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Gaining a Superior Perspective

Jesse Schomberg on board the L.L. Smith with participants in

"This is no joy ride," said Jesse Schomberg, coastal communities extension educator with Minnesota Sea Grant. "This is a working voyage and the completed green form is your ticket off the boat."

The 23 rookie crewmembers of the L.L. Smith, Jr. chuckle at this reference to an evaluation form for the cruise. The acrid smell of diesel, the sting of Lake Superior's spray, and the notion that this is more than a sightseeing tour has them primed for action.

Armed with clipboards and paper, these citizens of Minnesota's North Shore were eager to examine their community from a new perspective – the deck of a research vessel outfitted by the University of Wisconsin-Superior's (UWS) Lake Superior Research Institute.

This particular trip, one of 20 conducted in June and July through the collaborative "A View From the Lake" Project, began off the Two Harbors breakwall on choppy swells. The project is providing a unique context for discussing land use, development, natural resources and water around the ports of Western Lake Superior. Although the 2004 excursions have finished, Sea Grant and UWS extension staff will also take landlubbers onto the open waters of Lake Superior next summer.

On this July day the Smith churns northeast towards the mouth of the Encampment River under the steady hand of Captain Dan Rau. Trip participants note striking shoreland features and the locations of community blemishes. The coast's main artery, Highway 61, displays pre-weekend traffic; mostly northbound, often carrying canoes or towing campers. Semis making runs to Canada plunge into the Silver Creek tunnel against a backdrop including rugged cliffs and the famed Betty's Pies Restaurant.

Houses dot the shoreline. For Two Harbors (pop. 3,613), developments such as a sizable condominium complex and a full campground make it obvious that the community's coastal area is more than a road from points A to B. Flocks of cormorants, gulls, and swallows suggest humans aren't the only creatures interested in coastal conditions. Hide-away homes sit above sea caves and the layered geology of the area's volcanic past.

About 30 minutes into the voyage, Schomberg and his colleague, Diane Desotelle, divide the passengers. In the bow, Desotelle presents information on water quality and has her group lean over the railings to collect water quality information. In the stern, Schomberg talks about impervious surfaces, those barriers like roofs, roads, and even sod that prevent rain and snow from percolating into the ground. He introduces Wayne Seidel from the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District. Seidel reviews historic and recent stormwater management efforts in the Skunk Creek Watershed, which encompasses most of Two Harbors.

"Timber harvesting and development significantly changed the Skunk Creek Watershed over the last century," said Seidel. "The two biggest problems have been water quality and water quantity."

He explains that more water runoff into the creek was a byproduct of heavy historic lumbering. During a flood in 1907, a barn washed down the creek with a woman in the hayloft and a cow still in the stall, Seidel said.

Today, despite a few more trees, pavement causes water surges in the wake of storms. Rain that doesn't soak into the ground washes pollutants from parking lots, streets, driveways, and yards into Skunk Creek; it's dirtier, warmer water moving at a faster pace. This causes environmental changes. For instance, high school students found nine species of insects in the creek above Two Harbors and only two species below the city.

Seidel describes Two Harbors' creative approach to reducing
runoff into Skunk Creek. Wielding an urban forest restoration plan and the cemetery's new water detention basin, the city hopes to tame the wild flow of the creek following storms.

Despite the overcast day, trip participants measure lake clarity at about 12 meters and find creatures including Mysis, scuds, and bloodworms in sediment dredged from 67 meters. A plankton net tow reveals single-celled algae and zooplankton. Meanwhile, Clint Little from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources displays aerial photos and charted the progress of the Smith digitally, using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology.

About 500 citizens, reporters, and local officials cruised on the boat this summer. "The enthusiasm and reactions of participants has been incredible," said Schomberg. Even a propeller accident that caused a repair delay didn't seem to diminish the experience, he noted.

Inspired by people's reactions, Schomberg described how a Duluth Planning Commissioner left "A View From the Lake" with the understanding about why impervious surfaces are undesirable. "It's this elevated understanding that will ultimately help the community," said Schomberg.

Similar excursions are being planned for 2005. For a modest fee, you, too, are invited to get " A View From the Lake." All voyages sold out quickly in 2004. For more information, contact Jesse Schomberg at (218) 726-6182 or by e-mail at: jschombe@umn.edu.

This project is funded by a grant from the Great Lakes Regional Water Quality Program and grants from the Wisconsin and Minnesota Coastal Programs through the Coastal Zone Management Act, which is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

By Sharon Moen
September 2004

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