Secrets of the Lakes

Author: Cheever Griffin

I’m standing in a clear and gently moving stream. In hip waders. Olive green hip waders. Because I consider mowing the lawn an extreme form of outdoor activity, I never before have been in a pair of these things, and I’m pretty sure I look ridiculous.

It doesn’t help any that the Notre Dame students with me required no such get-ups – they marched right in wearing nothing more than sandals, shorts and T-shirts. They’re in the middle of the stream now, three of them, hunched together with their hands deep in the drink. They’re recovering the specimens of a project, something to do with the decomposition of various tree species. It was all thoroughly explained to me a short time before, but, well, let’s just say my ability to comprehend the particulars of biology has never been that strong.

One the students, Samantha Stevens, lifts an arm to the late July sun and excitedly announces the presence of a bug on her hand. She refers to it by some multisyllabic name, but from where I’m standing it looks like a giant roach. I’m soon entertaining possibilities that one of those things is in my waders, and when the group declares that it’s ready to go, I’m the first one out.

I quickly learn, however, that if I want to continue getting a flavor of things here, I need to remain looking like Long John Silver: The group is headed to another part of the stream to help a student there work on her study into the possible causes of a phenomenon known as drift – when certain aquatic insects detach themselves from rocks and float downstream.

Bugs, bogs, streams and stones. Such is life at the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center in northern Wisconsin – also known as UNDERC or, more commonly, as Land O’ Lakes, after the nearby town of the same name. An equally appropriate title, however, might be Notre Dame’s Best Kept Secret. After all, an informal poll most likely would reveal that few students, or alumni for that matter, are aware that the school owns such a place – some 7,000 acres of wilderness along the border of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that serves as the home of an undergraduate research program, year-round grant studies and a getaway retreat for many of the University’s top brass.

While it may be little known, the property is indeed a prized possession – a giant swath of largely unspoiled earth in which scores of plant, fish and animal species thrive. The land, of course, is not completely void of human encroachment. A number of simple, dark wood housing units and a couple of stark laboratory buildings sit clustered together near the main entrance. But after that it’s all terra firma at its most natural state: Forests thick with green run for miles in every direction, interrupted only by a small network of gravel roads and streams; a dozen or so lakes of all sizes shimmer with a vibrant blue, while just as many bogs, with their heavy, black-as-tar water, sit much more still; eagles soar high above the trees, while scores of deer prance between them; and on most nights the stars are so plentiful that they paint the charcoal sky nearly white.

Spread out quiet and still, it is a place that does nothing and everything all at once. With its hidden and untouched life at nearly every turn, it offers students an amazing introduction to the world of biological research, provides scientists from all over with a perfect setting to continue unlocking the secrets of nature and gives average visitors such as me the chance to marvel at what’s still out there well past the skyscrapers and shopping malls.

Brian Vernetti peers into a microscope at what’s left of his experiment. He’s sitting in a spacious, brightly lit room in one of the center’s two laboratory buildings. And he’s less than happy. He had set out to compare the early colonization habits of aquatic insects in shaded and unshaded stream areas. As part of his experiment, he had created a habitat and placed it on the bottom of a stream, where it would receive little sunlight. Deep into the project, though, a powerful storm moved in and brought with it heavy rains that flooded the river and washed away Vernetti’s set-up.

Standing nearby is Ronald Hellenthal, assistant chairman of the University’s Department of Biological Sciences and director of UNDERC. Hellenthal, a slight, middle-aged man with a soft face and a tight wave of graying hair, sympathizes with Vernetti’s plight but hopes the frustrated student at least has learned one of Land O’ Lakes most important lessons: Studying biology in a textbook and actually conducting biological research are two very different things.

For the 15 sophomores and juniors who attend the biological research program for 10 weeks each summer, UNDERC serves as an introduction to the world of scientific field work – complete with all its pitfalls, from bad weather to uncooperative animals and insects. There are few lectures and no textbooks up here in God’s country; it’s all learning by doing. Working with an adviser, each student is responsible for conceiving of an experiment and conducting every aspect of it from start to finish.

“It’s a whole process of asking a question,” Hellenthal says, “researching the literature to find out what’s known about it, designing an experiment to try to answer questions, building the apparatus, taking the samples, and analyzing the data from beginning to end, that’s what the students do.”

Hellenthal, who is stepping down at the end of this summer after 13 years as director of UNDERC, readily acknowledges that the student projects wouldn’t exactly set a Nobel Prize committee’s pulse racing. He adds, however, that the goal of the program is not so much to make history as to help make scientific researchers. “These aren’t projects to discover how life is formed, but that’s not what you’re going to do in 10 weeks,” he says. Instead, he stresses, the experiments are ones that present students with an issue that “did not come out of a textbook, where there’s no previously known answer and if you run into a problem you have to figure it out for yourself. And if you do, there’s a satisfaction that goes with that that you cannot achieve in any other way.”

Jamie Mayer, who is examining certain aspects of the nesting habits of bald eagles, says she benefits greatly from such a hands-on approach. “I tend to learn a lot more by just going out there and doing it,” she explains. “The opportunity to go out and work in the field is incredible. You actually get to see how animals and insects interact with their environment.”

Mederic Hall, who is studying the nerve regeneration capabilities of the gray tree frog, says he also appreciates such an active style of learning. He got all the hands-on training he could ask for early on, as he stood in the middle of a marsh in the pitch dark with a flashlight and net trying to snare his specimens. (As their name indicates, the frogs live high in trees and come down only occasionally – and only at night.) “It was a really good experience for me,” he says about the program, adding that working without a manual or close instruction was “kind of overwhelming at first, but after you jump in and start doing it, then it begins to flow.”

Of course, all this is not to say that Land O’ Lakes is just a gigantic outdoor classroom for undergraduates. The wetlands, streams and lakes enable graduate students to do thesis and dissertation research under supervising faculty advisors as well as to participate in intensive training sessions designed to develop their research techniques in ecology and environmental studies. The center also has made significant contributions to the fields of biological and environmental research. Due mainly to its size and pristine conditions, UNDERC draws scientists and researchers from around the country, and at any one time a number of professional studies are going on at the property.

“The size of the habitats and the protected nature of the place allow you to do experiments here that you would not be able to do in most other places,” Hellenthal says.

These experiments can have a profound impact on the world of biology – and our world as well. Standing on a thin and rickety wooden pier, Hellenthal points at the large and crooked lake spread out before us and discusses the project here that “has changed the way people look at lake habitats.”

Nearly two decades ago, researchers from a number of institutions, including Notre Dame, set up an experiment in the lake to test a theory about certain types of water pollution, namely nitrogen and phosphorous, that often are found in agricultural run-off. The belief up until then was that lakes and other bodies of water naturally responded to the introduction of these nutrients by turning thick and green with algae – in essence acting as passive players in the scenario. The scientists at Land O’ Lakes set out to prove that such a cause-and-effect relationship was not a given and that lakes could “fight back” against these pollutants. They divided the lake in half using a heavy-duty curtain and introduced nitrogen and phosphorous into both halves. In one half, however, they added certain organisms and fish that they believed could neutralize the nutrients and thus prevent the growth of algae.

The results of the experiment, Hellenthal says, were startling. One half of the lake resembled a giant bowl of pea soup, while the half that contained the newly added organisms and fish remained clear.
“It’s really an important concept because what it says is that the biology of the lake is an important contributor to what actually happens, it’s not just a cause-and-effect when you put nutrients in,” Hellenthal says. There’s plenty of real world impact here too, he adds. “In aquatic habitats where you cannot control the nutrient source like farm run-off or in less developed countries where they can’t afford pollution control, it’s possible by controlling the kinds of organisms that are present in the lake to maintain a lake that is relatively clean.” Hellenthal pauses and waves his arm out across the lake again. “This is where it all started.”

The story of how Notre Dame came to own the Land O’ Lakes property has about as many twists and turns as one of the land’s trails. The first parcels of land the University would receive, about 1,000 acres, belonged to Saint Louis business magnate Henry Kohler. Kohler, who owned many things, including a brewery and a coal and railroad company, died in 1911. In 1914, Martin J. Gillen, a prominent attorney and friend of the Kohler family, purchased the 1,000-acre property for $1,700 from the Kohler estate.

Gillen remained owner of the land until the mid-1930s when he decided to hand it over to Notre Dame. Gillen had a relationship with the University that dated back to the early 1920s, having forged friendships with both Father James Burns, CSC, president of the University from 1919-1922, and Father John O’Hara, CSC, president from 1934-1940. In 1935 Gillen learned that the school had wanted for some time to acquire a natural preserve somewhere in the region for, as Father O’Hara put it, “providing a summer camp for its teaching staff.” Gillen, then in his mid-60s, offered to donate his 1,000-acre property on one condition – that he be allowed to remain there to live out his years. Administrators agreed to his request, and by the next year the University had taken ownership of the property.

At around the time that he deeded his holdings to Notre Dame, Gillen was interested in purchasing about 4,500 acres of adjoining land and also donating it to the school. Despite Gillen’s interest in the land, however, its owner sold it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, which was legally barred from reselling it. By this time, Notre Dame’s desire for this additional land had grown, and through a series of negotiations, school officials eventually obtained the property from the government. In the decades that followed, the University secured the remaining acreage by way of various donations and purchases.

Although he practiced law for a living, Gillen had developed a great interest in biology from his student days at the University of Wisconsin. At the time he donated his giant patch of wilderness to Notre Dame, he had been allowing researchers from several local institutions to conduct experiments on the land. When Gillen died in 1943, his will expressed his hope that Notre Dame would continue such a tradition and use the land in part for “the scientific purposes of Forestry, Botany, Biology, and allied sciences.” While Gillen’s request was merely a suggestion rather than a stipulation – since Notre Dame already had owned the land for nearly eight years – he need not have made it at all. Recognizing that their new property could be much more than a summer retreat for faculty and administrators, school officials continued to promote scientific research on the land and worked to develop it into a biological field station for students and professionals alike.

Integral to this development has been ND graduate Jerry Hank, who first came to the property decades ago to fish with then president Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. In fact, Hesburgh now calls Hank “the godfather and patron of the place.” The retired CEO and chairman of the board of Montgomery Elevator Company in Moline, Illinois, has financially supported the program’s academic advancement as well as underwritten the costs of laboratories, dormitories, faculty housing and other facilities on the property. Most recently he funded the building of a major aquatic and environmental sciences center at Notre Dame to duplicate Land O’ Lakes field conditions so research could be extended on campus in South Bend.

There remains a palpable air of secrecy about Land O’ Lakes. Few residents seem to know much about the property and casual visiting is not encouraged. At the turn-off that takes you from the two-lane road to the property several miles away there is tall post with a dozen or so signs – “Whitey’s Bait,” “Trails’ End Resort” – that inform you of what’s ahead. Absent from the post, however, is a sign indicating the research center. Three miles down the gravel road, only a large wood mailbox and a locked gate indicate the property’s entrance.

The low profile is no accident, Hellenthal says, for one of the property’s main selling points to scientists is its lack of foot traffic. He explains that most biological experiments take years to complete, and thus researchers are looking for land they know will be subject to little disturbance over time. “That’s the reason why it’s so important that the relative isolation is in place,” Hellenthal says. “If we couldn’t maintain that, a lot of the attractiveness for the research here would be lost.” The fact that Land O’ Lakes is not exactly as recognizable as the Golden Dome does not seem to be of great concern up here.

We’re going after the bald eagle. The one that’s built a nest near the top of one of the staggeringly tall trees on the far side of Tenderfoot Lake, the largest of the property’s lakes – and the only one with public access. Our plan is to cross the lake in a small rowboat, lay a couple of fish on a large, round rock that juts out from the shoreline, and then push back a good distance and wait. This is not part of anyone’s project. We’re doing it because the students here say you haven’t really looked upon the wonder of nature until you’ve watched one of these birds swoop in and snag its prey.

As we get about halfway across the lake, we pass a wooded peninsula known as Killarney Point. Bunched together on the point are several dark wood cabins. These are the temporary homes and hideaways for visitors who do not come to examine ecosystems. In addition to everything else, Land O’ Lakes serves as a retreat center where University officials gather for strategic meetings, and priests and brothers come to unwind for several weeks after the school year ends. A bit of Father O’Hara’s summer camp, if you will.

The one priest who enjoys coming up here perhaps more than the rest – and has since the days when he ran the school – is Hesburgh. “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere,” he says of the property, where he still visits for several weeks each summer to fish, write and engage in some spiritual renewal.

For Hesburgh, the place is not only a refuge but also the setting for some history-making meetings. In 1967 he gathered there Notre Dame’s board of trustees, the Holy Cross superior general and the congregation’s Indiana provincial for the negotiations that led to the school’s governance being turned over to a lay board. A couple of years later Hesburgh, as president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, convened at Land O’Lakes the top educators in the western hemisphere to set down in writing what it meant to be a Catholic university in the modern world, producing a document that redefined Catholic higher education.

In July 1959, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, headed by Hesburgh, also met at Land O’Lakes – after a fact-finding mission throughout the South. It was the end of the commission’s first two years of existence, Hesburgh recalls, and President Eisenhower needed a report with definite recommendations. In addition to Hesburgh, the seven-person commission contained a mix of Republicans and Democrats, northerners and southerners. Hesburgh relishes telling the story of how the group spent a couple of days fishing at Land O’ Lakes without engaging civil rights’ issues at all.

On their final evening at a cabin on Killarney Point Hesburgh sat the group down at a long table “out on the porch overlooking the lake, with the pine-scented air and the moon coming up,” and in no time got unanimous agreement on 11 of 12 final recommendations (with one dissenter on the 12th). “I called Ike,” Hesburgh recounts, “and told him we got it done and he said, ‘Ted, how did you do it so quickly, especially after I set you up with three Republicans, three Democrats, three northerners and three southerners?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but more important than that you put together a group of seven fishermen.’”

Up at Land O’Lakes, relaxing with an audience and a cigar, Hesburgh enjoys telling that story almost as much as the one about the 40-inch, 25-pound muskie that jumped into his boat while he was fishing – a tale verified by witnesses and confirmed by the evidence mounted above the fireplace in one of the cabins.

As for the land’s scientific appeal, Hesburgh calls the place the “perfect natural laboratory” and expresses a desire to see the center promote even more prominent and textbook-changing research. “It’s a place where biologists can really make a name for themselves, because they can do research here that they’re not able to do in most other places,” he says.

Hesburgh touches on what seems to be a main topic of discussion regarding Land O’ Lakes these days: the notion of cultivating more significant research projects and trying to make the center more nationally and internationally renowned. That is the task of its new director, Gary Belovsky ‘72, a Utah State University biologist specializing in animal populations and their interaction with ecosystems. Belovsky, who has studied moose at Isle Royale National Park, bison herds in Montana, brine shrimp in the Great Salt Lake and grasshoppers on the western plains, will join the Notre Dame faculty next June. But he is already making plans for advancing UNDERC’s impact.

Belovsky talks of strengthening the undergraduate program while expanding graduate student involvement. He foresees a series of scientific meetings on the property, a new housing complex for researchers to stay for extended periods, and broadening the aquatic research interests to include terrestrial studies, bringing in scientists from around the world. “The place and the facilities are top-notch,” he says, “and we’re at the stage where we can really make this into a world-class research facility.”

“Belovsky,” says Hellenthal," is an outstanding scientist and a Notre Dame graduate, and the University is very fortunate to have someone of his caliber coming in."

In the meantime, as this summer at Land O’ Lakes winds down, Hellenthal prefers to ruminate on what his years spent up here have meant to him.

“There’s a real satisfaction to watching students mature and develop an interest in science and going out to do good things,” he says slowly and with noticeably more emotion than your average scientist. “I mean, that’s what we’re here for.” We’re sitting very still in our rowboat. The fish are lying on the rock and the eagle is perched near the top of its tree next to its gigantic nest. The bird, whose features are difficult to make out clearly from our distance, stands like a dark and strong statue. Suddenly it takes off, not down toward the fish but out over the lake. We are all transfixed by its every motion. Watching an eagle soar out into an early evening sky may not equal the sight of it bearing down on its next meal. But it is enough.