Every summer since I was four years old, I’ve been returning to a small glacial lake in Northern Wisconsin where my family had summer cottages. As a child, I’d spend all day swimming in the lake that was darkened by the tannins secreted by the surrounding hemlock trees. The lake was often so cold that my lips turned purple, but not enough to break a determined child’s spirit.
My first “hiking” experience was walking on the small trail that surrounded that lake. I’d often stop to kneel on the mossy ground to pick blueberries and wintergreen leaves under the shade of the hemlock and birch trees. In the evenings, I’d sit by the pier waiting for fish to bite. If we were lucky, we might catch a big northern pike and have a true Wisconsin fish fry.
It was those early experiences in the Northwoods in Wisconsin that inspired me to become an ecologist. When the opportunity arose for me to return to Wisconsin and work with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, I was thrilled. But the reason behind it was bittersweet. The ecosystems that inspired me to become an ecologist in the first place are now threatened by climate change.
A few weeks before I started my position with the Forest Service last year, I returned to that Northern Wisconsin lake for a family reunion. As I had for many years before, I sat on the pier and looked out at the lake as the sun was going down over the horizon. The summer droughts we’ve been experiencing for the past several years meant the lake was much lower than it had been when I was young, and some of the conifers surrounding the lake were showing signs of stress.
The potential impacts of climate change on the Wisconsin Northwoods are all too real—higher temperatures, less snowfall, decreasing water availability in the late summer and a decline in the iconic tree species of the Northwoods landscape (including hemlock and birch). But I’m still hopeful for the future. I’ve come to believe that all of us, from Forest Service employees like me to skeptics like some of my own family members must work collectively to preserve the ecosystems of the Northwoods.
This is no easy challenge: some ecosystems may fare better than others, and some species may be lost forever from the Wisconsin landscape. But I hope that in some small way, I’ll be able to contribute to preserving those formative experiences I had in the Wisconsin Northwoods for my children and grandchildren.