Mike Ripley on restoring the St. Marys River for future generations

Mike Ripley doesn't need to look anywhere but his own past to tell you exactly why he first started caring about the waterways around Sault Ste. Marie.

He was on an outing with his father when he was a boy, and they went to a family member's cabin west of Sault Ste. Marie. There, Ripley wanted to spend some time doing some fishing on a nearby creek.

"He told me the creek had been treated with poison to kill the sea lamprey that were killing off the lake trout," Ripley recalls. "I then asked him if we could see the bald eagles' nest they talked about, but the eagles were long gone, dying out from pesticides like DDT," he explains.

"I felt a little cheated at that point, and I often think of that day as a kind of turning point in my resolve to do something about it when I grew up."

Ripley's family connections to Sault Ste. Marie and the St. Marys River go way back. His father’s side of the family are tribal members. Ripley's great-grandmother was an Ojibwa woman named Lucy Ashmun, who married Capt. Charles Ripley. Ripley owned the ferry connecting Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. with its counterpart in Canada. Under a treaty with the Ojibwa bands and the U.S. government, Lucy’s family was given a parcel of land in Sault Ste. Marie that later became Ashmun Street, one of the main streets in town.

"So my family has always had a connection with the St. Marys River," says Ripley, who was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula and went to college at Lake Superior State University. "When school got out each year, we would move everyone to our little cabin on Lake Superior (on the upper St. Marys River) and we would spend all summer swimming and playing on the beach. My grandfather’s house was on the lower river and he was an avid fisherman and boater. He taught me a lot about the nature of the river and pointed out the problems that he saw."

Ripley says his grandfather didn’t need to point out much. In the 1970s, it was pretty obvious that the river was polluted.

"In those days the steel plant and paper plant in Canada had no pollution controls and waste was simply dumped into the river," Ripley recalls. "If you had taken one of the tour boats as we did for yearly school outings, the waters around the steel plant were bright orange and formed a line of contrast with the clear waters coming from Lake Superior. And the stench, well, you can still get a taste of that when the wind is right. Likewise, sewage would regularly wash up on the beaches below the sewage plants on both sides of the river."

After graduating from LSSU, Ripley moved overseas for several years and then returned to the area in 1996 to begin work with the Inter-Tribal Fisheries and Assessment Program as the environmental coordinator, where he still works today.

ITFAP is administered through the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, but also provides representation and fishery assessment services for the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (CORA), which is comprised of five Native American tribes that have treaty rights to fish in the Great Lakes under the 1836 Treaty. As a member of the St. Marys River Binational Public Advisory Council, Ripley represents the fisheries interests of CORA in the St. Marys River Area of Concern (AOC).

Since the 1990s, Ripley says there are positive changes that have happened to help the St. Marys River AOC. Regulations forced the Canadian steel plant and paper plant to clean up their effluents, which meant no more oil slicks, discolored water or woody debris. Sewage issues from the American side were addressed by separating storm water drainage from sewage pipes, and Ripley says the East End Sewage Treatment facility in Canada was upgraded in 2004 at the cost of $75 million Canadian dollars and has reduced sewage-related pollution.

He says the AOC program also helped clean up an old tannery site on the United States side of the river, where 300,000 cubic yards of chromium- and mercury-contaminated sediments were removed.

Ripley says it has been the people of the AOC program and public advisory council who have really kept the progress marching forward. Budget issues on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the AOC didn't deter citizens from still meeting and pushing for cleanup of the St. Marys.

And the work isn't done yet. BPAC and CORA are supporting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to restore the Little Rapids.

"As the name implies, the Little Rapids is a much smaller rapids on the west side of Sugar Island that was greatly diminished when a bermed causeway was built at the ferry landing about 100 years ago," Ripley says. "The project will replace that causeway with a bridge and will restore the flow to the rapids. When this is finished we hope to see populations of walleye, trout and sturgeon increase and provide additional fishing opportunities for subsistence, sport fishing and tourism."

Those recreational opportunities, says Ripley, are exactly what is needed in the communities that have long suffered in the St. Marys Area of Concern. Ripley himself is an avid outdoorsmen who lives along the river and enjoys fishing, boating, hiking and more in the area.

"There has been a lot of progress," says Ripley. "But there's still a lot to be done. I'm proud to be a part of it all with some amazing people who truly dedicate themselves to restoring the area."

Sam Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor based in the Upper Peninsula.

This series about restoration in Michigan's Areas of Concern is made possible through support from the Michigan Office of Great Lakes through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
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