Last summer, COVID-19 pushed more people outside and onto Northern Wisconsin’s lakes. For this month's Field Notes, Susan Knight tried to take the pulse of how residents felt about increased boat activity on our area lakes.
I was incredibly lucky to be able to spend most of my 2020 summer workdays conducting aquatic plant surveys on area lakes. I was hardly the only one out there – by all accounts, the place to be last summer was on a Northwoods lake. As a member of the Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Association, I was asked to take the pulse of lake activity last summer, for good or bad. I asked eleven Northwoods residents with different backgrounds to answer a short questionnaire about their experiences on the lakes in summer 2020. This highly unscientific survey included a conservation warden, fishing guides, Clean Boats Clean Waters volunteers, a few lake-related business owners, and other lake enthusiasts. I was stunned by the passion and concern with which everyone answered my questionnaire. Let’s see if you agree with their assessment.
Most respondents spend their time on one or a couple of lakes, including Little St. Germain, Mann, Black Oak, Little Crawling Stone, Big Portage, Lac Vieux Desert, while other respondents reported visiting up to fifty different lakes for pleasure or business in the Vilas and Oneida County area. Everyone agreed there was far more boat activity on the lakes this summer. One volunteer reported their data showed boat traffic up 30% from 2019. Some felt the biggest increase was in anglers, kayakers, and paddle boarders. A couple noticed far more wake boats, as well as a big increase in personal watercraft “like a hoard of angry hornets”, she wrote. At one landing, a monitor found a few people rediscovering old hobbies, such as fishing or sailing, or exploring a new one, such as kayaking and birdwatching.
Most believed people came north to get out of their primary homes for health and safety concerns. With so many communities in southern Wisconsin or Illinois in lockdown, the Northwoods, with its smaller population and outdoor recreation possibilities was a draw. Since so many businesses asked employees to work remotely, and students were mostly in virtual school, many families came to the Northwoods if their second home had adequate internet. Many visitors without second homes were staying in one of the increasing number of homes available for rent. A few thought people were escaping social unrest, while a few others thought visitors came to Northern WI because they couldn’t cross the border into Canada to go fishing.
Almost everyone felt that the increased activity on the lakes caused trouble. Some felt that wake boats were causing shoreline erosion with a few calling for a ban on wake boats all together. The shorelines of narrow lakes are especially vulnerable to erosion from boat wakes and high water may be exacerbating the shoreline problems. Eroding shorelines could contribute a pulse of nutrients into the water, causing more problems. Others worried that there was an increased chance of invasive plants and animals coming in on so many boats. Anglers worried there will need to be more stocking to compensate for the high fishing pressure.
Many comments spoke to the need for common courtesy on the lakes and at the landings. Several complained about boaters ignoring Slow-no-Wake zones, waterskiing and high-speed boats coming too close to shore, and loud music coming from the boats. One remarked that the boats keep getting bigger and more powerful, and that this is not sustainable on our small inland lakes. Several respondents, including a conservation warden, feel there is not enough law enforcement on the water, with wardens spread far too thinly across the area.
Erica LeMoine, of LoonWatch is worried about an increase in reports of people feeding loons, which, once started, she says cannot be undone. Loons start begging for food and will get caught in fishing tackle. She is also worried about increased angling, most of it using lead tackle that leads to lead poisoning in loons. Some people noticed “their loons” did not have a successful year and worried it was because of all the extra activity. We will probably need a big effort to educate well meaning, but ignorant, visitors about how to act around loons.
Were there any upsides to all this increased boating activity? Certainly, lake-oriented businesses, including boat sales and rental outfits had a great year. Many restaurants that chose to stay open also had a good summer. Perhaps most importantly, several remarked that this was a wonderful chance for the Northwoods to showcase its countless opportunities to enjoy beauty, relax and recreate, and will encourage more people to return and appreciate our natural resources. But most emphasized that these positive effects may come at the expense of the degradation of our fragile lake ecosystems. Please help encourage residents and visitors alike to live lightly and thoughtfully on our lakes.