15 years ago, I was living down in Madison Wisconsin, a very different waterbody, and I came up to Duluth, right on Lake Superior to go to the Society for Conservation Biology meetings. And I decided while I up there, I might as well take some extra time a couple weeks to travel around the lake.
So I went hiking at Sleeping Giant, then I went to Pukaskwa National Park and spent a couple days there. Then I went over to Wawa and went kayaking for several days, with a group with Naturally Superior Adventures. On that trip, especially during the kayaking part, I fell in love with the lake.
I had moved from Madison from Puget Sound and I really missed the ocean and the rocky coastline and much as I loved the midwest I was really homesick but the moment I spent those two weeks on Lake Superior, exactly 15 years ago to the week, I realized I’d really found my home. I fell in love with kayaking, I’ve become a really avid greenland paddler, I lead a kayak club but more importantly I went home down to Madison and said to my husband let’s move to Lake Superior. Let’s sell our house and move to the lake. He’s like yeah right, get real. We have jobs, he had a farm, I taught university there. But I switched my research to Lake Superior and then 5 years ago I found a job at a university right on the shores of Lake Superior and moved north. I was traveling this week, I work on woodland caribou and climate change right now and I was meeting with a bunch of biologists and First Nations communities in Wawa. I went back to Pukaskwa camped on Heady Cove. Went back to Sleeping Giant and I realized that trip 15 years ago had really a) changed my life and b) allowed me to fall in love with the world largest and most important Great Lake.
I’ve worked on a lot of water issues in my career. I’m an ecological historian so I look at watershed change and how humans and non-human processes change the watersheds we live in and what we can do about it. In 2011 I had just finished one book on endocrine disruptors and toxic chemicals and how they immersed our environments so quickly. I was trying to think about what is my next project really going to be on and I did a field trip with some other ecologists from University of Wisconsin and we went to visit with the Mole Lake, Sokaogon an Anishinaabe that had managed to block Exon Corporations plan for an enormous sulphide mine just upstream of their reservation that would have contaminated the Wolf River and their wild rice beds. We met with them to learn about their concerns about an environmental health and how they’d stopped this huge corporation, a tiny, tiny band without much money, so they were telling us about their passion for environmental health and the quality of the water and as were just sitting down and talking with them 11 people from the Bad River Band, 3 or so hours north, right on the shores of Lake Superior, filed into the room. The Chair of the tribe, Mike Wiggins Jr, all the natural resource staff, their lawyer. They came and they said, you guys from Mole Lake, you guys from UW Madison, we need your help, nobody's paying attention but there’s plans for the world's biggest open pit mine, right on the shores of Lake Superior, right upstream of our reservation, just upstream of the world’s [remaining] largest natural wild rice beds, 42% of Lake Superior's remaining wetlands, Kagagon. They said this is about to get pushed through and nobody’s paying attention, we need your help. The chair of the tribe, Mike Wiggins Jr is an extraordinary person, mostly we were talking about parts per million and sulphides and what that means for wild rice and water quality measures and then Mike said, “You know what when they announced that this mine might go through I remembered when I was a kid, sitting in the back of the Jon Boat with my dad and we were fishing in the Kagagon and I was lying back on the wild rice bags and my fingers were trailing in the water and I just was in love with this place. He said I never realized that I would die to protect this place, we all have to figure out what we would give our lives to protect.
So they talked with us for several hours, they asked for our help, they said we just need help understanding what this pollution might mean what the mines would mean, what mines had done in the past, and he said we need your help. At that moment I realized I really wanted to commit to the lake. That I loved the research I was doing at Madison but that moment made me decide to find a job on Lake Superior and to become part of the basin, so my most recent book that comes out looks in large part with the effects of that mine battle, the tribe actually managed to block the mine.
There’s still a lot of potential threats to Lake Superior water quality but hearing Mike say at what point you have to decide more than others and for him it was Lake Superior. So hearing his passion and commitment made me realize I really wanted to commit what I could do to protect and restore this Great Lake.