Ponds, Puddles, and Partners

I pressed down hard on the gas and held my breath. The truck strained as it inched forward centimeter by centimeter. Then, with a lurch, it fell back. The wheels spun rapidly, kicking up an impressive cascade of mud which rained down on the windshield in great, heavy globs. I sat back with a sigh. We were stuck. 

Over the course of the summer, my co-intern Tessa and I have driven down all sorts of roads, winding dirt roads that lead to nowhere, broad gravel roads driven by thundering logging trucks, and roads covered in dense grass that bear only the faintest indication that they are roads at all. 

On this day, the dirt road we were crossing was full of puddles. They started off small, nothing our trusty truck couldn’t handle. Soon though, the puddles got larger and we found ourselves taking great care to avoid the deepest spots. We got more confident as we switched into four wheel drive, but when we reached the top of a tall hill where the path below looked more like a pool of muddy water than a road, we knew it was time to seriously consider turning back. Still, we had made it this far, and we had only a bit further to go before getting back to pavement. 

We drove down the hill. Slowly, as if we would anger the puddle by driving too fast, we inched our way across the mud. Then, “Squelch!” The truck stopped. 

Last week, Tessa and I set out with our mentor, Ian, for Turtle Day 2.0. We would once again be improving habitat for native wood turtles. We were not alone though. Two trucks followed us as we headed north. One contained the Monitoring Crew and another the Great Lakes Climate Corps (GLCC). Though we had been introduced to Ottawa National Forest’s other teams of seasonal workers before, we’d rarely gotten a chance to work with them. Turtle day 2.0, however, required all hands on deck. 

With shovels and mattocks on our shoulders and pruners and saws in our pockets, we hiked through the woods to reach remote riverside beaches. These beaches are known to be the favorite nesting spots of endangered wood turtles. Many of the beaches, though, have become overgrown with dense brush which makes it hard for the turtles to find ideal places to bury their eggs. This leaves the eggs vulnerable to being dug up by predators.

Jelly eggs are nested in the soil and covered in tiny tan dots.
Do you know what kind of eggs these are? Tessa and I haven’t been able to identify them. We know they’re not turtle eggs though!

Our job for the day was Extreme Makeover: Turtle Beach Edition. With suggestions from herpetologists in hand, we went about digging up willow, spraying tansy, and pulling mullen, until the beaches were once again full of sandy spots that any turtle would be proud to call home. The work was strenuous, but with so many hands, the day passed quickly. At lunch time, it rained, and we sheltered in the trees swapping stories of a summer of adventures.

After realizing we were stuck, there were a few things Tessa and I tried. We put the truck in reverse and attempted to back out of the mud-filled pool. Earth-brown frogs hopped to and fro as the tires settled further and refused to budge.

Next, Tessa suggested that we could lay a path of sticks in front of the truck to give it some much needed traction. I thought this was a brilliant idea. Stepping out of the truck, I quickly realized that the opaque surface of the puddle hid a rut that was less on the scale of a few inches deep and more on the scale of a few feet deep. In places, the water came up to my knees. We gathered great arm-fulls of sticks, but when we tried to set them in place, they floated away. 

On a feeble hope, we put the truck in neutral and tried to push it. It didn’t move. Deep down, I knew we would be fine, but as we strained to push the big white truck I couldn’t help but feel cold sweat on my palms and a tightness in my chest. The forest suddenly felt very big and I felt very small.

After another few minutes racking our brains, we realized it was time to accept it, we would need to call for help.

First, we glanced at our cell phones. No service. Next, we turned to the radio, but all of the channels looked unfamiliar. Thankfully, we had a SPOT device with us, which can send a location along with limited messages from almost anywhere in the Ottawa. The best message for our situation, “We need help, but it isn’t urgent” seemed a great deal better than nothing, yet frustratingly vague. Tessa suggested we climb the nearby hill to see if there might be cell service there. 

Success! A feeble bar showed up at the top of Tessa’s phone. It was enough to get a phone call out to our mentor Ian. He’d head back to the office and grab supplies, he told us, and be there as soon as he could. 

This month, Tessa and I have been tackling purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Purple loosestrife is, simply put, a gorgeous plant. It bears numerous showy purple blooms, which stand out strikingly against the greens of the forest. The flower loves any place where water transitions to land, be it a lake, river, or roadside ditch. Its dense roots cling to the mud while its tall stems reach for sunlight. Unfortunately, when left unchecked, this invasive flower can completely take over, crowding the coastline until there is only purple. 

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) grows in front of a roadside ditch where a sandhill crane is enjoying a meal.
This sandhill crane didn’t seem to notice the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) next to it.

Tessa and I have been tasked with following the plant wherever it grows (within the forest), mapping it along highways as cars rush by, wading along lake shores to cut the tall, square stems, and paddling down rivers to pull the plant up by the roots. 

That was our objective early on a Friday morning, as Tessa and I loaded the canoe onto the truck, or, I should say, attempted to load the canoe on to the truck. The back of the boat extended a good seven feet past the end of the truck bed. We sent a photo to Ian who agreed we should head out without the canoe. He would reach out to the partner organizations we would be working with that morning to see if it would be possible to find some alternative floatation.  

We were the first ones to arrive at the boat launch. We got into our waders and ate wild raspberries while we waited for more people to arrive. After a few minutes a car pulled up, loaded with canoes and kayaks. We introduced ourselves and were greeted warmly. Before we knew it, they were showing us how to identify a reed grass called phragmites which is often invasive. They pointed out the length of the little tuft that most grasses have where the leaf meets the blade and the color and texture of the stem. These were all indicators, they explained, that could help distinguish the native phragmites from the invasive. No doubt about it, we had found our people. 

A few minutes later and more partner organizations had arrived. Some were familiar faces we had worked with before and some were new. When all was said and done, we had a crew of nine people. Upon hearing about our canoe conundrum, they had brought extra kayaks for Tessa and I. Loaded with dry bags, sunscreen, and shovels, we were ready to hit the water. 

We spent the day paddling our way along a river, pulling the purple loosestrife that had made a home there. The loosestrife in this area had never been treated before, so pulling up each loosestrife proved a wrestling match. Still, with so many people, the work passed quickly. At the end of the day, we left with half a dozen garbage bags full of loosestrife, a sense of deep satisfaction, and some new friends.

With Ian on his way, there was nothing to do but wait. I sat on the truck bed and watched the frogs dive beneath the water. Tessa sat with me and we talked about small things. She read me a letter from a friend back home, and I read her a few poems from a book I carry in my backpack. Sitting there with someone else, the knot in my chest seemed to unwind just a little. 

Slowly, the time passed. We ate lunch, and then, decided to climb the hill again to see if Ian had sent any messages. As we crested the hill, we could just see a Forest Service vehicle carefully making its way across the puddles. Ian had arrived!

In the minutes that followed, Ian reviewed best practices to avoid getting stuck and taught us how to use a winch. The device is essentially a giant lever attached to a reel of cable. One end of the winch is attached to a stuck vehicle and the other a suitable sturdy tree. As the lever is pumped, the cable gets shorter. In the end, either the car moves or the tree does. 

On a bright, sunny day, Tessa and I drove to Wisconsin. We were headed to an invasive plant management workshop hosted by a local university, a weed management cooperative, and an assortment of pesticide businesses. Arriving at the address, we found ourselves next to lake Superior. We filled out name tags and grabbed muffins from the refreshment table as dozens of people who had the distinct look of folks who spend a lot of time outdoors filled in. 

One by one, the attendees introduced themselves. People had come from all sectors to attend the conference. Some were local government workers, some were federal government workers, some came from nonprofits, and some came simply because they wanted to learn more about weed management. There were seasoned veterans and interns like us, all chatting, comparing notes, and catching up.

To start the day, we all piled into a school bus. After a bumpy ride, we arrived at a stretch of out-of-the-way roadside. The conference’s experts took us through the different weed treatments that had been applied to various sections of the road. They were happy to answer questions on everything from the right time of year to apply pesticides to how to target weeds effectively while leaving native plants minimally disturbed. 

After heading back to the conference venue, we watched a presentation on local invasive species identification and management. Then a scientist and weed management expert answered questions from the audience. Sitting in the crowd gave me a chance to appreciate the deep symbiosis between research and management. He shared the latest findings on effective weed control with the room and listened with interest to the questions and observations of the weed managers. At the end of the conference, all of the experts invited the attendees to reach out to them with questions big or small.

Some of my favorite moments of the conference were the unstructured times, those moments in between the lectures and presentations when the attendees and experts got to chat informally, ask questions, swap stories, and build relationships. Listening to the conversation, it was clear that everyone at the conference was united by some common goals: control the spread of harmful invasive species, limit their damage to the manmade and natural world, and educate the public about the invasive species in their area so that management work can been done in collaboration with the community.

Most days, Tessa and I are alone. We can spend all day in the forest without ever seeing another person. Attending the conference reminded me of the larger network of people that are working all over to continuously ask new questions, tackle new projects, and promote conservation and stewardship in cooperation. 

This is essential because managing invasive species is a massive task. A map of invasive plant sites in Ottawa National Forest quickly begins to look like a map of stars in the sky, with thousands of infestations scattered all over. Thankfully, though we’re not managing these sites alone. Other forest employees, numerous partner organizations and volunteers, and every person who washes their boat between lakes or wipes off their shoes after a hike is managing invasive species right alongside us. 

From Turtle Day to our loosestrife paddle, all the biggest projects we took on this month we took on with other people. We’ve had the opportunity to learn from so many wonderful land managers who are generous with their time and insights. In so many ways, this summer has been a continual process of offering help to others and finding in turn that, when we need it, help is never far away.

Bit by bit, the truck began to move. Still, as Tessa pressed the gas, the tires spun. Finally, with a great heave, the tires began to roll. Not spin. Not splutter. Roll. We had traction. We were unstuck at last. 

Milk Vetch and Management

We could hear the river before we could see it, a steady rush of water cascading in the distance. Then, in an instant, the forest opened into light as my co-intern Tessa and I found ourselves on the river bank. More accurately, we found ourselves above the river bank. A steep 10 foot drop separated us from the sprawling shore below. After a moment of contemplation, we slid down the slope, our backs covered in red earth. 

Once we were on the bank, it took only a few moments to find one of two plants we had come looking for. Spread across the shore was a milk vetch, native to the region and rare in Michigan. The milk vetch was in full flower, its long white blooms tinted with green at the base and purple at the tip. 

A moment later, we spotted the second plant we were searching for, an invasive sweet clover. Like the milk vetch it was in full bloom. The plant’s tall stems were sporting tiny white flowers, each with the potential to turn out seeds and create another generation to spread along the shore. I couldn’t help but admire the plant’s beauty as I pulled it. 

Milk vetch and sweet clover are distant cousins, both members of the legume family, but where invasive sweet clover thrives along Michigan’s roadsides and shores, native milk vetch is scarce. As we walked along this river, though, the opposite seemed to be true. The milk vetch flourished. Not taking over by any measure, but coexisting well with the other species and easy to spot all along the bank. The same wasn’t true for the sweet clover. We found only two stems. Perhaps the hard work of interns before us has payed off. The clover, which forms thick clusters along other shores, has had no success in crowding out the milk vetch. 

For almost two months now, I’ve been working on projects like this, helping manage invasive species in Ottawa National Forest.  Over the weeks, I’ve begun to fall into a routine. Tessa and I arrive at the office at dawn and meet with our mentor, Ian, to discuss the day’s plans. Then, we load up the truck and head out into the field, driving from site to site to monitor, map, and manage the Ottawa’s many invasive plants.  

Summer is in full swing in the forest. When I first arrived, the last trees were just beginning to leaf out and the honey suckle we treated had dense clusters of yellow, white, and pink flowers. Now, the very first trees are tinged with orange and honey suckle is easy to identify with round, red and orange berries that catch the sunlight. As summer advances, the raspberry bushes which once bore only thorns are heavy with berries, wild ramps flower, and hazelnut trees tempt squirrels with their ripening fruits. Waking up every morning, I see the orange sun hanging heavy over the hills. In a few weeks, it will still be dark when I leave for work. 

Sunrise over the parking lot as I head to work

This week, we met with some of the forest’s Wildlife Technicians along with members of the Iron Baraga Conservation District for what Ian deemed “turtle day”. He explained to us that the Ottawa is one of the last strongholds of the endangered wood turtle. A herpetologist visited all of the Ottawa’s turtle nesting beaches and made recommendations for how we could make them better habitat for the turtles. It would be our job to turn those recommendations into reality. 

It turns out it’s hard to be a turtle. Busy roads, human poaching, and predators that eat their eggs are all major threats to the shy reptiles. To protect them from highways, conservationists erect knee-high turtle fences around the shore to keep them from wandering up to the roadside. To discourage poaching, the locations of the turtle beaches are shared only on a need-to-know basis. Slowing predation is difficult, but one thing that helps is making sure the sandy beaches where the turtles like to bury their eggs have the right amount of vegetation. Too much vegaition can serve as a physical barrier to the turtles and keep the eggs too shaded and cool, but too little vegetation means the turtles have nowhere to hide from predators. That’s where we came in. 

Working together we spent all day treating invasive species and cutting brush to expose new sandy areas where turtles can lay eggs next year. Hopefully, the new habitat will also give turtles alternatives to burying their eggs on roadsides where they’re vulnerable to ever-rushing traffic.  

As I drove home after a long day in the field, I began reflecting on our efforts. Even though we worked all day to create better habitat for turtles, we didn’t see a single one. For us, protecting turtles didn’t mean interacting with turtles, it meant managing the plants growing along the shore. For others, it could mean controlling predators that eat eggs, or working with people to educate them about avoiding turtle habitat and driving cautiously. Because species don’t exist in isolation, conservation efforts seldom focus on just the target species. To encourage the milk vetch, we pulled clover. To support the turtles, we cut brush and dug up tansy. Everything in the forest is in relationship.

Humans are a part of that, planting trees, building paths, harvesting timber. It’s easy to think of ourselves as separate, but working in the forest has shown me that’s not as true as I thought. 

As I engage with forest management in a hands-on way for the first time, I’ve begun thinking about questions many conservation-minded people before me have asked: What is the nature of the various relationships between humans and the environment? What should those relationships look like to create a healthy, sustainable world? What steps can we take to get there?

Ian lent me the book, Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. It explores different conservation frameworks from all over the world and investigates the dilemmas I see every day as as we prioritize projects in the forest. I’m only a few chapters in, and it’s already informing the way I think about the relationship between people and the environments we shape. For me, creative turtle conservation methods became an invitation to think about a whole lot more. 

Yesterday was full of glossy buckthorn. The towering bushes have shiny leaves that glint in the sunlight. We knew about a large infestation of the invasive species along the highway, stretching on both sides of the river. On a hunch, we continued walking past the known infestation. Every time we thought of turning back, we found another plant. Marking them as we went, the buckthorn seemed endless. Still, we treated the bushes and continued on diligently. Finally, as we made our way back to the truck, Ian stopped suddenly. There before us was a plant I now recognized. Brimming with white flowers was the rare milk vetch. 

This was a new milk vetch site, never before recorded in the state. Once we started looking we found several more clusters of milk vetch along the highway. We scrambled to document the population, taking pictures and recording the nearby species. The experience was what I imagine it would be like to go to Starbucks and see a celebrity ordering coffee.

Milk Vetch

Milk vetch can grow well along bright riversides, but we quickly realized the river was hundreds of feet away. Ian thought that perhaps, with workers cutting the tallest plants to maintain the right of way, the milk vetch was able to find a home in the sunlight of the roadside ditch. Looking at the flowers as cars rushed by, I couldn’t help thinking about how complicated conservation is. Humans have drastically shaped the roadside environment. This has given glossy buckthorn the opportunity to run wild. At the same time, milk vetch has been able to find one more foothold in Michigan. 

It seems most management decisions come with benefits and drawbacks alike. Thinking about it, I’m grateful for all the researchers who are working hard to help us understand the many rippling effects of our interactions with the environment and all of the people, beginning in Michigan with Indigenous communities, who have worked hard to manage the land responsibly. Conservation and management are complicated tasks, but they become a little easier, I think, when we recognize our role as one more species, living in relationship in an interdependent world.

Getting to Know a Changing Forest

“Try chewing on a twig,” suggested my mentor, Ian. He held a branch low for me. At first, it tasted like nothing, but as I broke through the smooth bark, a distinct minty flavor emerged. He explained to me that the tree was a yellow birch. Recognised by its unique peeling bark and serrated leaves, yellow birch branches bear a strong wintergreen flavor. 

It was my first week interning at Ottawa National Forest. Two weeks after graduating from college, I had found my way to the small town of Ironwood, Michigan. The iron in Ironwood is gone now; the last mines closed decades ago, but there is no shortage of wood here. The town sits on the western edge of the forest, a million acres of aspen, pine, oak, maple, ash, tamarack, willow, cherry, birch, and more. 

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve just begun to learn the local plants. Interrupted ferns have sporangia in the middle of their fronds. Sweetgrass with warm tan spikelets dots roadsides, and lily pads shaped like pies with a slice cut out float on calm ponds. While I’m here, I want to try and learn as many plants as I can. The forest is vast and changing. I want to know it all. 

Some of the change happens naturally —  a stand of aspen dies back and hardwood trees grow in succession — and some of the change is brought about by people — a stand of aspen is cut, so new aspen can grow in its place. Much of the change currently happening in the forest is driven by a warming climate. Ian told me that the elk and caribou that used to roam here have almost entirely been replaced by deer from the south. The deer eat young hemlock trees in the winter, making them rare in the forest. This summer, I will be focusing on a different source of change, invasive species. 

Brought in from far away by boats, birds, firewood, and a thousand other sources, many invasive species throw local ecosystems out of balance. Without natural checks on growth carefully forged by thousands of years of evolution, these species can start to take over and greatly reduce ecosystem diversity. As CLM interns assigned to the invasive plant team at the forest, fellow intern Tessa and I — lovingly termed the “Weed Crew” — are tasked with heading out to sites in the forest with known infestations of “Ottawa’s most wanted,” the invasive plants with the most potential to harm the forest’s ecosystems if left unchecked. Armed with hand saws, trashbags, gloves, and hardhats we venture into the depths of the forest looking for Japanese barberry, invasive honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and others.

Ian, Tessa, and Emily take a selfie in the forest. Emily is wearing an orange vest and hard hat. All are smiling.
Ian (left), Tessa (right), and I (middle) take a selfie

Though some invasive species have native lookalikes, each is distinctive in its own way. With glossy leaves and delicate thorns that will splinter into unarmored hands, the yellow stumps of Japanese barberry look like specks of gold against the dull forest floor. Invasive honeysuckle can look similar to native honeysuckle species on first inspection, but if you snap a twig, the dark bullseye inside lets you know you’ve found your mark. Garlic mustard can be identified visually — small white flowers with four petals crown erect stems — but true to its name the smell of the plant gives garlic mustard away. It has an odor that would make any vampire turn and run. 

Spending long days in the forest, Tessa and I travel from site to site. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of past invasive plant crews, infestations have gotten worse. This week, I went to a trail entirely lined with dense clumps of garlic mustard. Sometimes, though, we will go to a past site and walk it diligently, concluding, after thorough inspection, that the invasive species has not grown back. 

After cutting down a dense clump of invasive bushes, the forest can look barren, littered with rocks and stumps. In these moments, I remind myself that by removing the invasive species, we are creating the opportunity for new plants to grow. These past few weeks, we scattered many native seeds — primrose, sweetgrass, St. John’s wort, white asters, and black-eyed Susans. We also planted hundreds of native trees, making sure the little seedlings’ roots were straight and pressing the dirt family around them as if tucking them into bed. 

Picture of a small lake surrounded by dense greenery and a blue sky.
One of the many lakes in Ottawa National Forest

On Wednesday this week, Ian and I traveled deep into a wetland, my black rubber boots getting stuck in the mud, until, straining with all of my weight, I pulled them free. Tall moss and orange mushrooms grew over decaying logs, and light filtered in through the leaves of black ash trees. An invasive bright green beetle called emerald ash borer has just reached the edge of the Ottawa, so in a few decades all of the ash trees in the wetland will be gone. That’s why we were there. Carrying hundreds of silver maple fruits, we walked in a wide circle watching them twirl like helicopter blades into the mud. We are hopeful that as the ash trees die, the silver maples will grow in their stead. 

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to learning more about the forest, meeting new people, and continuing to explore the diverse ecosystems here. Thinking far into the future, though, the thing that excites me most about our work this season is the chance to come back to the Ottawa in twenty years. I will walk the places that are by then familiar to see all the ways the forest has changed, how it has stayed the same, and if the trees we planted have grown.