The Water Walker: Josephine Mandamin

Mar 4, 2019

UPDATE: After this commentary was recorded, we were notified that Josephine Mandamin passed away on February 22nd, 2019, at the age of 77.

Have you heard of the water walkers? Neither had the Masked Biologist, as he shares in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

The first time I heard of the water walkers was after Josephine Mandamin’s last walk. Josephine is a respected Anishinaabe elder from Canada who began walking around Lake Superior in 2003 to raise awareness and to pray for the water. She carried in her hands a copper pail that contained lake water. When she took a break, she would lie on her stomach embracing mother earth. Then she would resume her journey.

That is no small task; in terms of surface area, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. The shoreline is well over 2,500 miles, and that is if she just walked the shoreline and didn’t have to swing wide to walk on roads or trails, which she certainly must have done. If you started walking Northwest from Rhinelander and walked for the same distance she walked, you could reach Juneau Alaska. Grandmother Josephine wanted to call attention to the need to care for our water, and for her, Lake Superior was the place to start. After all, Lake Superior contains about 20% of all the earths fresh water. If you were to remove all the water from Lake Superior and cover land area with it, it would put all of North America and South America under a foot of fresh water.

You have heard me talk about the Great Lakes before, how they shape our habitat, our weather, our economy, and our way of life. While Lake Michigan forms our entire east boundary, only part of Wisconsin touches Lake Superior. However, that part of our state has not necessarily been well tended. There is a lot of runoff and siltation coming from our agricultural and development practices and running straight into the Superior. I have seen it myself, when driving to the Apostle Islands you go over some bridges that look like you are crossing discharge of the milk chocolate waterfall from Willy Wonka’s factory.

Since her first walk in 2003, Grandmother Josephine has conducted 13 such Water Walks in all. This is a matriarchal act; women lead the ceremony, carrying a copper pail filled with water, which continually moves throughout the course of the early morning and into the afternoon. The men support the women in this effort by serving as their protectors and caretakers, walking beside them carrying an eagle staff.

Over the years, Grandmother Josephine’s following increased. By the time her final river walk started in April 2017, she stated there were over a thousand participants all together. She and a group of helpers known as The Walkers left from Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Minnesota. In 97 days they followed the southern shoreline of Lake Superior, then the North and Eastern shores of Lake Huron. They then followed the northern shore of Lake Erie.  After a stop at Niagara Falls, they followed the northern shore of Lake Ontario to Matane, Quebec Canada, where the Saint Lawrence River connects through the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the Labrador Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. In total, over little more than three months,  they travelled 3,197 miles and over 6,394,000 footsteps for the Water. Grandmother Josephine announced that she was retiring after that walk, and urged the next generation to pick up the copper vessel and carry on what she started.

I am pleased to report that last summer I was able to stand in all five Great Lakes. We took a northerly route on a trip to Canada, crossing the bridge at Sault Sainte Marie before heading to Montreal, then seeing Niagara Falls from the Canadian side in Toronto, before coming into Michigan’s lower peninsula and back up across the Mackinac Bridge. For me, it was a check off my bucket list. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to walk that route, and more, but I simply couldn’t. This is a level of dedication to the cause of clean water that few of us have ever experienced. I just hope that there are others out there willing to carry water for other environmental causes to protect the resources we all rely on.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.