Rod Olson, a Lake Desair resident, kayaks the Chetek River earlier this month, completing his survey of the Red Cedar Watershed.
Ryan Urban Chronotype staff
He says it is not a scientific study, but a Rice Lake man's mission to collect water samples from all parts of the Red Cedar Watershed is starting to show where water quality is affected most. After kayaking and sampling the length of the Red Cedar River last year, Rod Olson has now completed sampling of the Yellow and Hay Rivers and the Chetek chain of lakes and Chetek River. Olson sampled from feeder streams along the way, and all samples are tested for phosphorus, primary fueler of algae blooms, at UW-Stout. Olson, 67, said it's a rough survey, but is proving helpful to many trying to improve water quality in the watershed. "There are certain areas where I think we can concentrate," he said. Olson's mission has required hours of work but has yielded just as much pleasure. "This has been a challenge as well as a lot of fun," said Olson, adding he likes to hear the bird songs, whistling of the wind and gurgle of the water as he floats along at duck level.
The big picture Olson, who worked as a doctor in Rice Lake for more than 30 years, has lived on Lake Desair west of Rice Lake since 1980 and led several lake protection projects there in the past 20 years. His experience led him to be invited to the first Red Cedar Watershed Conference in 2012. There he noticed a need for a comprehensive study of the watershed. "Everyone knew their piece of the watershed, but what I wanted to do was to give an understanding of the whole picture," said Olson. He began to change that at this year's conference in March, making a presentation of his voyage from Benson Creek north of Big Chetac Lake to the Chippewa River. Olson said his presentation was one of many in a conference that marked a big step in the effort to clean up the watershed. "It was the third year we had the conference and there was a palpable turning point that there might be a way out of this," said Olson, adding that previous conferences brought out problems but were short on optimism. His popular presentation prompted organizers to ask Olson to be a keynote speaker at next year's conference, where he can then give an even fuller view of the watershed's pros and problems. "I want to look at problems and give people examples of when people and Mother Nature have worked together to hold the soil and the water on their property," he said.
Rounding the bend Olson takes each area of the watershed in segments. He put his kayak in early in the morning and typically paddled 6 hours before calling his wife Carol or a friend to pick him up. Sometimes a companion would join him for the kayaking too. A pontoon was used to sample from the large lakes in the watershed. Olson typically sampled every 2 miles and where feeder streams enter the larger rivers and lakes he explored. He keeps a small camera handy to take pictures of landmarks and wildlife. Numerous bald eagles, blue herons and deer came into view frequently. But Olson also captured photos of rarer animals like loons with loonlings and warblers passing through during spring migration. He braved a chilly early spring for many of the sightings on the Yellow River, which runs through Barron. Among his toughest trips was on the north end of the Hay River near Cumberland, where the alders were so thick he had to stow his paddle and pull himself along with the branches. But the river became a delight further south. The Hay River south of Hwy. D to Prairie Farm was among Olson's favorite trips, along with the Red Cedar between Mikana and Rice Lake and the Yellow River south of Barron. Those stretches also serve as examples of water quality Olson wants to see preserved. He said water samples taken from water coming off dammed lakes or surrounded by agricultural lands further down in the watershed show more phosphorus and algae. Olson said that if he paddled the whole watershed again, he wouldn't go south of Colfax, where things are noticeably worse. The northern part could come to resemble that if progress isn't made, he said. "We're going to end up paying for it anyway when the soil is gone and our lakes look like Tainter and Menomin," he said. Olson, who grew up on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota, said progress means to have less runoff from agricultural sources, which are easily the largest contributor of phosphorus. "Farmers like being on clean water too," he said, adding that keeping soil in fields is also key to the long-term productivity of the land. But measures to reduce runoff can be difficult for farmers to afford. "It's up to the rest of us to help make that happen and not point fingers," said Olson, adding that everyone can also help by using things like rain gardens to keep water on their own property. He suggests starting by going out in a rainstorm and watching where the water goes. He said his project is symbolic of what people can do with a little effort and support. "I'm doing this as a demonstration of what others can do as well," said Olson.