Northern Tier crews have become ‘rock star data collectors’ to protect Boundary Waters

How can a bunch of 8-inch disks tied to ropes save the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in Minnesota?

When you put them in the hands of a bunch of conscientious, conservation-minded Scouts.

A little-known program at the BSA’s Northern Tier high-adventure base has a significant impact on studying lake pollution in one of the country’s most popular wilderness areas.

In fact, the Scouts have become such an important part of documenting pollution in the Boundary Waters that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency called them “rock star data collectors.”

“The sheer number of kids participating has led to thousands of data points collected on BWCA lakes over the years,” the agency wrote in the September 2018 edition of its “Transparency Times” newsletter.

The agency gets real-world data about water clarity — a vital sign for lake health. The Scouts get the satisfaction of knowing they’ve helped scientists with their research. And, naturally, they get a patch.

I knew nothing about this program until Eric Peterson, vice president of the Charles L. Sommers Alumni Association, emailed me last month.

So I reached out to Leslie Thibodeaux, Northern Tier’s director of programs, for the scoop.

How Scouts become scientists

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota is a lake-lover’s paradise. Nearly 20 percent of its total area is water.

That’s why it’s one of the most-visited wildernesses in the U.S. And it’s why the BSA selected the spot for its Northern Tier High Adventure program. Each summer, Scouts and Venturers from across the country travel to Ely, Minn., to explore gorgeous areas accessible only by canoe.

When they arrive at Northern Tier, Scouts learn about the optional Lake Monitoring Program. If they want to earn a patch — and do a Good Turn for the Boundary Waters — they’re given instructions and all the materials they’ll need. Fortunately, because Scouts must carry all their gear across portages, the kit is light and compact.

Their main tool is something called a Secchi disk. This is a plain white disk, about 8 inches in diameter. It’s attached to what is essentially a long piece of measuring tape.

Scouts begin by lowering their Secchi disk into the water. They keep lowering until the disk can no longer be seen. Deeper readings mean clearer water.

They record the lake name, GPS coordinates (if available) or position on the lake, date and time, water color, and depth the Secchi disk reached when it ceased to be visible. In the Boundary Waters, this is usually about 10 to 30 feet.

When they return from the trek, Scouts turn in their completed postcards. At the end of the summer season, Northern Tier sends all the postcards to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. This year, they’re sending 481 cards.

How scientists use the data

There are two components of water quality: dissolved substances and suspended substances.

Dissolved substances are measured with an electronic meter. Suspended substances, like algae, are measured using a Secchi disk.

Because the Boundary Waters includes more than 1,000 lakes and streams, collecting this data would be impossible without an army of volunteers.

That’s why the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency launched its BWCA Volunteer Water Monitoring Program.

The BSA became the agency’s first major partner, “capitalizing on a mass of eager Boy Scout groups launching BWCA canoe trips from the Ely base camp,” the agency writes.

This success has inspired other groups to follow the BSA’s lead. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has since partnered with outfitters and youth groups to further expand their data collecting efforts.


Photos by Chris Almquist/Northern Tier