*Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior
By: Kirsten Rhude,
Coastal Policy Analyst,
NOAA Office for Coastal Management
Even though my work as a Knauss Fellow makes me feel connected to coastal communities, lately I’ve been missing my time spent in nature. If I need to be physically distanced from others, I’d like to be somewhere with abundant trees and a big lake nearby. While I may not have realized it initially, my sense of stewardship and love of the natural world, which made me so passionate about becoming a Knauss fellow, have deep connections to home and a sense of place. For me, home is the Great Lakes.
I don’t think that most folks understand the scale of the Great Lakes unless they’ve seen them. They aren’t so much lakes as unsalted seas. These lakes, which contain over 20% of the world’s liquid surficial freshwater, are etched into the cultural identity of the region. While car decals with state outlines or university mascots are popular ways of highlighting many places around the U.S., the Great Lakes are the only apolitical geographic feature I’ve ever seen as a common bumper sticker.
I’ve always been a water person. Growing up along the shores of Lake Michigan, I explored northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my family. We went camping, hiking and kayaking all throughout the Northwoods. I was particularly fond of any and everything to do with water — skipping stones, swimming and paddling. When I’m blue, a large body of water may not cure me, but it always makes me feel better, even if that means jumping into Lake Superior in January.
I entered college wanting to study nature, especially water. I wanted to play a role in protecting the natural world that gives me so much joy. Like many, I enjoy traveling to new places, and I was happy to find field positions working in Ecuador and Alaska. To my surprise, the most memorable moments of this work weren’t vistas or fresh seafood. Some of the most rewarding experiences working in these beautiful settings were connecting with locals and sharing what we were studying — talking to fishermen about the salmon research we were engrossed in or working with teachers and elementary school students at the stream behind their school. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that wherever I was, people were attached to their local landscape and were eager to learn more about their world.
A few months ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. to begin a Knauss Fellowship with NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management. I’ve been excited to expand my large lake experience to work on coastal management and policy throughout the United States. I’m particularly happy to be working for an office that recognizes the importance of engaging with stakeholders and partners at a regional, state and even local level. Coastal communities face similar challenges, but there are plenty of regional differences, and solutions may look different depending on local needs, culture and values. NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management supports regional offices and staff that live and work throughout the U.S., meaning that staff are members of the communities they work in. This provides members of my office with their own sense of place-based stewardship.
While taking my post-work walk through Rock Creek Park near my apartment, I was feeling particularly down a few weeks into D.C.’s social distancing orders. As I walked along the stream, I missed the quieter trails back home in the Northwoods, further from busy roads. Watching the water run, all I wanted to do was get back in a kayak.
Feeeee-bee, Feeeee-bee. I looked up to see a black-capped chickadee flitting between tree branches. I couldn’t help but smile. As I watched it fly out of view, I realized that within the past few minutes I had seen a chickadee, cardinal, robin, blue jay and nuthatch without really looking for them. Not to mention quite a few sparrows that I would need a bird book to ID. These were all the same species that I would see back home in the Great Lakes. Apparently, D.C. isn’t quite as far from my favorite lakes as it might feel.