|Landfall of Jean Nicolet, painting by Edwin Willard Deming, 1904|
In 1634 Jean Nicolet was seeking a shortcut to Asia when he led the first European expedition through the Great Lakes and landing on the western shore of Lake Michigan. The peninsula jutted out from the mainland that would be one day become the state of Wisconsin and the treacherous waters between that peninsula and what would be named Washington Island was given the ominous name of Porte des Morts [Death's Door]; the littered shipwrecks being a testament to its name.
When Nicolet canoed on the western side of Door Peninsula into a river system that was filled with wild rice, wild celery, waterfowl, beavers and fish the waters were fresh and teaming with life. Whitefish, herring, pike, pickerel, catfish, bass, salmon, trout, perch and sturgeon were plentiful and grew quite large. He contacted and made friends with the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) and Potawatomi tribes who honored him with a banquet serving beaver, as the plaque on the statue commemorating the event reads located in the area that the historical event occurred.
The local natives originally were the ones who gave the name of the strait between Washington Island and the northern tip of the peninsula as the doorway to death, later translated into French by the early settlers. Death's Door has more shipwrecks than any other body of freshwater in the world. The water between Detroit Island and Washington Island has hidden shoals that are not navigable except for small boats and canoes.
In the 1800s, commercial fisherman, by then a major economical resource next to the region's farmers, caught millions of pounds of whitefish, herring, lake trout, and perch from the bay. Navigating Death's Door was the only way to reach the western shores until 1878 when the Sturgeon Bay ship canal was completed; shortening the voyage by over 100 miles and less dangerous. In those days, the prehistoric sturgeon fish was considered a nuisance when caught in the fisherman's nets, Living longer than 100 years and growing to several hundred pounds, the sturgeon were stacked on the shore until they dried out and set afire, sometimes used as fuel for steamship boilers.
The Industrial Age brought about more than progress and an economic boon, it brought pollution to that naturally resourced region. Paper mills concentrated on the Green Bay tributary that was the mouth of the Fox River. Water pollution became so bad that by the 1970s no one could safely swim in the river and children would take nuggets of sulfur from the riverbanks and light them afire to watch its colored flames.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act went into affect that ushered in the long process of cleaning up what industry polluted. Today, the lower Fox River supports about 35 species of fish.
|Monkey & Bighead Goby|
In August of 2005, phones were busy at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with reports of a mass migration of fish from the center of Green Bay to the rocky beaches of the peninsula. The beach was littered with it, one person using a leaf blower to blow then back into the water. Paul Peeters, DNR fishery biologist went out to the shore to collect sample fish to be tested, later to find the fish had died from lack of oxygen – thus the reason why they frantically committed suicide on the shore. He discovered that algae blooms had caused the damage, its prolific growth boosted by phosphorous, drained from the farmlands into the lake waters. The algae grows in the oxygen-rich zone near the surface, dies, and sinks to the bottom where microbe decompose it. Oxygen is then consumed in the cold zone that creates a 'death zone'. Most of the fish found on the shore was the Goby, an invasive fish first discovered in Lake St. Clair in 1990, brought from the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and tributaries in eastern Europe and the Middle East by commercial ships.
A similar event occurred again in 2011. Between 2005 and 2011, programs have accelerated in solving the problem of farmland runoff into tributaries and the Great Lakes with the chemicals used to grow produce. Since 2003, Dan Egan of the Journal Sentinel, has reported on threats to the Great Lakes, showing damage caused by invasive species and ideas that could restore and protect the world's largest freshwater system. His important investigative reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and 2013.
Pollution has not been the only problem, the other is invasive species, like the Zebra Mussel. This species has moved from the Great Lakes out to the Western states catching rides on small recreation and fishing boats because boaters are not cleaning/flushing their boats and drying them out when moving from one body of water to another.
I am an angler and am concerned with the health of our waterways; for that reason and that clean fresh water is required for drinking. There is no life without clean water.
Recently, a series of polluted water wells has been disturbing, occurring here on the Peninsula. The Great Lakes was formed by melted glaciers that also formed the geological formations that visitors enjoy each year, Door Peninsula included. Some areas have as little as one foot of soil before reaching solid bedrock – not enough for the natural filtration process. Even deep wells have been infected because the polluted water drains through fissures in the bedrock and reach those wells, once cold and clean. A well known local restaurant had to spend $30,000 to install a filtration system in order to use its well water for consumption. Much of it from farmland use of chemicals to produce food for people and livestock.
The Wisconsin DNR does its job to institute cleaning programs and provide information to the public to do their part. It is important that the public be aware and coordinate with such programs so everyone can enjoy natural resources and not be worried about polluted drinking water.
The abundance of wildlife and natural resources could never match what Jean Nicolet found in 1634, but it takes a concentrated and community effort to keep our waters safe and clean so future generations can enjoy the wonders and benefits of the vast resources our nation provides.