Listen: Lake Superior: Honoring and protecting Minnesota’s natural wonder

On this episode of MPR News with Angela Davis, guest host Dan Kraker takes a ‘deep dive’ into the wonder of Lake Superior. Kraker speaks with a scientist who studies Lake Superior and two artists — a photographer and a writer — about the lake’s significance and healing presence.

Program includes listener calls.


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[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN KRAKER: Good morning. I'm Dan Kraker sitting in for Angela Davis. You're listening to MPR News. Glad you could join us today.

So I moved to Duluth almost 12 years ago. And for most of that time, I've lived about three blocks from Lake Superior. And I have to say, when I first decided to move here from the desert Southwest, I didn't think much about Lake Superior. I was more excited about being close to the Northwoods and canoe country.

But now I couldn't imagine not having the lake a part of my life. It just seeps into your soul. It's such a huge omnipresent force. It commands the weather. It's vastness inspires awe, and reverence, and fear.

And I've also learned over that time that a lot of people have a story about Lake Superior, something that defines their relationship with the Great Lake, a personal connection. I'd love to hear some of your stories this hour.

We'll also hear from Bob Sterner, a biology professor and Director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Halee Kirkwood, a writer, teaching artist, and a bookseller who lives in the Twin Cities but grew up in superior Wisconsin.

But first, I met up with a group of folks last night after work who have a very unique and intimate relationship to the lake. I wanted to hear their stories. They call themselves the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins and they immerse themselves in Lake superior's frigid waters during all months of the year, often for several minutes at a time.



MAGGIE NANCARROW: So my name is Maggie Nancarrow, and I am recent here in Duluth. I moved here in November to take a job as the priest at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church.

DAN KRAKER: She moved to Duluth in part because she wanted to live closer to Lake Superior.

MAGGIE NANCARROW: Because wanting to feel the rhythms of this place and to experience a body of water that is so much bigger than human perception and understanding, we've lost so much of that in the modern world and get so stuck in just productivity, and getting everything done, and not thinking, and not even really even connecting with each other.

DAN KRAKER: It does have a big grounding impact on you, doesn't it?

MAGGIE NANCARROW: It does, yeah. One of my favorite phrases, I think I heard it first in Bayfield, Wisconsin, is the lake is the boss and that's very true. As someone who is Christian and devoted to something bigger than myself, being reminded that I am small and the world is large, and there are still parts of this great and incredible world that does not care about human things. And that's a really important piece for me.

DAN KRAKER: I also met Jocelyn Pihlaja. She's 56. She's lived in Duluth for more than 20 years, but she only recently began swimming in the lake again to try to relieve some pain she'd been experiencing. And, well, she's hooked.

JOCELYN PIHLAJA: Well, I have to say that the dopamine hit cannot be denied. I'm a fairly merry person in my wiring, but when I do a dip, I feel at least 35% more euphoric for the rest of that day, sometimes even the next day. It's been some years since I really put my body in this water because I used to just go in when my kids would go in.

Now I'm an empty-nester. And so returning my body to actually walk into the water, but in a whole different way, there's something really powerful about it for me. And I think it's one thing-- this is true of anything in life. It's one thing to observe something with wonder. It's an entirely different thing to put yourself inside that thing.

SARAH INA'AMII: My name is Sarah Ina'amii. I'm 40 years old and I've lived and grown up here in Duluth.

DAN KRAKER: But until about a year and a half ago, she had never gone into the lake. She nearly drowned in a smaller lake as a teenager. For years, she was scared of Lake Superior. She says her first time swimming with the Cold Water Dolphins helped her confront that trauma.

SARAH INA'AMII: And it was, like, Wow. The rest of the day, I was like on cloud 9. And so I'm like, there's something really special about this water, and the memory, and ourselves as spiritual beings. We are the water as well.

DAN KRAKER: Wow. So Lake Superior has had a huge healing impact on your life, it sounds like.

SARAH INA'AMII: Yes, very much so. So we come here at least once a month and we pray with the water and offer some tobacco and some songs and stuff. So yeah, it feels really good.

DAN KRAKER: It felt pretty good when I jumped in a few minutes later. The water was a balmy 39 degrees, and trust me, I did not stay in as long as the cold water Dolphins.


And now I'm back in the studio warm and dry with a couple of guests to talk more about Lake Superior. And I want to hear from you, too. Do you have a special relationship with Lake Superior? What does the lake mean to you? Why is it special?

The phone lines are open. Call us at 651-227-6000 or 800-242-2828. Let's bring in our guests.

Here in Duluth, Bob Sterner is a biology professor and Director of the Large Lakes Observatory. At the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Bob and his colleagues study Lake Superior and other big lakes around the world. He's also president of the Northeastern Association of Marine and Great Lakes Laboratories. Bob, glad you could join us today.

BOB STERNER: Good morning. Glad to be here.

DAN KRAKER: Also joining me from our studio in Saint Paul, I have Halee Kirkwood. Halee is a writer, teaching artist, and a bookseller at Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis. They grew up in Superior, Wisconsin and are a direct descendant of the Fond Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

And Halee just got a Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship for a writing project involving Lake Superior. Halee, I'm excited to hear more about that. Thanks for joining us today.

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yes, thanks for having me. I'm very excited to be here.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah. Awesome. Glad you could join us. Also, later in the hour, we'll be talking with Christian Dalbec, he's a photographer in Two Harbors, about his images of waves on Lake Superior and how photographing the lake helped him overcome an alcohol addiction. But Bob, I'd like to start with you.

I mentioned a few very basic facts about Lake Superior. It's the largest Freshwater lake in the world by surface area. But what else stands out about Lake Superior? What surprises people about it?

BOB STERNER: That's a great question, Dan. And what I'd like to say about that is sometimes, I think about just how remarkable it is that this amazing pool of fresh, more or less pure, clean water that you spoke so eloquently about at the opening, how it's sitting in the middle of North America. So it's far away from the oceans, yet we see ocean-going ships coming in and out of Duluth and bordered by two very populous and wealthy countries. And yet it's in relatively, quote unquote, "natural" state. It's an amazing treasure right here in our backyards.

DAN KRAKER: And I'm often amazed, Bob. When you look at the statistics and just how much fresh water Lake Superior holds and the other Great Lakes. I think people-- I mean, the context is just amazing. Could you talk about that a bit?

BOB STERNER: Yeah, sure. I always say this when I'm giving public talks, but if we look at the distribution of liquid surface fresh water, so there's a lot of ice on Earth. We're not looking at that. There's a lot of water underground, we're not looking at that. We're looking at surface liquid fresh water.

Five lakes on the planet, five, have more than half of that precious resource. And sometimes people talk about water being the most precious substance on Earth. I'm kind of fond of oxygen, too, myself, but I know water is important.

And to think about that being located in such a few number of places really scattered all over the planet, it blows my mind.

DAN KRAKER: Absolutely. Halee, you grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, right on Lake Superior on the other side of the mouth of the Saint Louis River here across the bridge from Duluth. What was it like to grow up on the lake?

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yeah. So I think growing up on the lake, one thing that defines your relationship to it is definitely the weather and the different moods of the lake. So that is something that when I think back to my childhood, memorable experiences have been the November gales, which I think are pretty infamous in Lake Superior, kind of the mythology of it in a way with Edmund Fitzgerald. So growing up in Lake Superior, I think I've always had a fascination with the weather, as well as with geology, and with the many different ecologies that do exist in the Lake Superior watershed. So yeah.

DAN KRAKER: Something I love, Halee, about living by the lake is how it changes every single day. It can be blustery and freezing, it can be warm and placid. You mentioned the moods, I totally agree. Is there a favorite mood that you have or a couple favorite moods?

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yeah. So I do think the November gales are pretty remarkable, when you look at photos on the North Shore of these big waves crashing up. I mean, I think we're talking about people not realizing that this giant freshwater inland sea is here in the upper Midwest. That's one thing I like to show them, if they are unfamiliar, are these pictures of these giant amber waves crashing onto these cliffs in the North Shore and creating these just grand escarpments. Yeah.

DAN KRAKER: Bob, you direct the Large Lakes Observatory here in Duluth. I've had the privilege of joining several of your scientists for different stories, but tell our listeners a little bit about the research that it does and what exactly is the Large Lakes Observatory.

BOB STERNER: Oh, always happy to do that, Dan. So we have a mission at LLO, unlike any other institution I anywhere on Earth. So our mission is to do scientific studies of the large lakes of Earth. And so there are many other lake institutes, and some of them are really great.

Our stated mission, though, differs from anywhere else I know because we specifically have this global reach. So in that sense, a very expansive mission. On the other hand, it's large lakes, and that makes sense for a couple of reasons.

One is, as Halee just described, the vast scale of these water bodies. Doing science on large lakes is a lot like doing oceanography. You're working on large vessels, you're working in large teams. You have big instruments. You can only occupy a small fraction of the whole water body with a ship or an instrument at any one time.

So we act day to day a lot like oceanographers do. On the other hand, they aren't oceans. They're Freshwater lakes.

The organisms are freshwater organisms that are found in big and small lakes. And so at LLO, we have to have one foot in the lake science camp and one in the ocean science camp. And that's really-- it's challenging, but it's also really, really interesting.

So we've done work all over the world, a lot of work in the past in Africa. But we've had recent projects in Central and South America, work in Asia. There's all kinds of stuff going on at LLO, from all perspectives, geology, chemistry, physics, and biology.

DAN KRAKER: We're talking about Lake Superior here today on the show with our guest, Bob Sterner, a biology professor and Director of the Large Lakes Observatory at UMD here in Duluth. Also Halee Kirkwood is with us, a writer, teaching artist, a bookseller who grew up on the shores of Lake superior. I'd also love to hear from you. Give us a call 651-287-6000. Tell us what the lake means to you, why it's special to you. 800-242-2828.

As I thought, we might we're getting quite a few calls already. I'd like to go to the phones now. First, Jim in Eden Prairie. Jim, thanks so much for calling in. What did you want to share?

JIM: As a young man, I used to love sailing, and particularly up on the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. And the scale of it, the way you get away from everything. At that time, there was no cell phone connectivity up there when we started and the Aurora and everything was fantastic.

And of course, the weather made for some really challenging times. But then what really resonated was we started taking-- a group of guys started taking our nine-year-old daughters up with us and we were amazed that the girl's just fell in love with that whole sailing experience. And it became a much bigger cultural thing to our family because when you got away from mom for a long weekend, dads and daughters would start sharing things that you just normally wouldn't share, or not as easily because you wouldn't have had the opportunity, and it became a thing that even as the girls-- as they got older and some of them married, they would give their kids to their husband and say, I'm going up North with dad for the weekend.

So they always protected that weekend, and it was just a tremendous experience. And I don't think it would have worked-- we could have maybe gone out to Lake Minnetonka or something, but it wouldn't have been the same, because it was more like camping and getting away. And we had some harrowing weather events and beautiful auroras that are memorable.

DAN KRAKER: That's awesome. Jim, thanks so much for calling and sharing that experience. I mean, I heard that from the Cold Water Dolphins at the top of the show, too, the folks who jump into Lake Superior. I mean, the lake just has this centering effect, and it just has this way of stripping away everything else and focusing in on what's really important.

Also Eric from Duluth has called in. Eric, thanks so much for calling in. What'd you want to share?

ERIC: Hey, thanks for having me. You know, I moved up here last year and the lake has been a big part of my life. It's one of the reasons I moved up here. And I have a storytelling podcast that uses the lake and all the great mysteries that it has.

And the weather, the fog that comes off the lake, it's a great backdrop for some really good ghost stories and it involves some of the history of some of the ships that have sank and just Lake Inferior. A lot of people don't know there's a lake beneath the lake. And so it's a great opportunity just to share some really fun stories and let the history of the lake tell itself.

DAN KRAKER: Eric, thanks for calling. And real quick, plug your podcast. What's it called?

ERIC: It's called [? Hayden's ?] [? Gate. ?]

DAN KRAKER: Eric, thanks for calling. Bob sterner, he mentioned a lake underneath the lake. Is that true?

BOB STERNER: Is he still on? I'd like to know a little bit more about what he's thinking there because I was wondering.

DAN KRAKER: Eric, are you still there? We may have-- we may have lost him.

BOB STERNER: Yeah. I mean, OK. So--

DAN KRAKER: I think we lost him.

BOB STERNER: We lost him. I mean, I don't know exactly what he meant there, but twice in the winter and then again in the summer there is effectively two lakes, one floating on the other. And so the summertime, the top layer is warmer than the bottom layer, and so most of the water in Lake Superior has the same temperature year round that you just experienced last night when you jumped in, 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's the temperature at which water is densest. And so in the summer as the solar energy adds heat to the lake, it warms and at some point, it warms enough that an upper layer floating on top of a lower layer occurs. And at that point, the lower water-- most of the lake water is effectively cut off from the atmosphere.

And so different things can happen in that lower layer than happen in the upper layer. And the reverse happens in the winter, except in the winter, the upper layer is actually colder than the bottom layer. So in that sense, there's a lake beneath a lake.

DAN KRAKER: We're talking Lake Superior today. 651-227-6000 is the number to call to join the conversation, 800-242-2828. And Halee Kirkwood, I wanted to get back to you, too. We heard from that caller who has a podcast and talked about just how the lake can inspire, and it has inspired so much art, and music, and writing.

And you are working on a grant, I understand, writing about Lake Superior, and a Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship that you've received to explore your relationship with the lake. Could you tell us a little bit about what you're working on?

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yeah, I would love to. But may I first jump back to the Lake Inferior, because I think I have some information about that. So Lake Inferior was-- and you'll have to do your own research. I don't have the exact names for this.

But Lake Inferior was actually an imagined lake by a French fur trade voyager who believed that it was the gates to hell. So it's got this weird-- yeah, it was an imagined hallucination of a French Voyager. But then I know that just a couple of years ago, a local Duluth newspaper-- a community newspaper, I can't remember what the exact name was, but they ran an April Fools story about it and had all these details. So that's what Lake Inferior is.

And going back to writing, I actually have written a poem about Lake Inferior, about these ideas of things that live inside us that we're not quite sure about. And that poem was published in a literary journal called The Thunderbird Review, which is based out of the Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College, which focuses on Lake Superior writers. So definitely, if you're a creative writer, check out the Thunderbird review. It's a free community literary journal. They're doing really good work. But to go back to my--

DAN KRAKER: Excellent.

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yeah, my Jerome Hill Fellowship project.


HALEE KIRKWOOD: So I've got-- this is the long game but I have a creative nonfiction project that I'm in the very, very early stages of where I want to trace the Ojibwe migration path. So Ojibwe people, we came from the Northeastern seaboard and we migrated all around the Great Lakes to end up all the way to the Western end of Lake Superior.

It's a really long, beautiful story. Checking out the work of Anton Treuer, or Brenda Child, or The Mishomis Book, you will get more information about it. But so my plan is to do a road trip around the Great Lakes interviewing different Ojibwe and other Indigenous people, elders, youth to see their experience of the Great Lakes how the migration has lived on and the ways that travel around Lake Superior is actually, I think, for me core to Ojibwe identity.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah. Yeah. So I know you're a direct descendant of the Fond Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. And of course, you're not a spokesperson for the band, but what have you learned in your process about Ojibwe peoples or the band's relationship with Lake Superior?

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yeah. So I think one thing that is pretty important to bring up is our relationship to Madeline Island and that as being our prophesied place of landing. When we were migrating, we were migrating toward the place where food grows on the water, which of course, is wild rice, manoomin. So for me, it's important to really bring up the fact that Madeline Island was this just historically very significant place for Ojibwe people.

Another thing that's interesting that you might notice when maybe you're doing some research or you're thinking about Ojibwe tribes is that you'll see some tribes that include the phrase "Lake Superior Chippewa" or "Lake Superior Ojibwe" to indicate our historical and cultural affiliations and sense of identity.

But it's not all Ojibwe tribes. So you have Leech Lake, you have Red Lake, White Earth that migrated further or were displaced away from Lake Superior. So even across state borders, you will see this shared cultural affiliation all the way into Michigan.

DAN KRAKER: That's Halee Kirkwood, who's a writer and teaching artist who grew up on Lake Superior also with us today. Bob Sterner, who's directs the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. We've got lots of folks calling in to share their stories about Lake Superior. Let's go back to the phones.

Mary in Mendota Heights. Mary, thanks for holding on. What did you want to share with us?

MARY: Well, my issue with Lake Superior is that it's not only beautiful, but it's incredibly colorful. My grandfather actually died. He drowned on Lake Superior.

DAN KRAKER: Oh, wow.

MARY: Because he was a fisherman. And he went out to get the nets during a storm and he drowned. My folks were both commercial fishermen for a period of time.

They lived in Duluth and also on the South Shore, and we had a family cabin on the South Shore and we would go smelting and things like that. So Lake Superior is just this huge thing in my mind that's just both beautiful, but incredibly powerful.

DAN KRAKER: Mary, thank you so much for calling and sharing that story. And it's what Halee spoke to earlier. I think the many the many moods of Lake Superior. It could be beautiful and cruel, too.

And Bob sterner, could you talk a little bit about-- is it just the size of the lake? The gales of November are infamous, of course. What are the factors at play that can make that can make the lake so dangerous?

BOB STERNER: Yeah, sure. Also, before I do that--


BOB STERNER: I want to amend a previous statement I made, because it was what I said was there were two wealthy powerful nations. And of course, that's not a very culturally aware thing for me to say. So it's two wealthy powerful nations and quite a number of First Nations and tribes also bordering on the lake. So I want to be sure I said that.

DAN KRAKER: Thanks, Bob.

BOB STERNER: So what makes it powerful and dangerous? Well, I think the fact that it's so large gives the wind a great deal of surface area to push water. And so its vast scale in terms of area is the main reason why we see such huge waves on Lake Superior.

Something that I only recently became aware of is from the surfing community and drowning, a very tragic thing to think about. But what I heard from them was if you go under and you inhale fresh water, your time before you're in really serious trouble is very short, much shorter than it would be in salt water. So that's a factor.

And then, of course, temperature. Hypothermia sets in and the lake is cold so much of the year. So you have a number of factors there that contribute to being such a dangerous place.

And the science piece of that is that we're always building more and more eyes and ears to help us monitor what the lake's doing. LLO has maintained two near-shore buoys for many years. And people can go to [? ?] and see what the local conditions are, the wave heights and such. Our buoys will go out next week, I'm told, for the year. And more and more of those kinds of sensing systems are going in the lake all the time to give people some warning about what conditions they might be experiencing if they're out on the water.

DAN KRAKER: That's Bob Sterner who directs the Large Lakes Observatory at UMD in Duluth. Also with us today, Halee Kirkwood, a writer who grew up on Lake Superior. If you want to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-242-2828.

We do have lots of folks holding. I'm going to ask you to hold a few more minutes because we do need to take a quick break to get an update on today's news headlines with MPR's Phil Picardi. Hey, Phil.

PHIL PICARDI: Good morning, Dan. Guam's governor is urging residents to stay home and warning the island could take a direct hit from Typhoon Mawar. The storm is strengthening on its path toward the US territory in the Pacific Ocean. The category 4 storm is intensifying and could hit the southern part of the island tomorrow.

A senior Moscow official is claiming Russian troops and security forces have quashed an alleged cross-border raid from Ukraine. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman says more than 70 attackers were killed in a battle that lasted about 24 hours. Ukraine says it was an uprising against the Kremlin by Russian partisans. Claims cannot be verified by reporters.

Police say a 19-year-old from Missouri intentionally crashed a U-Haul truck into a security barrier last night near the White House. The Secret Service spokesman says the truck crashed into a barrier near the north side of Lafayette Square. No one was injured. News Channel video shows officers picking up pieces of evidence from the truck, including a Nazi flag.

A fake image purportedly showing an explosion near the Pentagon has been widely shared on social media, sending a shiver through the stock market. But police and fire officials in Arlington, Virginia say the image is not real and there was no incident. Misinformation experts say the viral image displayed telltale signs of AI generated forgery. Business analysts say the visual hoax underscores the damage increasingly sophisticated image generating software can inflict.

And state lawmakers have completed the 2023 legislative session. Most of the Democratic agenda was passed in the DFL controlled House and Senate. Republicans did not have enough votes to stop it. Big funding boosts are on the way for schools, transportation, and health programs. Lawmakers raised taxes and fees. More news ahead on MPR News. The time now is 9:35.

SPEAKER 1: This year's Cannes Film Festival is showcasing more African films and filmmakers than ever before. Two titles, one set in Senegal and another centered on a Tunisian family, are in the running for the prized Palme d'Or. So could this be the year Africa cinema conquers Cannes? Next time on 1A.



DAN KRAKER: Then at noon, it's Westminster Town Hall Forum. Former Marine Elliot Ackerman secured five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including The Fifth Act, America's end in Afghanistan. He'll talk about what we should have learned from America's 20 years in Afghanistan.

Tomorrow morning at 9:00, hear a conversation about kids' and teens' mental health. We will listen back to a conversation Angela had about how to spot the signs of a serious mental health problem and what to do and say. And right now on the podcast for this program, you can listen to Chris Farrell's conversation about burnout on the job with Dr. Stuart Bloom. The Twin Cities oncologist wrote a musical about it. Just search for MPR News with Angela Davis wherever you get your podcasts and listen when it's convenient for you.

SPEAKER 2: Support comes from SFM workers' comp programs dedicated to helping business owners save time and money. To learn more, ask your independent insurance agent or SFM, the work comp experts.

DAN KRAKER: Now back to the conversation about Lake Superior. I'm Dan Kraker in for Angela Davis today. And my guests include Bob Sterner, who's a biology professor and Director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth where he and his colleagues study Lake Superior and other big lakes around the world.

Also joining me from the studio in Saint Paul is Halee Kirkwood. Halee is a writer, a teaching artist, and a bookseller at Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis. They grew up in superior Wisconsin and are a direct descendant of the Fond Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

And I want to hear from you, too. Do you have a special relationship with Lake Superior and what does the lake mean to you. Call us 651-227-6000, 800-242-2828. We do have lots of folks waiting. I'm going to ask you to be patient for a couple of minutes longer because I do want to bring another voice briefly into the conversation.

Christian Dalbec is a photographer who has spent the last decade photographing Lake Superior in all seasons and all weather. Most people see the lake from the shore, but Christian captures his glass-like images of waves curling on the surface of the water by getting into the lake. He joins us from Two Harbors on the North Shore. Christian, welcome. Thanks so much for being here.

CHRISTIAN DALBEC: Hi, Dan. Thanks for having me on the show.

DAN KRAKER: Absolutely. So I understand that sunrise is your favorite time to take photographs of Lake Superior. So could you tell us what's so special about that moment for you?

CHRISTIAN DALBEC: I think the beginning of the day is so special to me, just after all those years of me sleeping in. Getting there and catching the first rays of sunlight that are breaking the horizon, and the way that I'm taking or doing the photography, being immersed in the lake, and I'm trying to be at eye level to capture it all. And all the reflections that dance on the surface of the water when you get a nice colorful sunrise and it's just something that it's hard to even explain, it's so special.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah. Christian, could you tell us how you got started taking photographs? I know it was a little over-- I've heard it was a little over 10 years ago. Could you tell us what was going on in your life at the time?

CHRISTIAN DALBEC: Yeah, I spent a lot of my life with an alcohol problem, and in and out of trouble, and working in the factory up here in Two Harbors and different-- other jobs after that. And just finally in 2012, after all that, I went through a treatment here. And then I had a camera sitting there and I got to go out and walk around.

I had an ankle bracelet because of some trouble and actually got out to go walk around the point to walk my dog. And I grabbed that camera and I started seeing all the nature, and the beauty, and the lake. And at first, I was like, what is my subject going to be if I'm going to do photography?

And there it was right out my back door. It was Lake Superior. And I guess it was right there in front of me all along. Even growing up, it was right there. I played along it, and fished in it, and it's just-- it became first nature, I guess, and I was missing it all those years. But there it was.

DAN KRAKER: So did photographing the lake-- I mean, it sounds like it had a real healing impact for you. Could you talk about how it maybe helped you out of your addiction and how it maybe gave you a different take on things?

CHRISTIAN DALBEC: Yeah. It really gave me a lot more-- something to do. Before, I was just-- didn't have much on my mind, I guess. And this gave me a reason and I wanted to get out, and get more, and get better. And it just was like-- I don't know. It was just like this is going to heal me.

And then the reactions of people that I got on social media and stuff, the comments and stuff, and that really was a big help because it kept me motivated. And pretty soon all those other thoughts of, I want to go sit at a bar or something, that totally went away. And I guess my addiction now and then when it was starting became Lake Superior and I wanted to see more of it.

DAN KRAKER: Christian, we have a lot of callers I want to get to. But I want to ask you one more question.


DAN KRAKER: We've been talking on the show-- we've been talking on this show about the many the many moods of Lake Superior. I know you have been out in many of those moods, and I wanted to ask if you could tell us about what it's like to photograph the lake in a fall or a winter storm, because I understand you may have had a pretty close call this past winter?

CHRISTIAN DALBEC: Well, yeah. It was a while ago, but I was out in some 10-foot waves with the surfers. It was more in the beginning of when I got in the water and I thought I knew what I was doing, but I hadn't learned all the respect that I needed for it. And I got held down on a couple of waves quite a long time, where the first wave held me down long enough to where I didn't know if I was going to get air again.

And then my head pops up and I got a breath of air, and here comes the second wave. They come in three, four or five even, sometimes, of the big sets, and held me down. And I lost a fin and that's part half my propulsion. I barely made it to shore, it felt like.

And man, when I got to shore and walked back to the vehicle, I remember a friend of mine taking a picture of me. And I'm walking with one fin and I can still see that. And I'm like, I thought I'd never get back in the lake again, but I'm like, well, the surfers get in there all the time and they figured it out after being wiped out.

And it's like, I just got to figure it out. So I learned how to duck dive. And actually, I wear 20 pounds of weight so I can go under the waves and I don't get taken out by the wave. I just had to learn how to be a water man.

DAN KRAKER: Well, Christian, we're glad you got back in the water. Really enjoy your photography and just want to thank you for joining us today.

CHRISTIAN DALBEC: Yeah. Thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it.

DAN KRAKER: You're welcome. Christian Dalbec is a photographer in Two Harbors who is known for his images of and in Lake Superior of surfers, sunrises, shipwrecks, and countless waves. Halee Kirkwood, I wanted to go to you. What did what did you hear in Christian's experiences of the lake?

HALEE KIRKWOOD: Yeah. Christian, I have to say I looked at your photographs before the show today and they're absolutely beautiful. And what your story brings to my mind is the resilience and strength that I think people who grew up around Lake Superior and the Great Lakes in general, we have to be tough a lot of the time because of the weather and also the effects of industry. You see a lot of connections between industry and interpersonal addiction and violence. So that's one thing that it brought to mind.

And what you were saying about the lake being instrumental to your healing, that made me think of another thing, too. So I live with PTSD, and when I was a youth, being in Lake Superior, being in the cold water was absolutely crucial to my healing. There's this sense of sweetness that I think you get when you're in the water of Lake Superior, but there's also this just shocking cold that makes you be in your body in a way that I don't think really anything else has.

And one thing that's interesting when it comes to living with PTSD is actually one of the coping mechanisms they'll give you in therapy would be to shock yourself with cold water, because when your body is confronted with a cold water, it kind of tells your nervous system to focus on that rather-- so the panic of being cold rather than the panic of having a flashback or a reaction. So the healing aspect of Lake Superior I think is really expansive in its scope.

DAN KRAKER: Yeah. We've heard that recurring theme, Halee, throughout the show today for sure. I wanted to get back to some callers who have been very patient. Let's go to Craig in Moose Lake who's been hanging on for a while. Craig, thanks so much for calling in. What'd you want to share?

CRAIG: Good morning. Like Christian, I'm a landscape photographer and I've specialized in photographing Lake Superior for about 40 years. And as part of that, I've kayaked around the lake. I've circumnavigated in 1991, which was a 1,200 mile, 100-day trip, and since then, I've put on thousands more miles. And I wanted to talk about the diversity of Lake Superior.

The geography varies. The geology of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with the mineral seeps going down the 200-foot high cliffs, the sea caves and the Apostle Islands, Isle Royale with its dotted fingers of islands off the northeast tip, and the Canadian shore is just beautiful granite batholiths. It's like you dropped the Black Hills into the ocean.

We tend to think of Lake Superior-- when I was circumnavigating, I was talking to people and they didn't realize that the rest of the lake didn't look like what they knew about the lake. No matter where they were on the lake, they thought everything else probably looked the same. And I think that is one of the scary things about when we think about the development that's happening on Lake Superior.

We think, well, it's this vast lake and we can afford to develop this because it's just a small part of the whole. But yet each area is unique, and so when we develop a portion of it, we've lost something that's quite significant. I'd also like to talk about the healing aspects. I do--

DAN KRAKER: Briefly, if you could, Craig.

CRAIG: --videos as meditation aids and a number of those have been done on Lake Superior. I'm a senior fellow at the Center for spirituality and healing at the main U and I'm now working on a video of just reflections on the waves, which is very meditative. Just sitting, almost like watching a campfire or laying on your back and looking at the clouds. So the rhythms of the lake are very calming.

DAN KRAKER: Craig, thank you so much for calling in. I'm going to let you go because we have other callers I want to get to. But Bob sterner with Large Lakes Observatory, I wanted you to reflect on something Craig mentioned about development around the lake. And that's something we haven't had a chance to talk much about yet. But the lake is pristine, but humans are having an impact on it, correct?

BOB STERNER: Oh, for sure. I mean, humans are having an impact everywhere on the planet. Lake Superior is not immune to that. It's sort of a, on this side of the coin, one story, the other side of the coin, another story. It is in relatively good shape biologically, chemically, et cetera. But things are happening. There's concerns about mercury in different places. PFAS is a rising concern. And lying on top of everything is climate change.

So very, very long story short, Lake Superior is one of the fastest warming lakes on Earth in the sense of average summer surface temperature. There's a really interesting bunch of physics behind that, but we don't have time today. What that means is that the lake is scientifically valuable because it could give us a chance to study the effect of climate change without a whole bunch of other anthropogenic forcing factors like invasive species, and pollution and stuff.

But it also means it's a wake up call for us here. It's our local climate change issue that we need to pay careful attention to.

DAN KRAKER: And Bob, something your colleague, Jay Austin, has impressed upon me over the years is that really what seemed like pretty minuscule changes in air temperature can have really profound impacts on water temperature, ice cover, and the lake.

BOB STERNER: So yeah, for sure. Jay's got some really interesting analyses behind that statement. And small differences in air temperature, especially in the winter, can have really drastic effects on what the lake's doing.

Again, it has to do with stratification, but there's, in some sense, an amplification of the climate signal that goes on in Lake Superior. Because it's large, because it's so seasonally variable, because the summer is short, all of those factors conspire to make Lake Superior I would say incredibly sensitive to the changing climate. Not to mention the storms.

So we're seeing more and more large storms. They wash sediments into the lake. The sediments stay in the water, suspended for weeks. We're still trying to untangle what those sediments are doing when they're in the lake. But yeah, the lake is certainly nowhere near immune from effects of man.

DAN KRAKER: It's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? The lake is so vast and powerful, but yet so sensitive at the same time. Let's go back to the calls. Leah from Mankato, you've also been hanging on for a long time. Thanks so much. What do you want to share?

LEAH: So my concern is, with the drought in the Southwest, we're starting to hear talk about-- and I don't think it's possible, because I just don't think we can engineer it, moving water from Lake Superior in the Great Lakes to the Southwest to dump on golf courses in the desert.

To me, this makes no sense. I'm pretty sure Christian Dalbec, who out his door is Lake Superior, probably turns the water off when he's brushing the teeth, even though it's so plentiful to us here. I think we actually have a respect for that water and that there would be any thought of moving water from up here down to the desert, there's some hard discussions to be had. Should we be living in the desert? But this is just a concern. I think maybe it's another show. That just isn't going to be feasible and shouldn't happen.

DAN KRAKER: Leah, I think you are absolutely right. I know whenever we write about this on our website or do radio stories on it, people have strong opinions, shall we say, about the prospect of potentially taking water from the Great Lakes. But thanks so much for the call and the concerns, because I know it reflects what many folks think.

Jackie from Saint Paul. Jackie, thanks for calling. What do you want to share?

JACKIE: Well, yeah. I was just sitting here thinking Lake Superior, oh my goodness, in my youth, I'm a senior citizen now, my friend Dave and I biked most of the way around Lake Superior, and we camped all the way, and we started in Duluth. And it was just such a wonderful experience to experience the lake that way.

And we stayed in some campgrounds. And I remember we rode where they were doing some construction and we came into a KOA campground and I was never so happy to take a shower because we just got all black faced from riding on this construction. But that is really a wonderful way to experience Lake Superior.

And then another way we haven't quite mentioned is all the people that are exposed to the lake who do Grandma's Marathon. There is nothing more wonderful than running down the road and looking out at that beautiful lake. So I think those are two activities that have really been important to me to help me experience Lake Superior.

DAN KRAKER: Jackie, that's awesome. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. There's something about going around this lake, because we've heard about people kayaking around it. You bicycled around it. There's something about people wanting to circumvent this great body of water that fascinates me.

Peter in Schooner, Wisconsin, also you've been hanging on for a long time. And did I pronounce that correct, Peter? Is it Schooner?

PETER: Yeah, we're actually north of there closer to a small town called Minong. But anyway, originally grew up in Brainerd and used to approaching the lake from the Southwest. And since we moved up here, and the trip from the south is amazing.

Around Schooner, it's all pine trees, and it quickly shifts to Balsam and it's dramatic. And then you get a much bigger view of the North Shore coming from the south. And as soon as you get over the crest about 10 Miles southeast of Superior on a hot day, oh my gosh.

The temperature will drop. You can't get a hold of-- you can't get the windows defogged fast enough. It's just astonishing, the microclimates. I grew up in Northwest Minnesota and we were used to going to Lake Winnipeg. It's a swamp compared to Superior. It's a green lake. Superior is just amazing and it affects the land around it.

DAN KRAKER: Absolutely. Peter, thanks so much for calling in. Bob Sterner, briefly, I don't think we've talked about the cooler-by-the-lake phenomenon. Is there anything to say about it, or is it a pretty simple? When the water is really cold, the air is going to be cold.

BOB STERNER: You got it there, Dan. It's such a huge body of water, its temperature is going to lag behind the air, and it's free air conditioning for us who live near the lake in the summertime.

DAN KRAKER: Amen to that. I'm going to get one more caller in the conversation, if I can. Jack in Minneapolis. Jack, thanks for calling. What do you want to share?

JACK: Yeah, of course. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Hi, Halee. I just wanted to ask Halee really quick, and it's kind of a big question, so don't feel bad if you can't wrap your head around it right away in the last few minutes. But how do you feel about all of these-- there are a lot of wealthy white Minnesotans in the Twin Cities and probably people all over the country who have second or even third homes, maybe sometimes luxury cabins on or around Lake Superior.

How do you feel about that when they're Anishinaabeg in the Twin Cities area and all around the country even who don't even have homes, or at least don't have access to Lake Superior, even though many of our ancestors used to have, of course, free access to that lake. So how does it make you feel?

HALEE KIRKWOOD: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Jack. Jack is one of my colleagues at Birchbark Books, so thanks for calling in. But yeah, I think that's a really good topic to cover, the lack of access.

I think that there are two things, the lack of access of outdoor recreation that I think affects BIPOC people pretty intensely, in which there are a few organizations out there that are trying to ameliorate that and make access available to BIPOC communities.

And then in terms of Anishinaabeg experiencing homelessness around Lake Superior, in particular, there's a pretty big epidemic around Lake Superior as well as Ojibwe and Dakota people outside of the Lake Superior watershed.

So for me that's always been a struggle, having grown up pretty low income myself to see these developments. But for me, I think that there's a different class and racial identity to Lake Superior when specifically in superior Wisconsin, which is always-- I like to consider it like Duluth's underdog scrappy little cousin or something in that it is a less wealthy area.

So for me, access around Superior has always been these maybe less touristy areas like Connor's Point or Rice Point fishing with my brother under the bridge, these little pockets that I don't think are as known. So that for me, I don't know if that quite answers your question, Jack, but that has been my experience and the places that I have loved and the places that I know are more accessible to BIPOC and Anishinaabeg people who are kind of pushed out of areas like around the North Shore. I never actually went to the North Shore until I was an adult camping with my brother. So yeah, I experienced that lack of access firsthand.

DAN KRAKER: Halee Kirkwood is a writer, a teaching artist, and a bookseller at Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis. They grew up in Superior, Wisconsin and are a direct descendant of the Fond Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Also on the show with us today, Bob Sterner, a biology professor and Director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I also spoke with Christian Dalbec. He's a photographer in Two Harbors known for his images of waves and other scenery of Lake Superior.

This conversation was produced by Maja Beckstrom and Danelle Cloutier. I'm Dan Kraker in for Angela Davis today. Thanks for joining us, and be safe everyone.


SPEAKER 3: Programming is supported by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community, a tribal nation that is the largest employer in Scott County and one of the largest charitable givers in Minnesota. More at


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