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Weeding through the 'new normal' at Pelican Lake

Zebra mussels have 'cleaned' up Pelican Lake, leaving conditions open for weeds to grow. Submitted Photo

Pelican Lake has, for the past couple of years, been the unfortunate poster child of aquatic invasive species -- specifically zebra mussels.

The beautiful lake between Detroit Lakes and Pelican Rapids spans close to 4,000 acres and has always been considered a pristine Minnesota lake.

But in 2010, word was out that it had been infested with zebra mussels.

"I didn't even know what a zebra mussel was then," said Erica Johnson, a Detroit Lakes woman who grew up in her parent's Pelican Lake cottage. "It's been in our family for 70 years, so we've seen the changes," she said.

Johnson says she has sweet memories of swimming and playing on the cottage's little beach, but shortly after hearing the term "zebra mussels" two years ago, she saw what officials were talking about.

"When we pulled our boat out, it looked like barnacles in the ocean that were covering the boat and the boatlift," said Johnson.

Fast-forward to a year later -- the summer of 2011 -- and the soft sands the Johnson family had loved for decades were then filled with sharp, broken zebra mussel shells. They were told it would happen, and it did.

"They were like little razor blades all over," said Johnson. "The kids had blood dripping from their feet, and mine were sore all the time from these little cuts."

Wearing shoes while on the beach or swimming soon became what Johnson called "the new normal".

But she was told the havoc zebra mussels would take on her beloved lake wasn't over yet.

What happens with zebra mussels is they initially "clean out" the lake, allowing sun to penetrate down deeper into the water, which then sets the stage for tremendous weed growth.

Fast forward again to the present, and that's exactly what is happening to Pelican, according to Johnson and others on the lake.

"It's so thick that now we can't even swim by our place -- we have to go all the way towards the middle," said Johnson, "and it's just so sad. So sad."

Johnson, who says she's never in all her days seen Pelican Lake with a "nasty weed problem," had been busy chopping them away from her property.

"It's solid packed weeds from the ground up ... it would stop your boat if you tried going through it," said Johnson, "and my neighbors have also had to do the same thing."

Johnson says she's also noticed that she no longer sees the historically abundant native clams or has minnows nibbling at her feet.

"They're all gone," said Johnson, "and while some may say, 'who cares,' they'll care when it affects the food chain and there's no walleye or fish to be caught."

Fellow Pelican Lake property owner and member of the Pelican Lake Association Board Michelle Sletten says her experience has been exactly the same. Growing up at her grandfather's cabin, memories were always fond, as her bare footprints in the sand got bigger.

"Now I always wear flip flops to not cut my feet, and the weeds are so thick," said Sletten. "And while I've heard people call zebra mussels an 'inconvenience,' they're not. They are a threat to our lake."

Minnesota DNR Invasive Species Specialist Nathan Olson says because they do not have the time to do plant surveys of Pelican Lake, he cannot say for sure the weeds are solely a zebra mussel side effect.

He says all Minnesota lakes are likely seeing more weeds because it's been a warm summer with low water, but admits it's a real possibility that Pelican Lake's weeds go beyond the norm.

"It makes sense with how the problem progresses," said Olson. "That's what we've seen in other Minnesota lakes infested with zebra mussels."

Olson says he's also heard from some Pelican Lake property owners who indicate so far, it's "not that bad," leading him to believe some of the problem is personal perception or some may be personal experience, depending on what part of the lake they are on and what direction the wind is blowing.

On a somber note though, he does say at this point, there is nothing much the DNR can or will do about Pelican Lake because zebra mussels are so stubborn and expensive to eradicate (if they even could be) and will instead concentrate on isolating the lake and keeping others from becoming infested.

So what's the next phase for Pelican? What can be expected if we fast-forward again another year?

"All we can really do is try to manage them," said Olson. "They will, like any other species, begin to regulate their own growth. They will maximize whatever food there is, and then they will begin to fall off."

At what point that will be, Olson doesn't yet know.

He does say though, that homeowners can expect to have years where zebra mussels are all over, and other years where it won't seem too bad.

"It's the ebb and flow of nature," said Olson. "They need the right environmental conditions to survive, and if they don't, they won't have a good year."

In the meantime, both Johnson and Sletten agree that it's way too early to "give up" on the lake.

"If you love something and you're willing to invest time and energy and money into it, you don't walk away from it," said Sletten, "and I love this lake. I'm so fortunate to be here."