Rivers & Lakes Fair

Visitors to the 2019 Rivers & Lakes Fair played a game identifying various invasive species.

There have been many casualties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual Rivers & Lakes Fair is now among them.

Held annually in June, the fair has focused on water quality and the best use of resources, not to mention holding several activities for youth. This would have been the fair’s 24th year, but because of the nature of the event – which draws an average of 500 people – the organizing committee decided not to hold the fair on June 20 this year.

Held at Aitkin High School for about five years – and more recently at Rippleside Elementary – the fair has given hands-on experiences to adults and children with such things as a lead-free tackle exchange, bluebird and bat house building, a laser shot simulator and invasive species exhibit.

In addition, there have been dozens of exhibits and programs featuring raptors and dragonflies, bears and visits from the Lake Superior zoomobile. As the years passed, more activities were held outside, such as a casting challenge and archery taught by staff from Long Lake Conservation Center.

Through the years, the Rivers & Lakes Fair became a partnership between the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), University of Minnesota Extension, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, area lake associations and the Aitkin County Planning & Zoning office. In the last few years, the Aitkin County Aquatic Invasive Species Committee joined the event to educate the public about how the waters are being threatened by invasive species that affect the health of lakes and rivers.

One of the booths “that would have been” is hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension. AIS (aquatic invasive species) detector Penny Stiles shared plans for that informational booth.

“We would have displayed and discussed various aquatic plants, invertebrates, and fish – both native and invasive,” said Stiles. “We talk about how to make sure boats and equipment are properly cleaned when leaving a lake, so that invasives are not transported from one lake to another.”

Then there’s a game the extension office has developed. Participants pick a card out of a blue container (represents a lake).

“We talk with them about which of the three (plant, invertebrate, or fish) they have selected,” Stiles explained. “We ask ‘do you think it is native or invasive?’ Then we do some quick research using the AIS Identification Guide from the University of Minnesota. Participants then can select an AIS Detective Badge that features either a native or an invasive aquatic species.”

Stiles said the educational goal is to provide the opportunity for people to become aware of both native and invasive aquatic species and how to protect lakes, rivers and streams.

Harmony Maslowski of the Mille Lacs Lake Watershed Management Group, said her organization would have had two displays for AIS education, games for children and information about lake stewardship or “keeping waters healthy in the watershed,” she said.

“Our volunteers who man the booth look forward to participating next year,” said Maslowski.

Minnesota Sea Grant’s Doug Jensen said his booth would have been staffed by trained interns who would share information about aquatic hitchhikers, show samples of AIS as well as how to identify them, how to prevent them and how to clean water equipment.

This would have been the eighth year Minnesota Sea Grant participated in the Rivers & Lakes Fair.

“Minnesota has more boaters than ever,” said Jensen, an extension educator and AIS program coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Sea Grant. “And more than 93% of boaters say they are willing to take action at boat landings to clean their boats.”

Jensen said Minnesota completed 511,000 inspections for aquatic invasive species in  2019, “the most of any state in the nation,” he said. “There are 825,000 registered boats and 1.4 million anglers. There are 30 million tourists annually and 36% of them go fishing.”

Other booths would have been hosted by Big Sandy Area Lakes Watershed and the Aitkin County Aquatic Invasive Species Committee, and more.

According to Janet Smude, district technician with the Aitkin County SWCD and a member of the Rivers & Lakes Fair committee, the decision to cancel this year’s fair was not an easy one.  

“The committee was concerned that if we held the fair people could potentially share the virus or get sick,” said Smude.”  We felt it would be best to be cautious.”

As always, stopping the spread of invasive species to other lakes and rivers, protects habitat for native species.

Overall lake and river health is better without invasive species. Healthy lakes and rivers benefit fish, wildlife and people. Remember, “Clean, Drain, Dry and Dispose.”

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