Volunteer efforts preserve, protect inland lakes
ALPENA — For many, July Up North means pontoon boat rides, swims, solitary kayak paddles, and fishing expeditions on the sun-warmed waters of Northeast Michigan’s inland lakes.
Keeping those lakes clean and healthy helps residents and visitors appreciate them even more, a state program and its army of volunteers believe.
The state designates July as Lake Appreciation Month, encouraging residents to protect and preserve its inland lakes.
As part of the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program — run by the Michigan Clean Water Corps, overseen by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy — volunteers keep an eye on Michigan’s 11,000 inland lakes, measuring water clarity, searching for invasive species, testing chemical levels, and reporting data used to keep one of Michigan’s treasures safe for its residents to use and enjoy.
Without such data concerning life in and on inland lakes, “we would know it’s good, but not how good it is,” said John Jackson, a monitoring program volunteer who collects data in East and West Twin Lakes in Montmorency County.
Though the state touts its 11,00 inland lakes bigger than five acres, a count of Michigan lakes of all sizes would top 36,000, according to Jo Latimore, administrator of the Michigan Clean Water Corps.
Trained how to capture, understand, and share lake data, program volunteers measure water clarity weekly to detect harmful elements that could hurt the lake’s health. Catching such changes early helps environmental groups respond quickly, addressing a problem before it gets worse, Latimore said.
While data collected by volunteers shows many inland lakes are healthy, some show signs of potential danger from invasive species or human intrusion.
European frogbit, which crowds out native plants, has moved from the Lake Huron shore to inland lakes, possibly spread by waterfowl, according to Latimore. Eurasian watermilfoil and starry stonewort commonly travel from lake to lake on boats or boat trailers and can harm aquatic life and make lakes impassable to boaters.
The humans living on and loving their inland lakes may unwittingly harm them, as well, Latimore said.
As downstaters come north in droves for summer getaways — and as more weekender cottages turn to full-time residences — lakefront homes add chemicals to the water through rain runoff across paved patios or boat launches and leaching from septic systems into the water, she explained.
“We’ve loved our lakes to death,” said Latimore, who teaches residents, boaters, and other lake users to rinse their boats, let some of their lakefront property grow wild, and refrain from dumping unused, non-native fishing bait into lake water.
Volunteers willing to keep tabs on inland lakes in Northeast Michigan — where stores sell “Life is better at the lake” signs and kayaks ride cartops all summer long — protect a vital resource that feeds tourism and economic growth while embracing the area’s heritage, Latimore said.
Few lakes in the region fall under the eye of program volunteers. Currently, the program collects data from Beaver Lake in Alpena County, Avery Lake and East and West Twin Lakes in Montmorency County, and Cedar Lake and Hubbard Lake in Alcona County.
The program would welcome more data from more lakes, Latimore said, encouraging inland lake residents to consider volunteering for the program.
Jackson, in Montmorency County, has tested the twin lakes for seven years. As a retired research engineer for General Motors, “taking data is right up my alley,” he said.
A dramatic change in water clarity in the lakes this spring caught Jackson’s eye. With instruction from the monitoring program — and a zooplankton net purchased on Amazon — Jackson helped identify the phenomenon as a “clear water phase” caused by microscopic creatures that eat algae and bacteria.
His neighbors at the lake love the water’s clarity, and, while “I would like to have taken credit for that,” he said, the information he learned about his lake’s health led to fun science lessons with his grandkids.
“The best thing I ever did was buy a cottage up here,” said downstate resident Rick Schalk, who grew up in Rogers City and visits his Lake Nettie cottage most every weekend of the summer.
Like other inland lakes, Lake Nettie offers mysteries and gentle delights to her visitors, from tube rides behind a zipping boat and fishing from a pier to loon calls, a sunken boat visible when the sun is just right, and a waterfront house that may — or may not — have been owned by the Mafia.
A few years ago, Schalk said, milfoil invaded the lake and kept boaters off the water. State efforts to subdue the weed now help keep Lake Nettie clear and beautiful.
He didn’t fully appreciate the pace of inland lake life until he left the area, but he hopes to retire to the lake cottage he bought ten years ago. In the meantime, weekends on an inland lake are worth every minute of the four-and-a-half hour drive to get there, he said.
“On a Friday afternoon, when I get done, I’m on my way north,” Schalk said.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.