‘If you want to see Iowa in all its glory, it’s here’


From VISIONS magazine, summer 2018

By Carole Gieseke | Photos by Jim Heemstra

For more than 100 years, students and researchers have been traveling to Iowa Lakeside
Lab, a 147-acre campus located on the shores of West Okoboji Lake, for a total-immersion learning experience. Lakeside Lab’s natural environment and diversity of habitats is a hidden gem for the state of Iowa. Owned by the state and operated through the Board of Regents, Iowa State faculty and students can expect to get their hands dirty, their feet wet, and their noses sunburned while they’re tackling big, complex, global and regional problems, one tiny piece at a time.

Three days at Iowa Lakeside Lab: A Field Journal



Today is Tuesday, June 20
2017, and photographer Jim Heemstra and I arrive mid-day at the Iowa Lakeside Lab
campus on Little Miller’s Bay. It’s a three-hour drive to West Okoboji Lake from Ames, and we’re hungry.

We call Lori Biederman, an assistant professor in Iowa State’s Department of Ecology, Evolution & Organismal Biology – she’s been the contact person for our visit – and she tells us to go ahead and make ourselves at home in our rooms at the Brown Motel. The doors are unlocked.

It’s not long before we hear the clanging of a bell, a signal that lunch will be served in 15 minutes in the dining hall.

Soon, students and faculty noisily arrive, deep in conversation and obviously well ingrained in the daily routine. We’ve arrived here five weeks after the first summer classes began in mid-May, and small groups of students are immersed in their studies ranging from archaeology to soils, algae to ornithology. About 30 students are here at Lakeside this week, plus researchers, professors, and staff.

Lunch is pre-plated and served through the kitchen window; choices are limited, but the food is tasty and diners can add salads, dessert, coffee, and other food items to their trays. Groups form at large tables near the dining hall’s large lake-view windows. It’s a glorious, clear, sunny day. I’m glad we’re here.

After lunch, Lori takes us to Waitt Hall
to say hello to Mary Skopec, director of Lakeside Lab. We talk about our goals for the next three days – to see and do as much as we possibly can while we’re there, to hang out with each of the classes, venture out onto the lake, get some great pictures, and try to understand what makes this place so special. We develop an itinerary, but Mary warns us: You can’t predict the weather here, and sometimes the best-laid plans are likely to change.

The woman knows what she’s talking about.


At 1 o’clock we head to the Field Archaeology site,
where state archaeologist John Doershuk is overseeing nine students who are in Week 2 of a real-life archaeology dig at a nearby state park. The students are meticulously excavating 1-meter squares of earth, each about 21 inches deep, to see what remains of an area that was once inhabited by Native American ancestors from the Prairie Lakes Woodland phase, about 1,500 to 1,800 years ago.

The layers are carefully measured and the soil removed, 10 centimeters at a time. Earth is scooped into buckets, then poured into a fine sieve. Items found are documented, and the soil is tested. The process takes four to five days for each square meter. This class is  four weeks long.

Much of what the students are finding near the surface was deposited here recently, since the area became a state park. Doershuk sifts through a few animal bones, nails, and bottle caps lying on a picnic table, laughingly categorizing the items as belonging to the “prehistoric 7-Up culture group.”

But in all seriousness, he says, this area is a “placeholder for human behavior.” As they’ve dug deeper, the students have uncovered beautiful fragments of pottery, 1,500-year-old chert, and a hide scraper.

Students represent a variety of majors – anthropology, archaeology, history, English, environmental science. For Ben Anstoetter, an Iowa State cultural anthropology major, this is literally his last class before graduating in August. He hopes to someday conduct ethnographic research for companies.

Later in the afternoon,
we tour campus with Lori. Eleven of Lakeside’s 37 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Key among them are five stone labs built in 1935 and 1936 through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); each is named for an Iowa scientist: Thomas Macbride, Bohumil Shimek, Samuel Calvin, Joseph Bodine, and ISU’s Louis Pammel.

Of the 147 acres that make up the Lakeside Lab campus, most is natural land. The campus can be divided into three sections: 1) the ecological studies campus, 2) the residential campus, and 3) the teaching campus.


Inside one of the stone labs,
graduate students in the Ecology and Systematics of Algae class are studying what they collected this morning on Spirit Lake. The contents of the watery samples are dotted onto microscope slides, and amazing images come up on computer screens.

“What we’re looking at with the microscope is 3.7 billion years old,” explains the professor, Kalina Manoylov.

Students in this class have come from all over the country to study here. Each day, they go out on one of Iowa’s great lakes and collect live materials from different habitats. Researchers here have been studying these same locations for more than 100 years. Katie Johnson, a University of Georgia graduate student, shows us pictures of diatoms through the research-grade microscope. A field book from 1915 sits nearby. Johnson’s research project is comparing the community composition of today with that of 100 years ago.

On the other side of the room,  Kristin Briggs from Florida International University in Miami is holding a pipette filled with lake water, squeezing it gently onto a glass slide. One of her university professors sent her here to learn more about algae, she tells us. is is a world-renowned research site. Her graduate work is focused on Everglades restoration.

“I want people to love algae like I love algae,” she says.

In another stone lab,
we see evidence of the Soil Formation and Landscape Relationships class, but no people. Turns out, they are on an overnight field trip to northeast Iowa. We move on.

We meet one of the two artists-in-residence here this summer. Brian Schorn of St. Helen, Mich., is working on 3-D art inspired by the randomness, order, and chaos in the environment. And using a fair amount of prairie grass.

Continuing on, we get a taste of some of the wonderful collections that are hidden away in the back rooms of each of the historic buildings. Here’s the herbarium, with plant samples dating back to 1919. We plan to come back tomorrow when we have more time.

Down by the lake we see the Main Cottage, the only original structure from the late 1800s. The nearby dining hall was moved to Lakeside in the early 1900s.

“Every building has a history,” Lori tells us.

It’s late afternoon,
and time to get out on the lake. We jump on the pontoon boat used by Lakeside classes  and researchers and head off. Our destination: the GLEON buoy. GLEON stands for Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network, and the buoy inspires innovative science by sharing and interpreting water quality and weather data on West Okoboji.You can access the information from anywhere in the world. This little nondescript buoy  floating in the water is apparently a very big, scientific deal.

It was nice to be out on the water.
But soon we’re back on land, hopping into a ranger vehicle. Lori is driving us to a prairie, AKA the “north 40,” and we’re bouncing around like crazy, threatening to be bucked out.

The ecological studies campus occupies more than three-fourths of the land mass at Lakeside, including the entire northern portion. The northwest part is being restored to prairie. Another 23 acres to the immediate east is reconstructed prairie, planed in 2002-03. A second-growth woods of box elder and other trees separates these areas from West Okoboji Lake and the residential campus to the south.

Lori proudly shows off the vast prairie, with its wide variety of unique, native species. Actually, “geeking out” would not be too strong a description. She’s obviously passionate about this place, and it’s infectious.

Our first day is almost over,
but not before we have dinner in the dining hall and attend an evening lecture titled “Weather Whiplash” in Mahan Hall, a facility built in 1961 and renovated in 2003. Tonight Amy Burgin, a professor at the University of Kansas, is talking about weather’s impact on the glacially created Iowa Great Lakes and presenting other fascinating research findings, to not only the students and faculty here at Lakeside but also a number of folks from the community.



It’s early morning,
and Jim and I walk down to the lake to take some pictures of the sunrise. Jim says, “Wow, it looks like rain in the west. Look at that cloud above your head.” Before I can even respond, it begins to pour and we race, old-person style, up the hill. Ugh, talk about weather whiplash.

Dripping, we sit on the protected porch of the Brown Motel, watching the rain and listening to the thunder, thinking this is not a good thing. We’re supposed to be going out on the boat this morning with the algae class to collect samples, but this storm cell looks big. It’s probably going to rain for a while.

Right now, it’s almost breakfast time and the algae class outing is two-and-a-half hours from now, so we will see what happens. Meanwhile, we watch a pair of newborn fawns play on the lawn under the watchful eye of their mother.

Cautiously optimistic, we meet with faculty at breakfast. All the outdoor classes are canceled, they tell us. Everyone is working in the labs this morning. Very disappointing. Hoping it clears off this afternoon. Everybody has out mobile weather apps, comparing radar.

“That’s field work. Whatever comes, we take,” Kalina Manoylov says matter-of-factly.

But this is our only full day here, and we need to make it count.

So, off we go, tromping through the wet grass,
to more fully explore the collections in the back rooms of the stone labs. In one room we  find a faunal collection. Wooden cabinets are filled with shelves of animal bones, by category: mandibles, skulls, turtle shells, and other bones.

In another cabinet, painted gunmetal gray, is a collection of “Insects in Alcohol.” Inside are tiny vials of liquid with insects inside. Cardboard boxes, tackle boxes, wooden boxes – filled with who knows what treasures? Soil core samples. Old canning jars filled with liquid and preserved fish and other stuff I can’t identify. Tools, an old microscope, aquarium, scales, a soil-moisture meter. Some of these things seem new; other stuff looks like it came from 1965, and some looks as though it’s been here since 1920. It probably has.

Flora of Iowa botanical samples are shelved in the Bodine Lab. Catalogued in 1944, some of the Lakeside Herbarium samples date as far back as 1887. In the King Lab, we strike gold: the late Lois Tiffany’s mushroom collection. An ISU distinguished professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology, Tiffany (’45 botany, MS ’47, PhD ’50) was a giant in the fields of mycology (fungi) and botany, so this is really exciting. We open cabinets and drawers to find samples of giant puffball, mycenastrum, echinodontium, and many more fungal species. Some are preserved in liquid in jars, but most are dried in plastic boxes. An extraordinary collection.

In another cabinet, we find wooden drawers filled with the insect teaching collection. There’s a strong smell of mothballs. My favorite collections are the butterflies — each one is meticulously preserved and looks as if it could fly away at any moment. Another drawer houses cases of preserved moths — also beautiful. I chuckle over the irony of using moth balls to prevent the moth collection from being destroyed…by moths.

We check in on the classes,
all working indoors until the rain decides to stop. In Shimek Hall, perhaps the most beautiful of all the stone labs, the ornithology class is getting a taxidermy lesson. Using scissors, knives, borax, cotton batting, and cornmeal, students quietly work under the guidance of professor Neil Bernstein to make deceased birds look lively and natural.

In the Calvin Lab, the archaeology class is cleaning up the artifacts they found yesterday at the state park site. They’d clearly rather be digging, but the rain has forced them indoors. They wash the samples, label them, and leave them to dry on paper-towel-lined
cookie sheets. They’ve found a piece of Sioux quartzite at level 7 and a bone fragment from a large deer or perhaps an elk at level 5.

Professor Doershuk tells us, “Every square we open [at the archaeology site] will give us another peek into the whole area. The trick is going from bits and pieces to the behavior that created it. That’s the challenging but fun part.”

Suddenly, the sun appears through the windows, and the whole lab lights up.

“Let’s gear up and head to the site!” Doershuk says.

It has finally quit raining.

While the class groups head to their field sites,
I sit down with Lakeside Lab director Mary Skopec for an in-depth discussion about the unique opportunities Lakeside provides to the state of Iowa.

After dinner and a walk,
Jim and I eagerly connect with Neil Bernstein’s ornithology class. The group is on the north side of the Lakeside camps, setting up mist nets to catch and band birds. The idea is to set up  these find nets — stretching from about 8 feet in the air down to about 2 feet off the ground — on the edge of a wooded area where birds have congregated during the day. As dusk approaches, the birds will fly out of the area and get caught in the nets, allowing students to record information about each bird, including weight and other characteristics, and to place a tiny tracking band around its left.

I’m excited to see the birds up close. But first, we wait.

Bernstein says dryly,” All we do is wait. This is real biology .”

And then, a flurry of activity. We have our first bird! It’s a song sparrow. One of the students, Serena, carefully bands the bird – her first. The group looks at the bird’s characteristics up close as Bernstein holds it gently in his fist.

The next bird is a yellow warbler. The bird struggles and becomes tangled in the net. Finally freed, we see that he already has a band. Bernstein describes him as a student records the capture in a field journal:

“Band number 2170. Banded last summer. Recaptured male warbler. Neotropical migrant. Migrates to South and Central America.” And, Bernstein adds, because he has now been caught twice in the mist net, this bird is “spectacularly unlucky.”

Our next bird is a male goldfinch. Then a gray catbird with a black crown and a bad attitude. And then a tiny common yellowthroat.

The ornithology class generally catches 8-15 birds during a typical sunrise or sunset period, Bernstein says. Tonight is average; they catch a dozen birds.


We leave the ornithology students
still recording bird information, and meet up with a different group to go out on the lake to watch the sunset. This is the best weather we’ve had all day, and everyone is relaxed, joking, and enjoying the scenery. There is no data to record, no lessons to be learned. The sunset is spectacular.

But before we’re back to shore, we can already see thunderclouds forming to the west. Another storm is coming.



The next morning,
there’s another rain delay, and I’m officially panicked. This is our last day here. Jim and I were scheduled to go out with the algae class at 9 a.m., but that’s been pushed back — again. We cross our fingers for a break in this blasted weather pattern.

Meanwhile, the soils class, taught by ISU professor of agronomy Lee Burras, has returned from its field trip to the Paleozoic Plateau area of northeast Iowa, near Decorah. Back in the stone lab, the small class is comparing ancient rock with glacial sediment, discussing glaciers and rifts, and taking a close-up look at core samples collected as a group. They compare the color of the soil, which changes depending on the amount of water it contains, with the Field Book for Describing and Sampling Soils. This particular sample has a high amount of clay.

Burras has been teaching at Lakeside for 13 summers.

“I love teaching these field classes,” he says. “Iowa State has been involved with Iowa Lakewide Lab for a long time.”

At 10 a.m., in the middle of the soil core discussion,
my phone rings. The algae class is in the boat, waiting impatiently for us to go out on the lake. The storm has passed. We run to the dock.


The class this morning is headed to the Triboji Canal
to collect algae samples. No sample represents the whole lake, Professor Manoylov tells me. They collect samples in the canal, at the center of lake, at the edge right o of a dock, and other places. Samples come from the same areas each time in order to track changes in the four Okoboji lakes.

When we arrive at our first sample location mid-lake, the students pair up into three teams of two, each with a job to do. Reaching off the side of the boat, one group scrapes algae off of a buoy and take measurements: dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH. Another group puts water from a turkey baster into plastic bags, carefully labeling each bag. Another checks the turbidity (clearness) of the water. Th e three teams work simultaneously, quickly and efficiently. You can tell they’ve done this dance before. Everything will be labeled and ready to analyze when the group gets back in the lab.

What will today’s algae be like? The rain will have disturbed it, and the pH will probably be neutral. Fertilizers run into the lake when it rains, so that has an e ect on the water quality.

We’re on the move again – wow, that all happened really fast. We go into the canal, where the water is calmer and relatively shallow. Manoylov says the canal is very unique in terms of algae. There’s a lot of phytoplankton here. The teams again do their collection, and then they’re finished.

On the way back to campus,
I talk to a graduate student from Florida who just began a master’s program. He tells me his professor suggested he spend the summer here in Iowa, so he enrolled in the four week diatom class and then added another four-week class to study algae. “The diatom class is really well-regarded,” he says.

Before we make it back, the boat dies twice. Apparently this happens all the time. e driver calls someone and does a bit of McGyvering, and the boat engine sputters to life. We make it back to the dock.

11:30. Back on land.
The soils class is outside taking more core samples. It’s suddenly very sunny.

Professor Burras encourages one of the students to drive the truck to the field site. (“It’s a field class!” he says enthusiastically. “Everyone needs the experience of driving the big truck!”) The process of core sampling is loud and dirty.

Once a sample is extracted from the site, the students measure “horizons,” look at a color sample book, and describe the soil’s shape, color, depth, and morphology. Burras asks the students to evaluate if soil would be good for growing corn. What else? How can we offer information that’s useful to other people?

Kata McCarville is one of the soils students, but she’s also a teacher at Upper Iowa University. She brought one of her geology classes here to Lakeside last spring. This soils class, she says, is professional development for her.

“It’s been an amazing class,” she tells me. “A phenomenal opportunity.”


It’s been a phenomenal opportunity
for me, too. Our time at Lakeside has flown by. Jim and I say our goodbyes and head back to Ames. Three days here was not enough.

This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.

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