources there. Besides personnel issues and administration, Gary works on assorted tasks from sewers to interpretive signs, but his passions revolve around restoring the park's majestic white pine and white cedar habitats.

Around the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (WI), a cluster of islands in the cobalt-blue waters of Lake Superior off the tip of the Bayfield Peninsula, Bill Route initiates another species inventory. He has the daunting task of setting up monitoring systems for it and eight other national parks. Four of the parks are in the Lake Superior Basin: besides the Apostle Islands, and helping Jack Oelfke at Isle Royale, Route works for Grand Portage National Monument (MN), and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (MI).

Even though some aspects of the environment are improving, each of these managers is concerned about increasing human pressures, but there are things we can do to help.

Rocky coastline of Isle Royal

Isle Royale

Isle Royale is officially part of Michigan, but many an outdoors writer has mistakenly included it as part of Minnesota because itís closer to that stateís shore. It really should belong to Canada, more than to anywhere, if what I heard is true. Once during my two summers working at Rock Harbor on the island, I heard someone say that Isle Royale was lost to Canada in a card game between US and Canadian map makers. The island was traded for some of the border areas along northern Minnesota by these freewheeling cartographers. Itís strange to think of top-hatted, black-suited men wagering over a piece of paper, shaping nations, with Isle Royale but a poker chip.

Of course, the island is much more than a poker chip. It is an island sculpted by the forces that formed Lake Superior itself. The island is in turn now shaped by Lake Superior. Everything ó the weather, the type of animals found there, and the lives of the few humans who have the good fortune and fortitude to summer there ó feels the cold blue hand of the icy queen.

There are the well-studied wolves and moose, but there is also the intangible, a magic found nowhere else. My island-bound friends and I used to call it fantasy island, not only for the strong relationships formed, but for mists, the moon, the waves, and the distant moan of the Passage Island lighthouse.

Jack Oelfke, branch chief for natural resources, knows heís got it good working and living on the island. "One person told me Iíve got the best job in resource management in the whole park service," he said. "I don't know if that's true, but it's pretty good." He tries to ensure that park personnel have accurate information about the islandís resources, and to understand how the park will fare into the future. "It's a pretty daunting task, but we've got to try and do it."

Oelfke oversees the natural resource group Ė a mix of full time and seasonal employees, including biologists and wilderness managers. He contributed to the parkís general management plan, which is currently under litigation, and is leading the effort to draft a wilderness and backcountry management plan. He has worked on Isle Royale for 10 years, spending five months of each year on the island at the parkís headquarters on Mott Island, and the rest in Houghton, MI.

One environmental issue that most concerns him hasnít reached the island yet: non-native species such as the zebra mussel and Eurasian ruffe (pronounced "rough").

"Because we have contact with the mainland, both with our own park service operations or research vessels, and with private boats, the opportunities are there for some of these non-native species to make it out here. Some of them, such as the zebra mussel, could really have devastating effects."

Thankfully, exotic species havenít impacted the park yet. "But it's lurking there and it really concerns me," Oelfke said.

The other issue that has reached the island is contaminants. Mercury and PCBs are brought by industrialized winds. PCB levels are getting lower, but mercury remains a concern.

Oelfke noted positive changes, including recovery of specific species, like the bald eagle and wolf. "The wolf population has had its ups and downs but the last several years that population seems to be bouncing back. That could change at any time, but itís gratifying to see."

The island also served as fledging ground for 50 hand-reared peregrine falcons, although none have returned to nest. "The Canadian biologists chuckle that the peregrines fly to Isle Royale and then they look across and see the cliffs at Thunder Bay and hop across," mused Oelfke. "That's probably true, but that's OK. If weíve done some minor part to help, that's good enough."

Oelfke urges visitors to the island, especially boaters, canoeists, and backpackers, to check their watercraft and equipment for non-native plants, plant seeds, or animals before departing for the island. To help the wolves, people should follow park regulations by keeping their dogs (and other mammalian pets) at home.

"We're fairly certain now that when the wolf population crashed around 1980 it was because people brought their dogs out, which carried the parvo virus and caused the whole episode," Oelfke explained.

Hikers are treated to a magnificent view of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park.

Hikers are treated to a magnificent view of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park.


Tettegouche State Park is more than a rest stop along Highway 61. It features some of the most distinctive aspects of the Sawtooth Mountains, including the much-photographed Palisade Head, favorite of rock climbers who dare to dangle 200 feet above Lake Superior. Shovel Point is another popular climbing destination. The High Falls on the Baptism River lures viewers to the longest drop of water that Minnesota can claim. Tettegouche has wonderful riparian and woodland habitat and great birdwatching. The park supports more than 40 species of mammals, and 140 bird species. It also has nesting peregrine falcons, perhaps escapees from Isle Royale!

Besides regular breaks at the rest stop, Iíve spent time on the top of Mt. Trudee and sleeping at Tettegouche Cabins, a rustic cluster of rentals by a lake reached only by foot or pedal power. The park claims one mile of Lake Superior shoreline, covered in birch-aspen forests. As one moves inland, those forests are replaced by maple, yellow birch, basswood, white spruce, and red oak.

Long ago, these forests were mainly white and red pine, and white cedar, which Gary Hoeft, assistant park manager, is working to restore. Deer are his nemeses. "The deer populations started to explode after the logging, and now it's hard for a lot of white pine and white cedar to get established."

To protect the seedlings, park staff and volunteers take two approaches: bud capping Ė covering the main shoot (terminal bud) with a piece of folded paper, and exclosures Ė fences that keep the deer from reaching the trees. To protect the white pines from blister rust, a fungus that can kill the tree, they remove the lower branches which are the ones most likely to contract the disease. These procedures have worked, although Hoeft says theyíve found a new threat. "The bucks have been using our newly pruned white pine as scratching posts for their antlers. It's hard. I donít know if you can ever completely protect them from the deer."

The park also has a planting and seed collecting program. Seeds are gathered from white pine and other species in the late summer and fall. The seeds are sent to a state plant nursery in Willow River, MN, where they grow into seedlings. Three to four years later, the seedlings are planted back in the park.

Some positive changes relate to vegetation. "When the campground was first built, most of the birch were either dying or dead because of the die off that was happening at that time. Because of our planting and pruning efforts, the vegetation is really dense between campsites." The white pines Hoeft helped plant are close to 20 feet tall now.

Besides vegetation restoration, the other issue facing these Lake Superior Highlands is visitor impact. The lure of lake and forest draws more and more people every year (300,000 in 2001) and their presence is showing. "We're doing more work as far as hardening areas for people to visit ó make it so we funnel them into one spot that weíve designated ó to help improve their access and prevent degradation to the resource," Hoeft explained.

The increase in users has led to an increased demand for different resources. Many people would like horseback or mountain bike trails, said Hoeft. "Those both require a lot of resources and a lot of the resource."

Hoeft encourages people to volunteer in the parks to help minimize visitor impacts. Participants plant, protect, and prune trees, collect seeds, and serve as campground hosts. "We can tailor jobs around just about anybody's qualifications," Hoeft said. "We donít ever have any problems finding jobs for volunteers." Volunteers could become increasingly important due to budget cuts that MN Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is facing.

Rasberry Island Lighthouse on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Rasberry Island Lighthouse on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Division of Tourism

Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands, where Bill Route (pronounced Rout-ee) is based, is an archipelago of 21 islands, not a dozen as implied by the name. The French Jesuit missionaries who christened the islands obviously had trouble counting. Each island is a unique world with its own combination of forests and shores. Deer and bear live on some of the larger islands, while gulls and great blue herons nest on smaller ones. We humans enjoy sailboating, powerboating, and sea kayaking among these gems. I once spent several days on Stockton Island exploring the old quarry site and "cliff jumping" into Lake Superior's turquoise waters. My friends and I dove for agates scattered about the sandy bottom, feeling more like we were in the Bahamas than in Wisconsin.

Bill Route works here and in eight other national parks throughout the Great Lakes, helping them inventory their natural resources. "It's a process of listing and identifying all of the species ó plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds," Route said. He then helps the parks develop a long-term monitoring program based on key species or key components of the ecosystem, "so that we understand how to better manage park resources, or how use of the park or outside stresses, like air pollution and water pollution affect park resources."

Right now, he's in the inventory phase, working with biologists to survey species about which they lack information. "It's important to note that each of these national parks already conduct a lot of inventory and monitoring on their own, but they canít afford to do all of what they need to do." Thatís where his program comes in, providing money and specialized staff to complete the efforts and develop long-term plans.

Route has a broad outlook on the lake and its problems. He sees progress in cleaning up some pollutants, and is encouraged by bald eagle recovery. What gets him down is the increase in development adjacent to the lake. "Even without population growth, in many areas the number of resorts and the number of cabins has increased."

Like Oelfke, Route worries about exotic species. "Certainly zebra mussels have siphoned out some toxics from the water, but in reality they are creating a dead zone for other species that we want to have survive. Exotics really change the biointegrity of the ecosystem as did the toxics that were in the lake before."

Exotics are even harder to clean up than pollutants once they get into an area. One of our favorite sayings at Sea Grant is that chemical pollution can be cleaned up, but biological pollution (like exotic species) is forever.

Route believes that people should educate themselves about minimizing their impact on the environment and stresses the need to balance resource protection with development. "Learn enough to vote wisely and make good public decisions about our natural environment. Even though weíve seen development of the lakeshore, by and large, the resort industry and recreational use can be an ally to protecting our natural resources," said Route.

Another suggestion from Route deals with pollution. "Some highly toxic substances like dioxins may be coming from burn barrels throughout the Great Lakes area and up into Canada." Plastic that is burned releases dioxin and other chemicals. "Youíve got hundreds, perhaps thousands of these spread across the Great Lakes, and the chemicals go up into the air. What do they do? They get rained back into the lakes."

Even though Lake Superior is huge and the issues can seem daunting, Route thinks that shouldn't stop people from trying to make a difference in the health of the lake. "Weíre finding that people ó individuals ó can do a lot to help not pollute the environment."

Photo montage of Isle Royale. Includes images of the rustic Edison Fishery boathouse and fishing boat, Cemetary Island, Rock Harbor Lighthouse, a sunrise over Belle Isle, a wolf print in the sand of a Siskiwit Bay beach, and a mushroom near Siskiwit Bay

By Marie Zhuikov
September 2002

Return to September 2002 Seiche

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