For our honeymoon, my husband and I biked from Vancouver, BC to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon – 1,200 miles in 5 weeks through some of the most beautiful parts of this country. On that trip, it was common to see other folks on bikes loaded up with their tent, gear and sleeping bags also touring the area.
We were excited when one morning on our way to Sleeping Bear Dunes we saw a bicyclist with a packed bike stopped on the side of the road – our first fellow bike tourer sighting this trip. We slowed down to say hello and ask where he was headed. “North,” he replied, and we all laughed. “Us too,” we said and invited TJ to ride along with us. He joined us all day for our ride and meal breaks, and we chatted almost the entire ride.
TJ had started biking from his home in Rochester, Indiana two days before. He rode a beastly 280 miles in his first two days – a feat which just thinking about makes my whole body ache. His family was planning to meet him in Northport, Michigan where they would vacation together. Back in Rochester, TJ is a firefighter and has two young sons. We heard lots of great stories about his boys and adventures as a firefighter along the ride.
A quick selfie with TJ before he left us to continue biking for the day
We were eager to be headed for the Sleeping Bear Dunes – a jewel in Lake Michigan’s crown. Sandy beaches, forested islands, 450-foot dunes, and manifold species of animals and plants are protected here by the National Park Service and are enjoyed by millions of visitors during all four seasons.
But during the summer of 2006, an unwelcome guest showed up on Sleeping Bear’s shores. Thousands of birds were dropping dead on the region’s pristine beaches after losing the ability to hold their heads up and fly. Scientists determined the culprit was a disease called type E avian botulism, which first came to Lake Michigan in the 1960s but hadn’t made a resurgence since 1983.
Avian botulism is caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. These toxins often concentrate in aquatic invertebrates like invasive zebra or quagga mussels, which are commonly ingested by bottom-feeding fish that then get gobbled up by birds like gulls and loons, for which the toxin is paralytic and lethal.
In 2010 the National Park Service and a coalition of conservation research partners received funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to study these avian botulism outbreaks. Researchers measured changes to coastal habitats that are affected by the increase in botulism, and mapped and documented past lake changes in order to understand and predict botulism outbreaks in the future.
Future steps in the project include a continuation of monitoring and managing outbreaks, and increasing nonprofit and volunteer involvement in data collection and beach cleanups. Funding from the GLRI is necessary for the fight to decrease avian botulism and keep the integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem intact.
Up on the dunes, the GLRI is helping stop a terrestrial invasive species from further hurting Sleeping Bear’s ecosystem. Known scientifically as Gypsophilia paniculata, baby’s breath is a pretty white flower native to Eastern Europe and commonly found in gardens across the United States. But careless planting in the Great Lakes region has turned baby’s breath into an aggressive invasive species.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funded a project to manage the invasive plant along 100 acres of the Lakeshore and to study its effects on the ecosystem. The project aims to measure and catalog the location and spread of baby’s breath, remove the plants physically and with herbicide, and observe changes that occur from season to season.
Eliminating the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would be devastating to these efforts at Sleeping Bear Dunes, and many others like it dedicated to keeping our Lakes healthy and clean.
Throughout our day, I told TJ about the work that I do and our campaign to #SaveTheGreatLakes. He told me that growing up in Rochester, he takes his two boys up to Benton Harbor or the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore every summer. When I asked, he told me he “leaned right” politically, but didn’t quite seem to see how that was relevant to us talking about keeping our Great Lakes healthy.
Protecting the Great Lakes, our drinking water, and the economy they drive has long been a bipartisan issue. We can’t let hyper-partisanship in politics get in the way of protecting the Great Lakes. The GLRI protects our drinking water, creates jobs, protects public health, keeps beaches open and upholds a way of life for millions of people. Donald Trump’s Great Lakes cuts should be dead on arrival for all members of Congress from our region. And we must stand up together to #SaveTheGreatLakes.
Right before TJ left us to continue on his way, he told us, “I’ve been out East to the ocean once or twice. But I don’t know what it is, I just prefer the Great Lakes.”
I can’t put my finger on it either. But these Lakes are pretty special.
Contribute to our campaign to #SaveTheGreatLakes here.
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