TURTLE LAKE - Steve Long maneuvered his big pontoon boat closer to a patch of weeds on the north side of the lake and then held the boat steady.

“Try it here, Cec,’’ Long said to his partner, Cecilia Riedman.

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Riedman slung a rake-on-a-rope into the lake weeds, let it sink to the bottom, then pulled it back in. It was a good catch. Riedman and friend Yasmin Scrivner pulled apart and inspected the potpourri of greenery.

“This is a good one - it’s coontail ... This is chara, I think. Muskgrass … This is pondweed … These are all native. That’s good news,’’ Riedman said.

It would have been bad news if Riedman’s rake pulled up any Eurasian watermilfoil, an invasive weed that can grow so dense it makes swimming and even boating difficult. Another invasive that worries Riedman and Long is starry stonewort, a newcomer rapidly spreading across Minnesota that also grows fast and dense and chokes-out native vegetation.

“So far, so good,’’ Riedman said as Long piloted the pontoon boat onto the next stop - the Turtle  Lake public boat landing where they checked for zebra mussels, rusty crayfish and other invaders.

Protecting their dream

Cecilia Riedman examines pond weed gathered near the shore of Turtle Lake with a rake during a recent outing. Bob King / rking@d
Cecilia Riedman examines pond weed gathered near the shore of Turtle Lake with a rake during a recent outing. Bob King / rking@d
Riedman and Long built their dream retirement home here five years ago because of the unspoiled beauty of the area. Nestled among Itasca County’s 1,000 lakes and hilly forests, Turtle Lake has excellent water quality, with a 17-foot secchi disc rating - how far down you can see a white disc underwater - thanks in large part to much of its 21 miles of shoreline and remaining undeveloped state and national forest land.

The lake, about 30 miles north of Grand Rapids, has a healthy population of trophy-size smallmouth bass along with largemouth bass, panfish, pike and some walleye. It represents the northwoods image so well that Hamm’s Beer shot one of the Minnesota company's iconic 1960s ads here memorializing the “Land of Sky Blue Waters.” It looks much the same today as it did then.

“We just fell in love with this lake. We knew it was the one,’’ Riedman said on our pontoon boat ride down the lake.

Yet despite its unspoiled northwoods impression, Turtle Lake, like every lake in the Northland, is just one or two ignorant or careless boat owners away from infestation with invasive species that could alter the lake’s ecosystem forever.

Just down Highway 38 from here, North Star Lake was confirmed infested with zebra mussels in 2017. Nearby Spider Lake has a flowering rush invasion. Coon-Sandwick Lake has Eurasian water milofil. Starry stonewort, zebra mussels and faucet snails are spreading in Lake Winnibigoshish.

Statewide, you can add spiny waterflea and quagga mussels to the invasive list as well as invasive fish like the bighead carp, silver carp, round goby and ruffe.

“When we started to hear about what’s out there, and what might happen if these things come here, we really wanted to do something,’’ Riedman said.

Invasive detectives

Riedman and Long found something in a program that trains and guides volunteer aquatic invasive species detectors. The effort was founded in 2017 by the University of Minnesota Extension with help from the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center and the  Department of Natural Resources.

There are now 218 trained volunteer AIS detectors across the state, said Megan Weber, a University of Minnesota Extension educator who coordinates the program.

“Most are people who live on the lake. But we also get people who fish on a favorite lake or just have an in interest in water quality and invasive species,’’ Weber said. “Minnesota has 13 million acres of surface water, so there’s no way we can do it all with paid professionals. We need these volunteers out there on the water.”

Riedman, Long and Scrivner have been trained to identify and report unusual signs and findings in the water. But they also have been trained to pass on critical educational information to other boaters on how to prevent the spread of invasives.

“Most of what we do is public outreach… education,’’ Riedman said. That means contact with  the owners of 308 cabins and homes along the lake (about half are members of the lake association) as well as people who just visit the lake for the day or week. “The program is pretty flexible. They let us decide what to focus on.”

They also are reaching out to the owners and guests of two resorts on the lake hoping to get them not just to follow state laws and guidelines to prevent the spread of invasive species, but to take an active role in protecting their investment on the lake.

“People come here to fish from all over,’’ Long noted, highlighting a likely pathway for invasive species.

Not too late

“There’s this sense of urgency,’’ Riedman noted, because it could be the next fishing boat trailered to Turtle Lake, or the next kayak, or a dock moved here from an infested lake, that could inexorably change their favorite place.

Cecilia Riedman examines an Itasca County zebra mussel detection device. Bob King/News Tribune
Cecilia Riedman examines an Itasca County zebra mussel detection device. Bob King/News Tribune
But what Riedman and Long learned in their invasive species training, and what they hope to pass on to anyone who will listen, offers hope: Less than 7 percent of Minnesota's more than 11,000 lakes are infested with an invasives species. Only about 3 percent of Minnesota lakes are listed as infested with zebra mussels, about 155 total. Infestation isn’t inevitable. Prevention works.

Now, Turtle Lake has eight trained and certified AIS detectors - among the most for any lake in the state.

Through their lake association, Riedman and Long have applied for state aquatic invaders prevention grants administered by the county. That program, which started in 2014, provides $10 million annually to counties, based on how many boat landings they have, to battle. Most of the money goes to volunteer organizations like lake associations and sportsman’s groups.

The Turtle Lake association plans to rebuild and refocus the message of a kiosk on invasives  information at the boat landing and provide fresh water for bait buckets. It’s illegal to bring bait bucket water from one lake to another, so anglers must change-out the water or throw their leftover bait out.

They also hope to expand their outreach efforts to nearby North Star Lake, where zebra mussels were recently confirmed, and to Hatch and Maple lakes that are just upstream of Turtle Lake on the Turtle River system.

“Anything that happens to them will happen to us,” Riedman said.

Bill Grantges, Itasca County AIS program coordinator, said the county will now pay the $195 training fee for anyone to become volunteer detectors. There are now 26 trained volunteers detectors in the county, he said, adding that “Cec and Steve are the best of the best.”

“All of these volunteers are incredible assets for us across such a big area. There’s no way we could do this without them,’’ he added. “When these folks go out and make contact with  people, it’s like talking to a neighbor or a family member. When we try to do it, I think some people just tune us out.”

In a statewide effort last year, 200 trained volunteers spent one day in August fanning out to inspect lakes where starry stonewort was predicted to invade. They made a new discovery in Stearns County’s Grand Lake early enough where control measures might be able to eradicate the weed.

“I think this program gives people a sense of hope. It’s not all doom and gloom with AIS,’’ Weber said. “We can do something to keep some of these things out.”

Each volunteer must put in at least 25 hours each year, but some do much more.

Long is retired from a career in air traffic control. Riedman was a marine biologist who moved into the corporate world with Coca-Cola before retiring. They now have the time, energy and enthusiasm for volunteer AIS work that they say is helping build a sense of community among lake residents.

“Sometimes this seems like a full-time job, like we never retired,” Long said with a laugh. “But it’s been good. We love doing this. We’re getting to know our neighbors through this.”

Stop the spread

Minnesota law requires cleaning all aquatic plants from boats, trailers and water-related equipment.

Drain all water from your boat bilge, motor, live well and bait container.

Remove drain plugs and keep drain plugs out while transporting boat on land.

Dispose of unwanted bait in the trash.

For more information on the volunteer aquatic invasive detectors program, go to maisrc.umn.edu/ais-detector.