Earth Day at 50: Reflections from Youth and Experience

Dave Zeug, WI Green Fire, April 24, 2020

Lake Superior as we seldom see it in the winter anymore. Photo: Dave Zeug
Lake Superior as we seldom see it in the winter anymore. Photo: Dave Zeug

I’ll be honest. Growing up in the far corner of northwest Wisconsin, the first Earth Day didn’t leave much of an impression. In fact, I don’t recall much about it other than a bunch of old people standing around outside giving speeches. As a young college student, I had other things on my mind.  Maybe too many. I’ll always remember my advisor’s reminder during a badly needed intervention: “You know they’re using real bullets in Vietnam, right?”

Eventually, after the seasoning only time can provide, combined with a career protecting our natural resources and those who use them, I grew to appreciate the symbolism of Earth Day.

As I aged, the subtle changes in the north become obvious; some came slowly, at an insidious pace like the drum beats of bad legislation. Others came at a torrid clip, like the roar from yet another 500-year rain event tearing the soul from our water resources.

Lake Superior, my 4-season playground of choice, is a prime example of the effects of a changing climate.  Ample ice, enough to fish on or hunt wandering coyotes, used to be the rule. Now it’s the exception.

I’ve seen other examples too. Growing up, gray squirrels were exotic animals we’d heard about, but never saw. This winter I watched four of them dismantle a bird feeder at our cabin 2 miles from Lake Superior. I thought maybe some kind-hearted soul transported them here, but then saw more. Snowshoe hares used to be abundant, providing many meals for my college friends and I. I haven’t seen one in years now, just an occasional track. I miss them too.

But all is not bleak. A recent hike through the gritty East End of the Superior neighborhood of my youth led me to Newton Creek. Those polluted waters were the equivalent of the Murphy Oil Refinery’s waste disposal system, but as a child drew me close like a moth to a flame. After one of my misadventures I can still visualize the oil slick left in our bathtub. Although still considered impaired water, Newton Creek is noticeably improved, in fact I jumped a flock of ducks near the mouth.

Earth Day began the environmental movement by instilling a global awareness of our collective impacts on the planet and the personal commitment needed to protect it. It took a few years, but even a naïve college kid figured it out.


Photos near the mouth of the Brule River showing shoreline erosion. The region experienced devastating floods in 2016 and 2018.

Photo courtesy Dan Kephart, WDNR

Photo courtesy Dan Kephart, WDNR


Dave Zeug grew up and attended college in Superior before becoming a Wisconsin Conservation Warden. He retired as the WDNR Northern Region Enforcement and Science Leader before becoming Mayor of the City of Shell Lake. During his tenure, Shell Lake was designated a Sustainable City with eco-friendly ordinances and policies put in place.  Zeug is currently a freelance outdoor writer whose work has been published in a variety of outdoor publications.  He and his wife share time between Shell Lake and their cabin on the Brule River.



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