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Youths in Ashland Study the Environment Knee-Deep in Bog

August 3, 2008

By Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

Aug. 3–ASHLAND — After ducking under a low bridge, students entered a world of water “roads” earlier this week in the Kakagon Sloughs.

The sloughs in Ashland are known as the “everglades of Wisconsin.” The high-school students were there to learn to walk a bog.

They were part of the Lake Superior Pathfinders camp, a summer environmental and social justice program put on by Northland College and the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.

On Wednesday, they departed from the Raymond Shooty Couture Tribal Fish Hatchery in two boats, led by members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Edith Leoso and Ed Wiggins talked to students about tribal history, invasive species, the importance of wild rice, and how they all connect to environmentalism.

“We don’t take natural resources for granted,” said Leoso, tribal historic preservation officer. “We know they can sustain us if we take care of them.”

The sloughs, which lead to Lake Superior and are a registered national landmark, are the largest naturally growing rice beds in the world. Other plant species, both native and invasive, pop through the bogs and were identified and discussed with eager students.

The program uses Lake Superior as an outdoor classroom, said director Elizabeth Post, and as a platform for students to learn about critical issues surrounding it.

“Then we help them transfer some of their skills back into their community,” she said.

The program includes an Ojibwe talking circle, commercial fishing with a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, kayaking among the sea caves, and an exercise in what it would be like to be homeless.

Participants are usually passionate students interested in the environment or Northland College, and thinking about careers in the environmental sciences or social justice.

During the slough excursion, the boats pulled up to a giant bog near the mouth of Lake Superior. Wiggins, a fisheries aid and wetland technician for the tribe, donned a pair of waders and stepped into the water. The students, removing flip-flops and hiking up long shorts, jumped into the unknown sphagnum moss bog without a second thought, following Wiggins like a row of ducks through the tall grass sprouting from a squishy, wet carpet.

Wiggins found a pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that traps bugs, and students took turns tempting it with their fingers. Evan Van Lanen of Green Bay, Wis., found a hole in the bog floor, and experimented with how far he could dangle his leg. He never found bottom.

“It just keeps going,” he said.

The water underneath is very deep, Wiggins told the students, relaying a story about what happened to some inexperienced bog walkers spraying chemicals on invasive species a few years ago.

“They fell through, and all you could see were their arms,” he said, adding they could easily pull themselves out.

Students were careful to follow Wiggins’ steps.

The 5-year-old program has always worked with the area’s tribes, Post said.

“In understanding any place, you have to understand indigenous cultures and their connections to that place,” she said. “It’s important to honor the native culture we have here and for students to engage and understand it.”

The purpose of Wednesday’s activity was to look at how human systems and the environment are connected, said Erin Frisk, a field educator for the program.

Water quality, which the students learn about, is not just an environmental issue, Post said.

“It’s connected to all of the people that share that resource,” she said. “It [the camp] is recognizing that no issue stands alone, and that it’s connected to every other way in which a community functions and sustains itself.”

Justin Daniels, 16, is planning to attend Northland College to study biology and wanted to see what the area was like. He was surprised at the variety and depth of the cultural and outdoor activities in the program.

“I’m from Chicago; I haven’t done any of this before,” he said.

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers higher education. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com.

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