Huron River Blues: Part I

Huron River Watershed MAP By Tim Kiser (User:Malepheasant) (Own work, data from w:The National Map) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

PFAS Contamination

I love my non-stick frying pan, my waterproof hiking boots and the propensity of manufactured items to actively resist stains. I’m just not sure I want those magic, miraculous chemicals that make these modern feats possible in my drinking water.
PFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances) are a family of synthetic chemicals that have been used in manufacturing and fire-fighting foams. PFAS contamination has been all over the news in Michigan for last few months.

waterproof fabric droplet
A water droplet DWR-coated surface by Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
Some PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS, are persistent organic pollutants that bio-accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and humans.
The health effects of long-term PFAS exposure are not well understood. PFAS may affect developing fetuses and young children, and increase risk of cancer, kidney disease, thyroid conditions and auto-immune disorders.

In Michigan, PFAS pollution was detected around Air Force bases where the military used special fire fighting foam, and also around manufacturing sites. It showed up in water near the now-closed Rockland, MI Wolverine Worldwide leather tannery. Turns out that the company was leaking Scotchgard-laced chemical waste in the groundwater and river for years.

Water flows, and carries dissolved chemical contamination with it. While it’s only taken 60 years for someone to start looking, water tests revealed PFAS contamination was a much bigger problem than anyone knew.  Private landowners discovered high PFAS levels in their wells. Due to high levels of PFAS found in tap water, the city of Parchment had to shut down its municipal water system and start getting water from Kalamazoo.

The City of Ann Arbor gets 85% of its drinking water from the Huron River (Source: Huron River Watershed Council.) Since elevated PFAS levels were detected in 2014, Ann Arbor has been specially filtering its water using granular activated carbon to remove PFAS contamination.

And it’s not just the drinking the water that presents a problem.
The “Do not eat fish” advisories first started showing up for areas closest to the PFAS contamination hotspots, they are now extended to the entire Huron River.

Do Not Eat the Fish
Sign at the North Fishing Site at Lower Huron MetroPark. by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0

The PFAS contamination of the Huron Watershed has probably been there for awhile – it’s only now that we’re actually looking for it. There are likely to be other point sources that haven’t been identified yet. No one is sure whether the PFAS can be cleaned up and when it will be safe to eat the fish again.

It looks okay, if a little greenish. Huron River from the North Fishing Site at Lower Huron MetroPark. by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0. 

Next time: Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Cyanobacteria blooms on Ford and Belleville Lakes.


A deer was here

Someone took a nap in my tomato patch! Note the smushed and well-nibbled stems.  by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0 

As the days get shorter and season draws to a close, there comes a certain point when the garden plants quit. The tomatoes stop producing, the patty pan squash withers up and the flowers all go to seed.   This year, we had some 4-footed visitors who helped hurry that end date along.

To be fair to my visitors, my garden patch is not fenced and I haven’t had too many problems with nibblers all summer.  I don’t even mind a few bites here and there, there has been plenty of garden snacks for everyone. I noticed that the cherry tomato plants, which had been done for a week or so, now looked like someone (fairly large) had taken a nap on top of them.

There were some other clues, too.  First, the hoofprints in the soft soil.

When you see hoofprints, think deer (not unicorns).  by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Next, the poor denuded sunflowers and okra stalks:  Tasty, tasty leaves and flowers!

Finally, the stuff they left behind: Spicy nasturtiums they did not touch (too spicy!)  and a deer scat “calling card.”

I don’t really begrudge the deer their end-of-season buffet.  (I think I would be far less magnanimous if the nibbles happened in the early spring.)   The days are a little colder and the wind a little sharper.    I would just have to tear anything still left in the garden next month when it closes for winter.  At least this way, the deer get a last hurrah before a long winter of  eating bark and stems.

Woolly Bears’ Picnic

White woolly bear on sunflower leaf by PPJ (2018) CC-BY-SA 2.0

In the children’s song, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a group of Teddy Bears has a party in the woods when their humans aren’t looking. (When I was 4, I found this song particularly terrifying. Maybe was the idea of toys sneaking off into the woods, or the minor key or the scratchy record it was playing on in my preschool classroom.)

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find a party of fuzzy caterpillars (colloquially known as “Woolly Bears”) hanging out on the undersides of various plant leaves in the garden.

As cute and fuzzy-appearing as they are, I avoided petting them. The spines in the caterpillar fur can sting or cause allergic reactions in humans, which is a pretty useful self-defense mechanism.

I’ve posted photos on iNaturalist to see if I can get more specific id’s, but I suspect these are probably some variety of Tiger Moths (Family

In other more terrifying caterpillar news, I also observed a hornworm (Sphinx Moth larva) on my tomato plant being parasitized by brachonid wasp cocoons.

The female wasp lays her eggs inside the hornworm caterpillar. (She also injects some venom and a symbiotic virus that inhibits the caterpillar’s immune response and prevents metamorphosis.) The baby wasp larvae feed inside the caterpillar’s body, then form cocoons on the outside of the caterpillar. It’s like the hornworm caterpillar is the babysitter, who has to house and feed the babies dinner (from its own hemolymph). Of course, when the adult wasps emerge from their cocoons, it usually kills the hornworm.

This is probably has helped my tomato plants, by slowing how much damage to hornworms can do by nibbling. We got a great crop delicious cherry tomatoes. On the other hand, I recognize a certain pathos in the doomed caterpillar.

More about how braconid wasps parasitize Manduca spp. caterpillars.


Zinnias and Marigolds with Bench by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0

On my way home from work in Ann Arbor, I stopped at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to spend a few minutes of quiet contemplation to end a busy week. When I entered the Gateway Gardens (the first section visitors encounter from the parking lot), I was blown away by the pops of exuberant color in “ordinary” garden flowers like zinnias, marigolds, and nasturtiums.

“Whoa!” I thought. “This is what I would do if I had a yard. Rip out all the manicured grass and replace it with a wild riot of summer color.” These plants are not hard to grow at all in Michigan, and have been frequent residents of my community garden plots alongside the edible plants. I just love how bright and cheerful they are, as well as how humans are not their only admirers.

Bee on cup-plant by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0

Images of color-drenched gardens swarming with pollinators have been dancing in my head every since my visit.

Tangent: For more Ann Arbor “Zinnspiration,” check out the chalk art of local artist David Zinn .

Summer time pause

Sunflower selfie!

An excellent time to slow down for a minute. An exhalation, a summer time pause. A chance to share some of my garden pictures.

Dirt rental Summer 2018 at Van Buren Township Park Community Garden

Summer is brief and bright and busy!

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua trees against the mountains. (2017) by Protopian Pickle Jar. CC BY-SA 2.0

Back in January, I had just returned to cold, snowy Michigan from a few days in California, including a detour to Joshua Tree National Park. Southern California was unseasonably warm and dry (which was pretty good for a vacation, but not so great for the long term hydration of plants, animals and humans.) I was amazed by the alien landscape of prickly plants and fantastical rock formations.

Eroded monzogranite rock formation with human.

Toby and I explored at the different sites through the park. The whole National Park is quite enormous, the only parts that are easily accessible to visitors are located off the major road. Being the week between Christmas and New Years, the park felt packed with human visitors from all over the world. However, just moving a little distance down the path, we were able to get a sense of the wildlife and plants in this transition zone between Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems.

Desert varnish or just natural coloration on rocks?
Desert trumpet (Eriogonum sp.) flower in bloom .
Tiny desert home in dry wash near Quail Springs.

Sometimes the strangeness of the surroundings felt like being on another planet, or being on the bottom of a deep ocean.

Humans outnumbered by cacti at cholla gardens.

Snow pants, ready!

These steps may be closed for winter, but the outdoors are wide open! Steps closed for winter by Protopian Pickle J (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

retro legwarmers

One of the things that I have learned since moving to Michigan is that cold & snowy weather is not really an excuse for staying inside. Instead, you wrap your shivering limbs in multiple layers of warm clothing, then top everything off with an insulated and waterproof shell of coat, gloves, boots and snowpants.

Photo left: A good first step. Now to get off the couch and get outside! Retro legwarmers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.

(Also important: hats, scarves or other face covering, but need not be waterproof if inside your crunchy tardigrade*-shell of outer gear.)

Tangent: Tardigrades are microscopic animals, also known as water bears, that are tolerant of extreme cold, dessication and other environmental insults. I also think they are extremely cute. Photo below : Water Bear by Aditya Sainiarya (2015) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Between the ages of 1 and 6, I lived with my family near Milwaukee, WI, where a similar winter climate necessitated my adult caregivers bundling me up in many layers of protective insulation. At some point, I must have learned how to bundle myself, because I remember pulling on bib-style snowpants, “moon boots,” lovingly-knitted wool hats, and those mittens that would clip to the inside of your coat sleeves with metal alligator clips.

tardigrade baby
Bundled baby in the snow. Cute snowsuit provides slight resemblance to a tardigrade. Public domain via Pxhere.

Maybe my early years in Wisconsin are the source a vague sense of nostalgia I felt when pulling on my snowpants and snow boots to staff winter break camp at the Nature Center. During first week of January 2018, daily highs hovered around 10 deg F (-12 deg C). To determine a safe amount of time we could spend outside in the cold, we referred to the NOAA windchill chart. As long we were in the “safe zone” with regards to air temp and wind speed, we could let appropriately bundled kids stay outside up to about 30 minutes.

Our day was a mosaic of inside/outside transitions around planned activities.

  • Kids Arrive: Take off coats, snowpants, boots etc for morning stations and welcome circle indoors.
  • Morning Activity: Put on snowpants, coats, boots etc. for morning hike outdoors.
  • Warm-up interlude and snack: Remove boots, coats and snowpants.
  • (Repeat with additional indoor/outdoor activities, warm up interludes including lunch and afternoon snack, until 5:30pm when parents arrive to pick up kids.)

Which leads to the following exchange:

New Camper: This is my first time at winter break camp! What do we do here?

Me: Well, we have a lot of cool activities planned. But we mostly put on and take off our snowpants.

Our nature center, accordingly to popular acclaim, hosts one of the finest sledding hills in Ann Arbor. This means that we incorporate sledding as an outdoor activity whenever possible during the course of the day’s activities.