This week we take a look at Lake Superior through the eyes of Mike Link and his wife Kate Crowley. Mike is the retired founding director of The Audubon Center of the North Woods in Minnesota, an author of 24 books, a published researcher (vernal ponds and ornithology), a college instructor at Hamline University, and a consultant to non-profits. In 2010 he walked around the largest freshwater lake on Earth with his wife Kate – the first couple to do this. In 2014 they will be bicycling the length of the Mississippi river as they try to increase people’s interest in Fresh Water and the future. Working with the National Center for STEM Elementary Education, their future adventures and research will be shared with schools, teachers, and non-profits.
I will be writing a series of blogs for GLOBE to share the scientific experiences that were part of a 145 day, 1555 mile (2502 km) hike around the largest freshwater lake in the world. Note that it is measured by area, not depth or volume, two very significant measurements, but with less importance to our hike since area would determine the actual distance that we would cover.
My wife, Kate Crowley, and I chose to do this hike after my retirement from an environmental education center in Minnesota. We are both in our sixties and were the first couple to follow the shoreline of this magnificent lake. We did it for many reasons – to promote healthy living, to get people to care about freshwater, and to challenge people to take action on their values and concerns.
Freshwater is one of the most important issues in the world. Living in Minnesota, which is known as the land of 10,000 lakes and is the headwaters for both the Great Lakes and the Great River (Mississippi), we feel we have an opportunity to share our concern with the world.
As a college instructor in science and environmental education, as well as director of the Audubon Center, education was a very important part of my career and I love to combine education and science. The walk allowed us a chance to continue our focus on environmental education.
This blog is not about the hiking for 4 ½ months, but about the science we did as part of the effort. Perhaps you can see how you might duplicate some of the research in places where you live.
Part 1 Point samples
Our first commitment was to take photos every three miles along the shore with GPS locations and notes. The photos were taken in the four cardinal directions and serve as a visual record. We ended up doing 300 points. At first we thought we would do them regardless of whether we could see the shoreline or not, but eventually we questioned this and eliminated stops where the lake was not in sight. We hope that these records will become available through GLOBE.
What this did was to cause us to take note of a variety of things that enriched our experience. For one thing, we were able to actually register the way the vegetation changes around the lake. On the south shore we found hemlock and beech and there was a nice mix of forest types with a substantial amount of deciduous trees. We found beautiful, healthy old white pines; very popular with bald eagles.
The large sand beaches that dominated this shoreline were usually backed up with a beach grass and beach pea community with pines, fir, and spruce behind them. Paper birch, aspen, yellow birch and maple were common deciduous trees in this region. I also found it fascinating how the mountain ash grows to tree size here. Because of Minnesota’s shoreline, I am used to thinking that the mountain ash is a shrub, but these were tall tree with high canopies mixed with the other native species.
Moving north into Canada we transitioned from the white pine/birch/cedar forest to the boreal black spruce forest between Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukaskwa National Park. Spruce became dominant and would stay with us across the northern reach of the lake. Sandy bays still had beach grass and beach pea, but the large areas of bedrock shoreline meant that lichens, mosses, butterwort, and sundew patches were common.
Traveling from Nipigon, Ontario, Canada to the south, the vegetation began to include more pines again. On the Sibley Peninsula, we felt the forest became what we expected, with the exception that on the exposed rocks and islands Arctic disjuncts (a species from the last ice age) still reproduce and flower. There are a few of these on the Susie Islands in Minnesota, near the border and some species on the shore, but nothing like the Canadian flora and its gorgeous array of plants like crusted saxifrage, Artic bramble, and alpine bistort. This area of Lake Superior supports many of these species that are globally rare.
As we walked down the Minnesota coastline we moved into second and third growth forests with lots of birch and aspen. Second and third growth forests are forests which have re-grown after a major disturbance, such as a fire, insect infestation or timber harvest. In these forests, the birch was often in poor shape and there were no young white cedar because of the voracious white tail deer. The mountain maple is browsed extensively by the deer, but seems able to withstand the onslaught, while species like mountain ash are nipped back to the ground almost as soon as they have a season of growth. We found the Encampment Forest Reserve to be one of the last vestiges of the original shoreline vegetation.
HOW WILL THIS BE USED?
You may hear people say – “It wasn’t like that when I was a kid.” People will talk about change and say that things were different, but that is what we call anecdotal evidence. It is based on memory and inconsistent reporting. So how do we answer the question of how has the lake shore changed over the years and not use anecdotal evidence?
Our point samples become a baseline. We know the day, the year, and the GPS points and those will remain a consistent reference point. In other years people can use GPS to go back to the same place and observe and measure the changes according to our records. This can be replicated in your backyard, school yard, or any place you want to create a permanent baseline record for others in future years.
From the first part of the series, you can see how important GPS is to Earth System Science research. We would love to hear how you have used GPS protocols in your research! Leave us a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.