Talk NERRdy With Me: Deanna Erickson

Mar 16, 2020 | Lake Superior, Wisconsin, Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me

Talk NERRdy to Me is a column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Deanna Erickson, Education Coordinator at the Lake Superior NERR. A real Swedish fish, she couldn’t stay away from the Great Lakes. Her passions for community and co-learning are as deep as Lake Superior and as unique as its estuaries.

Nik: Why would you want to be an education? Couldn’t you have been an investment banker or a coal magnate?

Deanna: The money is so much better in education; it’s hard to stay away… What’s so perpetually exciting about education is that you’re engaged equally in learning, with young people or community members. It’s so generative; there’s so much that comes out of it in terms of connection and understanding the place.

Nik: You’re not just teaching, you’re being taught?

Deanna: I’m working on a poster for our St. Louis River Summit with a bunch of fourth-graders, and they’re all in Google docs editing it together, going back and forth on their data all day. I’m learning about how to study wildlife populations so I can help them with accurate information.

Nik: What’s your favorite age to teach?

Deanna: Upper elementary is pretty great, but middle school, they’re a little more engaged with the world and their immediate surroundings and that’s really fun. They can take on harder questions, be a little more curious. But early childhood has the cuteness factor, you know? They say really hilarious and extremely astute things and should be in charge, probably, of more things than they are.

Nik: So true. Did you get to work with them when you were developing the Lake Superior NERR Estuarium, one of the newest exhibit showcases in our system?

Deanna: By then we had been running River Rovers, our nature playgroup, so I had a lot of early childhood experience. I also worked with preschool teachers, and all my friends have little kids, so they’re like, ‘you’re gonna need these things.’ We really tried to structure the exhibit hall around what’s called loose parts theory; things you play with can be many different things. They offer options for the imagination and that keeps kids engaged longer. Basically, every person you’re trying to explain things to is a little different; educators try to find what’s engaging for everybody.

Nik: Speaking of different: you don’t have ocean tides at Superior. Please explain your quote-unquote ‘estuary.’

Deanna: We do have tides… of about three inches. But what really gives us the oscillation and mixing between chemically different bodies of water is this phenomenon called the “seiche.” Seiche is a French word that means to sway back and forth. In the Great Lakes our weather systems move from west to east. High pressure pushes down on the west, and to balance that out, a bulge of water gets pushed up in the east. The water will kind of rock up to the eastern, northeastern side of the lake, and then it will begin this oscillation all the way back to our western side. So about every three to four hours, our St. Louis River reverses direction—even more often than your coastal systems do, not to brag.

Nik: But what kind of range does that seiche have?

Deanna: It’s not always the same. Because it’s weather-based, it’s not entirely predictable. The highest seiches in the Great Lakes are up to 10 feet! And we have storm surges that combine wind blowing the water up to one side of the lake with the oscillation of the seiche—those can be really destructive. You get huge pulses, it’s called a meteotsunami, which is a fun word.

Nik: Many across the NERRS know what the moon-based tide’s going to be at their location 2000 years from now on a particular date and time. Your life, your estuary, the creatures in it—much less predictable.

Deanna: And it’s not salt and fresh either, though the water in the lake and the river are significantly chemically different. We can take a scoop of water from anywhere in the estuary and tell how much of it is lake water and how much of it is river water. The main differences between an oligotrophic lake and this very nutrient-rich estuary are temperature, oxygen, calcium availability, and nutrient availability.

Nik: You sound like a research coordinator.

Deanna: Yeah, man! My undergrad was at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point in natural resource management and conservation biology, then a Master’s in environmental education from the University of Minnesota Duluth. I worked in Utah and California, but water’s my thing! I’m from Northern Wisconsin, so we’d come up here. My great-grandfather and my grandfather’s family were all fish-tenders on Lake Michigan. I just feel like it’s in my genes.

Nik: A Swedish fish, Erickson. You talk about place-based knowledge a lot. What’s that mean?

Deanna: I live in Ojibwe territory in the Northern Great Lakes; the Upper Great Lakes are pretty much all Anishinaabe land. Even though things are written down now, a lot of knowledge, from long ago, is passed down orally, so it’s really important to spend time out in the landscape with people, especially elders. People know SO much because they know what their mom knew, what their grandma knew, what their great-grandma knew—and those things have been passed down. 

Nik: It’s long-term monitoring?

Deanna: Yes! Without ever having to sit down with an Excel spreadsheet. I’m learning to be respectful, to engage with plants and animals and the water, and the landscape as beings.

Nik: What does that mean?

Deanna: Oh man, you can’t put this in a newsletter, no one will talk to me anymore. I think what that means is understanding that as much as I have ways of thinking and being in the world, living and non-living beings around me do as well. Paying attention and respecting and listening to what they’re up to can help you understand them better. And it also makes you humble, because you realize how much you don’t know. 

Nik: Who (or what) has been one of your greatest teachers?

Deanna: There’s land that’s part of the Reserve that used to have a mostly Ojibwe village on it, and that village was forcibly removed. Through the years I’ve gotten to know many descendents from that village. There was a pretty well-known chief, a negotiator with the federal government, named Chief Osaugie. My friend, Mark McConnell, is his great-great-great grandson and has taken a lot of time with me to help me have a longer understanding of this place. We have to remember that estuaries are really important culturally, especially to Indigenous people, because they’re such productive systems. Every Reserve in the system is situated on land that has Indigenous history and ancestry to it, and so making those connections can really help convey more of the whole nature of the places that we live and work.

Nik: Lightning round. Favorite animal?

Deanna: The first thing that came to mind is our otters. SO megafauna. Nigig is the name for otter in Ojibwe, and so a little otter is nigigoons.

Nik: Salty or fresh?

Deanna: Fresh, man, all the way.

Nik: So obvious. Favorite cheese-based dish?

Deanna: Oh my god. That’s really hard. I grew up in dairy country, and cheese curds are where it’s at. You gotta get them fresh from the cheese factory.

ReservesLake Superior, WisconsinTalk NERRdy With Me: Deanna Erickson