River Field Studies Network supports Society for Freshwater Science Emerge Program River Trip on Pere Marquette

Aaron Koning

Sep 1, 2022

Prior to the 2022 Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had the honor of participating in a three-day float trip on the Pere Marquette River with a group of 13 Emerge scholars. Emerge is an NSF-funded program in partnership with the Society for Freshwater Science (SFS) to broaden participation and leadership in the freshwater sciences. For the past two years, Emerge scholars have gathered for a few days ahead of the annual SFS meeting as an opportunity to foster peer-peer and peer-mentor relationships among cohorts of early-career, underrepresented minority students in the field. For the meeting this past May, the Emerge program and the River Field Studies Network teamed up to put together a 3-day canoe trip down the Pere Marquette River, a national Wild and Scenic River flowing from the cedar swamps of the central Michigan out to the eponymous Lake. Logistics were handled by Virginia Commonwealth University Outdoor Adventure Program and RFSN instructors Karl Schmidt and Joey Parent, and I was invited to participate as a sort of local guide to the cultural and natural history of the area. Having grown up in Grand Rapids and previously taught a field course on fish ecology further upstate, Dr. James Vonesh connected me with Breanna Ondich, the Emerge program coordinator, and Dr. Amy Rosemond, former president of SFS, who were both organizing and participating in the field trip. I was able to work with VCU staff, Amy and Breanna to insert short cultural and natural field notes and an activity into our paddle journey, while recognizing the major objective of the trip was to encourage student cohort-building through a shared outdoor experience.

Our trip started near the headwaters of the Pere Marquette River, where, just a few miles upstream at Idlewild, Michigan, a historic African American resort community was founded in 1915. As the largest African American resort established during segregation, Idlewild drew investment from Madame C.J. Walker, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Louis Armstrong, Joe Lewis and others. In the 1950’s, 300 businesses, clubs, and restaurants hosted up to 20,000 weekend visitors from Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and other cities around the Midwest. From these headwaters, we wound downstream in canoes and kayaks through cedar swamps and sandy glacial soils once dominated by giant Eastern White Pines that were logged off in the late 19- Century settlement of the area and to rebuild Chicago after the fire. We observed and discussed signs of the impact of intensive logging as we paddled past steeply eroded banks formerly used to roll logs into the river before floating to mills downstream. We also observed ongoing bankside erosion control with replanting of native cedars, while talking about the overabundance of grazing white-tail deer that challenge these efforts.

We also saw the legacy of logging in our attempt to collect benthic macro-invertebrates, finding limited hard substrates from which to sample and deep sand bars instead. Although our biodiversity survey activity revealed few macroinvertebrates, we were able to seine several fish, including a Johnny darter and some juvenile trout. Notably, the Pere Marquette River was the place where German brown trout were first released into American waters, and are now joined by other non-native chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout introduced from the Pacific Ocean. These introductions have made the Pere Marquette an internationally acclaimed recreational fishery, yet it was the introduction of the brown trout, the habitat degradation due to logging, and overharvest by settling communities that caused the local extirpation of remnant populations of Arctic grayling that were historically relied upon by Indigenous Ottawa tribes. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (LRBOI) retain lands along the Pere Marquette and are actively working on conservation of Lake Sturgeon and grayling reintroduction into rivers and streams of their ancestral territory. Unfortunately, we were unable to have a representative from the LRBOI talk with us on the river, but we were able to discuss the Tribe’s continued stewardship of the Pere Marquette River, including some of the unique activities involved in their support of Lake Sturgeon populations from previous visits I’d had to their fish rearing facilities just north of where we were camped. If all goes to plan, Arctic grayling will be reintroduced by the Tribe into these West Michigan rivers by 2025, marking the first time they’ve been there in nearly 100 years.

While I had a great time putting together some short cultural and natural history notes and a field activity, I also had a blast getting to know and learning from a great group of students from all over the country who are excited about pursuing careers in freshwater science. I was able to take home invaluable lessons and resources from the VCU Outdoor Recreation staff that will be a huge asset as I look to get a new river field course going at the University of Nevada, Reno. We finished our Emerge journey with a quick trip to Lake Michigan, completing our journey of the Pere Marquette River to the lake, before heading back for the conference. While it was only a few days, the time on the river really reminded me of the incredible experiences and new friendships you can form while exploring new waterways. I’m excited for the next 6 months as a River Scholar to finalize lesson plans, but also to begin to develop the academic and logistical structure that support these courses and will hopefully facilitate many more of the experiences for myself and others.