My journey with my teenage son to the U-M Biological Station began in an unlikely place: Jazzercise. That’s where I met a friendly lady named Carol. I often chatted with her after class, and one day she mentioned that her husband had recently retired as a U-M professor specializing in fish biology.
“No way!” I shrieked: fish biology is my son’s obsession. When I returned home I shared the news with my husband: “Only in Ann Arbor!” I said.
We moved here nearly twenty years ago for my husband’s job and hadn’t planned to stay. With no family in town and no affiliation with the university, it seemed there wasn’t much of a reason to. Then we had kids and became part of a friendly neighborhood with just a short walk to our elementary school. And we met lots of people who made life interesting. People like Carol and Paul Webb.
When Adam needed to talk to an expert for a research paper on ichthyology, we called on Paul. Adam and I met him at a coffee shop, both a bit nervous to interview The Professor. But the grinning, bearded Englishman who sported a khaki-colored bush hat and wore socks with his sandals preferred we call him by his first name. For two hours he sipped tea, answered Adam’s questions, and shared his wisdom about fishes–and life.
“If you want to learn about fishes, you’ve got to think like a fish,” he said, encouraging Adam to snorkel streams, rivers, and lakes with a buddy–even at night. And this golden nugget: don’t focus on getting the perfect GPA. School is important, but “Sample the world! Get involved! Volunteer!” Then he invited us to be his guests at the biostation, where he’s been teaching summer courses since the early 1970s.
Founded in 1909, the biostation encompasses 10,000 acres along Douglas Lake near Pellston. It’s a community of students, researchers, and professors who use the natural world as their classroom. We planned a trip for August, and in an email before our visit Paul wrote: “Expect to work. Expect to get wet.”
Adam and I pack up the van and drive north a few hours to Burt Lake State Park, where we camp for the night. Early the next morning we continue north and turn onto Biological Rd., deep in the woods. The sleepy little village is just waking up when we arrive, and students are making their way from their rustic cabins to the dining hall for breakfast before they head off to classes in botany, forestry, ecology, environmental writing, and other subjects.
We’re here for Paul’s Biology and Ecology of Fishes class, and we settle into the back row of the classroom as the dozen students arrive. When the class realizes that a fellow student has overslept, several run gleefully to his cabin for a wake-up call. At the biostation, it’s all for one and one for all.
Paul has assigned us to the “Backstreet Bass” research team, which will visit different sites on the lake to seine, snorkel, and trap, measuring the human impact on fishes. He points to a pile of snorkels in the corner of the room and tells us to help ourselves. “Uh, I’m not much of a snorkeler,” I say, recalling my ill-fated honeymoon excursion years ago (lots of choking on water, not much snorkeling). “Well, today you will be,” he says, smiling.
After listening to an eye-opening lecture on “The birds and the bees … How do fishes do it?” and recording the measurements of some teeny-tiny stickleback fish, we embark on a pontoon boat with our team members–Paul and U-M seniors Serge Andreou and Emily Zubieta. At our first stop, Adam follows Serge and Emily into Marl Bay, and they teach him how to empty and reset traps and seine for fishes by dragging a large green net along the bottom of the lake. Back at the boat I help record the species and lengths of some of the fishes they’ve caught–bluegill, northern pike, logperch, yellow perch, common shiner, pumpkinseed–in Emily’s field notebook.
Our next stop is Mrs. Crum’s cottage for lunch. The widow of the late U-M botany professor Howard Crum welcomes us to her deck with soda and shortbread cookies, which we enjoy with our bag lunches. After more seining, we’re off to Maple Bay to snorkel.
I wade into the shallow water behind Adam and follow his lead, dunking my head in and crawling along the mucky bottom, breathing hard and unevenly through my snorkel. I finally relax enough to follow a school of bluntnose minnows. Emily records our observations from the boat. Adam, who’s been simultaneously snorkeling and videotaping fishes with his underwater camera, is the last to emerge from the water.
“Any day out of the classroom is a successful day!” Paul declares as we motor back to shore (we’ve each gained a leech). We take showers and join Paul and other faculty members for mostaccioli in the dining hall. After dinner, Paul gives us a tour of campus, then walks us back to our van. “I never tire of sharing my magical world with others,” he says.
It’s nearly dusk when we return to our campsite. I assume we’ll collapse in our tent from exhaustion, but instead we stay up past midnight throwing logs on the fire and talking about our day. We’re looking forward to returning to the biostation next summer, when Paul plans to teach again. I’m up for another adventure–one that could only begin in Ann Arbor.