Working Backwards

By Marie Zhuikov

For May’s River Talk, about 20 people listened to a description of how the St. Louis River Estuary may be functioning backwards, at least when it comes to nitrogen removal from the water. Robert Sterner, director of the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory, spoke about a Wisconsin/Minnesota Sea Grant-funded project that has looked into nutrient levels and water chemistry in the St. Louis River for the past two years.

Estuaries on the ocean coasts have long been known for their role of cleansing nitrogen from the water as it moves from the land into the oceans. Sterner said this process is one of the less-tangible, esoteric benefits they provide society. Estuaries do this by converting one type of nitrogen (nitrate) into another, less harmful type of nitrogen (dinitrogen). Without this function, the ocean and lakes would become “over fertilized” with nitrate, which can lead to many environmental problems, such as the harmful algal blooms that plagued Toledo last year and rendered drinking water toxic.

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After 5 days and 130+ miles the St Louis River Water Walk ended on Spirit Island: a beautiful small island in the middle of the river near Duluth. I was honored to be a part of this life-affirming ritual. 

We began the walk in the far northern part of Minnesota, in the Superior National Forest, where the River’s headwaters are located. We walked on dirt roads, gravel roads, and blue highways, taking a route that ran as close to the river as possible. The St Louis is quite serpentine, so we actually crossed the River most than once.

Participating in a Nibi (Water) Walk is a life changing experience. I highly recommend you consider joining a future Water Walk, for an hour, a day, or even more. Three Walks are being planned for 2015, for more information visit 

This is a historic photo of Spirit Island, which is located in the St Louis River near Duluth, Minnesota. It’s where the St Louis River Nibi (Water) Walk will end, after 5 days and 120 miles of walking and communing with the water. I AM WATER is joining the Nibi Walk for this journey. 

All are invited to become water walkers and learn more about honoring the water and reweaving our frayed relationship with the natural world that sustains and supports us. For more information visit