This past weekend I had the opportunity to cross off one of my eagerly-awaited “bucket list” items which happened to be visiting and touching one of North America’s Great Lakes, Lake Superior. Arguably, this particular water body turned out to be one of North America’s most superior and spectacular wonders indeed. The most highly anticipated moment of the whole trip arrived when I had the opportunity to submerge my entire body in what I had dreaded was going to be the coldest water I had ever experienced in my life.
When the moment came, the initial temperature of the water certainly stole the breath straight out of my chest, but actually proved to be quite bearable in the hot summer sun. After several swims, I actually realized that being in this water was able to overlap with many other so-called “polar plunges” that I had experienced in my life, ranging from Colorado to Switzerland. The lapping of waves against the shore, the rustling of rocks and sand as you listen carefully underwater, and the strange encounters with the mysterious unknown objects that graze your legs as you paddle through the waves—it all seemed so oddly familiar. After all, water is water, no matter where you go… right?
Believe it or not, swimming in Lake Superior this weekend seemed to me a perfect metaphor for my experiences working with such a diverse and interdisciplinary program this summer. Allow me to explain.
Last Thursday, a few of my fellow research teammates and I went to help one of the economics teams distribute surveys at the Chetek Hydroflights water-skiing show. Our job was to encourage visitors and locals alike to take part in a short survey that the economics team had designed to measure the impact of tourism on the local lake economy in Chetek. I have never felt particularly adept with dealing with matters of economics (to be completely frank, economics had always been one of my most dreaded demons in my required course load for my Environmental Studies degree), but I soon found out that the more quickly I tried to jump into the cold waters of inquiring about people’s personal spending habits, the more appreciation I had for economics.
By being personally involved in an unique economic event for the town of Chetek, like the Hydroflights show, I began to see just how much the activities on the lake impacted what locals chose to participate in for pleasure and work. It was clear that the incredible water-skiing show we saw that night would not be made possible without a lake that was swimmable, even if it was far from perfectly pristine. The community seemed to clearly value the water itself. As part of the sociology team in our group this summer, Sadie and I have observed many farmers explain their perceptions on the importance of water quality for the sake of their crops and land. But by viewing this same concept of water quality from an entirely different lens, that of the average entertainment-seeing individual passing through Chetek, it was unmistakable that the economic value that comes from Chetek’s community being able to participate in water sports was also high.
Whether my “polar plunges” in research and my personal life take me to Lake Superior or elsewhere or perhaps just jumping into an unknown (and previously dreaded) discipline like economics, I am slowly learning just how important it is to make that seemingly treacherous “leap of faith” for the sake of learning and growth. This summer I have been pushed to explore unfamiliar territory by working with groups outside of my direct focus in environmental studies and sociology and I have found striking similarities and comparisons to what I already know and understand. But by continuing to explore the waters (I cannot help the puns, sorry!) of research from multiple different angles , it is only helping me build a more complete picture of potential ways to improve Wisconsin’s waterways. As far as I can see it, that is precisely the beauty and value of working with such an interdisciplinary research program, such as the LAKES program. And so it seems, there will never stop being new depths to explore!