By Angela McManaman
They share an alma mater, UW-Milwaukee, as well as bachelor’s degrees in conservation and an employer, Milwaukee County Parks. Starting August 26, conservationists Alyssa Armbruster and Julia Robson will share a tent, too. For four weeks.
The Parks employees and Panther alumnae will walk from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior, the deepest of the Great Lakes. Together, those lakes provide drinking water to tens of millions.
Attending UWM, a nationally recognized Princeton Review Green College just steps from Lake Michigan, nurtured the duo’s lifelong passion for the outdoors.
“Some of my most formative years, they were at UWM,” says Robson, a land conservation manager. “Just being there on that campus surrounded by natural green spaces gave me a new appreciation for urban natural resources.”
Armbruster studied conservation and led student backpacking trips through UWM’s Outdoor Pursuits program. The conservation program taught her the technical and research skills needed for a career in urban resource management. Now, she’s excited to merge her professional expertise and backpacking skills on the 320-mile hike from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior, titled “Walk to Sustain our Great Lakes.”
The journey is an awareness- builder and fundraiser for lake-restoration efforts and will highlight the lakes’ recovery from toxic pollution in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“You don’t see oil slicks on top of the rivers anymore,” Robson says. “A lot of the issues that our freshwater resources face are subsurface. People see all this crystal-clear water at the surface and think that’s great, but really that’s not reflective of healthy conditions for the lake.”
Armbruster and Robson have spent the summer strategizing their modest supply list (a tent, backpacks, warm weather and waterproof gear, gorp, Nalgene bottles, oatmeal) and mapping the route. They’ll take photos, wear GoPro cameras and conduct interviews in cities like Sheboygan and Green Bay. Their footage will be compiled into a documentary.
“I would like the documentary to be a healthy reminder of the progress we’ve made to restore our lakes,” Robson said, “but also really be kind of a wake-up call about why the lakes are worth continued restoration. If we take this ‘hands-off’ approach and cut funds for lake restoration, we are going to be looking at a hefty price tag to try and fix those problems later.”
The duo has already interviewed officials with Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Urban Ecology Center, politicians from Waukesha and Racine and scientists from the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences. They talked to farmers in Ohio about how agricultural practices contribute to dead zones in the lakes and to one of Lake Michigan’s last commercial fishermen.
“People know they love the Great Lakes, but they don’t know to what extent we need to protect them now and how what they’re doing is affecting the Great Lakes,” Armbruster says.
The hiking route takes them north on the Oak Leaf trail, into Kettle Moraine State Forest and two national forests. They meet up with a film crew from Rayni Day Productions, which will produce the documentary, in Sheboygan and Green Bay. Armbruster and Robson will meet with community groups in the two cities and even relax a little during extended rest periods that break up their 11- to 21-mile walking days.
The journey ends in Porcupine Wilderness State Park, where Lake Superior borders Michigan’s upper peninsula. The crew will be on hand to film the hikers final steps. For now.
“This isn’t going to end when we hit Superior,” Armbruster said. “If we want a long-term solution, we’ll need to make this a long-term conversation.”
They believe Milwaukee is the best place to continue that conversation.
“Globally, more and more people live in cities,” Robson says. “We have to learn to do conservation here. I think UWM and its conservation program are becoming a stepping stone for some of the best urban natural resource managers and educators that the country will see.”
Readers can follow the journey and join the conversation at http://www.wsogl.com/.