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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1999

© Rare thistle species find Lake Michigan's isles congenial. ©Darryl R. Beers

Green treasures in a sea of blue

Botanists are combing Lake Michigan's isles to inventory the vegetation and discover rare plants.

David Kopitzke

Rare thistle species find Lake Michigan's isles congenial.

© Darryl R. Beers

Support for an accurate accounting | Successes and dangers
The tally of natural riches

What is the lure of islands? Is it their natural isolation, sparse roads and few buildings? Is it wild vegetation bounded on all sides by splashing waves and open water? Is it just our nature to be drawn to the unknown, unavailable or inaccessible? Naturalists, too, are attracted to islands for scientific reasons. These lands are often less disturbed or polluted than adjacent mainland and they pose intriguing theories to explain how plants and animals were distributed across great expanses of water.

Map © Linda Hancock, Moonlit Ink

Wisconsin is blessed with an abundance of islands, some in smaller inland lakes and others far out into the vast waters of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Of 19 islands in Lake Michigan's Wisconsin waters, 11 are just off the Door County coast. The Door Peninsula and offshore islands are one of the state's richest reservoirs of rare plants. This concentration of botanical wonders results from a combination of unique microclimates with varied habitats including cobble beaches, boreal forests, limestone ledges and pristine estuaries.

These places are the haunts of such rare organisms as the fringed gentian, the dwarf lake iris, Pleistocene land snails and the arctic primrose. Indeed, past surveys of this part of the state have revealed that at least 35 rare plant species live here including some that are threatened and endangered in Wisconsin and the nation. Some of these islands were last surveyed decades ago; others were visited sporadically or surveyed incompletely.

Support for an accurate accounting

The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program (WCMP), a part of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, is by definition interested in island resources. DNR botanists Emmet Judziewicz, David Kopitzke, Betty Les and Becky Isenring (all with the Bureau of Endangered Resources) applied for and received a WCMP grant to do a thorough, botanical survey of Wisconsin's islands in Lake Michigan. Judziewicz is eminently qualified, educated in plant systematics from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, experienced in field projects throughout the state, and author of a plant survey of the Apostle Islands. Taking a similar tally of Lake Michigan's plant diversity was a natural follow-up.

Depending on the water level in Lake Michigan, there are about 19 islands ranging from the biggest that are at least several hundred acres (Washington, Rock, Chambers and Detroit) to small barren rocky islets barely poking above the water surface.

Emmet Judziewicz (r) meets with a Washington Island landowner who gave permission to survey his land for rare native species.

© Emmet Judziewicz
Emmet Judziewicz (r) meets with a Washington Island landowner who gave permission to survey his land for rare native species. © Emmet Judziewicz

Judziewicz's past survey of Wisconsin's Lake Superior islands vegetation culminated in 1993 with the publication of The Flora of the Apostle Islands (co-authored by Rudy Koch and available through the Apostle Island National Lakeshore office in Bayfield). Getting permission to visit those islands for scientific work was a comparatively simple matter since the National Park Service owns and administers all of the islands but one. The Lake Michigan islands are a different matter. Most of these are in private hands. The larger islands of Washington, Chambers and Detroit have hundreds of separate landowners, many of them living elsewhere in Wisconsin and out of state. Finding the landowners and getting their permission to access the properties took research of courthouse records, many letters, phone calls and personal visits.

Nor were those the only difficulties faced before the actual survey could begin. Emmet's experience in Lake Superior made clear the need to find reliable transportation to and from the islands. Ferries service a few of the islands, but most can be reached only by private boats. Names and phone numbers of charter services, ferry schedules and fees for rides were sought and budgeted. Determining where the botanists could camp or find overnight accommodations on sparsely populated islands was a research project in itself!

The threatened dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris) blossoms to a full three-inch height. © Darryl R. Beers.
The threatened dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris) blossoms to a full three-inch height.

© Darryl R. Beers

Much of this preliminary work was completed during the summer of 1997. Loose ends were tied up during the winter so survey work could proceed smoothly in spring 1998. In truth, the survey had already begun. Judziewicz visited Rock Island early in September of 1997. During a three-day stay he identified an impressive species list of over 300 plants and collected "voucher specimens," samples of the plants identified. These dried and pressed plants will ultimately make their way into the major research herbaria of the state, where they will be accessible to students, professors and researchers.

Properly pressed, labeled and filed, voucher specimens are a treasure trove of information for scientists.

The herbarium specimens in the Milwaukee Public Museum and the UW-Madison herbaria include specimens over one hundred years old! Botanists from Wisconsin, other states and foreign countries inspect them. The researchers compare specimens to discern the range of natural variations within a group of plants. Better tools and subsequent knowledge can lead botanists to decide that the original collector misidentified the specimen. These changes can only be verified by examining voucher specimens. Such analysis would be impossible if only a written record is made.

After studying maps, aerial photos and his calendar, Judziewicz and other biologists planned multiple trips to the islands in spring, summer and fall of 1998. Some plant species would be easiest to identify when they were in flower, others when they bore fruit, still others blossomed early, then completely disappeared by mid-summer. Unpredictable weather and uncertain seas added some excitement to the scheduling.

Successes and dangers

Searching islands for rare plants calls forth images of sunny summer days, leisurely boat rides across sparkling water, walks in woods, strolls along shores and pleasant hours spent poring over field guide books. One could also imagine peaceful nights in the comfort of an island cottage, being lulled to sleep by lapping waves on a stony shore. And, indeed, sometimes that happened. Emmet and I were the lucky beneficiaries of numerous acts of kindness by island landowners. One family offered unlimited use of their screened, Adirondack-style cottage overlooking the waters between Chambers Island and the village of Fish Creek. Another offered sleeping space in a historic lighthouse keeper's home. Still others generously shared their campsites and their canoes.

Living on an island

While most plants and wild animals living on Lake Michigan islands can find whatever they need, it is a different matter for the humans who visit or stay there.

Simply getting to an island is a challenge. In Wisconsin, only Washington Island is served by year-round, regularly scheduled ferry service. From spring to fall, campers and hikers can travel to Rock Island State Park by the "Karfi" ferry. This small but seaworthy boat carries passengers and their gear only – no cars. The year-round residents on Washington Island are a hardy, self-sufficient lot.

Vegetable gardens and wood stoves abound. Islanders are used to higher prices and reduced selection in local stores. Almost everything, from eggs and appliances to lumber and gasoline, must be brought to the island on the ferry. Families and community are strong; people depend on themselves and their neighbors in times of need. Island citizens often make their own entertainment.

Life on the smaller islands poses even greater challenges. Summer residents usually provide the transportation in their own boats or may charter a boat. Occasionally neighbors will join forces to hire a barge to bring large items such as building materials or a vehicle to their island. Those with cottages depend on their own generators if they want electricity. Both Chambers Island and Detroit Island boast landowner associations. Their meetings address such common concerns as the condition of their communal dock, road maintenance (most roads are private), noise, sanitation and trash disposal. Questions about how many visitors and homes their island can support always yield lively and challenging discussions.

In truth, the day-to-day reality is that biological survey work is often tedious and even dangerous. Soaked feet, wet and chilling boat trips, gray sullen weather, bone-jarring rides through high seas in small boats, and unexpected boat cancellations due to storms, were all part of the experience. Bushwhacking through pathless woods, wading across wetlands, scrambling up and over slippery rocks was a daily chore, especially while carrying backpacks filled with maps, notebooks, plant presses, raingear, food, water jugs, compasses and global positioning tools. Working long hours was the standard due to scarce boat rides and the rare opportunity to visit an out-of-the-way island. Most visits lasted from one to four days and the vast majority of the survey was completed by Emmet working long days alone.

The most dramatic reminder of the hazards of such work came on June 25, 1998, at the end of a long day of collecting on Chambers Island. As late afternoon approached, the skies darkened. A growing wind tossed the treetops. Emmet and I were biking along soft sandy roads back to a cottage when the wind snapped off the top of an old red maple, dropping it directly onto the unfortunate Emmet. I was unharmed, but Emmet lay unconscious, his arms and legs entangled in the branches of the fallen treetop. His bike was utterly destroyed and a twisted wreck. I rushed up, tossing his bike and pack to the side of the road to see what could be done.

A few anxious minutes later, Emmet gradually regained consciousness. Gently and slowly we extricated him from the entangling branches, twigs and leaves. Meanwhile, the wind grew fiercer, the sky darkened further, and rain began to pelt down. Emmet was a bit confused and had absolutely no memory of coming to the island. Amazingly he suffered no spinal injuries nor broken bones. Though scraped and bruised, he had a sense of feeling in all his limbs. And he could move his arms and legs with minimum discomfort and a little stiffness. This field botanist, it appears, is made of sturdy stuff!

Clearly, he was dizzy and disoriented. Walking to get help was out of the question. The nearest cottage was some distance away, and we didn't know if anyone was there, if the cabin would be locked, or even if there was electricity or a phone. Minutes passed. Then, through the driving rain, the headlights of a lone truck appeared. Its elderly driver proved to be one of the landowners I had contacted earlier in the year. Mr. Reinhart Krause rose admirably to the very serious occasion.

The next two worrisome and rainy hours were filled with furious activity: getting additional help, cutting up the treetop which blocked the road, dragging the logs to the side. (The weighty trunk that struck Emmet proved to be around one foot in diameter!) A patient but clearly uncomfortable Emmet was driven to the island retreat center where he received first aid. A fast boat was engaged and took us to the mainland where an ambulance was waiting. Excellent, professional help was provided by the emergency medical technicians, the staff at the Sturgeon Bay Hospital and the staff at St. Vincent's Hospital in Green Bay where Emmet was transferred. Happily and miraculously, he quickly made a complete recovery.

The tally of natural riches

Botanists returned to the islands in the summer and fall. Last winter Emmet completed a 45-page report including impressive species lists of the six major islands (Washington, Rock, Detroit, Chambers, Green and Plum), habitat descriptions, maps, illustrations and more.

All the cooperating landowners have received a list of plants identified on their islands. These landowners can now seek advice from the Bureau of Endangered Resources to make plans to manage the rare resources on their property. The survey data has recently been entered into the Natural Heritage Inventory, and is available to resource professionals who plan other actions like timber harvests for landowners and hunting policies for outdoor sports.

A detailed scientific publication on the flora of the Lake Michigan islands is being written and will be published in a professional journal. This article will reach teachers and researchers nationwide. Some key sites may be proposed for special protection in the state's Natural Area System. Both the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources and the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program are very interested in conserving and protecting biologically rich areas along Wisconsin's shores. The island survey now provides a sound, scientific basis for tracking and conserving these green gems in the blue expanse of Lake Michigan.

Botanist, artist and musician David Kopitzke works for DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources. He pioneered programs to work with landowners to enhance wild populations of rare plants on private lands.