St Louis River Estuary: The stories and the science

Six Vignettes - Stories and Science


fishing boats docked next to urban buildingsNearly one-third of the St. Louis River Estuary has been filled or dredged since the mid-1850s, yet it remains one of the most biologically productive wetland complexes within the Great Lakes.


Sailboat w]ith red and blue spinnakerSpeak to those who have lived their entire life here in view of the St. Louis River Estuary and you get a sense of how special this place is to them.


Ski trail though snow covered treesSuperior beaches and forested trails


Red and grey ship at dockFrom canoes to whaleback freighters and sailing schooners to passenger liners and ore boats, the shallow waters of the St. Louis River Estuary have provided a natural harbor for more than 200 years. 


Close up of wild rice plantThe search for ‘food that grows on water’ led the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people to the Upper Great Lakes region several hundred years ago.


Dredge in laeke scooping sedimentCorrecting the environmental damage of an earlier era takes time, money, planning, know-how, and the combined efforts of many people.

About the Stories

Every one of us has memories of events that are tied closely to specific places. In fact, special places have stories, shared experiences, history, bioregional patterns, and perspectives collected by the people who live in and around them.  There is power inherent in our stories about places — in essence, we link the place where things happen to the stories that we record, in what some people call spatial narratives.

A spatial narrative is a conceptual framework to bring the personal or qualitative experience of a place together with the analysis and science of the space.  Spatial narrative thinking goes like this:

  • Spatial narratives unfold much like a storyline, illuminating different meanings and elements of place along the way.
  • Spatial narratives capture multiple ways of knowing about a place. A spatial narrative can be comprised of maps, descriptions, sketches, photos and artwork, that together tell us more than a strictly objective, scientific analysis or a simple narrative based on storytelling about past events can possibly achieve.

Why Spatial Narratives?

The idea of applying spatial narratives to the St. Louis River estuary grew out of a 2009 call for special projects related to the designation of the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) in Duluth-Superior. At the same time as our Wisconsin-based team hoped to capture unique qualities of the estuary through these place-based stories to inform stewardship, our Minnesota-based group was measuring stressor gradients in the estuary as a means of exploring the scientific connections between human activity and water quality. The two ideas came together as a joint project

Six Vignettes

Here, spatial narratives for the St. Louis River Estuary are captured through six vignettes of key activities important to the area: fishing, shipping, wild ricing, recreation, community, and restoration; and through perspectives of local people who told their stories about places and experiences related to these activities in and around the estuary. We share these stories through narrative, photos, audio, and a deep map.

About the Science

Stories about interactions with a place are best understood with an understanding of the place itself. Interwoven through each of these stories about the St. Louis River Estuary are connections to the science that helps us understand the Estuary and the human impacts it has withstood.

Science Supports Story

Take the Fishing Vignette for example. The stories tell of changes in the estuary from a time when human impacts devastated the fishery through a period of restoration to a time when the estuary again supports recreation and fishing-related businesses. Short science sections on geography, dissolved oxygen, water quality and mercury in fish help link these personal experiences with the science that has influenced the experiences.

Connecting the Stories and Science

Together, Stories and Science connect the scientific and human elements of these important estuary topics to broaden and deepen our understanding of this special place.