Stockton Island is one of twenty-two Apostle Islands in Lake Superior near Northland College. The second largest island, Stockton, has many noteworthy characteristics—diverse plant life, including prolific blueberries, the highest concentration of black bears in the world, and a long stretch of “singing sand” that squeaks underfoot.
At Julian Bay, the site of a long stretch of singing sand, Assistant Professor of Biology and Natural Resources Sarah Johnson (NC class of 2002) and three students measure elevation, dune health, and juniper statistics like width, height, sex, and mortality. The National Park Service has contracted with Northland College to monitor dune vegetation and to study the ongoing health of juniper bushes.
Johnson found her passion for plants as an undergraduate at Northland College going out in the field with retired Professor Jim Meeker (now deceased). She strives to teach like she was taught—by getting students in the field as much as possible. “This is what I love,” she said. “I wouldn’t be nearly as effective as a teacher without the field work.”
Johnson and college juniors Emily Leonard, Michael Sinclair, and Forrest Rosenbower spent five days and four nights nearly every week camping and working at fourteen different dune sites on five different islands. The lessons were vast. “I learned tons about plant ecology, and really got to know the Apostle Islands,” Sinclair said.
Leonard, a biology and natural resources student, stoops over a juniper bush holding the end of a measuring tape—with Johnson at the other end—taking down dimensions. She says she stared at the Apostle Islands on a computer for a semester before actually stepping foot on one.
“I think it is incredible that Northland allows me to get graduate-level experience as an undergrad,” Leonard said. “I never thought that I would be studying plants on the Apostle Islands or that I would be a coauthor of a technical report and manuscript for publication as a junior.”
As Johnson’s work-study research assistant, Leonard added data from summer 2013 Canadian Yew studies into a global information system. She then created maps, comparing 2013 to data from the 1990s to look for changes in the islands.
Leonard was one of the first to apply for Johnson’s three listed summer research positions. For dune vegetation surveys, Johnson and her students studied fourteen beach environments. Johnson is interested in finding out how kayakers, hikers, and weather impact the sandscapes.
The Park Service has been monitoring vegetation since the 1980s. Johnson and students are tweaking the methodology for better analysis.
The team made one surprising discovery. Through careful observations, they noticed extensive girdling by rodents on junipers growing on Michigan Island. Johnson immediately contacted Northland College Assistant Professor of Natural Resources and Biology Paula Anich, an expert on small mammals.
The Johnson-Anich collaboration led to perhaps the highlight of the research team’s summer. The crew spent five nights trapping small mammals on Michigan and Outer Islands and had an amazing success rate of captures, with southern red-backed voles being the most abundant species found among the junipers on Michigan Island.
“This might be the first documentation of the southern red-backed vole occupying such high densities and impacting a sand dune environment,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Anich look forward to conducting further research here. Meanwhile, students are analyzing results, writing their report, and processing their incredible summer.
“I can’t imagine studying anywhere else,” Leonard said. “I have friends studying biology and natural resources at other schools, and very few of them are able to build their resumes through field experience and internships.”