Peace on the Waterways


Written by: Sean Bertalot, UW-Madison junior and WAV student assistant

Bow of canoe with lake and trees in the background

When I was asked to write this month’s blog, I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go with it. As I was wracking my brain, I kept coming back to a saying from my childhood summer camp, one I returned to as a counselor this past summer. 


“Peace on the waterways.”


Said at the departure of a trip, I always thought it was a nice, poignant phrase. I love how it speaks to the calm associated with being out on the water. Whether you are in a canoe, kayak, boat, or onshore; a peaceful aura is always present. That feeling is deeply rooted in me. It has been a goal of mine to protect and preserve that feeling, not just for myself but for others. I have worked tirelessly to make water conservation the focal point of my academic and professional life. Ask my friends and family what I do, and they will tell you:


“He’s a fish scientist.” 


Fish are great! Most of what I do doesn’t have to do directly with fish. 


“He’s a fish doctor.” 


I am neither a fish nor a doctor.


“He’s a lime-ologist.”  


I do not study limes. 


“He works with water.” 


I like that one the best. It is the most general, but I think that generality does the best job encompassing the variety of work I do in school, at work, and independently. I love water, and that has been the case for as long as I can remember. For most of my life water was always just around. I grew up in Madison, learning to water-ski off my grandparents’ boat on Lake Waubesa. Each year our family would go camping in Marinette County, where I was always awestruck by the tumbling rapids that make it the Waterfall Capital of Wisconsin. As I got a little older, my summers were spent away at camp (break out the oars!), canoeing through the many lakes, rivers, and bogs of Vilas County. Upon reaching high school, my friend would introduce me to trout fishing in the beautiful Driftless region. Needless to say, I was hooked.

Sean Bertalot holding a trout

The truth is we are extraordinarily fortunate here in Wisconsin. We are blessed with an overabundance of aquatic resources that can be enjoyed in many ways. Our geographic situation between two great lakes and the Mississippi River is wholly unique. The landscape is dotted with thousands of beautiful glacial 

lakes left over from the last ice age. The mighty Wisconsin River is fed by multitudes of creeks, streams, and rivers. This natural bounty is not the norm, but living here long enough can make it feel that way. As I grew up, I realized these incredible features I had always seen as constant were not constant at all. They are living systems, always in flux, impacted and influenced by external factors. While risk can vary from place to place, the threats are always the same. Climate Change, invasive species, and pollution all play roles in determining the future paths of our waterways. It takes massive amounts of work to protect and conserve our water resources, and I knew I needed to be a part of that. While I knew what I wanted to do, I had no idea where to start. I lamented about this to my friend as we planted plugs as part of our summer job at a local greenhouse. As we took a break for water on a muggy July day, she recommended that I look into the Center for Limnology at UW. Limnology, she told me, was the study of inland waters and that she thought “[I] would really like what they do”, she was right.

That was almost 2 years ago now. Since then, I have taken every Limnology and aquatic ecology course available. Last fall I conducted a mentored independent research project with the CFL using satellite imagery to examine algal blooms on Lake Mendota. During this past spring semester, I was fortunate enough to join the WAV team as a student assistant. Working with the Water Action Volunteers program has been a great experience. If you’re a volunteer you may not have heard of me, but there is a good chance I packed your stream monitoring kit for the summer or fulfilled a resupply request. Throughout my semester term, I have been busy with behind-the-scenes tasks to help make sure that the most important part of the organization, our volunteers, have a successful monitoring season this summer.

Sean standing in a stream

As for me? This summer I will be working with the Center for Limnology here at UW-Madison as a research technician. The project I am joining involves using a tool called the FLAMe (Fast Limnological Automated Measurements) to map Lake Mendota throughout the summer. The FLAMe is a box mounted to the back of a research boat and pumps water as your drive across the lake. With enough passes, you can map the whole lake for a host of different variables. With frequent testing, we hope to better understand what triggers the large algal blooms the Madison lakes are known for. I am excited to dive deeper into the mechanics of our lakes and further my research experience. Unfortunately, to obtain good samples, we will have to begin bright and early at 5 in the morning when the lake is calm. But with a dozen alarms and a lot of extra coffee, we’ll get it done. Besides, there are worse places to be at sunrise than a calm lake on a summer morning.

As I look ahead to summer, I want to thank all our volunteers for the work they do. Seeing first-hand the pride you have for your local streams has been amazing. What you are you are willing to do is awesome and incredibly valuable. As I already said, it takes a massive amount of work to conserve our water resources. Communities that care about their water are more likely to have healthier, stronger, aquatic systems. The passion I have seen across the state leaves me hopeful for the future of our streams and rivers. Understanding and protecting these resources is the best way to ensure their health for future generations. That way, we all get to enjoy peace on the waterways.