200 pounds of gear, three canoes and no DEET
Working in the great outdoors, canoeing on Minnesota's lakes... blue waters, bluer sky... Sounds like a great job, doesn't it?
Now factor in long portages over rugged ground and swamps, with more than 200 pounds of gear and three canoes — and no DEET.
For Jesse Anderson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, it's all just part of the job — testing water quality in northern Minnesota.
Dots on a map
Every five years, the U.S. EPA asks Minnesota to participate in a survey of lakes, streams, and wetlands. In the most recent survey, Minnesota received 42 lakes — chosen at random — as a part of the national draw. The MPCA added eight lakes so that they would have a representative sample of Minnesota lakes in general, and added another 100 lakes so that they would have a representative sample of lakes in each ecoregion.
Jesse's big adventure
In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, conducting survey work on 150 lakes proved to be rather challenging. The vast majority of these lakes do not have public access. A few of these lakes are remote — almost to the point of being inaccessible.
Jesse's (and he's quick to point out that he's one of many people who worked on this project) most challenging lake was Spree Lake — a small, shallow lake located in Lake County about 21 miles north east of Ely, within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It had never been surveyed before.
“Here's the route we took to Spree Lake. It was about a 30-minute boat ride to get from the Moose Lake public boat ramp to the start of the "portage." Then a half-mile trek through the woods on an undeveloped BWCA portage to reach Spree Lake from the shores of Newfound Lake.” — Jesse Anderson
The monitoring crew included Jesse, Ben Larson (MPCA) and Andy Levar (Minnesota DNR), plus three members from the U.S. Forest Service (Superior National Forest): Jason Butcher, Darren Lilja and Lashawn Nohrenberg.
Jesse and the crew started their day by loading three canoes, paddles, life vests and four packs with about 200 pounds of equipment into trucks. Then they drove to the Moose Lake public boat ramp. After a 30-minute boat ride, the crew came to the portage. There, they loaded their gear onto their shoulders. Using a map and GPS to locate the lake, they bushwacked through a half mile of rugged terrain — up and down steep slopes, through swamps — to their destination.
After all that, once the team got to the lake, they spent about four hours testing ten different spots. In order to take a core sample of the sediment at the bottom of the lake, they had to duct tape two canoes together for balance. The lake sediment cores are collected by using a 40-pound piston sediment corer that pushes into the lake sediments. "We take sediment cores from the bottom of the lake to look at sediment diatoms — or microscopic algae — from present day and 100 years ago. This information allows scientists to evaluate nutrient changes over time," Jesse explains (on the left in the photo below).
To make things even more interesting — because the group was testing for chemicals, including DEET, the crew couldn’t use DEET on themselves to repel mosquitoes and ticks. All Jesse would say about this was, “The bugs were pretty bad.”
Once the team was finished surveying and gathering samples, they loaded everything back up — including an extra 25 pounds of water samples to send in for testing — and trekked back out and made their way back to the trucks.
There they still had more than an hour of work to prepare samples. The samples had to be sent by FedEx to the laboratory the next day, or they become unusable.
What are we looking for?
"Our monitoring team takes water samples or measurements from 10 sites around the lake," says Jesse. "We also study the biological community in and around the lake — trees, plants, insects and other creatures."
The water samples are tested for:
- Emerging contaminants
- Toxic blue-green algae
- General water chemistry and profiles
How is Spree Lake doing?
This information is used not only at the federal level, but Minnesota also uses it to compare results from the previous study to determine what’s better and what’s worse. The survey of Spree Lake shows that it is a small and relatively shallow lake with good water quality representative of its wilderness setting. Of the numerous chemicals tested for, only one, DEET (an insect repellent), was detected. No pesticides were detected in Spree Lake.