While driving slowly along the western end of Skyline Parkway to gain a birds-eye view of the estuary as the sun is slowly sinking into the west, Bob Cragin is talking about the good quality of life found here on the edge of the St. Louis River Estuary. As if to put an exclamation point to that statement, a large, 10-point whitetail deer leaps across the road in front of us. “That’s a dandy…that was worth the trip right there,” he exclaims.
Bob finds time to enjoy the many activities available in the region, even with a busy business to run. He has also found time to give back, serving as a board member of the St. Louis River Alliance, to protect the estuary for future generations. He sees the estuary as a place that “pulls people together…you get a bunch of skiers out on the ski hill, they’re going to be communicating. Or blading or biking up the Munger Trail or kayaking out here, fishing, whatever – they forget about the boundaries.”
“The river is the thread that holds this all together,” exclaims Bob. When development was being proposed on Clough Island, Bob sent letters out to several friends asking what they thought about this. He couldn’t believe the response, or the interest he would stir up to protect this unique area in the middle of the estuary, “it was unbelievable.”
Through the efforts of many in the community, Clough Island was purchased in the fall of 2011 by the Nature Conservancy and partners, protecting the island for future generations. Also known as Whiteside Island, and Big Island, this 358 acre island in the heart of the estuary provides habitat for wildlife, unaltered shorelines and feeding areas for birds like the common tern, a species that is threatened in Minnesota and endangered in Wisconsin.
Colony nesting birds of the St. Louis River Estuary (SLRE) were Lynelle Hanson’s introduction to the estuary while she was attending school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The Port Terminal area once supported nesting piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) and common terns (Sterna hirundo). “The last nest in the St. Louis Estuary that a piping plover fledged from was in the Port Terminal,” she remembers. Little did she know at that time, that she would return to Duluth later in her career and work to protect the SLRE.
Lynelle came back as the St. Louis River Watch Coordinator at Fond du Lac, introducing youth to the wonders of the estuary. In the later part of the 1990s Lynelle was hired as the executive director of the St. Louis River Citizen Advisory Committee. She recalls those days of pulling people together across state boundaries. “We used to joke that we were going to have the meetings on Interstate Island, so that half the table could be in Wisconsin, half the table could be in Minnesota,” Lynelle Hanson is a firm believer in the power of community. “There were people from 54 different entities involved in the Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan...that was wonderful.”
Now working for University of Wisconsin–Extension in Superior, Lynelle is a Sustainability Specialist active in the Lake Superior Bi-National Program, working with agencies from other states and nations to protect and restore Lake Superior. One of her favorite places to go for bird watching is the Port Terminal, down in the Duluth Harbor. “It’s a great birding spot in the spring, you’ve got Interstate Island that you can look at, you’ve got 21st avenue….Port Terminal is a cool place.”
Holy cow is this ever a neat place.
“I’m not leaving until they carry me out,” says Dave Zentner, who came here in 1955. He notes that it is the whole St. Louis River Estuary complex that is so wonderful, not just a portion of it. “Holy cow is this ever a neat place. The river is so diverse. I think it’s fun to be right down by the ships, and [over by] the Blatnik Bridge. Sometimes that is really exciting to me because here we are at the Blatnik Bridge and you got 20-inch smallmouth bass… where you can find a weed line and catch a 45-inch musky or larger… you might have a sturgeon jump out of the water… Wow, right here in the middle of this heavily industrialized area, we’ve done a recovery that permits some pretty neat [recreation for all ages].” You can “watch a kid fishing off a pier and have his or her line broken by a northern…that’s pretty cool.”
Dave, who serves as conservation chair for the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, attributes much of the recovery of the estuary to the building of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) and to active and engaged citizens. He continues to support those efforts through his own involvement in conservation issues around the state, always returning to his home near the estuary.
There are those exhilarating near-wild places further up the estuary where you almost feel as though you have left the city behind, he notes. “Sig Olson [Minnesota naturalist and author, originally from Wisconsin] used to tell me, and he would write also, you don’t need big ‘Wilderness’ to find wilderness, and very often you might even be better off finding your own little patch in the middle of some very busy stuff, and so the estuary really provides that opportunity if you're smart enough to exploit it.”