What a beautiful day to wake up in such a beautiful place as Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Our good weather since crossing the Adirondack Mountains has been as consistent as the bad weather on the other side. Today we were eager to reach North Saint Paul, Minnesota, where my little sister lives. It lies just a few miles west of the Wisconsin border.
Within a few minute we passed a series of bogs (not blogs), which cover most of the map sheet.
Bog in northern Wisconsin near Woodboro.
In this stretch, and from the map, are only three categories of drainage make sense. The land is either lake, bumpy hills of sand, or flat bog. Bog is by far the most common surface material. So little attention is paid to bogs that practically all are unnamed.
Who Gets the Water?
Imagine three hungry kids and one cookie on the table. That’s the situation facing Jackie at Lake Nokomis, who I met while she was out front tending her petunias. But in her case, it is not the cookie being stared at, but a body of water wanted by three separate entities, even in well-watered northern Wisconsin
Lake Nokomis is a name slapped onto a body of water officially called the Rice Reservoir, near Heafford Junction. I suspect a real estate developer with a good ear for marketing picked it. Jackie called it a “flowage,” meaning the water “goes up and down.” I correctly guessed what she meant: the lake an expanded reach of a river, one holding water behind a dam that regulates the flow.
Lakefront on Lake Nokomis, Wisconsin. Wide beach is due this being a "flowage," regulated by a dam at its outlet.
The first of three users is the paper mill at the head of the flowage, which created the reservoir to back up the water to increase the volume. They did this because industry learned long ago that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Most are, or at least were, regulated not by the amount of chemically tainted wastewater they release, but by its concentration. The same quantity poured into a larger reservoir lowers the concentration, making effluent legal. They treat the lake exactly as if it were the tank above a toilet. The larger the amount in the tank, the more efficiently the unwanted residues are flushed.
The second group of users, in historical sequence, is the lakeshore residents. What they want is a good-sized body of water with a stable shoreline and clean water. Luckily, they got there after the paper mill no longer was allowed to release chemical surges. The third group is the kayakers, who assemble once in a while downriver to do their thing. What they want is a torrential release of water to make the otherwise sluggish flow challenging.
Users at the head of flowage (industry), along its edge (lakeshore owners), and below it (kayakers) compete with one another like three kids with one cookie.
I began my conversation with Jackie by asking what she liked best about life at the lake. “It’s relaxing,” she said. “The sunsets are beautiful.” Her biggest problem is invasive weeds, mostly milfoil, which is choking out the shorelines. We then got into a discussion about who is responsible and who should pay for this problem. Ultimately our conversation was about the failure to get a lake association here. Why? Because the residents simply can’t agree on how to best manage their shared resource.
There is a volunteer citizens group called the Nokomis Concerned Citizens. The town is also involved, as is something called the Valley Improvement Association. The citizen group solicits donations from shoreline residents and hold fundraisers, one of which is the Pond Polka, held on Pontoons, if I heard the story correctly. They use the money for testing, cleanup, and so forth, but it isn’t enough. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is responsible for overseeing lakes at the state level, has required the residents to get rid of the milfoil, and tries to enforce behavioral regulations such as the one requiring that people can’t drink alcoholic beverages while driving a motorized boat. Nor will they allow lakeshore owners to protect their eroding shorelines with riprap, meaning boulders or rock, at least according to Jackie.
One look at Jackie’s lakefront reveals why she might not want a lake association. Her property is beautiful, one than many citizens would envy. There are no trees to block the view or drop leaf litter or twigs on the immaculate grass running right down to the shoreline. The lush garden is full of flowers. Tidy boats rest on clean sand where the water used to be (it’s drying up). Any weeds (large, rooted aquatic plants called macrophytes by scientists) have been grubbed out and raked clear. .
She is what the environmental activists and those who understand shoreline ecology would call a “neat-nick.” Nature, they argue, isn’t that neat. The shoreline needs shaded spots. It needs some rooted plants and a few irregularities in the water like boulders and deadfall trees. It needs a “riparian” edge immediately above the water with plants such as herbs, wetland grasses, sedge, and reeds. It needs lawns that are not fertilized or treated with chemical sprays.
Jackie isn’t being criminal. Nor is she anti-government. And she believes the state DNR has done some good things. But she wants them to “tone it down,” with respect to regulating what private citizens can, and cannot do on their shared piece of property. “They need to look realistically” at the situation…”you don’t want to ruin tourism” by raising taxes and increasing regulation.
A lake association on Lake Nokomis – or any lake for that matter – would be a good thing. Though I don’t know the details, the failure to get one here is probably less about government and regulation than it is about education. I believe that if every lakeshore owner actually understood how lake’s work, agreement would be much easier to achieve. Ultimately, this boils down to education, both for kids and for kids of all ages.
Higher Power Tower
In the tiny town of Glen Flora, Wisconsin is one of the cutest churches I’ve seen. Of course, it’s a Lutheran Church of some sort, in this case led by the Reverend Hanson. Behind it is the nicely, and unpretentiously painted water tower with the name of the town in simple block lettering.
Lutheran Church and municipal water tower in Glen Flora, Wisconsin.
I stopped there for a photo to add to my growing collection of water tower images, which I plan to turn into a poster at the end of this freshwater journey. The seacoast has its lighthouses. The heartland has its water towers.
A water tower looming above a church said something to me as a scientist. When I hear the old saying, “There’s nothing certain but death and taxes,” I often think about gravity. It is such a given, such a constant in our lives that no storm, power outage, heavy snowfall, downed tree, or human error can stop it. We don’t put water tanks up that high because we want to store water. We do so because we want to store water AND energy, in this case, the potential energy of gravity, and the force hat makes rivers flow from high to low. And a higher tower translates into higher power, which can be used to raise the pressure. May the force be with you, the force of gravity? Let that higher power distribute water far and wide.
In front of the church was a bright red fire hydrant.
Fire hydrant connected to the higher power water tower in Glen Flora, Wisconsin.
What a perfect place for a hydrant, being so near the tower of power. Indeed, when someone’s house is burning, the firefighter wants to fill the tank of his or her truck as fast as possible.
Island of Culture
Tony was a few miles down the road. It’s not a him, but an it, a one-gas station town. Lila was filling up a gas can. She glimpsed my way and stared for a second or two. I suspect she saw my Connecticut plates and wondered what a Volvo was doing here in the almost exclusive land of GMC and Ford cars.
This emboldened me to ask about the highs and lows of freshwater. Being an outsider, she was more than happy to talk, share her thoughts, and to have some company. She’s lived here for only five years, which may not be enough to be accepted by the community. Before that she lived in Iowa, moving up north in retirement to live on the land her grandmother had owned when Lila was a child and visited here. This move, she said, was a “going back to your roots,” sort of thing.
Her water concern involves climate change. She’s noticed that, ever since she came back north, there ‘s been a drought, with the grass turning brown even in July, and the water table dropping. I never heard her “good side” of the story because her observations of local culture distracted us. To her, the local folk strange, closed to outside people, not open to outside influence. “They just want to do what they want to and be left alone,” she said somewhat clinically. It’s like there’s a little island of people who just want to keep to themselves.“
Things are different in Hayward,” she continued, “with lots of seasonal people coming and going from all over.” She was referring to “lake people,” who she found more cosmopolitan, unlike the farmers who lived near Tony. Fascinated, I inquired if she had noticed something similar in Rhinelander, where I had just come from. “Yes,” she said. “Certainly!”
Rhinelander is also kettle lake country, chock full of those who come and go. Being a glacial geologist by original training I prefer to think of the summer folk in Rhinelander and Hayward as moraine people. An early advance of the Chippewa Lobe moving outward to the limit we would encounter in a few hours, had pasted the land near Tony with loamy, rather than sandy, till, a compact form of surface soil that holds water well, and is perfect for corn, soybeans, and other commercial crops. When the ice lobe melted back, it left lonely a few patches of sand and gravel and gravel in the vicinity.
The final step was a re-advance of sub lobes to the west and east, which covered Hayward and Rhinelander, respectively. This blessed both towns with hundreds of lakes each, but cursed them in terms of agricultural purposes, except for growing hay and grazing cattle. Indeed, there is an island of people near Tony. Their culture a restricted to an island of loamy till that’s surrounded on all sides by lake-studded, sand-gravel moraine.
Just before we parted, I thanked Lisa for her acute observations of physiographic determinism. She looked at me a bit funny, so I defined it. It’s a theory that holds that the physical landscape shapes the culture of the people who live on it. The philosopher Will Durant understood it when he quipped: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”
Leaving Tony to the west, we passed just below the Dairyland Reservoir, which surrounds “Bunyan’s Hat Island. I’m guessing that this is a tribute to the timber economy enclosed within a tribute to another more sustainable one. Within a few miles were in Ladysmith crossing the Flambeau River, another impoundment with no visible flow. Its weed-mantled surface was sad.
Ice Age National Scientific Reserve
We headed south on Wisconsin Route 40 to a place near Bloomer that has three official-sounding names. To the state, it’s the Chippewa Moraine Ice Age State Recreational Area. To the National Park Service, which funds much of the operation, it’s the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve. To the citizen activists who helped found this site, it’s the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which follows the outer limit of the last major glacial advance in Wisconsin. The country beyond the trail is completely different.
Sign for Ice Age Trail, Bloomer, Wisconsin.
The kids I saw at the ice age park didn’t care. They were too busy doing a nature scavenger hunts. Environmental education is the main activity that takes place for kids. For adults, it’s probably dominated by foliage hikes in the fall, boating in the summer, and cross-country skiing in the winter. What a great idea…a reserve dedicated to glacial geology. It felt so good to be in a place where people knew the difference between glaciology and glacial geology, and didn’t seem clueless about their effects on the landscape. Having just finished teaching an upper division specialized course on the subject that uses a 600-page text, I’ll spare you the details for this road trip.
Painting in the Visitor's Center at Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, near Bloomer, Wisconsin.
The painting is not realistic. Rather, it's a collage of images from between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago.
Brenda was outfitted with the classic park service uniform, complete with polished badge and a pin that had 1991 written on it. That’s when she joined the Wisconsin DNR as a LTE. As you know, state and federal employees are excessively fond of acronyms. An LTE is what normal folks would call “summer help.” With this agency, it’s a “limited term employment,” a job title that’s pretty clear about their plan to “let you go” in the not to distant future. Since then, she’s risen to the position of supervisor/naturalist, which she no doubt earned on her own merits.
What a great person to have working in such a place, able to let me down gently with the correct identification of a moth, after I screwed up, and more importantly, able to confidently interrupt adult conversation to deal her top priority, which are the many kids scurrying around the place. God bless anyone who helps kids stay in contact with nature, especially those who do it for a living. She specifically mentioned working with Tm Gilbert and Pam Schuler from the park service on a variety of projects.
It’s only July 7, and the grass is already turning brown. The surface soils are dry because the building sits on a pile of well-drained sand and gravel that was dumped into a pond surrounded on all sides by glacial ice. There is no surface water anywhere in the areas except where the water table intersects the land surface, producing hundreds of small kettle lakes.
The local drought and declining water table, and the consequences thereof are Brenda’s main concerns. Their signature lake, Shattuck, the one seen through the picture windows out front, is usually a continuous sheet of blue water running right to the forest edge. Now, the water is so low that a wide rim of lily pads and other aquatic weeds surround it like an amoeba-shaped green frame on an amoeba-shaped painting.
Lake Shattuck from the front of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, Bloomer, Wisconsin.
Visitors are having trouble launching boats because the water levels have dropped below the roads leading to launches. There’s also a drought of funding, she says. Things are tight in every government agency at every level.
The good news is what Brenda calls “willing acquisitions.” People are actually giving land to the government to preserve it in perpetuity, and many others are selling land to add to the park property. Even better news is the fact that they have access to thousands of young minds each year through their environmental education programs.
Beyond the Moraine
Interstate 53 is the main highway from the cities to the south and Wisconsin’s northwest lake country. When we crossed it at Bloomer on Route 64, we had the misfortune to fall behind a caravan of slow-moving trucks carrying the rides for a carnival. Passing one didn’t gain us much, for there were at least a dozen more ahead. This circumstance could not have happened in a worse place, the ridge-and ravine topography beyond the moraine.
The terrain between Sand Creek and Connorsville would make sense to someone from the Ozarks or West Virginia. The tributaries flow fairly straight and they link together into larger streams with a regular pattern. At the scale of square miles, it resembles the branching patter of the veins in a maple leaf or the Y-shaped forks of an elm tree. The divides between tributary watersheds are higher and ridge-like than in moraine country. They actually divide the flow.
When glaciers overrun such places they tend to subdue the local relief by wearing down the high spots and filling in the low spots. This didn’t happen here because the ice sheet stalled further north.
This terrain has remained unglaciated for at least several hundred thousand years, Collinsville, Wisconsin.
Connorsville is a place where the terrain hasn’t been glaciated for at least 100,000 years, possibly as much as half a million years, ago. The land has had time to adjust back to nonglacial conditions. Its soils are redder and more clay rich, the boulders have disintegrated, and the watershed is better adjusted to the dendritic drainage pattern.
To visualize the difference between fresh and ancient glacial terrains, I suggest you download Google Earth software contrast the towns of Island Lake and Wilson, respectively, which are only twenty-five miles apart. The glacial terrain of Island Lake is centered on 45 degrees 18 minutes’ north latitude and at 91 degrees 25 minutes’ west longitude. The nonglacial terrain of Wilson is centered on 45 degrees 07 minutes north and 91 degrees 50 minutes west.
To the west was New Richmond. The water we saw there in town was the color of tea.
Entering the Twin Cities
Having spent two days working our way across Michigan and Wisconsin using blue highways and backcountry roads, Kristine and I experienced surges of adrenaline when approaching the Twin Cities.
View to the north of the Saint Croix as we enter Stillwater, Minnesota.
Our first rush took place when the road funneled us into a bedrock canyon with vertical limestone cliffs. This was the meltwater pathway draining much of the ice sheet edge to the north. So freaked out were we that we didn’t manage to pull off at all for a photo.
Within minutes we had turned east on a four-lane road with stoplights of the sort that signify suburbia everywhere in the nation.
Within a few more miles, we turned right on Century Road, which parallels the official edge of the Saint Paul metro area. A quick left turn and one block down found us in the driveway of Ingrid, Peter, Maggie, and Henry Kohler, who will put us up for the night. Of course I screwed up. I was not supposed to arrive before 4:00. Instead, we pulled off the road at 3:50, ten minutes before Ingrid finished teaching a violin lesson to one of her pupils. This gave me a chance to interview my first twin-cities resident, Melody, who had come to pick up her daughter.
Melody’s responses to my dichotomous (joy/concern; high/low; up/down; good/bad) question about fresh water was both articulate and full of grace. “A nice glass of cool fresh water,” she replied for the plus side. For the down side, she said, “We do not take care of our resources, water being one of them.” Each morning she has thoughts about nature in her prayers. She would love to live on a lake because “they’re so peaceful.”
The “calming effect” provided by surface water “is a gift from God that refreshes the soul.” What a lovely thought about water. I couldn’t help thinking of Henry David Thoreau’s comment that “a field of water betrays the spirits that are in the air.”
Downtown Saint Paul
I left early for my reading at Garrison Keillor’s bookstore It was a small group because I don’t know anyone except the families of sister in Saint Paul, that of my brother in Minneapolis, and an ex-graduate student who had spoken at Common Good Books just a few weeks before I did. I suspect that even fewer people know there’s anything to know about the subject of my talk: kettle lakes.
Common Good Books, downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I love independent bookstores. This one’s located in the basement of an old hotel at the corner of Western Avenue and Selby Street in St. Paul, Minnesota. The sign says they carry General fiction and non-fiction, Good Poetry, Classics, Quality Trash, Midwestern Lit, and Local History.
The readings went well, and the conversations we had were intimate, funny, and very stimulating. Sherry, one of the people who attended was visiting from Denver. Of all the people I met on the entire trip, she was the most energized – one could say borderline manic -- about the politics of water. She had nothing good to say on the subject of fresh water because she didn’t think there was any left at all. She had heard that the rainfall everywhere contains molecules of plastic. Irrigated golf courses were one of her pet peeves. It was hard to get her to stop.
To be parsimonious in conversation is to say the most with the fewest words. Robert won the prize over the course of the entire trip. He was a mellow guy, an elderly African American, wearing a cap from Enterprise Rent a Car and finishing his supper in Costello’s Bar on Selby Avenue in downtown Saint Paul. It didn’t take long for us to find something in common. We both had lived in Alaska, he working for six years on the pipeline, and me learning geology and archaeology.
“Algae.” He said in response to my first question, following it up with “10,000.” In two words he had been able to describe the lows and the highs freshwater life in Minnesota.
He’s right on target with respect to the water challenge and water pride felt by most residents. The algae problem is fairly straightforward. There are simply too many people doing too many things that release too much soluble nutrient into lake waters. They don’t stop at the edge of the lake. If there’s and inlet, they stop at the runoff divide, the place where the water flows both toward and away from a particular spot. If there is no inlet, they stop at the groundwater divide, which may, or may not mimic the elevation of the land surface.
And, indeed, 10,000 may be the best thing about Minnesota lakes. Actually, there are many more than that, though the exact count, somewhere near 15,000, will probably always remain a mystery. Minnesota should consider itself lucky, not only because the ice sheet created that many lakes, but also because they’re still around. Normally lakes are destroyed by being in-filled with sediment, usually bits and pieces of plant remains mixed with mineral mud and clay. In Siberia, however, thousands of perfectly lovely lakes have disappeared in response to climate warming. They were held up by a layer of permanently frozen soil at depth which, when melted, allows the water to drain downward.
Of course, the televisions were mounted on the wall showing some sort of athletic contest. The bartender recommended a nice pint of micro-brewed ale for me to try. He did give me a funny – but not unkind – glance when spotting me handing Robert one of my business cards while sitting next to a briefcase, laptop, and large single-lens reflex camera. That’s not normal tavern stuff.
Robert spends lots of time fishing. He likes it best in the spring and fall, believing that the fish don’t taste as good in the summer, when the water is warm.
Costello's is across the street from this old hotel in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Jonathan was sitting on the street to the left.
There wasn’t much street life left at 9:30 on a hot Tuesday night. Most folks were probably near a lake of some sort, or perhaps at home reading my blog. Jonathan, who had attended my reading, was sitting alone at a table out front of Common Good Books, experiencing the oxymoron of enjoying the night air while smoking a cigarette. When I told him about Robert’s two-word answer, he said “I can do it in four.”
Lake Michigan. That’s the concern. Like the beachfront in Toronto, it’s closed most of the time due to fecal bacterial pollution. Another irony of lake life. For good health, we need them to live in our intestines. In fact, we have what microbiologists call an “intestinal flora.” But when the feces from humans and warm blooded animals wash into the water and we ingest them, it’s bad news. We get the runs, or worse.
Chicago River. That’s the good thing. Jon laughed when he said this, saying he knows that it doesn’t make sense. The concrete-rimmed river is terribly polluted, more like a gutter of gray-water, and the farthest thing from a babbling brook. What he likes about it is the fact that humans have figured out a way to make it run backwards. Originally, the river drained as a lazy stream from its divide with the south-draining Illinois River. This was the route taken by Farther Marquette and Joliet in their famous 17th century voyage of discovery that proved the existence of a great south-flowing river in the American mid-continent, one later given the name Mississippi. The gradient of the Chicago River was so low, that all it too to reverse the flow was a ditch at the divide and some kind of dam on the downstream side.
That’s it. My experience with Saint Paul Street life ended after three city blocks of sidewalks to my car, a few dogs being walked to release water-soluble excrement on irrigated micro lawns.
Maggie, my niece, will enter 9th grade in the fall. Her best friend, Haley will enter 8th. After I returned from the bookstore, I interviewed their kids about their highs and lows of freshwater. In their minds, both went immediately to the lake,
Haley liked “all the animals and fish,” particularly the snapping turtle. What she didn’t like the was the “seaweed yucky muck.” When it was her turn, Maggie said she liked the lake because it was so much more interesting than the pool, and you could just lie there and get a tan with your friends.” What she didn’t like was the “muck and weeds.” These girls were of like mind.
Then the kids told me an astonishing story about Silver Lake in North Saint Paul, which is only one block north of their hose. One day, on a routine visit to the lake, they saw dozens of dead fish washed up on the shore and stinking to high heaven.
Though nothing to write home about, Silver Lake is the centerpiece of their neighborhood of middle-class homes built during the baby boom expansion half a century ago. Back from a dancing lesson, they sat in the same chair together, looking like they were joined at the hip (Recall that widening of the hips comes later in human development.)
Maggie and Haley, North Saint Paul, MInnesota.
After being grossed-out by the dead fish and afraid for the future, they printed “Save our Lake” flyers and tacked-taped them up all over the neighborhood. They urged residents to go down to City Council chambers and tell them to fix the problem.” I’m so proud of them. I mean think about it, they could have been reading People magazine, doing their nails, and having their first serious conversations about boys. Instead they were out there pounding the pavement as environmental activists.
How lovely is innocence of youth. If only it were that simple. We discussed possible causes of the fish kill. Poisoning? Ingrid, my sister and Maggie’s mom told of a perfectly normal day when the kids were swimming under the watchful eyes of neighborhood moms. The boat passes by with equipment that was spraying fluids into the water well out from the shore, right in front of the swimming area. They later found out that this had been a lawn care company hired to spray herbicides on an adjacent private lawn. More concerned than indignant, the moms pulled their kids out of the water. That was the end of it. What was it? Why? Was it legal? These questions were left unanswered, simmered for a while during coffee conversations, and then faded away.