Caring for the Huron River is a wonderful experience.
At a Shining Lakes Grove meeting not too long ago, one of our Grove members brought up the fact that although we profess to be the "people of Ana" (Ana is our name for the goddess of the Huron River), we aren't necessarily living up to that claim. "What have we done for our mother lately?" she asked. The question then moved to "What can we be doing?"
The answer had already dropped into our laps, as earlier that week at least a couple of us had received a brochure in the mail from Huron River Watershed Council. In fact, the brochure had prompted the question, and I had already planned to contact the HRWC, so things just proceeded logically from there. I called them a few days later and arranged to drop by their offices and pick up some information. I came home laden with fliers, maps, notes, and a lot of excitement.
The HRWC seems to be just what the doctor ordered. In many ways, they are kindred spirits to us, with a respect and love for the river, a desire to learn more about her, and a desire to make humans' use of the land compatible with her health. They have many organized, on-going projects in which we can participate. They offer a variety of volunteer opportunities in various fields, so there is something to suit just about anyone in the grove who wants to help out. We have become involved as a grove, but I also encourage our folk to participate independently if they choose.
The HRWC is a coalition of governments of twenty-eight cities, villages, townships, and counties located within or containing substantial portions of the Huron River Watershed. It is a member of the Michigan Environmental Council and the Environmental Fund for Michigan, and has the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The HRWC was founded thirty years ago under the Local River Management Act of Michigan to "inspire attitudes, behaviors, and economies that protect, rehabilitate, and sustain the Huron River system." To this end, it sponsors a number of projects and activities focused on monitoring and improving the health of the river and her tributaries, and on education and fostering public awareness of the river and related environmental concerns.
The Council also works with member governments to provide information on water resources and research services. The Council maintains an extensive library, which is open to anyone who wishes to use it. The Council publishes a quarterly newsletter, which comes out at the solstices and equinoxes (I told you they are kindred spirits!), called Huron River Report. I am receiving the newsletter, and they are on the grove mailing list.
Specific projects of the HRWC include the Drinking Water Protection Program; land use planning initiatives for the Headwaters and Middle Huron; Mudbusters, a program to reduce sediment loadings to the Huron and her tributaries; and Adopt-A-Stream, which is much more than an aquatic version of Adopt-A-Highway.
One of the big advantages of working with an established organization is that they have a very clear idea of what needs doing and how to go about doing it. They have the assistance and expertise of specialists in the Study of riverine environments and their inhabitants. They are able to tap the resources of the entire watershed, whereas we have a more limited sphere of influence. Thus they have organized a program to allow individuals or groups to monitor a particular stretch of water, using methods and procedures which will produce useful data, and useful analysis of that information.
Participants not only help the river system, they get an education. The list of interests to check on the response form attached to the Adopt-A-Stream brochure gives an idea of the range of skills needed: "collecting macroinvertebrates, ID them, planting trees and shrubs, stabilizing crumbling stream banks, cleaning up a creek, stenciling a message by the storm drains, teaching friends about the sensitivity of streams to our routine and behaviors, Mud-Busters: preventing soil erosion, publicity, making useful items, office work, computer work." Even if one doesn't want to get wet and muddy, there are plenty of things to do!
Group activities sponsored by the Council and Adopt-A-Stream program include field observations, workshops (on topics such as creek mapping), roundtables and discussions, and restorative work (for example, last summer they spent a day cleaning zebra mussels off of native clams).
Shining Lakes Grove has joined the Council and we have adopted a stream through the Adopt-A-Stream Program. Our "baby" is Traver Creek, which is in northern Ann Arbor. We have a specific site, where a road crosses the creek, to do our monitoring. It is a lovely little stretch of water, and it is in fairly good health.
Our first assignment in the Adopt-A-Stream program was to take maximum and minimum temperature readings for the months of January and February. Maximum/minimum readings are done for two months in the winter and again for two months in the summer, simultaneously at all adopted sites. We use a maximum/minimum thermometer, which has a U-shaped column of mercury and two metal markers, one at each end of the mercury. As the temperature increases, the mercury rises in the right-hand column, pushing the little blue marker above it. When the temperature decreases, the right-hand column falls, but the marker remains in place.
Meanwhile, the left-hand column of mercury is rising, and the low temperature is read on an upside-down scale (low numbers at the top); again, the blue marker is pushed upwards by the mercury and is left behind when the temperature rises again. The thermometer remains in the water at all times and is read once a week, so we have a series of readings of maximum and minimum temperatures for each week throughout the two months. After each reading the markers are reset with a magnet to current creek temperature.
Several members of the grove have participated in the weekly readings. Jim Hoyt and I made the first foray out on Sunday, January 12, exploring the stream on both sides of the road and ultimately settling on a location upstream for our temperature-monitoring site. (Other work, such as the stream searches to be done in the spring and fall, will be done at the downstream site in order to be consistent with past surveys).
To get to our chosen spot, we had to walk along the railroad tracks until the bank was low enough to get down to the stream valley without breaking our necks. The descent was still a bit of a challenge, and I had a moment's panic when I didn't land quite right and thought I might have twisted an ankle. But I was OK (and subsequently much more careful), and we went on. To get to the creekside, we had to wade through a field of Equisetum (horsetails), and we suspect that when the weather warms sufficiently there may actually be some pretty soggy ground there.
(We also made a note not to wear shorts in the summer: Another common-name for Equisetum is "scouring rush," and for good reason). We made a path along the base of the railroad embankment and walked downstream to a point where the creek curves close to the tracks. Here, in a sheltered place next to a tree at the edge of a more wooded area, we lowered the thermometer into the water, got an initial reading, and then anchored the thermometer to a sapling along with the reset magnet.
Our duty done, we went to a nearby bakery, had alleged coffee and sort-of pastry, and warmed our frozen fingers and toes.
The following week we had some incredibly cold weather, and when Jim and I got to the creek we were presented with a major challenge: The creek was frozen fairly solidly, and most solidly (of course) where our thermometer was located. I took advantage of the solid state of things and walked out on the creek. I wasn't too worried about falling through; our creek is only a couple of feet wide and I figured it was probably at most four or five inches deep, and after the toe-numbing experience the week before, I was wearing my hiking boots.
I gave a couple of exploratory stamps and the ice held, so I tried stamping on the ice near the thermometer. It was like stamping on rock. I should mention here that we couldn't actually see the thermometer; the ice was an opaque white, except where it was thin, and it was not thin near the thermometer! Our only clue to its location was the tether string, which disappeared into the ice a foot or so downstream from where it was tied.
Obviously, we were not going to have an easy time of this. I went looking for something harder than my foot to try to break the ice. The only real way to go was across the stream, as the horsetails to the left held nothing promising and the trees were fairly impassable to the right. I walked across to the other side, wandered downstream a bit, and saw just what I was looking for: a steel fence post (the angular kind with the knobbies all over it), sticking out from beneath the trees of the stream bank opposite me.
I had to cross the stream again to get to it, and of course here was where I found the thin ice, under the snow next to the bank. I found it with my right foot, and I learned that here the water was a little over six inches deep (the height of my boots), and that wool socks work very well to keep you warm even when they are wet. Having received my baptism, I found solid ice and reached my goal.
Now, I naively assumed that I would just be able to pull that post right out of the bank, and if the ground hadn't been frozen solid, I might have actually done that. As it was, the pole was embedded just enough that its rooted end wouldn't budge. On the other hand, it was rusted just enough that its non-embedded end came off easily. I had a brief moment of feeling like Supergirl, having just broken a steel pole with my bare hands (well, OK, I was wearing gloves, but you get the idea). I took my trophy back across the stream (avoiding the wading pool this time), back upstream and across to the recalcitrant thermometer. We were going to get our reading, one way or another.
I was certain that the fence post would make short work of the ice, but Ma Nature is tough stuff. It took about fifteen minutes of whacking and thumping of the ice, with Jim and me taking turns, before we finally hacked the thermometer loose from the main mass. Of course, we had to be careful not to whack or thump the thermometer itself, as that would have negated the whole point of getting it free, as well as adding yet another dollop of mercury to our burdened environment. As it was, we managed to get it loose, but that wasn't the end of our problems. The stream was a little shallower on this side than the other, and the ice went clear to the bottom. After retrieving the thermometer, we measured the block of ice that still surrounded it at about two inches thick.
Since removing this ice with the steel bludgeon would have been something akin to spanking a baby with an axe, we looked about for a smaller tool with which to fine-tune the job. Jim had a pocket knife of some variety; that fit the bill. Some of the thermometer was accessible; fortunately it had been face down in the stream, so once we got the mud off we could read the numbers for the most part. With Jim's pocketknife we shaved away enough ice to get a clear reading.
Satisfied at last, we plopped the thermometer back in the creek (in swift-running water closer to the opposite shore) and prepared to depart. We then realized that we still had to reset the thermometer, so we fished it out and found that we couldn't get the magnet close enough to move the minimum marker. Out came the pocketknife again, and after some struggles we finally got the marker set and the job was done.
By this time we were feeling like it had been a long enough day, but we couldn't resist the idea of coffee and a browse through Barnes and Noble on the way home. Well, maybe it was just a browse that time, but the bookstore became our after-the-creek watering hole from then on.
These weekly trips were not only helpful to the stream, they gave several of us in the grove an excuse to get together, get outdoors, have some thoughtful time and good conversations together; in short, to socialize and get to know each other a bit better. Due to the size of this grove, not to mention the insane schedules that most of us keep, such peaceful time with only one or two other members is precious. I am delighted that we have found such a pleasant way to show our mother that we love her!