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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Teachers get in touch with the Great River's rhythms. © Jeff Janvrin
Teachers get in touch with the Great River's rhythms.

© Jeff Janvrin

June 1997

Learning on Ol' Man River

Summer workshops open life on the Mississippi River to teachers and their students.

Jeff Janvrin

Connections from the past
Fisheries sampling
Water quality sampling
River wildlife
Washboards, buttons and pearls

Take a moment to paint a mental picture of life along the upper Mississippi River. Can you imagine a quiet backwater channel reflecting majestic trees with sunlight sparkling through their leaves? Do you see an eagle soaring from the bluffs, and the dams and levees built to tame the Father of Waters?

Now add sound. Can you hear the powerful engines of a tow gingerly making its way into a lock, the laughter of children exploring a sandy beach in the sun? Extend this image across a few years, and see how the river and its creatures depend on floods and droughts. Watch colorful waterfowl winging south on annual migrations. Dip under the murky waters to witness fish passing from their winter to summer homes.

The Mississippi River is all of this and much more. It's been called a huge puzzle of many interlocking pieces, capable of forming a different picture depending upon where and how the pieces are placed together.

To sense the wonder and mystery of this river, you have to discover it for yourself. That's just the experience we are trying to provide. Eight times in the last five years a partnership of state and federal agencies has offered teachers the chance to see the Mighty Miss for themselves and share that excitement with their students.

Exploration of the Mississippi River workshops will be offered this summer on Tuesday through Thursday, July 29-31. In our workshop last summer, educators from Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin discovered ways to bring the river closer to their students as they learned first-hand about the river's power, fragility and resiliency. The workshops are sponsored by the Wisconsin and Iowa departments of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Participants hear presentations by resource professionals, river users, and commercial navigation businesses. The workshop highlight is an all-day field trip on the water. At various stops, biologists from five agencies demonstrate equipment and techniques used to monitor the river's health. Then the experts turn the equipment over to participants. By the end of the day teachers better understand the complex relationships between humans and the river, and the interdependence of the Mississippi's plants and animals.

Connections from the past

The dark forest forms a tunnel to the past as the teachers huff and puff up the bluffs of Effigy Mounds National Monument near Marquette, Iowa overlooking the Mississippi. The group reaches a place where hundreds of years ago, others left signs of their connection to nature. As night falls, the teachers hear how Native Americans carried soil from the steep valley below to construct large mounds of earth in the shape of birds and animals. Clues from the effigy mounds have led archaeologists to conclude that mussel shells and pearls from the river were traded for items from distant parts of North America: obsidian from the Rockies and copper from the Great Lakes region.

In the outdoor class, a fur trader of old talks about the river's early economy. © Robert Queen
In the outdoor class, a fur trader of old talks about the river's early economy.

© Robert Queen

The following night, the setting sun silhouettes a visitor clad in buckskin and fur. His audience of teachers sits atop a bluff at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers at Wyalusing State Park.

His stories begin hundreds of years after the mound builders left their marks upon the soil. The names of Father Louis Hennepin, Marquette, and Joliet roll off his tongue as he describes how the river valley unfolding before the group looked 300 years ago. He describes the importance of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers as trade routes for furs. Later, the river moved lead mined from the Mines of Spain near present-day Dubuque. He tells of hardships endured by early French traders who transported commodities by canoe to the Great Lakes ports, where the goods were shipped to Europe. As the sun set over the shores of Iowa, he somberly recounts the tragedy of the Blackhawk War fought along the banks of this great river.

The educators hear how men and machine have shaped the river for the last 160 years to provide reliable river channels navigable by paddlewheeler and barge. They learn how snags and other obstructions were removed beginning in 1830; how wingdams were built and dams closed to divert the power of the Mississippi's waters into a single 4.5-foot channel in 1878, a six-foot-deep channel beginning in 1907, and finally the construction of locks and dams in the 1930s to create a minimum nine-foot-deep stairway of water from St. Paul to St. Louis to feed a national need for commodities like corn, wheat, coal, fertilizer and road salt.

Lush wetlands and islands faded from view as channels made the Mississippi deeper and more narrow. The audience listens intently to accounts of creatures that could not overcome the hurdle of the dams: the skipjack herring and the mussels named ebony shell and elephant ear. The biologists also explain how diving ducks, bluegills, largemouth bass and other animals exploited the new habitat created when locks and dams were constructed. The teachers then see examples of how people working together are restoring and enhancing the river environment.

Fisheries sampling

The whine of the generator and outboard motor makes it difficult to hear, but the laughter assures everyone is having a good time. On this brief ride aboard a electro-fishing boat, the groups are amazed at the size and number of fish that surface. (Some groups come back empty-handed, demonstrating that even the most sophisticated equipment can't guarantee a successful catch.) Electro-fishing places an electrical field in the water to temporarily stun fish so they can be netted. Once caught, the fish are placed into a tank with circulating water and are later identified and measured. The number of fish caught in a given amount of time is called the Catch Per Unit Effort. This measure gives biologist a rough index of whether fish populations are increasing, decreasing or remaining stable from year to year.

Electro-fishing is just one technique Mississippi River fisheries biologists use to ascertain fish health, growth and abundance. Fyke nets (barrel nets with a long leading edge), which have had the same design for centuries, are especially effective in shallow areas with little or no current. On the Mississippi, northerns, crappies, largemouth bass and bluegills are caught weighed, measured and released to estimate the population.

The teachers learn that to understand fish on the Big River, you have to appreciate timing. Fish use different types of habitat on different parts of the river at different times of the year. Some smallmouth bass winter in the Mississippi but will travel up river to tributary streams for the summer. In one study, smallmouth bass marked near La Crosse stayed in the Mississippi through the winter, then moved 60 miles up the Black River to Black River Falls for the summer and returned to the Mississippi in the fall. On the upper Mississippi, bluegills move two to three miles from winter to summer habitat, largemouth bass move up to 18 miles and walleye may move more than 80 miles to spawn and return back to the same spot.

Water quality sampling

The flotilla of flat-bottomed boats weaves through a maze of backwater channels as the teachers pass colorful locales like Norwegian Slough, Woodyard, Frenchtown and Lily Pond. The boats stop at a shaded beach and everyone hops ashore.

The biologists pull out bottles and meters to test the water. As quickly as the demonstration starts, the questions pour in: Is it safe to swim in the water? Can we eat the fish? What are the major pollutants today? Where is the bathroom? Once the teachers find out the next stop has bathroom facilities, the rest of their questions are answered more quickly!

Years ago, neither the swimming nor the fish were considered healthy in some river stretches. Today, the Mississippi River along the entire Wisconsin border meets federal standards for safe swimming water and, with few exceptions, the fish are safe to eat. These are but two examples of how river conditions have improved from human actions.

However, there are other issues: Fertilizers wash from crops and lawns into the river, and phosphorus and nitrogen contribute to algae blooms that on rare occasions cause fish die-offs. Nitrates from watersheds along the entire length of the Mississippi have been cited as a cause of a 7,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

River wildlife

The boats load and the tour continues. For seven miles the teachers explore the backwaters and admire verdant bluffs rising 500 feet above them. Some 292 different species of birds rely on this river route. Waterfowl and shorebirds follow the north-south migration corridor. Neotropical songbirds use the forested blufflands and backwaters for food, rest and shelter during summer, then return to Central and South America as the forests paint the valley with the coming fall colors. The lead boat slows and churns through a sandbar; the others find deeper water and ride on. They come across an island recently formed by the river itself. Continual change brings an object lesson. The teachers step onto new land and explore turf that only days earlier was underwater. Small sprigs of greenery peek through the sand. Shorebirds cry warnings as the people amble about.

Eventually someone spots a line in the sand, then another, and another. Several people guess what made these tracks. Then a cry rings out. "It's a clam! I found it buried at the end of one of the trails!" These were tracks made by freshwater mussels seeking deeper water as the river dropped and exposed the island. Someone asks about the fate of mussels stranded on the island. They already know the answer: Those that don't escape to water will eventually be eaten or die.

Washboards, buttons and pearls

The chance discovery of mussels opens a discussion of another connection between people and the river, past and present. Mussels play an important role in the Mississippi River's environment. They anchor the bottom in place, provide food for fish and wildlife, and are an important commodity on the world market.

A river mussel © Robert Queen
A river mussel

© Robert Queen

Kurt Welke, a biologist and mussel enthusiast, takes out an old, heavy washboard mussel shell and passes it around. The shell has several dime- to quarter-sized holes cut from it.

He explains: Beginning in 1891, mussels from the Mississippi were harvested as raw material for an international trade in buttons. As with most natural resources at the turn of the century, mussel shells were viewed as an unlimited resource; millions of pounds of shells were sent to factories in many towns along the Mississippi.

The invention of plastic put an end to this lucrative business, but 60 years of harvest had greatly depleted mussel numbers.Today, Mississippi River mussels are again in great demand. Tiny plugs of shells are cut and polished into beads implanted into oysters as the nucleus or center of cultured pearls.

How are they harvested? a teacher asks. Kurt wades out into the water, disappearing below the surface. When he pops up, he's holding a handful of mussels he found burrowed into the bottom just a few feet from shore. Before long, the water is alive with teachers discovering the wonderful variety of life hidden just below the surface of the Mississippi River.

Jeff Janvrin is a Mississippi River habitat specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in La Crosse, Wis. If you are interested in attending an "Exploration of the Mississippi River" workshop, send your name and address to: Jeff Janvrin, DNR, 3550 Mormon Coulee Road, La Crosse, WI 54601.