Friday, July 22, 2016

20 Years of Discovery: A short history of the North Lakeland Discovery Center

by: Tom Joseph

In the fall of 1995, a small three-inch classified ad in the Lakeland Times caught the eye of several members of the local community, as well as staff at the North Lakeland Elementary School: For rent, former Youth Conservation Corps Camp at Statehouse Lake. Contact WI-DNR.

I and many others knew a little bit about what had gone on there - it was the place where teen-aged campers came to work their butts off on civic projects like building trails and bridges and planting trees. We were all familiar with the property - it was right across from Skeeter Beach and Rest Lake Park. Statehouse Lake and the Cross Country Ski Trail named for it ran right through the property. Here was this huge gem of a natural area about 2 minutes from downtown Manitowish Waters that so deserved to be preserved as a community asset. We had to put in a proposal.

We formed a steering committee of community and school members. School staff wanted to use it for outdoor education. Community members had about 8 million ideas. After many meetings amongst ourselves and with Sue Treb, the school's administrator, we came up with this basic agreement: the school would make the lease proposal in its name and the community members promised that whatever happened at Statehouse Lake would be self-sustaining - it would never cost the school a dime.

Based on North Lakeland's excellent reputation and the DNR's confidence that we would be educating people about nature and that we would responsibly steward the property - and the fact that we were the only group that put in a proposal - we were awarded a 15 year lease. The rent was $1/year plus 1 1/2% of our gross sales.

We had a name from Bob Kovar, one of our first visionaries: the North Lakeland Environmental Awareness Center. We had the steering committee but not yet a formal Board. After much discussion, in the spring of 1996 we incorporated as the North Lakeland Discovery Center and established a mission statement: to explore the area's natural, cultural and historic resources. Local artist Sara Muender did our first logo: a magnifying glass with five different symbols that could go inside it: a leaf symbolizing nature, a paw print for wildlife, a canoe for recreation, paint brushes and a musical note for culture, and a campfire symbolizing community. Eric Matz, then the school principal, was our first Board President.

That first summer of 1996, led by Jan Brewer from the school, we put on a very small handful of programs including our grand opening, the very first Discovery Day. I can't remember how many attended, but I know we came away thinking: wow! This really works. People loved the place and the ethic surrounding it.

By 1998, we were approved by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. With the help of donations and challenge grants from local folks and foundations, we hired our first Executive Director: Gary Milanowski. Those of us who worked as volunteers in the early days breathed a sigh of relief...and then another, deeper sigh as we realized there was so much more to do than Gary could possibly accomplish. Fundraising, finance, program, and buildings and grounds committees were populated by dedicated and talented volunteers. From the first, the Discovery Center was both nature center and community center. We worked hard but we had fun too: our first Board meetings featured pizza and beer. The last one of the summer was conducted on Bill and Marilyn Gabert’s pontoon boat.

The years flew by. Our staff and budget grew. We got our first computers and Executive Director Rolf Ethun kept a sledge hammer next to them to keep them properly tuned. We pioneered truly creative and worthwhile programs like Bob Kovar’s Intercultural Leadership Initiative and Jim Bokern’s Digital Time Traveler. An early workshop offering built the beautiful and authentic birchbark canoe we still have today. We improved our ski, hike and bike trails, including our state of the art Interpretive trail. With the generous support of Liz and Dick Uihlein, we gradually improved our main lodge, cabins and other facilities. Board President Dick Hemming swore he would not leave office until we had useable winter office space and restrooms, and so our mobile office building came to the site in 2006.

New faces brought new energy. The Social and Silent Auction on Memorial Weekend Sunday became the Big Event, and fundraising took a big jump. Our membership grew from a few hundred to a thousand. But most important were the continually innovating programs put on by staff like Tracy Janezcko, Zach Wilson, Bruce Greenhill and Licia Johnson. Zach’s Woods and Waters had Iron County kids doing important research on the endangered pine marten. Licia’s Traveling Naturalist took our show on the road. Bruce created Nibbles and Knowledge, which continues today. When aquatic invasive species began to appear in our lakes, we formed an innovative partnership of the Town of Manitowish Waters, the Manitowish Waters Lakes Association, and the Discovery Center, with Anne Kretchmann leading the way to battle this growing problem.

Summer interns expanded our ability to handle our growing audience, and we became known as one of the absolute best places in Wisconsin for a young person to gain hands-on experience with caring and professional mentors.

It wasn't always easy. There were a few tense Board meetings where we reached into our pockets in order to make payroll. We yearned for better year-round facilities, and yet they were always just a bit beyond our grasp.

Yet with every hardship, we gained strength. Sarah Johnson poured  boundless energy and determination into her position as executive director. Azael Meza succeeded her and leads us today. Between them, they have brought us to a place of unprecedented financial stability and programmatic excellence.

Along the way we have been blessed with so many incredible staff members, board members volunteers and donors. Many of you are here tonight and I applaud you and thank you for all you’ve done. I just want to take a minute to recognize one of our most illustrious board members who is, unfortunately, not with us any more: former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William A. Bablitch. I was in awe of Bill when I first met him, but I quickly learned that he was as friendly and approachable as he was wise. And, as you might expect from a Supreme Court Justice, persuasive, too. Bill extracted from me the single largest donation I’ve ever given anyone anytime. And I thought I was the one doing the asking. Tonight, in appreciation of Bill, local artist Mindy Schnell has painted this portrait, which we will proudly hang in our lodge.

So where are we today?

To a full-time staff of eight plus seasonal staff and a budget of more than $600,000 annually.

To an outdoor learning facility with far-reaching impact known for its creativity and excellence.

To a continued commitment to connect people with nature in ever evolving and always creative ways.

And, this year, to a permanent easement with the DNR that has replaced our lease and gives us the right to use the property forever as long as we continue to pursue our mission. Let me just pause on this one. To have a permanent right to occupy our 63 acres and the surrounding trails has long been a goal of the Discovery Center. We have worked literally for years to make it happen. Finally, this year, it did. We consider it a testament to the trust and reputation the Discovery Center has earned from the WI-DNR and from the public. It is one of the crowning achievements of our 20 years. We no longer have to worry whether we’ll be here 20 years from now, or 50, or 100.

20 years - where did they go? In the case of the Discovery Center, to a mission that will never grow old, an effort that will never end, and, hopefully, the energy and support of the community that will continue its success long after we old-timers are gone. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Trout Lily

by, Anne Kretschmann

One of my favorite spring ephemerals is the trout lily. Trout lilies are one of the first plants to extend their leaves in the spring. They grow in colonies often resembling a carpet underfoot in moist soils and are common in hardwood forests in the Northwoods. Their elliptical shaped leaves are 3-7 inches long with a unique pattern of grayish-purple blotches that resemble the pattern on a brook trout. After 7 years of growing they produce a single downward facing yellow 1 inch long flower with dark orange stamens. Before growing above ground, trout lilies mature a teardrop bulb underground for several years.

There are many historical medicinal uses for trout lilies. The leaves were applied to wounds. You can make tea out of all parts of the plant, and has been used for fevers and stomach ulcers. The plant is made up of alpha-methylene-butyrolactone, which binds to cancerous cells to inhibit reproduction.
The leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves taste best when they have just sprouted first thing in the spring. They have a slight bitter aftertaste, but the youngest leaves are mild and earthly sweet. They should be eaten raw, as cooking can intensify the aftertaste. The bulbs are sweetest before the plant produces shoots above ground and taste like combination of sweet corn and peas. If dug in the fall, they are harder and starchier. It is best to identify and mark locations one year for foraging the following spring or fall.

Please make sure that you never harvest more than 5-10% of any one location or colony. This ensures that you are not harming the population for future years.
Try this Trout Lily Salad recipe!
2 cups of trout lily leaves, sliced into sizable bites
1-2 cloves of chopped roasted garlic
½ cup of nuts (pistachios, almonds, cashews, or walnuts)
½ cup of cranberries or craisins

Red wine vinegar dressing

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


These past few months area lakes have seen some incredible almost “other-worldly,” sights. We guarantee that the puzzling green spheres under the surface of the water are not signs of extraterrestrials. It’s algae, as much a part of the ecosystem as you, me and the trees.

The Discovery Center has received various samples of the algae and upon sending them to a DNR laboratory for identification, has learned what the E.T.-esque blooms contain. (Can you believe that one local lake alone had thirty species of algae in it?!) A portion of the samples were identified as “green algae,” a group that is not harmful to species higher up in the trophic system (e.g. birds, dogs, humans).

Some of the samples also contained “blue-green algae.” Infamous due to the Toledo, Michigan incident last summer, it is well known that blue-green algae can emit toxins harmful to mammals. It is strongly believed, however, that this particular species is native to the area and therefore has a role in our lake ecosystem.

To be more precise, algae was part of Earth’s ecosystem before you, me and the trees ever existed. The birth of our planet was not overly hospitable to any species. It can be surmised, then, that this particular form of algae had to be hardy and adaptable in order to survive.

It is due to that same adaptability that Earth has one of its most defining characteristics- an atmosphere.

Being a mess of molten rocks and toxic fumes, the newly created Earth was at its most impressionable stage. One minor change in the chemical exchange of respiration allowed algae to take a mound of clay and create a masterpiece; everything that we have today- water, immense biodiversity, numerous ecosystems and the laws of nature- can be linked back to an act of adaptation at an opportune time. Quite a coincidence, right?

Algae is ingrained into lake ecosystems. It can be difficult to picture these simple, single-celled organisms being as significant to the balance of nature as the much larger fish and birds, but they are. Fact is, most algae species are the basis of energy in the food web.

All living species rely on energy to undergo basic biological processes. We need it to breathe, to digest, to think, and to move. Algae are essentially tiny power plants that undergo photosynthesis to create their own energy. Then, when consumed, the predator attains a portion of that energy and so on and so forth as it goes up the food chain to those large fishes, aquatic birds and nearby mammals. If algae were not present, the food web would be crippled at the base.

Another important function of algae in water is their assistance of pollutant regulation. Chemicals and heavy metals, vastly detrimental to the health of every living thing in the lake, can be bioaccumulated (accumulation through biological means and processes) in algae. By consolidating these toxic compounds in one location, there is less risk of harm towards other species. Thanks, algae!

All healthy lake systems contain algae. This, like every other aspect of water systems, needs to be in moderation. Too much algae or too little algae can create far-reaching and long-lasting problems. As previously mentioned, small algae populations can restrict the flow of energy through predator-prey interactions.

Algal blooms, an example of excessive algae, undermine order and balance in the water. A bloom can cause havoc by killing plants, reducing oxygen levels and either killing or driving away aquatic species. Such events are common in lakes populated by humans or near anthropogenic activity. How does that work?

It has to do with the nutrients being loaded into water systems. More specifically, additions of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water body will increase the potential for massive increases in algae production. Combined with abundant sunlight and slow moving water (i.e. lakes), the likelihood of an algal bloom is higher.

So how do we stop the algae take over? Sometimes it will inevitably happen, but we can reduce the severity and extent of its spread.

  1. First and foremost, we can reduce the amount of nutrients we are adding into the outside ecosystems. Via water runoff into lakes, any nitrogen or phosphorus additions to lawns, gardens, et cetera near water bodies will get into the lake.(Note: Examples of nutrient additions include fertilizers, animal feces, cleaning soap for motor vehicles, improperly maintained or failing septic tanks) 
  2. Second, we can limit the amount of nutrients we use within the four walls of our homes. For example, phosphate-free soaps will reduce the amount of phosphorus that inevitably goes down the drain and into the surface water. 
  3. Third, monitoring the lake for increased algae activity. By knowing what alga growth is normal and what is not, we can better work with our lakes to reduce nutrient input and maintain a happy balance.

Friday, September 11, 2015

New Discovery Center Bird Banding Station Takes Off

Citizen Science Intern, Neva Bentley,
releases a juvenile Dark-eyed Junco that was
at the Northwoods Wildlife center
There’s nothing quite like the experience of releasing a bird back into the wild!  The North Lakeland Discovery Center’s new bird banding station makes experiences like these possible while conducting important avian research through bird banding. Bird banding is a research tool that provides a wealth of information about birds.  It is one of the best tools for studying bird dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life span, survival, and productivity. Birds are captured in fine, nearly invisible nets called mist nets or in traps.  Next, they are fitted with a lightweight, aluminum leg band inscribed with a unique, nine-digit number.  They are identified to species, age, and sex, and then released unharmed.
Research and Monitoring Coordinator, Heather Lumpkin, 
bands an adult female Purple Finch that 
was rehabilitated after striking a window.   
Bird banding in the United States requires a federal banding permit issued by the U.S. Geological Survey.  In July 2015, North Lakeland Discovery Center’s Research and Monitoring Coordinator, Heather Lumpkin, received a Subpermit for banding birds.  This Subpermit, sponsored by Master Bird Bander Thomas Nicholls of Fifield, WI, allowed the North Lakeland Discovery Center to launch a new bird banding station August 2015 that will contribute to long-term avian research and provide opportunities for students and the public to connect with birds and learn more about bird conservation. 
A document camera projects bird banding to a television screen
 making public demonstrations easy.  This and other bird banding equipment 
was purchased with funds raised during the 
2015 Fund-a-Wish Campaign at the Big Event in May.      
The North Lakeland Discovery Center is partnering with the Northwoods Wildlife Center, an animal rehabilitation center in Minocqua, WI that admits an average of 130 passerine and near-passerine birds annually.  Little is known about the survival of passerine and near-passerine birds after their release from a rehabilitation program, and by banding birds that are released from the Northwoods Wildlife Center’s rehabilitation program, the North Lakeland Discovery Center hopes to learn more about the survival of post rehabilitation birds.
The North Lakeland Discovery Center also plans to contribute to long-term avian research through the MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program.  This continent-wide program, operated by the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP), seeks to identify key demographic parameters that drive avian population trends.  Operating a MAPS banding station requires the assistance of a team of trained volunteers.  The Discovery Center is working with volunteers and Discovery Center Bird Club members to develop a team of trained, dedicated individuals who can assist with this project in the future. 
Discovery Center volunteer and board member, 
Barb McFarland, releases one of four 
rehabilitated juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos.        
Public outreach and bird conservation education is also an important goal for the new banding station.  New equipment was purchased for the banding station with funds from the 2015 Fund-a-Wish Campaign.  One of these purchases was a document camera that projects and magnifies real time video of bird banding to a large screen TV that can be viewed by the public.  Kids and adults alike can stop by during any of the banding station’s public demonstration hours.  Demonstration hours are posted on the Discovery Center’s Calendar of Events website.  At the banding station there are activities for kids including a banding station scavenger hunt, band-a-kid activity, migration game, and more.  Visitors can support the banding station through donations and the “adopt–a-bird” program.  For $10 individuals can adopt a bird and help release their adopted bird once it is banded.  They will also receive a special adoption certificate in the mail. 
Bird banding station visitor Allie Lumpkin holds a bird 
in bander’s grip just before releasing it.        
Most of the birds in the rehabilitation program at the Northwoods Wildlife Center are diagnosed with problems related to human-induced hazards such as pet attacks, removal of young birds from their nesting environment, and window strikes.  Many of these hazards can be reduced through public education. Bird Banding offers an opportunity to educate about the hazards that birds face in a meaningful way.  We naturally protect what we know and love.  Bird banding lets us study birds while also providing individuals with opportunities to discover a new love for them. 
Northwoods Wildlife Center Educator Courtney Wright 
releases one of the banded juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Summer Experience-By Neva

This summer, I was fortunate enough to be chosen for the Citizen Science internship here at the North Lakeland Discovery Center. I’ll be honest- I didn’t really understand what citizen science was, and I didn’t really know what to expect at my first internship. Luckily, I have had a great experience thanks to the wonderful staff at the Discovery Center, and of course, everyone who visits the center and makes it all possible!
I have been interested in bats ever since I learned all about them during a family trip to Mammoth Cave National Park about 7 years ago. At that time, White Nose Syndrome (WNS) had just been discovered in the United States. Unfortunately, today WNS is spreading rampant in Mammoth Cave.
 This summer I have been able to continue to grow my appreciation for all bats do for our ecosystem, through acoustic bat monitoring! It’s incredible how bats communicate and travel, and using the bat detector equipment really opened my eyes to the bats all around us.
I hadn’t paid much attention to loons until this summer either. I live close to Lake Superior, but we don’t really have any inland lakes, so loons were kind of a new bird for me. I learned about how loons are sensitive so many changes in the water ecosystem, most of which are human-caused. They are fascinating birds to observe.  For these reasons, I chose to do my special project on them.
I think the best experience I got this summer was learning how to effectively lead a program.  Being able to effectively and confidently put forth your message while engaging your audience is a really important skill to have. It is a truly rewarding feeling when people come up to you after a program and say how much they enjoyed it, or how well it was done! It is something I have been working on all of my life, and I hope that I can continue to improve.

Thank you, North Lakeland Discovery Center for all the fun experiences, great learning moments, and professional skills.