Month: July 2017

Sailors Connect Through Time on Superior

On the dock at Amethyst Harbour, Lake Superior, after completion of the 1947 race for the Crystal Beach Trophy. (Photo: Porter Bailey) 

The first picture was taken on a dock at Amethyst Harbour in 1947. Amethyst Harbour is some 35 km./21 mi. east of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. The photo shows a group of sailors, surrounded by their boats, mostly home built, all smiles and clearly enjoying themselves. They’ve just come off Lake Superior after competing for the “Crystal Beach Trophy.” A hand scribbled note with the photo contains everyone’s names – like Jack Fryer, Jim Coslett, Porter Bailey, Bert Rowe, David and Sheila Burnford and Monty Mathews. To some people, these names would mean nothing. To others, they are easily recognized as some of the first recreational sailors in the Thunder Bay area, and by extension, the Canadian waters of western Lake Superior.

Turn the clock forward 70 years. The same race was held on July 22nd, in the same waters of Superior, starting and ending at the same dock. The intent of race organizers was to take the same picture, with today’s sailors, at this very same Amethyst Harbour dock. Plans sometimes go awry however and this case was no exception. It’s a nice problem to have but sailing the waters of Superior has become so popular that the whole group of present day sailors wouldn’t fit on the dock. Instead, after the day’s racing, sailors assembled on shore in front of the dock for a photo marking 70 years since that first photo and 79 years from the 1938 inaugural Crystal Beach event. Some of the same family names mentioned above are present for the 2017 photo. [Infosuperior is leaving out specific names as there are just too many people to mention].

As the photo was shot, sailors were asked who had more fun – those sailors from “back in the day” in their homemade vessels or the present day crowd with their fiberglass boats and modern rigs. The assembled 2017 sailors let out a cheer and strongly asserted that they were definitely having more fun than the 1947 crew. That assertion is doubtful but one thing is clear. The passion for sailing and the passion simply to go out and enjoy Lake Superior is as strong as ever.

There was definitely a feeling of history being made as this photo was taken, July 22nd, 2017. Same dock, same sailing event but 70 years later with Caribou Island in the background. This crew was simply too big to fit on the dock for an exact “retake” of the 1947 photo above. The joy for sailing Superior’s waters connect the two groups, through 70 years of time. (Photo: J. Bailey/
For 79 years, the Crystal Beach Trophy has been sailed for in the Crystal Beach, Amethyst Harbour area east of Thunder Bay. The trophy itself, shaped something like the bell portion of a trombone, is actually a “speaking tube” from a German sunmarine dock. The facility, along with the speaking tube, was surrendered to the Royal British Navy, in 1918.

Present day sailing races are typically around triangular courses with inflated buoys used as “marks” on the corners, each leg of the triangle typically being a couple of kilometers or miles. Back in 1947, no sailing races used buoys and races were run around local landmarks like a group of islands or by keeping a specific reef to port or starboard. In the case of the Crystal Beach races, landmarks like Caribou Island, Seagull Island and Temple Reef are easily recognizable local features. The race on July 22nd covered a course of approximately 12 km./7.5 miles and circled Caribour Island, a large area island, most of which was recently purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The event is the same now as it was back then – a softer approach to sailing, through beautiful surroundings, often trying to introduce a few new crew members to sailing. This year’s event saw moderate to strong easterly winds with waves of about 3 ft or so. While 19 ft Lightening class open sailboats form the backbone of the fleet, all sailboats are welcome and handicap rules apply in order to make the event as fair as possible.

A notable difference between now and then is that today, all of the smaller boats are trailered to the race start. In 1947, all of those boats would have sailed the 35 km/21 mi. from their local base at Chippewa, southwest of Thunder Bay, across the open waters of Superior to the start at Amethyst. This “delivery sail” would have been done on weekend one, as a group cruise, with the Crystal Beach event taking place the following weekend. This, followed by another long-distance sail to return to Chippewa. Sailing was in small open boats, no longer than 19 ft.

There are six masts in the upper photo. It’s impossible  to know whether this was the total number of boats. According to local sailors though, the sixties saw the largest number of participants, with up to 20 boats. There were 14 boats participating in the 2017 event. Most of these boats had at least a three person crew, some of the larger boats had many more.

The Crystal Beach trophy lists Monty Mathews as the 1947 winner. He’s holding the trophy in the upper photo. Seventy years later in the 2017 photo, Richard Walsh is front and centre as Crystal Beach trophy winner. Over the years, some families have had four generations of sailors inscribed on the trophy.

July 22nd, 2017 action as sailors complete for the Crystal Beach Trophy off Caribou Island. (Photo: J. Bailey/
Local sailors feel the race is in good hands and foresee no break in the event’s long history. In fact, the 2017 photo includes many young sailors, two of whom, Monica and Malcolm, are holding the trophy along with their dad Richard Walsh. Approximately 100 Thunder Bay young people between the ages of 7 and 15 are learning to sail on the waters of Superior this summer, using the Thunder Bay marina as home base. A learn to sail program for children has also run at Amethyst Harbour for many years.

The sailors of 1947 and 2017 share a common bond through their sailing experience – and every one of them, including the kids, knows they are truly blessed to be so closely connected with the lake. Here’s to another 70 cool, clear years.

More Pictures of Amethyst Harbour Sailing Weekend:

[Note for anyone interested in Thunder Bay literature. Yes, that is the Sheila Burnford, author of “The Incredible Journey” (later made into a movie) and other books. Infosuperior has it from those who actually competed against both Sheila and her husband, that she was an excellent sailor. It has also been hinted that her husband, Dr. David Burnford, a notoriously competitive sailor and something of a local legend in sailing circles, may have benefited more from Shiela’s crewing ability than his own skill as a skipper. We may never know whether this is true, but one thing is certain – Sheila definitely went on to usurp her husband, at least as far as literary fame. David and Sheila are sitting/kneeling, forward left in the upper photo.]



SoundCloud Podcast: Métis Connect Culture and History on Superior

Above: The Métis Nation of Ontario Canoe Expedition 2017 approaches Mattawa, Ontario (31″).


A group of Métis paddlers recently completed a 2200 km./1367 mi. voyage from Ottawa to Thunder Bay in a 35 foot voyageur canoe. In the podcast linked above, Métis Nation of Ontario paddler Courtney Vaughan describes the experiences of this Métis group as they connect with the waters of Lake Superior and the Great Lakes. Courtney describes her feelings about Métis culture, history and experience against the backdrop of Lake Superior, paddling the same path as that of her ancestors.


Métis Nation of Ontario

Métis Nation of Ontario Canoe Expedition 2017




Royale Moose: the story behind our epic cover photo

Sara Simma was kind enough to provide Infosuperior with the cover photo for the August 1st newsletter (above).

It’s an amazing shot. Look close and you can see the light on the face of the moose. Wildlife photos are sometimes taken under difficult circumstances, often on the fly. This is stunningly clear photo of the moose. Sara explains more about the photo in the second paragraph below.

Here’s what Sara wrote to InfoSuperior…

 I grew up in rural Minnesota and spent lots of time camping, hiking, and exploring in the outdoors. Although I’m a city-dweller now, I feel most at home when I’m in the woods. Taking photos is also a passion and I appreciate how hiking with my camera encourages me to slow down, observe and learn about the plants, animals and landscapes I encounter. 

 One of my favorite regions to hike and photograph is Minnesota’s north shore of Lake Superior. In July, I got to venture a bit further and spent a week on Isle Royale. I was thrilled to find an abundance of wildflowers like lady’s slipper, bunchberry and pitcher plants in bloom. However, the highlight of the trip was observing a male moose in Washington Creek early on the last morning of my trip. I hope I have a chance to return to the park someday to experience more of what it has to offer. 

-Sara Simma, St. Paul, Minnesota.

More of Sara’s photos on Flickr here or by clicking Sara’s photo of the lighthouse at Grand Marais below:











Happy hiking Sara… Enjoy Lake Superior.

Have some great Lake Superior photos or know someone that does? We’d like to hear from you, and we’d like to feature your photos. We do not profit from the photos in any way. We definitely provide photo credit. Our only objective is to share the natural beauty of Lake Superior with a broader audience. Contact us – jfbailey at lakeheadu dot ca.


Anatomy of a Storm

Recently, InfoSuperior reported on flood-damage relief on its way for Saxon Harbor, an area on Lake Superior which falls on the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. A reported 10+ inches of rain fell July 11-12, 2016, resulting in three lives lost, and a rescue mission for several people stranded on the Apostle Islands. Flooding caused destruction of Saxon Harbor’s marina and campground, washed out roads, overflow of Oronto Creek, 19 boats beached (others sank and set adrift). It also caused the shutdown of the sewage plant and disrupted electricity and natural gas services on the Bad River Reservation. Significant amounts of sediment and mud were swept out into Superior, causing concern about drinking water quality.

It’s one thing to read about the flood damage. It’s another entirely to get a visual sense of the storm itself, its vast impact on the region, and what methods authorities use to measure the damage. This is where the United States Geological Survey steps in. USGS has created an interactive geo-narrative to tell the story of the northern Wisconsin and Bad River Reservation flooding. You’ve never seen a storm quite this way before.

The geonarrative is split up into five separate chapters, denoted by tabs at the top of the page:

  • Introduction
  • Measuring the Flood
  • Flood-Peak Inundation Maps
  • Flood and High-Water Mark Photos
  • More info

Using a mix of photo imagery, satellite weather-radar, interactive mapping, and textual narrative, USGS provides a comprehensive look at flooding impacts. Textual narrative is in a column on the left of the screen; as you scroll, photos or mapping located on the right change to give context and demonstrate what you’re reading.

‘Measuring the flood’ explains how the USGS collects its data. Streamflow and high-water marks are measured with acoustic doppler current profilers and crest-stage gauges. Flood inundation is measured with GIS mapping. The geo-narrative juxtaposes this GIS mapping with text and photo narratives in ‘Flood-peak inundation maps’ and ‘Flood and high-water mark photos.’

To visit the USGS geo-narrative, click here.

InfoSuperior: Special Report – Severe weather hits Minnesota, Wisconsin (July 14, 2106)

InfoSuperior: Saxon Harbor’s flood-damage relief plan (June 9, 2017)

Silver Linings in a Seiche

As Great Lakes basin residents, we know intuitively that water levels fluctuate year round. But are we able to identify why?




Three types of water level fluctuations occur on the Great Lakes: long-term (multi-year), seasonal (one-year), and short period (less than an hour to several days). According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (The Canadian Hydrographic Service, Central and Arctic Region), a number of natural and man-made factors affect these levels.

Natural effects on water levels include:

  • precipitation on the lakes
  • run off from the drainage basin
  • evaporation from the lake surface
  • inflow from upstream lakes
  • outflow from downstream lakes

Man-made effects on water levels include:

  • diversions into or out of the basin
  • consumption of water
  • dredging of outlet channels
  • regulation of outflows

Most of us are fairly familiar with seasonal fluctuations, which see higher water levels due to spring and early summer runoff, and lower levels during the rest of the year. Many are becoming more interested in long-term fluctuations due to recent, headline-making extremes that some say are a sign of climate change. But how much do you know about the mysterious short term fluctuations? Today, we’re particularly interested in the seiche.

Seiche Story

Have you ever been on the shore of Lake Superior to see the tide roll abruptly out, only to come roaring back hours, or mere minutes, later? It’s likely you’ve experienced a seiche (“say-sh”). It occurs when wind or air pressure changes cause the surface of a lake to undulate rhythmically. The description is right there in the name – “seiche” is a French word whose meaning is “to sway back and forth.” The phrase was coined by Francois-Alphonse Forel, a Swiss scientist who founded limnology, the study of lakes.

A recent comment on InfoSuperior’s Facebook page from a Minnesota resident notes that Lake Superior’s seiche often produces much larger short-term water level swings than those which occur over a year or even a decade.

While many people explain the seiche as resulting from wind and waves pushing water to one side or area of the lake, thereby raising water levels (after which the water rolls back, or subsides, dramatically lowering water levels), air pressure is a much more important influence. The most dramatic Lake Superior seiches are often associated with poor, leaden grey or rainy weather when the lake is still and the wind is completely calm. Anyone living near the lake over a long period of time has witnessed this phenomenon. There are countless stories of boats floating gently beside a dock, only to have the seiche come in so that the walking surface of the dock is completely covered by water. Loosely tied boats float over the dock and when the seiche goes out, the boats come to rest on the dock – high and dry. These large-scale swings in lake level when it is flat calm are associated with high and low air pressure systems exerting varying levels of pressure on different areas of the lake.

Just as is the case with wind systems and the movement of air between high and low pressure systems, so go the waters of Lake Superior. Lake water is attracted, or rushes towards, low-pressure systems. The low air pressure exerted on the lake results in a “release,” or rising of lake waters under the low. The opposite is the case under high air pressure. The lake water constantly seeks equilibrium, even while air pressure systems exert varying degrees of force, often simultaneously, in various regions of the lake. This results in the seiche.

The Lake Is Moving

Strangely, most of the time we are not even aware of these water movements, even when a seiche may be occurring. The lake is moving though. Get close with the lake and you’ll notice. Head into a narrow channel between two islands, or a very narrow entrance to a bay. The movement of the seiche becomes very clear. The current, which is impossible to see in the open waters of Superior, once constrained through a narrow neck or channel, becomes like a river, full of current, eddies and even standing waves. For anyone using a motor, it is more difficult to observe these phenomenon. Using a paddle or oars in a kayak, canoe or rowboat, one becomes very aware of the seiche, as the current either assists, or makes paddling much more difficult.

Since these currents are associated with air pressure changes, they can also portend a change in weather. A general rule of thumb with Lake Superior seiches is that they will be most dramatic in extreme low pressure barometric conditions. Very extreme seiches may preceed, happen during, or after a low pressure system rolls through and often happen at all of these times, back and forth – rising and falling. Large scale seiches are often associated with instances of extremely heavy rain, counter-intuitively producing a large drop in lake level in a localized area, just when a huge volume of water is entering the lake. This, followed by a large water level rise. The casual observer simply sees water levels rising and falling, in an apparently bizarre manner, with no rhyme or reason. Be aware though, because a sizeable seiche in beautiful clear weather, can mean only one thing – a change in weather is coming and this change usually won’t be good.

Lake Superior regularly experiences small seiches that don’t make much of an impression on shore-dwellers. However, large seiches have the ability to cause major shoreline damage.  As can be seen below however, seiches can also benefit the lake. In fact the lake needs seiches. Small, shallow arms, baylets and inlets extending well inland depend on the seiche to provide hydration and life to all of the organisms that live there.

This homeowner video shows the rapid nature of the seiche.

Silver Linings?

While home owners and shipping industry employees may cringe at the thought of a strong, unpredictable seiche, an article by Ben Korgen of the Minnesota Sea Grant makes a case for its positive aspect. Lake biology may particularly benefit from a seiche. As Korgen explains,

Upper lake organisms eventually die. Bacteria decompose these dead organisms, converting them into nutrients or fertilizer for future generations. To support life, a lake needs mechanisms for lifting nutrients from deeper waters into the sunlit surface waters where algae use photosynthesis to create new living tissue.

While the occasional upswell and tidal current may lift nutrients in oceanic settings, they are inconsistent and undependable in Great Lakes ecosystems. Korgen’s article recounts how Minnesota Sea Grant researchers Steve Eisenreich and Joel Baker endeavoured to find out “how seiches might influence the biological economy of water bodies with low tidal ranges.” To do so, they started by studying the nepheloid layer, a “turbid, nutrient-loaded, particle-rich zone that hovers above the lake floor.”

After taking measurements of the nepheloid layer, Eisenreich and Baker found that seiches have one of two effects on the nepheloid layer: they maintain the layer, or they make it bigger. They observed organisms living in Lake Superior sediments stirring up nutrient-laden materials. These materials moved into the layer. Because the seiche increases the size of the layer, and generates currents within it, this material is moved for consumption by species living higher in the water column. Korgen summarizes:

“Seiches generate currents within the lake’s water column… A seiche-controlled nepheloid layer can be an important source of raw materials for the water column.”

Though it’s tempting to fear the seiche and its unpredictable effect on water levels, it’s an important reminder that Lake Superior’s ecosystems benefit greatly from them.

Further reading:

Fisheries & Oceans Canada: Canadian Hydrographic Service Central and Arctic Region: Fluctuations in Lake Levels – Types

Teaching Great Lakes Science – Surges and Seiches

Minnesota Sea Grant: Bonanza for Lake Superior: Seiches Do More Than Move Water


July 19 – Lake Superior Water Levels – Public Teleconference – Webinar


Lake Superior water levels on your mind?

IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control invites you to its teleconference-webinar on regulation of Lake Superior outflows and water levels in the Upper Great Lakes! 

Members of the public are invited to participate in a teleconference-webinar to discuss regulation of Lake Superior outflows and water levels in the Upper Great Lakes system. Specific topics such as hydrologic conditions/forecast, expected deviations, and more will be discussed.

(Skip the conference and go directly to Infosuperior’s live data for Lake Superior water levels, also rivers flowing to Superior –

When: July 19, 2017 from 12 pm – 1pm EST

• Dial 1-877-336-1839 (toll free)

• Enter passcode: 5162099, then 

• Enter security code: 2121


• Enter meeting number 8773361839, then

• Enter code 5162099, then

• Enter email address and name

• Click submit

Following the presentation, the Board will ask to hear comments and questions.

August 3rd – Keweenaw Peninsula Stamp Sands Dredging Public Meeting

Stamp sands

6 P.M., Thursday, August 3rd

Lake Linden High School

Hubbell, Michigan

(just north of Houghton)

A public meeting about Lake Superior dredging of “stamp sands” (mine tailings) from historical copper mining on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula will be held at the above date and time. Stamp sands have migrated onto important Lake Superior spawning habitat such as Buffalo Reef. Representatives of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be participating.

Stamp sands are the result of extensive copper mining on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Historically, ore was crushed through a forceful stamping process, liberating minerals in a process where rock was reduced to fine grained sand.

Over more than a century, some 23 million metric tonnes of these tailings were sluiced onto Lake Superior’s shores near Gay, Michigan, on the eastern shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Stamp sands are migrating across river mouths, along beaches and over important fish spawning habitat like Buffalo Reef.

Dredging is being proposed as a temporary measure to deal with stamp sands migration.

Associated Information:

Peninsula Harbour Monitoring

Thin-layer cap material
A sample of sand and slightly coarser material used in Peninsula Harbour for construction of the thin-layer cap remediation project.

Elevated levels of mercury and PCBs in sediment and fish contributed to Peninsula Harbour being designated as one of several Great Lakes “Areas of Concern.” Peninsula Harbour is the main harbour at Marathon, Ontario on Lake Superior. Mercury contamination resulted from historic discharges associated with the pulp and paper industry, specifically a chlor-alkali plant producing chlorine dioxide for use in bleaching paper.

A thin-layer “cap” was chosen as the preferred remedial option by government and the community. Construction in 2012 entailed placement of 15 to 20 cm of clean sand on top of the area of highest contamination in Peninsula Harbour. The project cost 7 million dollars with funding provided by the federal and provincial governments and former owners of the mill and associated facilities.

The intent of the thin-layer cap is not complete isolation of the underlying contaminated sediment, but rather enhancement of natural recovery due to cessation of the source of contamination and burial of existing sediments through natural deposition.

Provincial and federal government commitment to long-term monitoring is evidenced through the extensive suite of work to be completed during summer, 2017. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and Environment and Climate Change Canada are cooperating to carry out this work.  The Peninsula Harbour Community Liaison Committee, a cross-section of Marathon and Pic River area residents, also support long-term monitoring of the cap and Peninsula Harbour Area of Concern.

2017 long-term monitoring activities include:

  • Performance monitoring to evaluate cap placement and to determine if the native sediment has been incorporated into the thin-layer cap;
  • Remedial goal monitoring to evaluate cap effectiveness (i.e. determine if the average concentration of mercury on the cap is <3mg/kg); and,
  • Ecological recovery monitoring to evaluate benthic and submerged aquatic vegetation re-colonization of the cap, and evaluate trends of mercury in fish tissue.  Benthic organisms are organisms living on or in lake bottom sediment.

Scientists will also be looking at the sediment near the boat launch area and in other parts of the harbour.



Lake Superior Partnership Members Converge in Thunder Bay

Lake Superior Phytoplankton Monitoring
Monitoring Lake Superior phytoplankton populations aboard the United States Geological Survey ship “Kiyi.” Cooperative science and environmental monitoring on Lake Superior is carried out by several Partnership agencies.

June 21st and 22nd meetings in Thunder Bay let Lake Superior speak. The lake was given voice by representatives of agencies from around Lake Superior, working to implement environmental restoration and protection through Lake Superior’s Lakewide Action and Management Plan. The Lake Superior Partnership is just that, a team effort to ensure continued environmental quality in and around Lake Superior through cooperation.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) takes the lead role on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, co- chairing partnership efforts with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Partnership co-chairs are joined by federal, provincial, state, tribal and a growing contingent of First Nations representatives who lead day-to-day efforts aimed at ensuring Lake Superior environmental quality.

Examples of actions implemented by the member agencies of the Lake Superior Partnership include:

  • a cooperative science and monitoring program to better understand environmental conditions in and around Lake Superior, assisting in identifying challenges and priorities
  • a lakewide effort to monitor the health of fish populations, abundance and diversity of species
  • support to community events for environmentally sound disposal of household hazardous wastes like pesticides, oil, paint and cleaning products
  • preservation of important habitat for wildlife and recreational use
  • identification and management of invasive aquatic species, including plants like non-native phragmities,
  • concerted effort to begin major cleanups at contaminated sites, like Buffalo Reef on the east side of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where migration of copper mining stamp sands waste is threatening to envelop critical fish spawning habitat
  • cleanup, protection and enhanced public access to Lake Superior shoreline at sites like Pays Plat First Nation.

A list of the thirty partnership agencies would be much too long for this article. Representative of Canadian efforts through Thunder Bay attendance are the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Parks Canada and on the U.S. side by Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control. This partial list is buttressed by strong Partnership participation by the U.S. Geological Survey, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Indigenous communities  are a cornerstone of lakewide management. Participants at the June meetings in Thunder Bay included the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, 1854 Treaty Authority, Fort William First Nation,  Bay Mills Indian Community, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The Thunder Bay meetings were very focused. Efforts of every participant had a single point of convergence: how to harness limited resources to effectively implement the Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan to restore, protect and monitor the Lake Superior ecosystem.

If the lake spoke at the Partnership meetings in Thunder Bay, what did it say? It spoke with conviction and concern, putting forward solid scientific data about water quality and the health of fish and other aquatic and terrestrial populations.  Discussions included  habitat conditions, outreach and engagement, sustainable  development within the watershed, and even factors from afar like atmospheric deposition of contaminants affecting the lake. The Partnership meeting in Thunder Bay and corresponding  Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan are part of a concerted, organized, cross-border team effort to take this information and act in the best interest of Lake Superior and the many people that use and enjoy this incomparable resource.

Continued teamwork and conviction by Partnership agencies is critical to continued action and progress. Find out more about the Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan and related activities on, including annual updates on progress and challenges, Lake Superior Action Plan Annual Reports.

Lake Superior Areas of Concern:




Phragmites: Lake Superior’s newest invasive species

Recently, Lake Superior has become host to another unwelcome visitor: the invasive Phragmites, an aggressive reed which is tall, perennial, and chokes wetland habitats. While they’ve posed major problems in the lower Great Lakes for some time, the spread of Phragmites have only lately become problematic in Lake Superior. (photo credit: Ontario Phragmites Working Group)




What’s the problem?

To identify the problem with Phragmites, it’s important first to differentiate between native and invasive versions of the species. The americanus subspecies is relatively benign; it’s the spread of australis which is frustrating scientists and environmental organizations. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality published a table differentiating between the two subspecies.

Invasive Phragmites 

  • can grow to 20 ft high
  • has dull/tan stems
  • has bluish-green leaves that are flat and stiff
  • leaves persist throughout winter
  • appears in dense monocultures

Invasive Phragmites cause ecological, economic, and social impacts, including:

  • threats to coastal and interior wetlands
  • reducing plant diversity by out-competing other species
  • destroying wildlife habitat
  • drying of marsh soils through increased evaporation and trapping sediment
  • reducing property value by impairing land use (i.e. swimming, hunting, fishing, shoreline views)
  • creating potential fire hazard due to dry biomass during winter (source: Michigan DEQ)

The Ontario Phragmites Working Group and the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative have handy visual guides for homeowners or scientists looking to identify native vs. invasive Phragmites. 

How does Phragmites spread?

Phragmites reproduce through seeds and rhizomes. Rhizomes are underground, horizontal stems growing up to 60 ft long and more than 6 ft per year. Because they can penetrate underground more than 6 ft, they become resilient and persistent by accessing groundwater, and surviving both dry and wet conditions.

The quickest spread of Phragmites occurs when rhizomes are fragmented and grow new plants. Phragmites also spread with seeds germinated from mature plants during spring. A mature plant can produce up to 2,000 seeds, but viability is low where water depths extend beyond 2 inches.

What is being done to control Phragmites?

As part of a combined, long-term management strategy, any number of the following treatments and control methods can be applied to fight the spread of Phragmites. Herbicide is considered the primary method of control, followed by one or more followup methods:

  • prescribed fire, or
  • mechanical treatment (mowing), or
  • water level management (flooding), or
  • grazing by livestock, or
  • smothering with black plastic

The methods are intended for long-term management and monitoring, employed over several seasons to control the aggressive reeds. The Michigan DEQ estimates that they can successfully control Phragmites for 1-2 years without additional application. However, the reeds can recover 3 years after treatment if follow-up management isn’t applied.

The Michigan DEQ states that there are no current biological controls being used in North America for Phragmites. While there are no commercially available biological methods, some insect species and microorganisms in Europe have reportedly attacked Phragmites. The Michigan DEQ goes on to suggest that Cornell University is currently researching the use of these species as biological controls in North America. However, a 2016 publication from researchers from Louisiana State University, University of Rhode Island, and the University of Florida suggests evidence that biological controls for invasive Phragmites would also have negative effects for native Phragmites as well.

What can I do?

Learn more about Phragmites in the Great Lakes Basin at This site provides resources for landowners, public officials, and land managers. These include brochures, videos, documents, fact sheets, management guidelines, mapping tools, and more. The site also helps connect stakeholders with regional resources for Phragmites management, both state and provincial.

If you live in Ontario, the Ontario Phragmites Working Group provides EDDMapS Ontario (Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System), a digital tool which is used to report and track invasive species across Ontario. You can also call 1-800-563-7711, or email with sightings.

Further resources:

Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative website

Ontario Phragmites Working Group

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality: A Guide to the Control and Management of Invasive Phragmites.