A Lake Lover Learns to Love Its Weeds

We didn't like to swim there. The waterfront at our summer cottage in northern Wisconsin was all muck, gravel, and weeds. The green stalks of the dominant plant emerged from the water like straws at attention; the submerged portions were coated with slime.

We were squeamish about touching the stuff and recoiled at the thought of getting tangled in it when we swam. Every year, our parents cleared enough of the weed to quiet our complaints and create a convenient boundary for my brothers, my sister, and me.

"Only as far as the weeds!" Mother said when we were small. We obeyed and swam safely within the limits of the stiff green spikes.

But we still envied the people on the south shore who had inviting sand beaches, and we protested about the stones under our feet.

In response, Mother gave us seines and showed us how they worked. Determined to create a beach environment, we stood in the water for hours, filling cardboard boxes we had set on the dock with stones, leaves, and weeds we had pulled from the lake.

When the boxes were full, we loaded them into our boat. Mother rowed with us to the middle of the lake where we heaved the stones over the side and watched them sink.

How purposeful we felt.

But our shoreline was not intended to be an exposed sand beach. The weeds grew back, and the stones washed in. The yearly cleanup was the task of Sisyphus, and we never did achieve the combed appearance of the southern shore.

When we became better swimmers, we lost interest in removing the stones and weeds. Mother took us then to another part of the lake to swim, a place where deep water, a raft, and other children made us forget about the slippery weeds and sharp little stones along our portion of the shore.

TIME restored our place to its natural state and delivered us to adulthood. Today, the shoreline at our cottage is characterized again by gravel, muck, and a healthy stand of the aquatic plant I now know as eleocharis acicularis, or needle spike-rush.

Its common name notwithstanding, eleocharis is a sedge, and like every botanical species, it has its particular niche.

In this case, the substrate of gravel, the depth of the water, and the amount of muck are the determining factors in its growth.

In our lake, eleocharis grows only on the east shore and only for a few hundred yards in either direction from our cottage.

The spike-rush is a forest of stems firmly anchored in the sand and gravel. Other vegetation, floating by or falling from overhanging limbs, is trapped within the forest and settles to the bottom.

The result is a dark and sheltered habitat, a tangled area that panfish use to rear their young.

THE spike-rush produces oxygen, critical to everything that lives in the water, and decomposing plant life trapped on the bottom provides nutrition for the micro-organisms that the panfish feed upon.

Larger game fish hover nearby, attracted to the vegetation and to the smaller fish that hide within.

I remember the day my six-year-old sister, at 10 o'clock in the morning and with a covey of other children milling around her, caught her first big bass right off the end of the dock. She was ecstatic; the rest of us, agog. But of course, the best fishing is near weed beds.

All this about eleocharis I have learned as an adult. To my child's mind, the spike-rush was a blight on the landscape of the lake. I wanted then what I didn't have, and tried to make our shore something that it wasn't.

In Greek, eleocharis means "gracing the marsh." The spike-rush and other native aquatic plants that grace our woodland lakes sustain the life within the lakes, protect the shoreline, and provide a safe harbor for the fish.

Even a little patch makes a difference. I'm glad we went elsewhere to swim.

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