By Mackenzie Consoer
The old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child” is often adapted to describe other societal goals. In the context of Lake Pepin, one might say it takes many united villages to save the lake. Of course, leadership is a necessary ingredient to spark action. In Red Wing, Bruce Ause has been the linchpin to community networks that have supported both kids and the environment for decades.
In 1970, Bruce Ause moved to Red Wing with his wife, Kathy, to become the first Executive Director of the Environmental Learning Center (ELC), an organization that uses an experiential approach to outdoor education. Since retiring, Bruce has continued to be an active civic leader, working with the Minnesota Audubon, the Red Wing Eagle Watch, and even PFLAG. As an astute observer of the natural world, he also keeps a blog, called “Wacouta Nature Notes” where he tracks seasons, wildlife, and ecological conditions around Lake Pepin.
An Educator First
Bruce is modest about his role in the community, even uncomfortable thinking about himself as a leader. He prefers being remembered as an educator. He describes, “I have never really looked at myself as a leader. I grew up in a family of educators. Both my parents taught school, my brother and sister taught school, and even my grandmother was an elementary teacher. I guess I’ve just tried to follow in their footsteps. It’s not my nature to be a leader, but I think you can make a difference if you enjoy what you’re doing.”
In talking with Bruce, it’s clear that he doesn’t just enjoy what he does, but that he cares deeply about the issues, people, and places involved along the way. With a gentle demeanor and quiet confidence, Bruce might not take the leadership reigns, but people around him quickly hand them over.
In 1970, Bruce was already ahead of his time. Since outdoor education didn’t formally exist yet, he had chosen to get a Master’s Degree in Ecology and move into education afterwards. After graduating, he reached out to few job placement groups, which were convinced no opportunities existed for outdoor education. However, it didn’t take long before Bruce received a phone call from the Environmental Learning Center in Red Wing.
“It was a one in a million opportunity,” Bruce recalls. “I was just fortunate, as in so many cases, to be in the right place and the right time. And it has made all the difference in my life.”
At that time, the ELC was just getting started. Bruce was free to simply “make something the community likes.” Red Wing was thirsty for an organization that would provide kids and families greater accessibility to the natural world surrounding them. With nostalgic excitement, Bruce remembers, “The area was and still is ripe with opportunities.”
The ELC has grown from humble beginnings. It now has year-long programming for kids in second grade through high school. Kids can participate in a short outdoor activity or programming that spans the entire year. It also provides an exhaustive list of outdoor experiences for kids to try, including: eight core programs (such as backpacking, rock climbing, and winter camping), 10 young explorer programs (such as spin fishing, antler hunts, and playboating), and 21 elective activities (such as carp shooting, furniture making, and wild edibles). Programs occur around the Red Wing area, throughout the broader Midwest region, and even across the globe.
When asked about his favorite experiences, Bruce says that he has “a lot of memories over the years that I’ll never forget, but kayaking to Hudson Bay with students and taking winter trips to the Boundary Water with students kind of stack the deck. Some of the most interesting memories in Lake Pepin are just kayaking. We would often paddle from Red Wing to the end of the lake and camp along the way.”
Bruce has mentored many kids who joined the ELC at a young age and stayed consistently involved until high school graduation. Some have rejoined the ELC as staff, others have chosen careers in natural resources, but all were instilled with an environmental ethic to take with them. “Maybe they’re a doctor, maybe they’re an auto mechanic. It doesn’t matter as long as they have respect for what’s around. That’s the big thing,” says Bruce. Regardless of where all the kids are today, there is no doubt that many lives are forever changed because of Bruce.
With Bruce at the helm, the ELC grew into a community cornerstone. Of course, he is quick to deflect praise and instead recognize his supporting cast throughout the years. Grateful for the opportunity, Bruce passes on the credit to Myron Chase, a mentor and early board member, for guidance; the late Bill Sweasy of The Red Wing Shoe Company for financial freedom; and the local community for its interest. “Without those things, it’s hard to say where the program would have gone,” says Bruce.
Make It Personal
As Bruce describes his history in Red Wing, there is an ongoing philosophy that bubbles to the surface. Across all his endeavors, there is a commitment to make the invisible visible, the unfamiliar familiar, and the impersonal personal. For all its contributions to conservation efforts, Bruce suggests that statistical data has some shortcomings. For example, it isn’t always able to change minds, hearts, and behavior.
Bruce describes how having a mentor with this perspective helped him at the ELC, “I grew up with education in the academic realm, but he [Myron Chase] taught me that it’s much more important to give experience. So, he was my mentor and if I needed ideas, he’d always come up with things to do.”
Consequently, the ELC was designed around the Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” The organization relies on exposure and hands on interaction with the natural world year-round. Bruce describes the impact of learning in the natural environment, “Once we were outdoors, we would sneak in the educational piece. The kids would just absorb information like osmosis. It was really fun to watch the transformation.”
Bruce is highly skilled at developing approaches to expose people to new connections and experiences. Using the relationships he built while with the ELC, Bruce organized professional speakers to present with the local MN Audubon Chapter in Red Wing during retirement. As the lead educator for the winter Eagle Watch in Red Wing, he inspired curiosity among tourists, many who were seeing their first bald eagle within a group of 40-50 at Covill Park. A memory like that is certain to last a lifetime, be shared repeatedly with family and friends, and create a human-nature bond.
Lake Pepin has always been personal to Bruce, but he never saw it as a political issue. It is a resource used by everybody, loved by everybody, and undeniably worth protecting. Not all personal issues are protected from political divisiveness, however, and when Bruce retired, he and his wife, Kathy, decided to stand up for LGBTQ rights.
With their energized leadership behind a local PFLAG chapter, originally named for Parents and Friends for Lesbians and Gays, the group put personal faces and stories to the typical stereotypes. The Gay Men’s Chorus performed at the Sheldon theater, the film “The Mathew Shepard Story” played for three sold out crowds at the local Pheonix Theater, and over 200 community members joined them in the River Days Parade to show support for the marriage amendment.
Bruce doesn’t preach, he just makes issues personal. Love and empathy do the rest. “It gets back to bringing the thing in question into people’s lives. If it becomes something they can experience and relate to, they are going to jump on board and be with you. If you don’t do that, then I think it’s an uphill battle. It’s us versus them,” says Bruce.
When it comes to Lake Pepin, Bruce continues, “People that have no connection with the lake could probably care less about erosion issues and nitrates in the water. You have to make it real life.” LPLA is working hard to take this advice.
Valuing Community Knowledge
Bruce also uses careful observation and engaging storytelling to expose others to the water quality issues facing Lake Pepin. In doing so, he reminds all of us that you don’t need to be a professional scientist to monitor changing conditions. You just need an intimate relationship with the lake, a basic understanding of what to look for, and a way to document observations. For inspiration, look at how Bruce describes the concerns facing Lake Pepin.
Sedimentation rates are 10x above normal, which equates to about 1 million tons of sediment accumulating at the head of Lake Pepin annually. Bruce’s observation of this phenomenon feels more viscerally terrifying. Using a water buoy as a measurement guide, he says, “It’s been dramatic. There is an island at the head of the lake that has grown half a mile just since we moved here.”
He continues with a story to describe how water depths have changed, “My wife’s always worried that I’m going to fall through the ice when I go cross-country skiing in Wacouta Bay. But now, if I fell through certain parts, I’d be lucky to get my ankles wet. It’s filled in that much. There’s virtually no recreational opportunities up there other than canoeing or kayaking. You can’t get in there with a motor boat.”
Undoubtedly, recreational users don’t always know where shallow areas are located, especially when the river opens up and becomes the lake. Bruce describes how he entertains guests by watching this transition zone, “The Wisconsin side of the lake is probably six inches deep. So, you get these boats going full throttle and pretty soon they miss the channel. And they are launch! We’ve actually seen them come up off the water and plop down. And they are stuck. I mean sometimes they are stuck there for days…If you go on a busy weekend, you’ll probably see it.”
Want to know how sedimentation has impacted local ecology and economics? Well, Bruce has a story for that too. When he first arrived, he enjoyed watching people harvest arrowhead tubers, which are a Native American food naturally found in the Lake Pepin backwaters. People would fill large bags to keep as subsistence food throughout the year and sell to restaurants as a substitute to water chestnuts. Now, it is rare to find arrowhead tubers. Bruce describes how sedimentation has impacted this agricultural practice, “Given the fact that there aren’t any arrowhead tubers, there aren’t any muskrats or swans either. They’re gone, mainly because of the amount of sedimentation. They just don’t exist anymore. The amount of vegetation at the head of the lake and in the backwaters is just about nil. If we get any kind of a breeze, it stirs up the mud.”
Bruce is a living repository of stories related to Lake Pepin. He has stories about recent high flows impeding stream kayaking and negatively impacting recreational outfitters. He has stories about invertebrate trends that conclude with vivid images of mayfly populations being bulldozed off local bridges to clear the way for traffic. It would be a fun game to just name something related to Lake Pepin and listen to Bruce unfurl a beautiful story in response.
With regards to storytelling, Bruce says, “There is value in people just sharing their stories. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by data whereas they aren’t overwhelmed by experiences.” Community knowledge can play an important role in directing scientific inquiry and corroborating scientific data. People that have been visiting or living around Lake Pepin for close to 40 years, like Bruce, are particularly valuable because they can witness slow biological processes, like sediment accumulation.
Bruce doesn’t seem to be slowing down. For him, Lake Pepin has personal roots as much as professional ones. After starting his retirement by working with MN Audubon, The Eagle Watch, and PFLAG; he is now making space for other community leaders and personal time for himself and family. He maintains a connection to the ELC as an adviser and attends Audubon meetings, but is no longer organizing events. Instead, he enjoys providing outdoor education through his blog, Wacouta Nature Notes, which is a bi-weekly visual report on the local ecosystem. When interviewed, Bruce was in the middle of packing for canoe trip in the Boundary Waters and offered to take LPLA staff kayaking to see sedimentation up close. Even though Bruce is spending more time behind the scenes, his legacy as a Lake Pepin guardian will never be overshadowed.