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Lake Superior Research Institute's public tours aboard L.L. Smith Jr. serve dual purpose: to research and teach

Duluth News Tribune

Robert Haddick peered at the Mayfly nymph.

The 72-year-old farmer and fisherman has lived around insects his whole life and was still surprised how big it was.

"I knew that good trout fishermen fish trout about this time of year, and now I know why," Haddick said.

Haddick, a lifelong student of natural science, took an opportunity to learn from research scientists aboard the L.L. Smith Jr. -- the Lake Superior Research Institute's research boat.

The boat and educational programs offered by the institute are unusual; very few research vessels are licensed by the Coast Guard to carry passengers, said Mary Balcer, a UWS professor and director of the Lake Superior Research Institute.

So the tours are a rare opportunity for people to be educated by real scientists.

Haddick and his twin brother, William, both of Springbrook, Wis., were on a trip that the institute, part of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, offered on Lake Superior near the Apostle Islands earlier in June.

The Mayfly nymph was just one of the aquatic creatures collected from the lake during a stop near Red Cliff Creek. Recent heavy rains have swollen the creek, washing the nymph and other creatures out into deeper water.

The type and abundance -- or lack of -- certain types of water insects and other even smaller microscopic organisms is one way scientists can learn about what may be going on in an ecosystem, said Sue O'Halloran, an on-board scientist and the boat's public education program director.

Human impacts to the lake, such as the introduction of different nonnative game fish and, most recently, the unintended introduction of exotic species, have all changed the natural order beneath the waves, she said.

"We've sort of got an artificial food chain going here," O'Halloran said.


While O'Halloran showed a group in the stern of the boat how scientists examine lake biology, scientist Jeri Schwerin explained to a group in the bow the importance of water chemistry and how scientists test that.

Schwerin showed the group how scientists examine dissolved oxygen, acidity and temperature.

She showed how a Secchi (pronounced sekee) disk is used to measure water clarity and explained that, by knowing how deep sunlight can penetrate, scientists can predict other things, such as how well aquatic plants can grow.

Trip participants then got to try the Secchi disk and other measuring devices for themselves.

Peering over the side of the boat, sisters Amina and Jamila Cheikh slowly lowered the dinner plate-sized disk, attached to a nylon rope, and waited for it to disappear.

Slowly, the disk appeared smaller and smaller until only a flash of white was visible, and then nothing at all.

"I can still see it," Amina said. "Wait, wait no, no I can't."

The girls, 7 and 9 respectively, marked the spot on the rope where the disk vanished from view. Later, they measured the length of line that was used and determined that the disk disappeared about 39 feet. In some parts of the Duluth-Superior Harbor, the disk will disappear in 10 feet or less, Schwerin said.

In other experiments, the girls and their brother, Nabil Cheikh, 12, used a special probe and gauge to check the amount of oxygen in the water at different depths.

"Because the activities are so hands-on, people get an opportunity to tell how you can really see whether you have a pollution problem or not," Schwerin said.


The institute, founded in 1967, has long offered public education tours on the lake and in the Duluth-Superior Harbor.

This year, thanks to a $7,500 grant awarded by the St. Louis River Citizens Action Committee, the institute has added trips on the river to its lineup.

The grant comes from a $200,000 trust fund set up by companies deemed responsible for two federal Superfund pollution sites on the river, said Lynelle Hanson, executive director for the action committee.

"The more we can get people out there and excited about this river, the more we can get it cleaned up," Hanson said.

The institute hopes to offer 10 trips. The grant allows the institute to offer the trips for $5 per person, but space is limited to 30 people. One river trip earlier this spring sold out, as has one set for Sunday. Another trip is schedule for August, and the staff may organize a fall trip as well. More trips on the river will be offered next summer.

The institute also offers the boat and staff to school groups and other organizations.

The tours offered to the general public though, with people from different backgrounds and different ages, are often the most interesting and challenging for the scientists, O'Halloran said.

Younger people have certain wonder and curiosity, and older people bring more background and experience, she said. Some want specific information. Others are interested in taking in the scenery and learning about the region's history, she said. And some are fascinated by the science, the biology and the chemistry of water ecosystems, she said.

"It's a little more challenging because you can have such a mix, but even then everybody gets something out of it," O'Halloran said.

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