Four the Water
Posted on: August 1, 2018

The podcast above is an absolutely fascinating account of some epic Lake Superior paddling, a “must listen” for anyone with experience traveling Lake Superior. See all Infosuperior’s podcasts…

Isle Royale, the Slates, Michipicoten, the Apostles…All in One Trip

Ever paddled out to Isle Royale? That’s 14 mi./22 km. Double in return.

How about paddling around Isle Royale? Call that at least 105 mi./170 km.

How about paddling out to the Slate Islands on the Canadian side near Terrace Bay? That’s about 10 km./6 mi. one way.

What about Michipicoten Island near Wawa, Ontario? Paddling there from the mainland is about 18 km./11 mi. Throw in at least 100 km./62 mi. if you circle the island.

The Apostles Islands near Bayfield, Wisconsin?  Anyone paddle through that group of islands?

How about paddling to, through, and around, all of the above locations – ON ONE TRIP. Now let’s add in a complete circumnavigation of Lake Superior, on the same trip.

By any measure, this is some remarkable paddling and exactly what three Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore kayaking guides did this summer. Experienced Lake Superior travelers might be thinking these escapades to remote, open water, Lake Superior locations, are cavalier. Not so. The kayakers in question knew exactly what they were in for, took all possible safety precautions, including early morning starts, and treated the lake with the utmost respect.  And let’s face it, there is absolutely no way that anyone could complete the above crossings in a kayak, without that respect…with even more, very humbling respect, at the end of the process.

Kayaking Lake Superior
Kayaking Lake Superior, July 2018. (Photo:

Cooperation with Northern Michigan University, Superior Watershed Partnership

Infosuperior felt privileged to meet the three paddlers when they dropped by Infosuperior’s office at Lakehead University on July 19th. They also picked up bottles shipped from the Superior Watershed Partnership in Marquette, Michigan to sample Lake Superior for microplastics.

The paddling group is comprised of Northern Michigan University students Karol Rajski of Lake Zurich, Illinois, studying Wildlife and Fisheries Management;  Jared Vanoordt of Grand Haven, Michigan studying Environmental Science with a specialization in Water Resources and Ryan Busch of Holland, Michigan studying Digital Cinema. Drew Etling, also of Lake Zurich and studying Environmental Studies and Sustainability did not visit Lakehead University and is joining the group a couple of days south of Thunder Bay.

The paddlers started out in Marquette, paddling east to Sault Ste. Marie and then west along the Canadian shore to Thunder Bay. When they spoke with Infosuperior on July 19th, they had paddled approximately 1000 km./621 mi. The group plans to continue south from Thunder Bay, then paddle out to Isle Royale and around the island. After paddling back to the Minnesota mainland they will head south to complete Minnesota’s entire Lake Superior shoreline, then east, across the Wisconsin shore, through the Apostle Islands and back to Marquette, Michigan.

Developing a Greater Understanding of Lake Superior

Infosuperior fosters interest, knowledge and respect for Lake Superior, building broader public support for restoration and protection. The paddlers’ goals are very closely aligned with those of Infosuperior and include:

  • raising awareness about the importance of clean water
  • developing greater understanding of Lake Superior
  • demonstrating passion and love for Lake Superior
  • identifying people who share passion for Lake Superior and want to make a difference.

As can be seen by their paddling, the group is also very action oriented and is:

  • collecting scientific data for the Superior Watershed Partnership and Alliance for the Great Lakes
  • sharing stories about Lake Superior
  • promoting Great Lakes conservation
  • documenting their Lake Superior travels through photography, film and online posts
  • sharing their story at film festivals around the Great Lakes.
Photo: Four the Water

“We Started Seeing These Plastic Pieces All Over the Beaches”

Infosuperior will endeavour to get back in touch with the paddlers for results of their microplastics sampling. Meanwhile, the paddlers had some interesting anecdotes and information to pass on.

“Four the Lake” is taking water samples at a complete cross-section of Lake Superior locations from the Marquette area through to Whitefish Bay: the Terrace Bay area, Isle Royale, the Apostles and Thunder Bay, to name a few. The group, in cooperation with Northern Michigan University and the Superior Watershed Partnership, is sampling for “microplastics,” tiny plastic particles, often microscopic, that have found their way into Lake Superior. Once the group was barely underway however, something really turned their heads – “nurdles.” Instead of the almost microscopic pieces of plastic they expected to find in samples, they were finding pieces of plastic many times larger, at beach after beach, as they paddled Superior’s southern shore.

As one of the paddlers remarked at the outset of conversation with Infosuperior, “We started seeing these small pieces of plastic all over the beaches east of Marquette.” Initially, group members didn’t know what they were, only that they were “very visible bits of hard plastic, perhaps an eighth of an inch across, or a few millimeters.” These observations reinforced what Marquette area resident Dan Wiitala had reported to Infosuperior earlier. There is no international boundary when it comes to nurdles. They are found on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of Lake Superior.

Four the Water kayakers Podcast Participants.
Four the Water kayakers Karol Rajski, Ryan Busch and Jared Vanoordt participate in a July 19th Infosuperior podcast at Lakehead University. (Photo: Nathan Wilson)

The odd thing is, that although these pieces of plastic are classified as a “microplastics” under both U.S. and Canadian legislation, and although they are the very visible end of the mircoplastics spectrum, they are not getting the “press” that other microplastics are receiving. As a matter of fact, many Infosuperior readers have gotten in touch to say they have seen these plastic pieces on Lake Superior beaches, while at the same time, the plethora of information about “microplastics” that they have encountered makes no mention of nurdles. Some people, especially those who have property adjacent to beaches where very large quantities of these plastic bits are found, have told Infosuperior they almost feel insulted. They’ve said that it almost feels disrespectful, both to the lake and to themselves, that this problem is not getting more attention and action, by the general public and even government and non-government agencies concerned with the Lake Superior environment.

So what are they? “Nurdles” are the raw material for all things plastic. Their extremely wide distribution in eastern Lake Superior could mean they come from a January, 2008 Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR) train wreck which took place just west of Rossport. A couple of the cars on this train were carrying nurdles, which ended up in Lake Superior. There is no way to definitively prove that this wreck is the source of all nurdles in Lake Superior.

CPR has carried out extensive cleanups at beaches in the Rossport area, on several occasions, spending well in excess of a million dollars. They also say they will support further cleanup efforts. Parks Canada, the organization which manages the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, stretching from the tip of the Sleeping Giant near Thunder Bay, east to Terrace Bay, has also carried out beach cleanup events for which area residents have volunteered their time. Substantive dialogue with CPR continues and while there is no, “putting the genie back in the bottle” as far as cleanup of nurdles goes, there is hope for improvement and also for better understanding. All manner of measures are in place to prevent chemical and other spills to Lake Superior, but they can still happen. Increased understanding of the nurdles situation may help during future events, with nurdles or other substances.

A Number of Important Points Have Arisen About Nurdles

As it stands now, a number of important points have arisen about the nurdles:

  • a standard method for quantification is required. (One person may say a few nurdles on a given beach is “lots,” whereas another person may say the same amount is “hardly any.”)
  • better understanding of the geographic distribution of nurdles is required, both in the immediate area of the train wreck, around Rossport and also across Lake Superior. Once a common method for quantification is in hand, a cross-section of Rossport area sites could be surveyed to quantify distribution. A similar survey could be done lake-wide. The Four the Water paddlers did not set out to study the nurdles situation but have provided the first documented account of widespread nurdles distribution throughout eastern Lake Superior.
  • Estimation to determine just how many nurdles went into Lake Superior in the 2008 train wreck, along with quantities removed from the lake in subsequent cleanups, might be useful in estimating just how many remain in circulation.
  • More effective equipment needs to be developed and utilized for nurdles cleanup, taking into account the need to minimize “collatoral damage” (damage to beach ecosystems).
  • Nurdles clearly demonstrate the nature of Lake Superior. It is a living, moving thing, taking with it all manner of living and non-living things. These things swirl about in the lake for indeterminate time periods and in ways which are not at all fully understood.

For Lake Superior area residents, especially those who visit the many superb eastern Lake Superior beaches where nurdles are found, efforts to deal with microplastics, without considering nurdles, can feel superficial at best.

An unidentified Lake Superior location. (Pukaskwa National Park?). (Photo: For the Water)

“It is inspiring to realize the amount of respect people have for this beautiful body of fresh water.”

Four the Water made a special point of saying that they would like to thank all of the people they have met on their Lake Superior travels and who were so kind to them. Jared points out that, “the biggest highlight of our trip was the people who are a community around Lake Superior. It is inspiring to realize the amount of respect people have for this beautiful body of fresh water.”

Infosuperior would like to thank Four the Water as well, for stopping in at Lakehead University to tell their story and for making this story available to the broader Lake Superior community through Infosuperior.  Infosuperior is grateful that Karol, Jared, Ryan and Drew are clearly documenting the presence of nurdles across eastern Lake Superior and raising the profile of this facet of the microplastics spectrum. Their extensive travels on Superior clearly demonstrate that nurdles are an integral component of the Lake Superior microplastics equation, in both Canada and USA.

One last thing – congrats to Four the Water for what is probably some of the most outstanding Lake Superior paddling ever completed. Only 1000 km./621 mi. to go.



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