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Invasive Species

After two days when weather and transportation woes kept us away from our task, last Thursday was a godsend.

The lake was calm, the day was cool but mild, and transportation was arranged.

On this day, it was just the three contractors: Pam Hilton, Marc Seelye and Christine Miller…and me.

I’d been scheduled to work at another job, but decided last minute that I’d like to get the “full experience,” and rearranged things to make it possible. Having an even number of workers (even one as barely competent as myself) allows for splitting up and thus covering more territory.

As we set out for Whiskey Island, a narrow band of baby blue sky met the steel gray waves at the horizon. Above that, a narrow ribbon of white clouds divided that bit of sky from the ceiling of heavy gray clouds that blocked the sun and were our almost constant companion that day.

When I took a photograph, my camera beeped, but I couldn’t see what was wrong. When we got to Whiskey Island – another island I had never before visited – I took another. Again the beep. There, I could read the screen: “NO MEMORY CARD”. UGH! In the interim days of rain, I had taken my camera out to photograph the many varieties of Fall mushrooms that were popping up all over my yard and down the Fox Lake Road. I’d taken the memory card out to download those photos onto my computer…and never put it back. What a disappointment!

Whiskey Island Is small – about 130 acres – and shaped like a kite. It sits to the north and west of Beaver Island, and is roughly halfway between Garden and High, the other two islands we visited.

We split into two groups, with one person handling the herbicidal treatment while the other took GPS coordinates and notes. We set off in opposite directions, to walk the perimeter of the island.

Christine and I headed out together.

The shore was covered with acorn-sized gravel on a steep incline. Sand cherries grew right up to the water line and spread their branches out over the water. Within the first minute, we realized the only way we were going to be able to walk the shoreline was to walk in knee-deep water. It was cold! Within ten minutes, my feet were numb. By the time we made it around the island and met Marc and Pam, it felt like I was lifting heavy logs each time I took a step.

We zig-zagged from the waterline through the shrubbery to the higher dunes, to make sure we weren’t missing anything.

We came upon a small stand of native Phragmites, with the characteristic bronze stalks. In that case, we make note of the location, but do not treat the plant. Healthy stands of native Phragmites and other native plants help to keep invasives from moving in to an area, and should be left alone.

We also found one small stand of invasive Phragmites, evident by its more aggressive growth pattern, large, dark, raggedy seed heads and straw-colored stalks. We noted the coordinates, and treated it with herbicide.

We met Pam and Marc coming from the other direction.They, too, had found just a couple small stands of Phragmites. After the many large stands we had encountered on High Island, this was very good news! We had walked the perimeter in just about an hour. The boat was waiting for us.

Next, back to High Island, to get what we had missed there.

We had found High Island to be much worse than expected, based on prior treatment there. Each team had run into issues that had prevented them from completing  treatment in the time we had. The herbicide cannot be applied after four PM; we were limited to the amount of herbicide that we could carry on our backs and we were traveling through very rough and sometimes impassible terrain. Each team had carefully noted the size and location of every untreated stand, as well as specific issues (like thigh-deep muck that was impossible to walk through) that made treatment tricky. If we hadn’t been able to return there until next year, we would have known, at least, to make those areas a priority.

Fortunately, we had time!

We set out again in teams of two. Christine and I started at what had been our finish point on Monday, and back-tracked through the same section of shoreline, finding and treating each stand we had missed. Pam and Marc had their own sets of coordinates, with areas to treat in the other direction. By two PM we had wrapped up treatment on another island!

We set off for Garden Island.

We had, on Saturday, divided into two teams of three, and headed out in opposite directions on Garden Island. We had to meet back at our starting location at four o’clock, so had to allow time for the return. Because my group walked the trail through the island, we had a bit of time to spare (and Pam Hilton does not like to waste any time!) but we hadn’t known how long it would take us. Both groups had clearly recorded their stopping point, so we knew exactly where to begin.

We started at Indian Harbor near the little DNR cabin, and walked the shoreline to the location that the other team and turned around the other day. The four of us stayed together, for this short distance

We expected to find a couple small stands that had been noted and treated in previous years. When we’d left Garden Island on Saturday, we had agreed that it wouldn’t be the worst disaster if they had to wait until next year. With so many variables of wind and weather that are out of our control, that is always a possibility.

We found and treated the Phragmites we expected. Then, in the last little section before the end of our trek, we found more. From deep in the center of a huge stand of cattails, we saw the distinctive brown seed heads of invasive Phragmites, towering over the surrounding growth.

The stand was right in the center of an acre or more of cattails, with dimensions of about 50′ x 50′. It was probably growing there last year, but not visible in that location. This year, it had gotten tall enough to spot.

Christine and Marc waded in. Pam and I – each barely five-foot tall – stayed back.

We quickly lost sight of them, in the tall reeds, but we could hear them. Exclamations and splashes and the occasional cuss word kept us apprised of their location and activities.

They were in cold water to their waists, with twenty-foot tall Phragmites surrounding them, with the additional complications of heavy backpacks, rubber gloves and heavy, sodden clothes and shoes. At one point, Marc stepped in a hole that brought the cold water up past his chest. When they finally came out of there, Christine stopped to dump a minnow out of her shoe!

It was a long day, but a good one! With the completion of Garden Island, every bit of shoreline on the outer islands that we had scheduled for treatment this year was accomplished!

I think I’ve said it before, but it’s well worth repeating: These folks really earn their pay!

Many thanks to the crew at Pam’s Invasive Plant Management LLC for your professional and thorough work here, and for allowing me to experience it firsthand!

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Winds kept us off Lake Michigan and away from our task on Sunday, but Monday dawned with warm sunshine and calm waters.

We set out to treat invasive Phragmites on High Island.

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As you can see on this map, High Island sits on the west side of Beaver Island (that’s the top portion of Beaver Island in the lower center), and is a much greater distance to travel from our good harbor, than it was to Garden Island the other day.

Weather is always a concern on the great lakes. Last year – and possibly the year before that, too – the treatment on this island was not completed due to inclement weather and travel concerns. We wanted to be sure to attend to it this year..

Dave Blanchard, who had helped us on Garden Island, couldn’t make this trip. Stan Eagle agreed to come along.

[Stan Eagle – a part-time resident of Beaver Island, eighty years old with a history of skin cancer – was willing to help, and greatly appreciated. Still, I have almost twenty years on him, and I know how my bones ached after this endeavor. Where are our young, strong residents? This problem affects all of us: our land values, the natural features and wildlife that we care about, our jobs and our economy are at stake. You can bet I’ll have more to say about this in the future!]

We divided into three groups of two: one to handle the herbicide application; the other to document the location (per GPS readings) and size of each stand of invasive Phragmites. We set off in various directions with instructions on where and when to meet for our return trip.

Christine and I came upon several areas where the invasive reed had been successfully treated, where the dead stalks had been sheared off by the ice.

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Unfortunately, we also noticed areas where this tenacious plant was sending out new growth.

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We saw previously treated areas where – in just two short years – invasive Phragmites was able to assert it’s presence with frightening audacity…

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…and areas that had not been treated in recent years where it threatened to take over.

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We saw seed heads pushed over by the recent winds and rain…

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and runners shooting out over the sand.

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Christine treated…

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and treated….

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and treated…

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while I took pictures, documented locations, assisted where I could, and mainly tried not to slow down the operation!

One dense stand of Phragmites was 160′ long, and extended in from the shoreline at least 40 feet! Another band was estimated at thirty feet wide, but scattered stalks stretched inland almost two hundred feet. One stand was so dense, the stalks (20′ or more in height!) were actually holding Christine up in the water (which was still to her waist!) as she applied the herbicide. She noted that minnows, trying to swim away from her, were trapped by the tangle of thick growth.

It was quite overwhelming, and reaffirmed everything I have learned about the necessity of keeping this plant under control.

Every now and then, I just had to remind myself to pause, breathe, and pay attention to the beautiful surrounding.

That’s what we’re working to save, after all.

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Although I’ve been working as Phragmites Administrator for a year, I’ve had little firsthand experience with the plant or its treatment.

Oh, I can identify Phragmites. I can distinguish between the native plant and the invasive species. I’ve been learning a lot about its growth, spread and habits, and the many ways scientists and conservationists are working to keep it under control. I’ve seen some pretty frightening photographs of areas where Phragmites has run rampant. I’ve gone through the records of our treatment here on Beaver Island and the smaller surrounding islands in this archipelago.

My contribution, though, has been mostly in the form of paperwork and reports.

That all changed yesterday.

To learn more about the work involved in treating invasive Phragmites, I went along yesterday as part of the crew. An old, clumsy and untrained crew member, but nonetheless…

I had no idea!

Unable to find transportation to the outer islands on the weekend, Jeff Powers generously offered, and then rearranged his hardware and veterinary schedule in order to take us out and pick us up.

Our contractors, Pam Hilton, Marc Seelye and Christine Miller had been up early, planning and preparing. Several heavy totes and containers had to be loaded onto the boat. A bit of training, safety instructions, waivers and permission slips circulated.

We started out shortly after nine in the morning, Jeff at the helm with six passengers.  Along with the three certified contractors, there were three helpers: Pam Grassmick, Dave Blanchard and me. We would have started sooner, but I neglected to call Pam Grassmick, who was faithfully waiting by the telephone for the “go ahead.”

[Personally, I find it hard enough to get myself up, dressed and out the door in the morning. I don’t know how I ever managed to get my daughters up and off to school.]

It was a blustery day, cool but also beautiful. I had never been to any of the outer islands before, so was looking forward to the experience…while at the same time dreading the possibility that I would look (or be!) incompetent, incapable or in-the way!

We came to Garden Island after a brisk boat ride, and lowered the small boat. The gear was transferred, and Marc paddled equipment and crew in to Northcutt Harbor in two trips.

Jeff headed back to Beaver Island, to continue his busy day.

We divided into two teams and went off in opposite directions, following the shoreline with plans to meet back at this location at a specified time, to be ready to go when our ride returned.

One member of each team took GPS readings and recorded the coordinates for each stand of invasive Phragmites we found. It was noted how large the area was, and graded: scattered, patchy or dense. The other two members were responsible for herbicidal treatment.

The water level is up this year. We were often walking in the cold water in order to follow the shore. The ground was covered with irregular and sometimes slippery rocks.

It’s evident that our treatment is helping. Areas that had been treated last year were always smaller stands, and graded “scattered” or “patchy.” When we came to Indian Point, which had not been treated last year (weather conditions made travel impossible), we came upon a massive stand (I think they approximated it at 80′ x 100′!)of the invasive plant. We noted many long runners trailing through the water, with dangling roots and leafy vertical starts every few inches.

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The stand was so dense, it was difficult to gauge where I’d been, and where I needed to be. We were sloshing through deep water with a mucky bottom, and filled with runners ready to catch us up.

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You may note that in addition to the protective clothing and rubber gloves that make all movement more difficult, a strong wind came up off the water, making it necessary to work backward toward the shoreline, to avoid the wind carrying the herbicide. Through it all, Pam Hilton carried a large, heavy backpack sprayer.

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After treating this area, we made our way – through the stoney, grass filled water and dense, brushy woods -to the DNR cabin. From there, we followed the trail through the woods back to Northcutt.

I was wet, cold and exhausted.

Pam Hilton checked her watch.

“We’re early,” she said, “It took us 45 minutes on that trail. If we were to walk back, 45 minutes, we’d have about twenty minutes more work time before we had to head back.”

[“Are you KIDDING me???” was the thought going through my head]

“It’s up to you,” was what I think I spoke out loud.

Pam Grassmick had the idea to build a campfire. It was a dandy one!

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I started to warm up and dry out.

I started to think this was not so bad.

Beautiful views!

Lovely, knowledgeable, hard-working people!

Worthwhile, important work!

Good exercise!

[ Of course this counts as exercise! Every muscle in my body aches!]

“So…how far do you think we walked today?” I asked.

[ My guess would have been 18 miles, based on how tired I felt, but I knew a more reasonable estimate would be half that.]

“Oh…at the most, I’d say maybe three to three and a half miles,” was the reply.

[Are you KIDDING me?]

For their expertise, caution, patience, devotion and hard work, these people earn their pay!

Volunteers deserve our undying gratitude!

I returned to Beaver Island with new respect for the entire process, and the people that make it happen.

Much thanks to all of you!

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This photo, of a very healthy stand of invasive Phragmites, was taken at Cheyenne Point, right here on Beaver Island, just ten years ago!

Ed Leuck sent it to Pam Grassmick yesterday, and she forwarded it to me.

I was just there yesterday, at Cheyenne Point, with Pam Grassmick and three of the contractors that will be handling the Phragmites treatment here this year.

There is invasive Phragmites there, still, and it will be included in this year’s treatment. This year, however, there are scattered stalks, topping out at perhaps four feet tall…certainly nothing like this high, dense stand!

We are doing good work here on Beaver island, to preserve our natural wonders and keep invasive species in check.

Thursday, August 28th, there will be a Public Meeting at the Peaine Township Hall, at 4PM, to  address concerns regarding invasive Phragmites and its treatment. Please attend if you can.

Having now received the “go-ahead” from the federal agencies, we are hoping to get some volunteers to help with treatment on Garden, High and Whiskey islands. It’s not a walk in the park, but it is a day spent with knowledgeable, caring people in beautiful surrounding, for a  worthy cause. Please consider helping, if you’re able.

I continue to be impressed by the community support, and donations of time and money for this ongoing project.

I hope you’re all as heartened by the progress we’ve made as I am!

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We’re experiencing a classic, beautiful white Christmas here on Beaver Island.

I’m looking out on a good layer of fresh snow and gently falling snowflakes made more lively by the wind.

Everything is covered in a thick blanket of white snow.

All of the issues that were so pressing in the summertime seem distant now.

Even so, they have not been forgotten.

We are still working to preserve this island paradise. We are striving to protect our shoreline and wetlands from invasive species that would forever alter life as we’ve grown to love and expect it here.

I’ve been studying findings from some of the latest research on the growth patterns and spread of invasive Phragmites. I’ll be working, this winter, on grants to help fund our efforts and putting a calendar together as a guide for future reference.

Several of us will be attending the Beaver Island Archipelago Meeting in Lansing next month, to share information and coordinate efforts.

Many landowners recently received letters requesting donations to help our cause. I hope everyone will assist in whatever way they can. Your support – whether it takes the form of donations of money or time, vigilance and reporting of problem areas, or just understanding and moral support – means everything.

My heartfelt gratitude and appreciation goes out to all who have already been so very helpful.

It’s easy, when snow blankets the island, to lose sight of the importance of what we do.

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Pam Grassmick snapped this picture of Doug Tilley, standing in a bed of invasive Phragmites here on Beaver Island. That’s a good reminder, isn’t it?

Happy Holidays!

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Terry Saxton has been watching a spot not far from his home on  the south end of Beaver Island. This September, when our team of specialists were here to administer herbicidal treatment, he took them to the site. Sure enough, it was a sizable stand of invasive Phragmites, that had made itself quite at home. Because the site was inland – and on private property – it had not been included in the survey last Spring of all public and beachfront land.

Jeff Powers was out near Donegal Bay about a month ago, gathering wild grapes. He noticed a suspicious-looking plant growing alongside cattails there. He snapped a few pictures, and sent them to Pam Grassmick. Pam forwarded them to me, and I went to investigate. Off the road, over the grapevines, through dense brush, down a long slope, and up to my knees in cold, swampy water, I found the plants he had noticed. Phragmites, sure enough. Definitely the invasive strain. Inland, and less than a mile from Donegal Bay!

I looked for signs that the Phragmites had been treated. Sometimes you can spot remnants of the blue-green dye that is added to the herbicide. No trace. Sometimes you can see spotting or streaking of the stalk that indicates the plant has been treated. Nothing that was obvious to my inexperienced eye. I cut three large stalks, to get another opinion. Sure enough, this is another area that will be on our list for treatment next year.

Last year, the Little Traverse Conservancy funded a huge survey of Beaver Island that covered public lands. It was a tremendous donation, and a huge help in our fight against this invasive wild grass.

To continue the effort, your vigilance can be very helpful, as these two examples show. There are many areas, wild, unoccupied and off the beaten path, that were not included because they are private holdings. Please be on the lookout, and inform us if you find suspicious growth. In this way, we can stop Phragmites here before it takes over.

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This photo shows some of our – mainly volunteer – crew, getting ready to start work on High Island.

Effective herbicide treatment of invasive Phragmites must occur in the first two weeks of September. It is ineffective later, when the plant goes dormant. It cannot be applied in the rain.

The list of workers waiting to treat the outer islands this year was not long; every participant was important.

  • Dave Blanchard
  • Annette Dashielle
  • Stan Eagle
  • Dawn Elzey
  • Jim Flanagan
  • Lynn Flanagan
  • Pam Gerecke
  • Brian Grassmick
  • Pam Grassmick
  • Pam Hilton
  • Christine Miller
  • Eric Naraanjo
  • Marc Seeley

Conflicts with the holiday weekend,  winds and weather had already delayed their work by a couple days, yet loyal volunteers waited by their telephones for the “go-ahead”. They then convened at the harbor early in the morning for a two hour boat ride followed by a day of back-breaking labor. Then, most of them repeated this on two other days, on Garden Island.

The monetary value of the volunteer effort – which can count as local contribution toward “matching funds” when requesting grant funding – has been estimated at $25,000.00!

This next photo shows Hansen’s Island (not a part of our archipelago!) where invasive Phragmites has taken over the shoreline.

Considering that, I’d say the volunteer contribution is priceless!

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