Saturday, June 17, 2017

Finding Home Amongst the Wisconsin Waterways

As the ETA on my Google Maps navigation drew closer and closer and my road trip to Menomonie approached the end, my heart beat faster in anticipation of seeing the place I would soon call my summer home. Traveling to Wisconsin for the season isn’t a new feeling for me. Wisconsin lakes and rivers have actually been the main character of my summer for years. A homegrown Hoosier (aka a gal from Indiana, and no, we don’t really know what it means either), I’ve spent the past four summers trekking north to work at a camp leading canoeing trips in the northernmost reaches of the state . These experiences in the Northwoods have been instrumental in forming my relationship with the environment and teaching me how to build community. I choose the LAKES program because I wanted to spend another summer revolving around lakes, watersheds and the formation of communities, but from a new angle. Finally arriving in Menomonie I stepped out of the car into the hot, humid air and have been surprised ever since by one, how Wisconsin can be so hot in early June, but more importantly, how a place can feel equally new and like home all at once.

Within, dare I say, the first few hours, the enthusiasm and excitement of the LAKES mentors became obvious and I knew immediately this was a team I could jive with for the summer. The crew of students and mentors are a carefully selected bunch from a variety of places, disciplines and backgrounds. We’ve got some folks who actually understand the scary, mysterious world of economics that is beyond me to those who get visibly excited chatting about plants and insects. Our conversations around the table and during road trips flow with ease from sociological theory to the underpinnings of a solid ecological experiment. Working with such a talented, interdisciplinary group is a life and career goal for me and the LAKES team is fulfilling that dream. It’s an academic home I always knew I wanted and now I just might have found it. Watch out toxic algae and hello water quality, because with these people on the task we are bound to undertake some incredible research in the next few months.

            The community outside of our LAKES team comes with all the midwestern hospitality and charm I know and love. People smile and say hello on the street, don’t yell at me when I am lost and get in their way, and I’ve already been given offers to borrow boats, dogs and cabins if I need them. Will definitely be scheming to take people up on those… But what has been most encouraging to me is the diversity of people involved in water quality efforts in the community as well. The past week attending various meetings and activities has led me to meet quite an array of actors that shock me with their casual expertise of water quality related acronyms (seriously, it’s an endless list), and the nuances behind their role in the issue. This expansion of people involved has undoubtedly been, at least partially, facilitated by the work of the LAKES program in the past, which only makes me all the more jazzed to be working with a project that has been having a visible and crucial impact in this area.

            Perhaps the oddest part of my experience here has been the relationship of the people with the area lakes themselves. I am a major hydrophile. I can’t be near a body of water and not want to get in. Just ask any one of the other LAKES students and they are probably already tired of me talking about going swimming or canoeing. From this perspective, I have been shocked by the lack of activity on the lakes. I can only describe Lake Menomin as a kind of giant void in the middle of Menomonie that people seem to avoid. At one week in I’ve seen a total of two boats on the water and zero people swimming. (Not including me and a fellow LAKES student, but we were called crazy for doing so by a passerby.) It’s as if Lake Menomin is haunted or cursed and people don’t dare to go near it, except much worse because the dangerous effects of phosphorous are real and ghosts are not. As someone who believes in the importance of getting outside and engaging with our environment this has been truly heartbreaking to see.

So, as all artists, and now I am deciding scientists too, do, I am turning this heartbreak into motivation and inspiration for my work. I have been privileged enough to have incredibly formative experiences on the waterways of Wisconsin and am grateful to be able to work on the other end of things and give back in a way. I look forward to working with some remarkable folks around me and reaching out to engage with an even more diverse group of people beyond. Thanks to all those on the LAKES team and the Menomonie community who have welcomed me here and are helping make it feel like home. I look forward to learning from you and with you. In the meantime, if you need me you can find me searching for ways to enjoy the water, and as we like to say as farewell up north...

Peace on the waterways.

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