Want to Save Our Lakes? First, Find One to Love.

The question wasn’t all that surprising – “What can we, as individuals, do to help keep the Great Lakes clean?” It came from an audience member in Shannon Hall, the large theater space at UW-Madison’s Memorial Union, and it was directed at Dan Egan, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter-turned-author who was on campus discussing his new book “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.”  

Egan’s answer, though, didn’t follow the usual script. He didn’t single out environmental policies or industrial practices that impact our water quality. He didn’t focus on invasive species or thirsty Western states with an eye on our freshwater riches. Instead, Dan went back. Way back to his own childhood spent on Lake Michigan’s shores at his grandparent’s house. 

Before we can start the hard work of protecting a place, Egan told his audience of well over a thousand people, we have to love it first. And for us to love a place, we have to know it and spend time in it. And the most powerful way to build that sense of place is to do it when you’re young. Essentially, Egan said, find some kids and get them to a Great Lake. 

It was a message Egan repeated to a packed taproom at Working Draft Beer Company the following night. His Science on Tap-Madison event capped off a series of public appearances and lectures as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “Go Big Read” program, which tabbed Egan’s book for its 2018 selection. 

Egan’s message made us think of another project. One that helps prove his point.

Earlier this year, we attended the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership convention in Steven’s Point – a gathering of Wisconsin DNR scientists, University of Wisconsin researchers, UW-Extension educators and members of lakes associations across the state. At the conference we were approached by Chelsey Blanke, a CFL alum, who is now working at the University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. She is also a huge believer in art as a means of communicating science and one of the minds behind a collaboration of art and science called “Restless.” 

Chelsey was standing beside a map of the Great Lakes and asking people to write a story about a formative memory from a lake and then find that lake (either Great or inland) on the map and stick a pin in it. 

Now that map has an online version – and, for lack of better words, it’s really cool. 

Click on any pin and read the memory someone shared from their most memorable lake. Better yet, submit your own memory to add to the map.

As we read through the stories, it was striking just how many were memories from childhood. Just as Dan Egan had suggested, their power had endured. 

My sister and I would chase seagulls on the beach for hours, then take a swim in the rolling waves of the lake. We’d make a sand castle and go back to grandma’s house in time for bed time and fall asleep to the sound of waves.

I had a pair of “fold-able” binoculars and watched my gramps fly-fish largemouth bass in a small row-boat. He was a big man (6′ 4″, 260 lbs). Watching him with my binocs one day I saw him flip the row-boat and take a swim. I still remember my dad pulling gramps home, towing the row-boat with grandpa hanging on the back.

Fishing with Dad and brothers for bluegills where the lake was so clean we could watch a big school of fishies grabbing our hooks and then we filled our fish basket!

There are so many great memories shared on the map, we recommend you go spend some time with it. (Editor’s Note: we, perhaps, spent a little too much time with it!) 

It will make you love lakes you never knew existed and also remind you of the importance of getting to know your “home” ecosystem. Before we can protect something, we have to love it. And, before we can love something, we have to know it. And you can’t know a place without spending some time there.  

So get out to your favorite lake this fall. And take the kids with you!