Friday, September 27, 2019

A New Friend in an Old Place

While the guys filleted two northern pike on a paddle blade propped against granite and my mom relaxed in the canoe, I scrambled around collecting firewood. Our makeshift landing on a random shoreline was a bit rough, but in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Forest Service requests that you both fillet fish and gather firewood away from any campsite. And anyway, it’s easier to paddle with fillets tucked safely into a repurposed gorp baggie than with fish being tugged along on a stringer creating drag.

It’s also easier to find firewood on some unexplored shoreline than near a campsite where hundreds of visitors have roasted s’mores over crackling flames.

Speaking of crackling flames, a bunch of them once licked the very spot where we now stood. This far eastern shoreline of Saganaga Lake, at the end of the Gunflint Trail and just a few miles from Canada, witnessed forest fires in 1974, 1995, and 2007. The jack pine, birch, and aspen thickets that bristled like porcupine quills over glaciated humps of granite were just 12 years old.

Despite three straight days of rain, this one day of stiff breezes, blue skies, and hot sun had dried out the wood perfectly. Small branches snapped briskly into arm-length pieces I could fit in the bottom of my canoe. I don’t usually carry a saw in the Boundary Waters, because if it’s too big or too green to break easily, it probably won’t burn completely either.

Once my dad had finished cutting the Y-bones out of the pike, I carried the pile of guts into the bushes and buried them under duff and autumn leaves. It used to be common practice to put the fish guts on a rock within view of your campsite and then watch the eagles come in to feast, or to throw pieces up for screaming gulls. That’s frowned upon now, though, since scientists and rangers noticed that greater populations of eagles and gulls were also using loon eggs and chicks as food.

With chores taken care of, we were free to lollygag back to our campsite. The wind had died completely, so we paddled leisurely through silver ripples and the reflections of towering white pines whose island homes had spared them from the fires. Although the sweet whistle of one white-throated sparrow floated out across the lake, the afternoon was quiet in a way that makes you want to be quiet, too.

Out of that quiet, a raspy zzzzip emanated from within my canoe. Eyes followed ears, and a splotch of bright green stood out on the pile of pale gray firewood; stood, and then began to climb up through the jumble of wood in a quest for the highest point.

This katydid’s leaf-like camouflage didn’t work very well on the pile of weathered firewood we paddled back to our campsite in the Boundary Waters. Photo by Emily Stone.

My camera was already slung over my shoulder from taking photos of reflections, so I gently knelt forward in the canoe, reached over the Duluth pack full of discarded rain gear, warm clothes, and lunch, and began snapping photos of the katydid.

While they are often called “long-horned grasshoppers,” that’s accurate only in appearance and not taxonomy. This katydid’s two slender, orange antennae were as long as its body. But katydids are actually more related to crickets, although they are all in the same order—Orthoptera. The bright green of this katydid is typical, and part of their renowned camouflage. His oblong wings, folded over his back like a tent and veined with leaf-like patterns, are another key part. Katydids, especially in the tropics, are famous for looking like leaves.

Of course, on a pile of weathered sticks, that attempt at camouflage backfires. Through my camera, I watched this guy climb deliberately. His feet have four joints. Pads on three of the segments adhere to the smooth surfaces of leaves, while the fourth segment bears a pair of claws used to grasp edges. With super long back legs, bridging large gaps in the sticks seemed no trouble at all.

At one thrilling moment, the katydid vibrated his wings and I watched as he created the dry zzzzip sound that had first alerted me to his presence. While grasshoppers use their legs for stridulation, crickets and katydids scrape the hard edge of one wing against the file-like ridges of the other wing. To hear the calls of their species, katydids have tympana—“ears”—on their front legs, which show up as small dark spots.

As I carried his stick carefully up to the campsite, the katydid burst into flight and landed on the trunk of a young cedar tree. We heard him calling occasionally throughout the evening—trying to attract a mate so that she could lay eggs that would survive the winter.

Back home, with access to iNaturalist’s identification suggestion algorithm, I discovered that this katydid was likely in the genus Scudderia, nicknamed “bush crickets,” who spend their lives in brushy habitats—kind of the like alder shrubs and fire-regrowth where I’d been gathering firewood. I’m not sure I’d ever seen one before.

As is often the case, my canoe trip in a familiar place, filled with the comfortable routines, also included a new acquaintance. Visiting the Boundary Waters just never gets old.

“Joys come from simple and natural things: mists over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water.”
-- Sigurd F. Olson

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, September 20, 2019

Sturgeon Survey on the Couderay River

As I peered into the deep pool below the bridge through my polarized sunglasses, the four-foot-long, dark gray torpedo slid smoothly above the pale, sandy bottom—and vanished.

This hole on the Couderay River near Radisson, WI, is a favorite hangout for lake sturgeon. Max Wolter, Fisheries Biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), knows this because his crew had caught them here before. Still, knowing a fish is there, and catching it, are two very different things.

Evan Sniadajewski and Scott Braden—both Fisheries Technicians with the WDNR—anchored their gear-laden canoe just beyond the shadow of the bridge and began to dabble worm-baited hooks in front of the sturgeons’ noses. From the sandy shoreline where I also stood, Jake McCusker, a college student doing a day of job shadowing, and Dale Crusoe, a Museum member, also tried their luck. In the pre-trip emails, Max had advised Dale: “a good sturgeon rod should have at least 50 lb test, 80-100 lb is even better. Single hooks and heavy weights.”

Jake tries fishing for sturgeon, while Max stands and directs Scott and Evan's hooks.

Sturgeons are bottom feeders. The whisker-like barbels on the underside of their snout are covered with chemoreceptors to help them “smell” food underwater. When those barbels sense food (snails, insects, leeches, crayfish and small clams), the sturgeon thrusts its tubular mouth downward to suck up prey. Any gravel that gets sucked up in the process is expelled through their gills. They weren’t interested in our worms, though. Even when Max stood up in his canoe and directed the anglers to put a baited hook directly in front of a sturgeon’s nose, they weren’t having it. I enjoyed photographing wild cucumber and jewelweed while they tried.

Wild cucumber


Arrowhead was also in bloom along the river. So pretty!

When it became clear that the sturgeons weren’t interested in feeding, the guys switched to a new tactic. Evan and Scott unwound a gillnet—basically a nylon volleyball net on moveable poles—and waded upstream of the pool into waist-deep water. Jake got the humongous landing net out of the canoe. Its diameter was about the same size as the circle my arms would make if I was telling a whopper of a big fish story. Max—still standing in the stern of his canoe—herded a sturgeon out of the pool and toward the gillnet.

The fish rodeo was exciting and quick. Before I could even see a way to help, the guys had stopped the sturgeon’s upstream escape with the gillnet, and Jake had scooped it safely into the landing net. After some excited whoops, we all waded over to Max’s canoe to process our first big catch.

A successful sturgeon capture!

Scott, Evan and Jake arrange the sturgeon more comfortably in the net. 

This is definitely the biggest fish that the author has ever held! Photo by Mike Lins.


Just like the smallmouth bass that we’d caught farther up on the river (see last week's post), the WDNR has been tagging sturgeons on the Couderay River. Since the Grimh Dam in Radisson was removed in 2011, the Couderay now flows freely into the Chippewa River—where sturgeon populations are healthy enough for harvest. The WDNR is documenting the sturgeons’ natural recovery into one of their historic haunts, now that the fish are no longer cut off by the dam. In Wisconsin, lake sturgeon are a species of “special concern” with regulated harvest, but sturgeons are listed as threatened or endangered in 19 of the 20 states within the fish's original range.

Max waved his hand-held tag reader over the sturgeon’s head, just as he had done to confirm the proper installation of a bass’s tag earlier in the day. The scanner beeped! “Probably the same one we caught here last time!” called Evan from where he was rolling up the gillnet. Max held up the scanner to show me the long number visible on a tiny LCD screen.

Scanning the tag previously injected in the sturgeon.

The ID number for our first sturgeon. It was tagged in a previous year and recaptured today.

It took three guys to get the sturgeon out of the net and onto the measuring board. Fifty inches long! Sturgeons aren’t only impressive because of their size, though. I was astonished to feel her skin and find that it was sandpapery—like a shark’s skin. Max also pointed out the smoothly arched dorsal fin—which, when we eventually let her go, cut through the surface of the water just like a mini Jaws. Sturgeons are pretty ancient fish. They evolved just as the dinosaurs blinked out 100 million years ago, and have undergone very little anatomical change since then (although the 29 species of sturgeons worldwide have quickly evolved a wide range of body sizes to fit various niches.)

Max and Dale nerd out about how cool sturgeon are.

Over the course of the day (only 3 river miles long), we captured 6 tagged and 4 untagged sturgeon. All but one of the recaptures were found close to where they’d been caught before, in 2017 or 2018. According to Max, this means that “they are settling into that area pretty nicely and are finding all the things they need (food, suitable habitat, etc.)” One oddball had been originally tagged on the Chippewa River during the 2017 spawning run. Where will it spawn next time?

This fishing hole on the Couderay River was chock full of sturgeon. From left to right: Evan Sniadajewski, Scott Braden, Mike Lins, Jake McCusker, and Dale Crusoe. Everyone except Scott is holding a sturgeon. Scott has a catfish! Photo by Emily Stone.

We caught 5 of those 10 fish in the final stretch of river. The guys really perfected their technique with the nets—which relied on Jake diving chest-deep into the gillnet to make spectacular catches with the landing net. Their techniques worked so well, in fact, that they named the process, using (as science seems to do) the most difficult names to spell: “The McCusker modification to the Sniadajewski method of sturgeon capture.”

I could tell that these guys have a passion for fish and fishing that I’ll never match. Many of their field days include pushing through overgrown creeks under the constant attack of mosquitoes and horseflies. This spectacular day on the river was a real treat—to put their skills in fishing and fish handling to work in a beautiful setting. It’s because of their passion—and the funding you provide through your fishing licenses—that sturgeon (and trout and bass etc.) will only vanish deeper into a pool, and not disappear from our state.

Max Wolter, Fisheries Biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is studying sturgeons’ natural return to the Couderay River following the removal of a dam. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Evan and sturgeon.
Jake with a sturgeon -- watch its protrusible mouth go!

Fisheries biologists in their happy place. Jake, Scott, Evan, Max. (fishing for small mouth bass as part of a study)

Jake and a sturgeon in the big landing net. 

Science isn't just fishing on a beautiful day, it's also keeping meticulous records of data. 

Evan measures a sturgeon and then we get to watch her mouth move.

Evan injects a tag into the sturgeon with a large needle. 

In the honey hole I was tasked with holding on to the landing net--which eventually held 5 sturgeons!!! Thank goodness for the buoyancy of water!

Releasing a sturgeon--you can see her little "shark fin" in the back. 

Evan holds one of the smallest sturgeon of the day. When young, they have sharp scutes along their spine that act as defense against being eaten. Those wear off to the sandpapery skin of adults. 

Sharp scutes. Not so fun to chomp down on!

This was the first official record of a channel catfish in the Couderay River, too! Another result of the dam removal?

Evan gets excited about catfish adaptations. 

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Blooper Roll: Max misses a sturgeon (I wonder if that's why he gave Jake the landing net for the rest of the day? ;-)  )

Friday, September 13, 2019

A Fishy Day on the Couderay River (Part 1)

With blue sky overhead, a clean flowing river all around us, and a refreshing break from summer humidity, it’s no wonder that statements like, “what a beautiful day,” and “it just doesn’t get much better than this,” kept slipping out unbidden.

Max Wolter, Fisheries Biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), had generously allowed me and a couple of other Museum members to join his crew on a float down the Couderay River near Radisson, WI. I’d named the program “Counting Dinosaurs” in our Calendar of Events. Evan Sniadajewski and Scott Braden—both Fisheries Technicians with the WDNR—paddled one gear-laden canoe. Like fiberglass porcupine quills, fishing poles and nets stuck out from every angle. Max paddled with Jake McCusker, a college student doing a day of job shadowing.

Before we’d even left sight of the boat launch, Max’s crew was reeling in fish. In order to get a better view of their research protocols, we all dropped anchor, and then waded up to Max’s boat. The cool water swirled around our knees as we navigated the patchwork of sand and rocks on the river bottom in our tightly tied old running shoes.

Max had a shorthead redhorse (yes, that’s a fish) already in hand. The diamond pattern of its scales shimmered peach, green, and copper in the sunlight, and its fins glowed a pretty shade of orange. Its mouth was less attractive. As a bottom-feeding member of the sucker family, its fleshy lips were a bit, well, fishy. Even though redhorse aren’t highly sought game fish, they are good indicators of water quality because they can’t tolerate pollution.

shorthead redhorse

I think that this one is a silver redhorse.

The redhorse we caught were merely an exercise in fish ecology and identification, though, and soon found themselves being released without fanfare once we’d admired them. Smallmouth bass, on the other hand, were measured and outfitted with a tiny tag injected into their cheek. The cheek is used because no angler is likely to eat the tag accidentally from that location. Unlike the fancy radio transmitter or GPS unit on a wolf’s collar, these tags are passive. They can only be detected when the fish swims past a tag reader, or a fisheries biologist scans them. Still, recaptures provide important information about where the fish come from, how much they’ve grown, and how long they live.

Mike (a Wisconsin Master Naturalist), Jake and Max measure the length of a smallmouth bass. It has already been tagged, and will be released with the hope of being recaptured in the future. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Jake McCusker (left) was job shadowing during this survey on the Couderay. Max gave him quite a bit of practice injecting the research tags into smallmouth bass. Photo by Emily Stone.
After giving field trip participant and Wisconsin Master Naturalist, Mike Lins, a chance to inject a tag with a giant syringe, Max waved his scanner over the fish just to check. The unit beeped and showed a number on its screen. “This fish will be forever associated with number 1-2-6-0-5 etc. etc. etc.” declared Max. Tag in place, Max quickly clipped off a little bit of the fish’s fin and used a squirt bottle to wash it into a vial. Genetics tests help researchers determine where the fish are coming from and how much different populations are mixing.

Max scans a smallmouth bass that he’s just tagged in order to make sure that everything is working properly. If that fish is recaptured, the DNR will be able to tell where it came from and how much it’s grown. Photo by Emily Stone.

Max and the DNR are interested in tracking the travels of these bass because back in 2011, their home went through a big change. That’s the year that the Grimh Dam in Radisson was removed. Built to provide hydroelectric power in 1928, the 30-foot tall dam had fallen into disrepair. The North Central Power Company decided against rehabilitating it—much to the consternation of many in the local community, who’d enjoyed fishing in the Grimh Flowage.

With the dam removed, though, the Couderay River now flows freely into the Chippewa River. With the dam gone, fish can flow more freely, too. Are the bass moving in from below the old dam, or are they swimming down from upstream, or both? Max’s data will help answer those questions, and help guide management of these important game fish.

Once we’d tagged enough smallmouth bass from that first hole, we floated on down the river, and paused in a deep pool just below a bridge. The guys quickly caught another redhorse—this time it was a greater redhorse, the biggest and least common species. It scales shimmered golden, accented by those brilliant orange fins. “If they have color on the fins, there’s no color in the name,” repeated Max. We’d also caught silver and golden redhorse, whose dorsal fins lack any vibrant hues.

Evan holds up a greater redhorse to show us its colorful fins, while Scott holds the canoe steady. Photo by Emily Stone. 

My fish ID skills are growing. Before this summer, I didn’t realize that there was more than one species of redhorse. I was just happy to be able to catch a glimpse of red fins and thus sound semi-knowledgeable as I floated down the Namekagon River.

Greater redhorse are unable to survive in even the slightest polluted waters. The DNR crew was exclaiming about how many they were catching. Could this, too, be a result of the restoration of this river’s freely flowing nature?

While the pool under the bridge wasn’t flowing very fast, it did have the power to capture our attention. We all peered through polarized sunglasses trying to make sense of shifting shadows.

“There, do you see it?” coached Max. Then I did see it: a four-foot-long, dark gray torpedo was gliding smoothly above the pale, sandy bottom. Here was our dinosaur—a living fossil—the main target of our survey. But I’ll tell you more about that next week…

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, September 6, 2019

Each One Teach One

By the time I sat down in the shade of a small pavilion at the entrance to Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy (KNC) near the shore of Geneva Lake in far southern Wisconsin, I was feeling quite at home. After spending two full days in this small, lake-centered town of long-time residents, transplants, and summer people, I recognized the familiar weave of a close-knit community populated by dedicated volunteers.

Several of the KNC’s naturalists, board members, and volunteers, as well as the local librarians, joined me in the shade, while bright sun began to warm up the native gardens nearby. During my visit, I’d listened to board chair Harold Friestad and board member Jim Killian talk about the history of this land’s acquisition, preservation, and restoration. We’d walked many of the preserve’s four miles of trails through prairie, wetland, and forest as they recounted their massive buckthorn removal efforts—and the incredible return of native species.
Jenn Yunker and Don Skalla provide  muscles and expertise for invasive species removal and burning prairies at the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy. Photo by Emily Stone.

We’d also walked 22 miles around the circumference of Geneva Lake, and witnessed the shoulder-to-shoulder development that would surely have claimed this 231 acre parcel, had Harold not orchestrated its purchase by the Village of Williams Bay in 1989. The board dedicated it “To the Children of Tomorrow,” through a conservation easement held by The Geneva Lake Conservancy.

My presence at the pavilion was due to an invitation from Jim to lead the KNC community in a workshop about “Finding the Stories in Nature.” This preserve is just full of stories—human stories, bug stories, and love stories between people and the land. How could we craft those stories into powerful tools for education, community building, and fundraising?

Danielle Simons, the KNC’s educator, led us down a trail toward the lakefront. Butterflies, insect galls, and the ready-to-burst seed pods of jewelweed flowers distracted us several times before we reached the wetland, beaver lodge, and boardwalk. While folks relaxed on a long bench, I facilitated a Professor Hike.

Harold Friestad has been exploring the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy (KNC) longer than anyone, and he still gets distracted by the exploding seed pods of jewelweed. Photo by Emily Stone.

I first used Professor Hikes, also known as an “each one teach one” when I taught fifth graders in the redwoods of California. One by one I planted each kid at an impromptu station along the trail, and as the next student hiked toward me, they stopped to learn from each of the “professors.” Back then, Professor Banana Slug was the fan favorite.

Joy Schnupp, the local library director, was my first professor at KNC. As we strolled along the boardwalk, she requested to be Professor Cattail. Once we’d practiced her story, I beckoned the group to send me the next student. Harold strolled up, listened to Joy, and then walked on with me to find his teaching station. I knew I wouldn’t have to help Harold find a story. He knows the history of this place better than anyone.

“The railroad used to end right over there,” he gestured to the beach. “Once that went away, we built the boardwalk. People loved that, but they complained that it didn’t go anywhere. So we cleared a path through the buckthorn ahead of the construction crew, and connected the boardwalk all the way to the upland. People still wanted more places to explore, and we ended up with over four miles of trails in the preserve. But this boardwalk started it all.”

Jim Killian and Harold Friestad are both board members at Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy. Photo by Emily Stone.

Jim had been looking for wild plums on the way in, and we finally found the plum tree right where his professor station needed to be. The tree had gone from heavily laden with fruit to almost bare in less than a week, which is why he’d originally missed it. That signal of its value as a wildlife tree was in stark contrast to the berry-laden buckthorn nearby. Those non-native, nutrient-poor fruits are a resource of last-resort.

Several professors in, I started noticing longer and longer wait times until a new student would walk down the trail toward me. Looking back, I saw people deeply engaged in conversations—adding information to the topic, reflecting on previous stops, and getting to know each other better.

Natasha’s eyes shone as we stopped at a small cluster of trees to establish her professor story. A native of Williams Bay who’s just started her education at UW-Stevens Point, Natasha was lamenting the fact that, despite this local gem, her environmental science class at the local high school had only been offered online. She had big ideas about expanding the KNC’s educational efforts from the Kish Kids day camp to higher level coursework. And she had a passion for permaculture, ignited by a recent trip to Africa. We incorporated both of those thoughts into her Professor Permaculture station.

Jenny and Natasha find some stories in nature along the boardwalk at the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy. Photo by Emily Stone.

Soon the line curled back on itself, and everyone had both taught and learned from everyone else. Conversations bubbled merrily on our walk back to the pavilion, and Harold told me how valuable the one-on-one time had been. He’d already offered Natasha a paid internship over winter break, so she could initiate partnerships with the local high school. Joy, the librarian, had scheduled Natasha to give a talk on permaculture at the community gardens.

We did a little wrap-up in the pavilion, but I didn’t want people to feel like we’d come to some sort of conclusion. The excitement fizzing, the stories brewing, the relationships strengthening: these were just the beginning. Finding the stories in nature had unearthed a whole lot more.

Jewelweed. Photo by Emily Stone.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email