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Opening the door to local waters

Jed Carlson / Reserve Advisory board member, Terry White, left, and education coordinator, Deanna Erickson, pick up a display that will be installed in the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve on Barkers Island in Superior.

Since it was established in 2010, the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve has been casting light on the local watershed through research, educational programs, local talks and more.

Saturday, it launches a new public space, the Estuarium, to build deeper connections with the community.

“This will let people know what the estuary is,” said Terry White, Reserve Advisory Board member. “A lot of people don’t know what an estuary is and that’s what this is for.”

Deanna Erickson, education coordinator with the reserve, described the Estuarium as a place-focused, mini natural history museum that also holds a wealth of personal stories.

“There are a lot of people that are featured in the exhibits,” Erickson said. “Some of the folks you might know.”

The former Vista fleet building on Barker’s Island now serves a dual purpose. One side holds the Confluence Room — a conference space that seats up to 60 people — as well as offices for the Friends of the Lake Superior Reserve.

The adjoining exhibit hall is packed with touchpads, hands-on activities, a children’s play space, local films and Superior views.

“I want people who visit here to feel really proud of where we live, both because it’s such a massive and productive estuary, but also because we’re on the shores of this great lake and I just want people to have a little deeper connection to it,” Erickson said. “I also think that it’s really neat for Superior to have something that really features Superior and the natural beauty of Superior itself, not the whole Twin Ports area, but just really here. I think that’s cool.”

The reserve creates an additional layer of protection on top of public land for the freshwater estuary, an ecosystem where river meets lake. It encompasses more than 16,000 acres on the Wisconsin side of the confluence of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.

“So I tried to bias a little toward Wisconsin,” Erickson said.

A giant map of the estuary covers the floor. Visitors can walk along the streams and waterways to become more familiar with the geography. Photo murals along the walls capture local views. An exhibit maps out natural places where visitors can go explore, as well as what research is underway in those spots.

Information on restoration sites will be featured, as well as a meteorological station streaming real-time data from the reserve’s four weather stations and an activity where visitors can find the shipping lanes using magnets.

The close to $320,000 Estuarium project was funded by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant and a 30 percent match from UW-Extension. It has been in the works for more than two years. Wednesday, the wall murals were nearly complete and piles of exhibit panels were being prepped for installation.

“I’ve been here from the beginning,” said White, a Douglas County Board supervisor serving the 2nd District. “It’s amazing where we are now from where we started. Douglas County is very proud and happy to be partners.”

A lifelong Superior resident, White has a deep connection to the land.

“We want to protect what we have and make it better for the next generations,” White said. “We haven’t done such a great job of that. Hopefully we turn this around and the research just helps out. We have to make it better and preserve what we have.”

The retired millwright reached out to the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters Apprenticeship Program to secure free labor for the renovation project. About eight apprentices from the Iron Range to Ashland provided close to 200 hours of work on the conference space — putting up a divider wall, building offices, putting up sheetrock and more.

“We saved a lot of money on this side and the building looks great,” Erickson said.

In return, the on-the-job training helped the apprentices hone their skills.

“And they were all very proud,” White said. “They want to bring their kids here and say ‘Hey, I helped build this.’”

The Confluence Room is open for public events, community events and even yoga classes.

“The calendar is just booking like mad already,” Erickson said. “Everybody wants to use the room.”

A grand opening for the exhibit hall takes place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. A ribbon cutting will take place at 1:30 p.m. followed by refreshments and music from Oshkii Giizhik singers.

The Estuarium will be open to the public from 2:30-7 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays during the winter season. Admission is free.

“I just really want people to feel welcome here and feel like, even though it has a complicated name it’s an accessible and fun place to go,” Erickson said.

“We can’t make them walk in the door, but we can have the door there for them to walk in,” White said.

For information, visit, the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve Facebook page, or call (715) 399-4082.