Limnology in Action: Big Adventure on Small Lakes

by Aisha Liebenow
It’s not every day that you get to say you went on an adventure; unless your name is Samantha Oliver or Andy Muench.

sam_andy_canoe     Sam and Andy demonstrating their portaging skills. Photo by: A. Liebenow

Sam and Andy demonstrating their portaging skills. Photo by: A. Liebenow

Sam is a PhD student in the Center for Limnology at UW – Madison, and Andy is an Undergraduate student from UW – Madison majoring in Botony and Wildlife Ecology.  Their project is part of a larger group called CSI Limnology . CSI stands for cross-scale interaction, and national projects like this often focus on the larger lakes and aquatic systems because of the difficulty of obtaining accurate location, area, and depth information for smaller bodies of water. Sam is working to add small lakes to the bigger picture.
Small lakes usually aren’t the most crystal clear of lakes. They often contain large algal mats as shown here. Photo by: A. Liebenow

Before heading out into the field, Sam used GIS software to find all lakes under 1 hectare (or 100 meters by 100 meters) in the Northern Highland Lake District. Lakes were then randomly selected for their daily excursion. Andy scouts each lake to determine its accessibility before they start lugging scientific equipment and gear out into the field. It’s not uncommon to encounter accessibility issues like thick forests that prevent portaging or inaccessible private land.
“This project involves a lot of public interaction,” Sam says, “We often have to check with the people that live around the lake to get permission to enter.”
Working with smaller lakes also means that there is most likely limited use of the lake. The chances of finding clear, paved roads right down to the water and a well-kept boat landing are pretty slim. Sometimes all trails lead to a lake that simply isn’t there.
All this means that a little bit of adventure is usually part of the job.

When I climbed into the car for my day out with Sam and Andy, I was ready for rain, sun, and bugs, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the trip ahead.

Andy leading the way through the narrow trail to our first small lake of the day. Photo by: A. Liebenow

We pulled onto a road off the highway, and proceeded forward until it seemed like we had hit a dead end in someone’s yard. There was a single dirt ATV trail ahead that looked way too small to be our destined route. But, against all odds, we were able to prove that a Ford Escape can indeed fit onto a trail that is clearly meant for a smaller means of transportation.
While the Escape did fit, we eventually got stuck and had to get out and portage the canoe.
Now, the week before heading out with these two, I had received a couple of jests around the station about my portaging abilities. I’ll admit that I don’t have much upper body strength, but in my mind I was thinking, “Hey, they normally do this with only two people, a third will just make it that much easier.”
Finally at our destination, we find the ‘boat landing’ for our first small lake. Despite its run-down appearance, it had quite the picturesque landscape. Photo by: A. Liebenow

Yeah, sure…
We took some breaks, but I immediately became very grateful that Andy had already scouted this location and knew the way to the boat landing (which is a term I use loosely). And I just prayed the entire time that ticks weren’t going to fall on me from above. It was definitely a work-out and Sam confirmed my thoughts of exhaustion by saying, “I don’t ever feel the need to exercise after being out in the field.”
In the end, it was manageable. The portaging really wasn’t that bad, it was just a little difficult to lift my arms the next day. But besides the muscle strain, I had a great day in the field with the CSI Limnology team. I was even able to help fill bottles with lake water for study back at the lab, and learned how to collect zooplankton using a vertical net tow. We also saw a ton of wildlife! Namely frogs, snakes, and mosquitoes.
Little, green frog found along the shore of our second small lake for the day. Photo by: S. Oliver
Little green frog found along the shore of our second small lake for the day. Photo by: S. Oliver

Slithering water snake found sunning itself in the grass. I was too scared to get any closer. Photo by: A. Liebenow
Slithering water snake found sunning itself in the grass. I was too scared to get any closer. Photo by: A. Liebenow

The adventure gave me new appreciation for the work that the researchers do here on station. I was only with Sam and Andy for a day and I found myself feeling grimy, yearning for my bed, and wanting a day off. And I’m sure that those two have had similar thoughts, but they plug on and do it all again the next day.
Reflecting on this, I began thinking of a mantra for Trout Lake Station. I narrowed it down to two.

“Say ‘yes’ to adventure.” and “Don’t be afraid to get messy.”

Now, I don’t think anyone should follow these without question, but I do believe that you make your time here what you want it to be. These mantras encompass the ‘Trout Lake Station Experience’ in that if you take a chance, try something new, and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, you can have a great time with some great people. And maybe even gain some amazing hands-on knowledge.
There’s a quote on a poster about the history here at Trout Lake Station hanging in the hallway. On it is the following quote from Herbert Dutton, a UW chemistry student who was on station in 1940:

“We chemistry students knew about Trout Lake as an exciting, challenging place to live and work…There was an aura about coming to Trout Lake.  If you were real lucky you might have that opportunity.  So I think the people that came up here, came quite starry-eyed and were the top people.”

More than 70 years later, his quote remains true. School and extracurriculars may prepare your resume for that first job, but in the field adventures prepare you for the real world.
And this internship is no exception. So far this summer, it’s shown me that our beautiful world has more to offer than I once knew. Here, I’m living in the moment and not caring if it means I get a little uncomfortable or dirty. And, the best part is, I’m just getting started.

091     Sporting my rain boots, ready for adventure. Photo by: A. Liebenow
Sporting my rain boots, ready for adventure. Photo by: A. Liebenow

These are the first-hand ‘Notes from the Northwoods’, as UW – Madison undergraduate student, Aisha Liebenow, dives into the world of science, ecology, and aquatic systems. Follow her throughout the summer in her Northwoods immersion at the UW Center for Limnology – Trout Lake Station in Boulder Junction, WI.

1 thought on “Limnology in Action: Big Adventure on Small Lakes”

  1. Love reading the blog posts and all the adventures BIG and SMALL at the station.
    You give those of us in the city a real sense of the wonder and beauty in nature.

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