A Lake Superior Sailing Experience, Part One: Chocolate Milk and Biting Flies

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I recently meandered out onto Lake Superior on my first extended sailboat trip across it with some friends. We left Duluth, Minnesota, and headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Island National Lakeshore, and then traversed the western arm of the lake to Grand Marais Harbor in Minnesota.

Since I am writing this, you know I survived the three-day trip. If fact, I would like to think I thrived, despite turning green with seasickness once (I avoided hurling, though!) and having to wear all my winter gear, plus hand warmers, on the 4th of July.

I learned a lot about sailing, but still have more to know. And I got a firsthand look at conditions on the lake, which is useful for my job, since we fund research projects on Lake Superior.

Two things struck me and my sailing companions. The first was the color of the water. Almost all the way to the Apostles it was the hue of chocolate milk. The large extent and persistence of the coloring was unusual. There were also floating logs to watch out for.

According to a news story I read upon returning home, the condition is due to a series of recent heavy rains that have sent thousands of tons of silt into the lake. Chequamegon Bay, on the other side of the Apostles, is also experiencing heavy sedimentation.

Usually, the chocolate milk dissipates within a few days, but this round of it is lasting longer than usual because we kept having downpours every few days. Most of the sediment comes from the Nemadji River and its red clay banks, along with the St. Louis River.

We also had more than double the amount of usual rainfall for the month of June. Anglers and charter captains are having to travel farther than usual out into the lake to find clear water for fishing.

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Stable flies covering jeans during a beach walk. Good thing they can’t bite through denim!

The second notable thing were the flies. Known locally by the name of “ankle-biters” or sand flies, stable flies look like a common housefly but they are meaner because they bite – usually a person’s ankles. I can attest that there are roughly a gazillion of them out on the lake and its shores this summer.

The only thing that saved us from certain insanity on a shore trip to Outer Island was the fact that we were wearing jeans, which they couldn’t bite through.

The flies congregated in seething clusters from our knees down, rarely venturing farther up our legs. Thank goodness they had no interest in our bare arms or we would have had to run screaming back to our dinghy!

According to a story on National Public Radio, researchers have figured out how and why the flies and other biting insects like mosquitos do this. They think these biting bugs target feet and ankles because we are less likely to notice (and therefore kill) them. They hone in on their target by smell, and apparently, the sweat and skin on our ankles smells different from that of the rest of our body.

Besides wearing jeans, we found it helpful to elevate our feet off the ground while we were on the boat. They didn’t seem to be able to find our ankles if they were level with the rest of our legs. Conditions on the boat never got bad enough that we needed to apply repellant, but we were glad we had some along, just in case.

Although the water wasn’t its typical crystal-clear blue, and we had many insect stowaways aboard our sailboat, Lake Superior was still magical. I greatly enjoyed spending time on it, and hope to do so again someday.

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A bear got to this beach before we did.

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Getting my Blue Mind on: Part 1 of 2

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Wallace Nichols

I had Dr. Wallace Nichols, author and marine biologist, captive in my car for forty minutes over the course of two days. Far from kidnapping him, he was in my car willingly because I was his morning chauffeur for a local science conference about the St. Louis River (the one in Minnesota, not the one in Missouri).

Nichols was the conference keynote speaker, talking about concepts described in his book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, in, on, or Under Water can Make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected & Better at What you do.”

As a watery kind of person myself, I relished this opportunity to learn more about the whole Blue Mind thing. Basically, it’s this: Being by or in water can calm people down and make them more creative. This idea is nothing new, it’s just that now it has a champion in the form of a Kevin Costner-esque man with a Ph.D. And it’s a nice side benefit that this man seems very humble and down-to-earth (down-to water?).

Book CoverThis is my rather jumbled account of things I quizzed him about in my car, things he said at the conference, and things I recall from reading his book. I tried to separate all the information out according to when I heard him say it, but it was useless. I guess I’m too holistic for that.

Although Nichols’s ideas may seem rather surfer-dude-ish — like they come from California, which indeed is where he lives — Nichols refers to himself as a Native North American. He grew up on the East Coast, but has lived various places in the Midwest and Southwest while on his eventual way to the West Coast.

In fact, Nichols credits the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for focusing his love of water and inspiring his career as a sea turtle biologist. He visited the area for ten days when he was in high school.

I wish I would have had time to ask him exactly what happened during his experience to inspire him, but in his speech he said his time in the Apostles led to his realization that water was, “. . . Where you feel like the best version of yourself. You are surrounded by nature, you’re in the elements. You’re where you should be.”

Something he didn’t mention in his speech was that he used to stutter as a child. I would expect that being in the water helped with that. “Just to be quiet in or near the water. To learn a new activity, learn to surf or to swim – those are very often the highlights of our childhood or adulthood,” he said.

His goal at the conference was to encourage the audience to bring science and emotion together in their work. He used a mixture of personal stories and research results to highlight how important water is to people from emotional, psychological and spiritual standpoints.

I read the Blue Mind book a few months ago. What struck me was that Nichols cited many studies, but most of them were associative – there weren’t many you could point to that were specific to how people react in and near the water.

I asked him if he was doing any more specific studies or if he was cooperating with any neuroscientists who were. He said that since his book was published in 2014, other studies have been published, and in his conference speech he described them.

Also, to the audience he said, “We talk a lot about the ecological, the economic and educational benefits of our work. We’re pretty good at quantifying this stuff, these 3 Es. We’re not so good at talking about or even including this emotional connection, the emotional benefits of healthy waterways. I would say, that should be switched to the top of the list. These are the benefits that grab people and bring them into the conversation.

”From a strategic perspective, first let’s not leave them out, and second, let’s prioritize them so that we’re fulfilling a larger movement. The emotional connection supercharges our understanding of ecological, economic and educational benefits of healthy waterways. By the way, emotion is something we can study. It can be as quantitative as you want it to be. It is hard science. Increasingly, organizations are using emotions as a tool to advance their advocacy work.”

Nichols offered this criticism and advice for environmental groups: “The environmental movement has used fear and anger to communicate about their issues. Guilt and shame are other motivators, and lots of facts — until they are confused. We talk about ecosystem services, we talk about the crisis. We blame you. It’s your fault. It’s terrible. The future is bleak. And by the way do you want to join my club? Sound familiar?

“Is that effective? We think it is. But we’ve proven time and time again, not so much. Maybe gratitude is another tool we can use. Love, what about that as a motivator?”

He left the conference attendees with this thought: “Water is life that makes life worth living as well. When we undervalue water, we lose that. When we undervalue anything or anyone, bad things happen. Water is our first medicine, for both physical and mental health. Bring the science of emotion to your conversations, do not ever leave it out.”

If you’d like more information, please check out his book. You can also read this blog post I wrote for my job.

Think about your own life. Are you stressed out? What helps you deal with that? Is it working for you? If not, remember the water. Remember music. Remember nature in general. Get out there. And don’t forget to breathe.

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Another conversation I had with Mr. Nichols dealt with floatation tanks. You know, those are the tube tub things you can go in that are filled with warm salt water and silence.

They strike me as sort of scary, but Nichols He recommended them for dealing with stress or to inspire creativity.

A business in my town recently opened a flotation tank. I decided to live on the wild side and give one a try. My appointment is tonight. That’s what Part 2 will be about.

A Bunch of Cool Things I Learned at the World Conference of Science Journalists

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About a week ago, I returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists, which was held in San Francisco. Although the coolest thing was seeing that there are so many of us doing science journalism in so many countries (more than 1,300 attended from seventy-three countries) — some of whom are the type who wear DNA double helix earrings — I learned many other interesting things during the five days of sessions.

Here are the highlights:

  • In writing a profile about a scientific woman, remember that, “If you wouldn’t say it about a male scientist, don’t say it about a woman scientist.” This applies to factors like cooking prowess, childcare arrangements, familial relationships, etc. This should go without saying, but apparently, some journalists don’t know this yet!
  • The current anti-science political climate makes our profession more important than ever. (Ron Winslow, National Association of Science Writers).
  • The term “climate disruption” is preferable to the term “climate change.” (John Holdren, Harvard).
  • “I love science because it can improve the human condition. The current absence of trust in science threatens this.” (Susan Desomond-Hellmann, Gates Foundation). She also said that skepticism of science is okay. Denialism is not. Science journalists and scientists need to re-establish confidence by being credible.
  • “Our oceans are our lives.” (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia). Sixty percent of the world population lives within sixty km of the coast. Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is generated by the ocean.
  • Most of the extra heat generated by climate change is going into the ocean (93%). (Malin Pinsky, Rugters University). He also said that ocean animals are moving ten times faster than land animals to new areas in response to climate changes.
  • Some solutions to overfishing: use algal oil in animal feed instead of fish oil. Consume lower on the food chain. (Julie Thayer, Farallon Institute).
  • The arctic is a hotspot for ocean acidification. Unfortunately, with climate disruption, it’s also where most of the fish are moving in general. (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia).
  • There’s a relationship between climate disruption and human violence. (Solomon Hsiang, Berkeley). It can take fifteen years for economic recovery to start happening after only twelve hours of a hurricane. Hurricane Maria undid twenty-six years of economic development in Puerto Rico. “The only thing more destructive is a nuclear bomb.”
  • It would only take three hours for the water supply for the reservation near Standing Rock in the Dakotas to be impacted by an oil spill, given the current location of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Phil McKenna, InsideClimate).
  • UC Berkeley has twenty-nine libraries, and some have interesting specialties. There’s a “no-technology” one (put those phones away!) There’s one where it’s okay to talk. There’s one for meditation. There’s even a “food-is-okay” one.
  • There’s a way to verify carbon dioxide emission levels of different countries. It’s called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. (Inez Fung, UC Berkeley). The levels of U.S. emissions are lower than those of China and Europe.
  • A lack of wild fish can have harmful impacts on us humans, including slavery and an increase in HIV. See the full story on my work blog, here. (Justin Brashares, UC Berkeley).

A Vision of Abundance

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Alexandra Cousteau

Like many baby boomers, I could be found on Sunday evenings in the 1970s, cozied up to the television, watching a gnarly red-capped Frenchman exploring the depths of the ocean. The opening music to “The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” — full of violins and trumpets, with a playful xylophone riff — conveyed a sense of adventure and wonder that was unmatched by any other television show at the time.

The series inspired me to pursue a career as a marine biologist. Although that did not come to pass, I write about aquatic science, which is just about as good.

Like many young girls who watched the program, I had a crush on Cousteau’s son, Philippe. His other son, Jean-Michel, was okay, but Philippe – oooh la la! I was devastated when he died in an aircraft crash. And I thought Calypso crewman Falco had the coolest name.

Even as a poor college student, I donated money to the Cousteau Society and followed their adventures after the television show no longer aired.

So it was inevitable that I attended a talk last week by Philippe’s daughter, Alexandra. She was the keynote speaker at a celebration in Superior, Wisconsin, for the Lake Superior Research Institute.

The leggy blonde, whose mother was a model, is coming into her own as an icon for water issues. She founded a water organization, called Blue Legacy International, and was honored by the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer.

Her talk centered on the theme of the importance of conservation and sustainable management of water for a healthy planet. However, Cousteau doesn’t like the word “sustainable.” She thinks that to most people, it means they must sacrifice something to achieve it, and that what is achieved is only marginal, not like things were before environmental problems happened.

The status of the oceans before humans started impacting it was one of abundance – huge schools of fish, giant pods of dolphins, a bay covered with oysters. Cousteau argued that we should have a vision of abundance instead of one of meager sustainability. It’s something people can be more enthused about and it’s an easier concept to imagine.

Given the realities of human abundance on the planet, this may be a pipe dream. But what a happy pipe dream!

Cousteau also thinks we focus too much on the environmental problems that exist and not on the vision we want to achieve. She gave the example of a tip from her downhill ski instructor, who told her not to look at the trees while she was skiing. “Because that’s where you’ll end up.” He advised her to focus instead on where she wanted to go.

Since I had just listened to a talk about sustainability by Andrew Revkin, I found Cousteau’s concept of abundance intriguing. I think those two should get together and compare notes, if they haven’t already!

I didn’t have my notebook with me, so am writing this all from memory. Two other things that struck me were her story about a child who was banned from watching the Cousteau TV show, and her story about how she learned scuba diving from her grandfather, Jacques.

Cousteau said that people usually gush about her grandfather’s television show (much like I did at the beginning of this post). But a man who attended one of her talks said he would get too excited by impending peril in the underwater adventures. When Cousteau would enter a cave filled with sharks, the boy would jump up and down on the couch, yelling at the divers not to go into the cave. He’d end up hyperventilating every episode until his parents took matters in hand and banned him from watching the show. Funny!

Cousteau said she learned how to swim before she could walk. At age seven, Jacques decided she was old enough to learn how to scuba dive (a technology he invented). As she sat on the edge of the boat, getting used to the regulator in her mouth and the gear on her body, she decided she didn’t like it. She was about to tell Jacques that she didn’t want to do it when he gave her a little push, and into the water she went. The undersea world has captivated her ever since.

Cousteau’s talk ended with a question and answer session. One of the last questions came from a tearful fifteen-year-old. She said that the students in her high school were all pessimistic and hopeless about the environment. She wanted to know how to offer them hope.

After taking a moment to compose herself, Cousteau, who was tearing up too, offered stories about things that are making the environment better. But perhaps, sensing the inadequacy of this in the light of teenage angst, offered to continue the conversation with the girl through her web site.

By now, most of the crowd was wiping away tears, including the director of the Lake Superior Research Institute, who closed the session in a choked voice.

Like her grandfather, this Cousteau has the ability to move people with her storytelling. I hope she inspires a whole ‘nother army of marine biologists and aquatic scientists. And a whole bunch of people who can tell the story of the environment, showing us where to go without crashing into the trees along the way.

8 Steps Toward Sustainability

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Andrew Revkin, playing a right-handed guitar left-handed.

Former New York Times environmental reporter, Andrew Revkin, spoke in my neighborhood yesterday. I meandered over to hear him because he’s an acquaintance of mine and because I just think he’s cool. Little did I know he would offer ideas for making our world more sustainable, plus end his talk with a song!

His talk was part of a Peace & Justice series put on by the Alworth Center at the College of St. Scholastica. Currently the senior environmental reporter at the independent investigative newsroom ProPublica, Andy specializes in the topics of climate change, the Amazon rainforest, and sustainable development.

I met Andy years ago when I took part in a week-long science writing workshop put on by the New York Times in Santa Fe. He was my small group leader. He offered critiques on our stories and gained inspiration from us for new topics to cover for his beat.

One morning, he was reading a copy of the Times and railing at some edits made to his story. I recall being so tickled that even reporters at a venerable institution like the Times are at the mercy of their editors.

At the end of the week, we gathered for an outdoor barbeque and Andy strummed his guitar and sang for us. (He has accompanied the likes of Pete Seeger.) I added to the mix, singing the only song I have memorized, an old revolutionary war folksong called Katy Cruel.

Andy even offered to write me a letter of recommendation for my journalism grad school application, so he has a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to hear him again.

Many people don’t know that when Andy started his career, he wanted to be a marine biologist. I can’t recall the specifics, but he was working on a project about “Man and the Sea,” in a far-flung location like New Zealand, when he got distracted by an offer to crew a sailboat that was sailing the world. He joined the crew and spent a year-and-a-half at sea, broadening his literal and figurative horizons.

20170928_192357He explained all this during his talk (called “Ending Life as we Knew it”), and showed a photo that he took during his sailing travels of a modest shop in a small town that had piles of leopard skins stacked outside it for sale. This got him thinking about the sustainability of our species on the planet. In hopes of changing peoples’ attitudes toward the world in which they (we) live, he turned to journalism and started covering environmental issues.

Andy refers to climate change and sustainability as “super wicked” problems that will only be solved with multi-pronged approaches, including on the most difficult battlefield, which is inside peoples’ minds.

He offered eight strategies as a recipe for society to become more sustainable:

  • BEND. This deals with resilience. We need to learn how to live on the land in a way that takes current and future landscape changes in to account. Andy offered an example of an ocean island that is all built out. If the island had some undeveloped land around its edges, it would be less vulnerable and more adaptable to sea level changes.
  • STRETCH. We need to stretch our brains to think differently about things like land use planning and to think ahead to what conditions might be like in the future.
  • REACH. This deals with communication. We need to let people know what’s happening with their world in a way that reaches them. I thought Andy’s talk was a good example of this. He didn’t just present a bunch of facts/figures and scary graphs. He told his story and got the audience’s emotions involved.
  • TEACH our children and ourselves more sustainable ways of living.
  • REVEAL. This involves calling attention to hidden problems. Andy used the example of heat or gasses being emitted from a factory, which could only be seen with a special camera. This example reminded me of the underwater camera that was pointed at the BP oil spill gushing out of the pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. Things like that get people’s attention and lead to quicker action.
  • REFLECT. Get scientists together to cooperate on problems and give them time to reflect on solutions.
  • REJOICE. Relish the gift of life and our humanness.
  • REPEAT. Keep doing all these things over and over in a disciplined manner (like “lather, rinse, repeat”). Keep retesting systems and examining conventional ways of thought.

20170928_194201Andy said when he asked a prominent scientist what it would take to solve the issue of mankind’s sustainability, he was surprised when the man didn’t offer a lot of numbers and charts. Instead, the man said that sustainability will take “a miracle of love and unselfishness to solve” if we are to survive as a species.

Andy ended his speech by grabbing his guitar and singing a tongue-in-cheek song about how “liberating carbon” is the American way.

Let’s stop liberating that carbon people, and let’s keep thinking about how our actions affect the planet. And maybe, just maybe, things will get better.

Hope for Sea Grant

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The Mexico–United States barrier at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, USA. The crosses represent migrants who died in the crossing attempt. Some identified, some not. Image credit: © Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The federal funding situation is looking up for the provider of my livelihood, despite President Trump’s wishes. As you may recall from a previous post, I work as a writer for a state branch of the National Sea Grant College Program. Basically, Sea Grant provides federal money to university researchers to explore and protect our oceans, lakes, and rivers.

My job is to explain what the researchers find to the taxpayers who fund the program. (Which is most of you who are reading this.) I do this through storytelling, and my stories are published on our program’s website, blog, newsletter, news releases, etc.

President Trump proposed drastic cuts to the rest of our 2017 budget, and he zeroed out the program in his proposed 2018 budget to Congress. He thinks the money spent on our program would serve the country better if it went toward building a wall along the entire Mexican border.

Sea Grant’s 2017 budget was spared because Trump agreed to delay his push for wall money until the 2018 budget battle. Congress passed a continuing resolution for 2017, meaning that our funding remained steady. Thus, I still have my job!

I am very thankful for that, and very thankful for all the support I’ve heard for the program from my federal representatives, community, friends, and fellow bloggers.

Preparations for the 2018 federal budget have begun, and I have good news to report on that front, also. At the end of June, a House of Representatives subcommittee met to develop their version of the budget for the departments of Justice, Science, and Commerce (of which Sea Grant is a part). Their budget bill keeps Sea Grant’s funding at its current level.

According to the director of my program, who is ‘in the know’ about such things, this is a big deal because the House is typically the group that lowers budgets. Their rejection of the President’s recommendation to zero out our program is a crucial first step in the 2018 budget process.

The budget process isn’t over yet, but this news made all of us Sea Granters breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy celebrating the nation during the recent 4th of July weekend a lot more. It’s good to know that at least part of the government supports the work we do, even if the leader of the nation doesn’t.

Onward!