MANITOU BEACH, Mich. — Jet skis cut their relentless arcs in the distance, pontoon boats putter along toting retirees comfortable with life at a modest three miles per hour, and vacationers load into powerboats and head out for a day of high-speed tubing — this is Devils Lake.
But there is one craft on the waters of this 1,300-acre, naturally formed body that is up to something very different, something seemingly unrelated to the summertime fun going on all around it, but something vital to the very future of these waters.
In what is a temporary biology lab disguised as a fishing boat, Cheryl and John Zuelke are taking the lake’s pulse, checking its blood pressure, and testing its cholesterol level.
They are the lake’s resident long-term triage team. If there’s a water quality problem, the Zuelkes will likely be aware of it well before the hundreds of other permanent residents and cottage owners that wrap the lake’s shoreline.
They are part of the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program, which utilizes volunteers in the field to maintain a constant vigil on water quality and conduct tests at regular intervals on hundreds of Michigan lakes. There is a similar effort at work on neighboring Round Lake, and the joint Lakes Preservation League assists with the purchase of the testing equipment the lake monitors use here.
The Zuelkes, native Toledoans, have owned a property at Devils Lake for nearly 20 years and have made this their permanent home since 2005. Devils Lake is about an hour northwest of Toledo, in the famed Irish Hills region, which has a mix of forested areas and rolling agricultural plots and pastures, polka-dotted with many lakes.
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“When you live in a beautiful place, you feel like you have an obligation to protect it and maintain it,” Cheryl Zuelke said recently from her screened-in deck just a few steps from the water’s edge. “We want the lake to remain healthy and natural as much as is possible.”
The sampling and testing conducted by the Zuelkes provide the biological parameters that will be passed on to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and shared with other scientists on the academic side.
The volunteers measure oxygen levels and the temperature at various depths, conduct chlorophyll tests, and measure water clarity with a Secchi disk. The Zuelkes also scrutinize the growth and spread of vegetation in the lake.
Much of the information they collect is entered on-line, while water samples are carefully drawn at various depths, passed through membranes, then meticulously catalogued before being frozen. The samples are turned in to a collection station in Jackson several times a year, along with additional water samples that are tested for phosphorus content.
“At this point, I would say that I am more passionate about helping out than I am knowledgeable about all of the science behind this,” Cheryl said. “We’re learning more about our lake all of the time, but I feel like there is so much to learn and know about, especially when you wonder how all of these factors come together and impact the lake.”
But Cheryl Zuelke already has a solid science background. A graduate of St. Ursula and the University of Toledo, she attended graduate school at Brown and taught in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including instructing a marine biology class that took field trips out on the Atlantic Ocean. Once back in Toledo, she taught biology and physical science at Macomber and Libbey before finishing her career at Start.
Her husband, John, operated B&B Beverage Center on Broadway before his retirement and also worked regularly as a charter fishing captain on Lake Erie. They have an obvious affinity for water.
“I’ve always loved the water,” Cheryl said, “so I felt very strongly about us learning the issues here, and then taking an active role in monitoring the lake.”
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She has an ambitious plan to research and detail the entire watershed that surrounds Devils Lake in order to get a more accurate picture of what factors might be at work impacting the water quality, which is still considered good.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Devils Lake is fed by Horton Creek and two smaller, unnamed streams that enter the northern end of the lake. The outflow exits via Bean Creek in the southwest portion of the lake, carrying its water to Addison Mill Pond, then to the Tiffin River, and eventually to the Maumee River.
“We need to move toward solutions, for whatever problems we find, that involve the whole watershed,” Cheryl said. “That is the only way to really stay on top of things with the lake.”
Scott Brown of nearby Grass Lake, executive director of the Michigan Lake and Stream Associations, said the Zuelkes are part of a vital corps of close to 500 volunteers statewide that serve as watchdogs at the water’s edge.
“The value of their role is really impossible to measure, because there is no way the state is ever going to have the resources to take care of monitoring all of these lakes,” Brown said. “People like the Zuelkes devote a lot of their time to being good stewards of the lake, and the fact they are out there, every day, keeping an eye on things — you can’t put a price on something like that.”
Devils Lake received a couple herbicide treatments this summer, part of the on-going battle to control excessive growth of both native and invasive vegetation, which is likely fed by runoff from the watershed. John Zuelke said when he and his wife first started coming to Devils Lake, weed growth was not a major issue.
“But then they started creeping in, especially near the Horton drainage, and now the weeds are worse there than anywhere else on the lake,” he said. “That’s really how we got started in this water monitoring.”
The state provides annual training seminars for lake monitors and a support network to assist the volunteers.
“I’m very appreciative of the state being involved in this. Once I understood the complexity of the issues, it was clear that they are trying to help us help ourselves,” Cheryl said. “We’re not really EMTs for the lake, but the data we collect is very important for developing the big picture. The more we know about our lakes, the better we can be at protecting them.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.