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Photo of a kayaker.

Cross-County Kayaker

For fun and for science, a woman is paddling more than 1,000 lakes in Itasca County. In her wake, she leaves a record of water-clarity readings.

By Margaret A. Haapoja

The June morning of my first kayaking adventure dawned clear and sunny. At 8 a.m. sharp, a red Chevy pickup with two kayaks strapped to the topper rolled up my driveway. A small woman in worn, red jeans and a blue baseball cap jumped out and bounced over to shake my hand.

Mary Shideler, a 45-year-old massage therapist who grew up at her parents' Back o' the Moon Resort on Bass Lake near Grand Rapids, is 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 95 pounds. Friends describe her as enthusiastic, determined, cheerful, and fearless. Twelve years ago Shideler embarked on a quest to kayak 1,007 lakes in Itasca County.

She invited me along to paddle number 830 on her list.

Driving by the county's many roadside lakes on her way to and from work in Grand Rapids, Shideler says she always wondered: What's behind that island? How deep is that lake? Where does that creek go? "To satisfy my curiosity, I had to have a better understanding of the personalities of the waters in our county," she says, "so I paddled 30 lakes in 1996 and decided to try for 50 the next year. It was interesting and exciting because I realized that some lakes -- unlike the lake I grew up on -- were bog-fringed and had tannin-colored water. I was exposed to new and different things."

And so her project began to take shape.

Kayak for Clarity. When he heard about her quest, Art Norton, then director of the Itasca County Soil and Water Conservation District, asked Shideler to take Secchi disc readings to record water clarity and measure the depth of the lakes she visited. "Those readings, although limited, at least give us a starting point toward understanding the water quality of the many hundreds of our county lakes that have never been sampled," says Norton. "About half of our county's lakes are under 50 acres in size. And yet as a group, those are the lakes that we know the least about in terms of water quality."

Once she decided on her mission, Shideler chose her boat -- a Pygmy kayak, crafted from a kit with mahogany plywood, fiberglass cloth, and epoxy. Just 13 feet long, and weighing only 32 pounds, it fits her small frame perfectly. "I just needed a boat that allowed me to be independent," says Shideler, "something I could lift, something I could carry, something I would be able to use by myself." Shideler has averaged 80 lakes a season. The unexplored lakes are more difficult to access because most are on private property and many require longer portages.

"In the beginning I could get to four or five lakes in a day because all I had to do was drive up Highway 38, park on the side of the road, and put the boat in," Shideler says. "These days, if I can paddle a lake in a day and find another one, that's a bumper crop day."

Only a few landowners have refused her access. Once a woman turned her dogs loose on Shideler, who has learned to carry Milkbone biscuits in her pocket. "Ninety-nine percent of the people are gracious," she says.

"They offer to help me unload the boat or ask if I'd like to make a phone call."

Lake Readings.

The 34-acre lake we were going to paddle on this bright morning was on private property. As the landowner led the way on his all-terrain vehicle, Shideler's pickup bumped along the grassy trail. We parked 100 yards from shore, unloaded the kayaks -- her small one and a larger fiberglass Old Town Loon she had borrowed for me -- carried them to the water, and pushed off. Before long Shideler spotted a loon, and soon a second loon surfaced in the middle of the lake. Silently, the pair edged closer, apparently curious.

As we paddled along, Shideler stopped to investigate bog laurel blooming. Below the surface of the clear water, small black bass and schools of minnows darted past our boats. Suddenly a bird flushed from the reeds near the shore -- a green heron, easily identified by its gray-green back and bright orange legs. As we continued, it flew just ahead of us, perching now and then on shrubs near shore.

After we had circled more than half of the lake, Shideler paddled out to the center to take a Secchi disc reading. After lowering the disc to the bottom, she began reeling in the rope and counting -- 11 1/2 feet deep and she could see the disc at 10 1/2 feet.

Shideler submits her readings to the Itasca County Soil and Water Conservation District. The district, in turn, sends the data to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which enters it into the water-quality database of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "With the help of the depth data she collects, we will be able to approximate the volume of water in a lake, determine potential impacts from land-use conversion, and find ways to be better managers of our lakes," says Noel Griese, lakes specialist with the Itasca County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Wildlife Sightings.

Shideler monitors more than water quality on her kayaking excursions. For example, on one lake trip, she spotted a pair of trumpeter swans trailed by eight tiny cygnets. Gaea Crozier, who monitors the local avian species for the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, says a trumpeter swan brood of this size is rare, especially because the eggs often become prey to eagles.

Crozier added Shideler's sighting to her database. "We keep a database of all rare animal sightings that can then be accessed by our managers here," says Crozier. "And then we can try and work with those managers if they're planning to do any habitat work in the area to make sure that we don't disturb the birds and, if anything, try to enhance their habitat."

As development in Itasca County increases, these very secretive birds will look to move deeper into the wilderness.

"They really don't like disturbance," Perry Loegering, DNR area wildlife supervisor agrees. "In our national forest, we have many secluded ponds with heavy aquatic vegetation that the swans need, especially for cygnets."

Future Fisheries.

Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Rapids, says his files contain information on only 67 percent of the county's lakes. He can see the value of Shideler's data from remote, shallow lakes. "Some of them might have some fish potential or may have a fishery," he says. "I'd like to have some of that information."

Kavanaugh also thinks Shideler's records could prove useful in long-term monitoring projects associated with global climate change. He says, "Just having the basic information, an inventory of what's out there, may be of value down the road."

Known by Name.

As we carry our kayaks back to the pickup, we see stemless lady's-slippers in bloom, an indication of the pristine nature of this private lake and a reminder of the importance of protecting this precious resource.

Known locally as the Kayak Lady, Shideler has gained recognition beyond her home county. In 2006 Minnesota's first lady, Mary Pawlenty, invited Shideler to an annual dinner that celebrates the achievements of notable women in Minnesota. "I admire her tenacity and her curiosity," Pawlenty said.

In addition to lake data, Shideler leaves another permanent imprint in her wake. In 2007 the Itasca County Board of Commissioners and the Department of Natural Resources approved Shideler's proposal to name one of the county's 238 unnamed lakes -- a 20-acre lake in Bowstring State Forest. "I chose the name Chickadee because there is no Chickadee Lake in our county," Shideler says. "And the [black-capped] chickadee is indigenous to Itasca County and is a year-round resident. It is a happy little bird, and there are chickadees at that lake." In spring 2008 -- just as Shideler prepared to begin another kayaking season -- she received word that the U.S. Geological Naming Board officially approved the name Chickadee Lake.

Learn more about the MPCA's Citizen Lake Monitoring Program.

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