Lake Pepin summers are a memory-making machine with an assembly line of beautiful vistas, diverse recreation, abundant entertainment, and small-town charm. The emotional memories it forms span generations and unites communities. Nobody understands this better than Zach Paider, General Manager of Bill's Bay Marina, who has become a passionate advocate for restoring Lake Pepin. Over the last year, Zach has been promoting a vision of restoration that supports recreational boaters, local economies, and the natural environment. In doing so, he hopes Lake Pepin can continue to cultivate beautiful memories well into the future.
Zach can personally relate to many interests highlighting the need for restoration. Growing up in Ellsworth, WI, his family spent most free days launching their fishing boat from nearby Bay City. Even then, he remembers sedimentation causing headaches for recreational boaters in town.
"I remember watching mom and dad jump out in ankle deep water and literally push our fishing boat until they could putt their way out," says Zach.
Now he has a family of his own, lives in Red Wing, and owns and sells twin-engine yachts. Much has changed, but Zach maintains the family tradition of freeing boats grounded in Lake Pepin. Bill's Bay Marina operates the only official U.S. towboat in the Red Wing area, which had its busiest season last summer.
"I'm still out in ankle deep water trying to get people out of the silt. It's definitely more challenging now than ever before," he notes.
Zach's fervent love for Lake Pepin and the diversity it supports has also persisted. As a lifelong fisherman, Zach is excited about the potential for improved wildlife habitat and water quality. As a marina manager, he hopes that restoration will improve boater safety and draw more tourism to Upper Lake Pepin. As a recreational boater with ties to Bay City, WI; he sees restoration as an opportunity to reconnect towns - currently isolated by sediment - to a boating community eager to support them.
THE VALUE OF INCLUSION
Recreational boating on the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin is a highly valuable industry. In the congressional districts surrounding Lake Pepin (MN-2 & WI-3), the recreational boating industry has an annual economic impact around $1.3 Billion (NMMA 2012). More people than ever have boats, but large recreational boats don't always receive a warm welcome. As a marina manager and boat dealer, Zach advocates for restoration that will benefit everybody and suggests that greater inclusion would be valuable to Lake Pepin.
"Recreational boaters that go fishing, pull their kids waterskiing or find an island to go camping don't seem to be a problem. But when you're a recreational boater with a 40 ft. Sea Ray and you pull up to the beach with your A/C, built-in-bathroom, and generator; you quickly become the bad guy," says Zach.
Of course, recreational categories, like most others, have blurred boundaries. Most boaters enjoy multiple recreational activities. Like others, yacht owners also enjoy fishing and camping with the family. Zach knows this first-hand since large boat recreation isn't what he grew up with, but what he's grown into. He's not alone.
As Zach puts it, "Very few people have ever jumped into a first boat that is 30 feet or more. They've all had their fishing boat, ski boat, cuddy cabin, and pontoon. So, they're pretty mindful."
Listening to Zach's viewpoint, one might consider the similarities between recreational vehicles, or RVs, and large recreational boats, which might be appropriately called "RBs". Both are used by people who enjoy camping in comfort while taking adventures. Instead of camping on land, some simply prefer water, and let's be honest, sleeping on a fishing boat isn't very appealing.
Since most people enjoy their "RBs" while stationary, either at the marina or in open water, Zach has his own name for them. He calls them "cabins on the water". He explains, "People look at a big boat the same way someone looks at a cabin up north. They travel here to vacation on their boat, which is actually much more affordable, and probably much nicer than owning a cabin. Our average boater might only put 25-30 hours on their boat engine every summer."
Despite low engine hours, large recreational boats as a collective, do create waves that can be a nuisance for other lake users and a source of erosion along shorelines. Zach acknowledges these concerns but reminds us that most human activities have environmental tradeoffs. For example, he notes that barges also cast large waves, but they are largely accepted for their overall commercial benefits. If you acknowledge that social acceptance is a value judgment that weighs costs and benefits, then the discussion becomes a bit more complex.
In Zach's perspective, the economic benefits from large boat recreation outweigh some environmental impact, especially since it's a heavily-used lake already. It doesn't mean impacts shouldn't be minimized. For himself, Zach maintains a voluntary certification in the MN Clean Marina Program, designed to encourage practices that reduce water pollution. He values the environment but doesn't want the economic benefits from large boat recreation to be overlooked. For many, the verdict is still out.
Undeniably, people traveling to their "cabin on the water" bring fresh money into the community. They visit local shops, fill up on gas, grab fishing bait, and dine in area restaurants. Essentially, they come wanting to spend, buy, and support local economies. In return, they create vacation memories and continue family traditions. At its heart, tourism is a beautiful love affair between strangers.
Zach would simply like to see more of that mutual romance in Upper Lake Pepin, the area most impacted by sedimentation.
JUST ADD WATER
Where there is water, you will find people. Made up of 60% water ourselves, we humans are innately attracted to water in our external environment. Yes, we need water to physically survive, but it also plays a positive role in our mental and social well-being. We build communities around water and take vacations to visit other bodies of water. So, what happens to the people when the water is impaired or disappears?
Look no further than Upper Lake Pepin.
Right now, Zach claims that Upper Lake Pepin has little to offer large recreational boaters. Red Wing attracts tourism, but boaters want the experience of traveling by water to explore other towns along the lake. Unfortunately, the other options in Upper Lake Pepin, Bay City, and Maiden Rock, WI, are isolated from the boating community due to sediment accumulation. When the water level is high, smaller boats can still access the towns, but the larger boats cannot. Local business owners acknowledge reduced traffic due to sedimentation and many are excited that restoration projects may increase future access.
As it stands now, access is limited, and the attractions are diminishing. Zach always puts himself in other people's shoes, saying, "Right now, I don't think anybody can confidently put their family in a boat to visit Bay City and go to the park, a restaurant, or anything like that."
Instead, most people from Zach's marina head downstream to communities that are more boater friendly. They go to Lake City, Wabasha, or Pepin. That's where they dock their boat to go shopping, have lunch, or eat dinner. If you look up Bill's Bay Marina, you'll notice that they offer a plethora of activities to build community within the marina. Outdoor movies, golf tournaments, costume parties, and music events are fun, but they also compensate for the lack of other local attractions.
Most activities in the area hinge on Lake Pepin. Restoration is an opportunity to improve local economies struggling to attract visitors. Zach appreciates the benefits restoration will have on fish and wildlife, but he's mainly motivated to protect his way of life. He describes how,
"People ask me why I want to be so involved with the Lake Pepin project. For me, it is my future. And it's a lot of people's future. I see restoration as a big part of protecting our local economy and protecting what we have. It's also an opportunity to make [Upper] Lake Pepin a place where people want to go."
It's a delicate balancing act for Zach to advocate for restoration. On the one hand, you need to expose the real impacts, like boat groundings and economic isolation, that are affecting people. On the other hand, Lake Pepin is still a superior boating location and you don't want to scare people away. When asked if recreational boaters seemed scared, Zach says,
"There is concern in the air. It has definitely hit the rumor mill. This past summer was terrible. We would drag people off [the sediment], who were visiting from the St. Croix, and hear them say, 'Gosh, we are never going to boat here again. This is terrible, this is no fun, this channel isn't marked well.'"
In that situation, Zach chooses to advocate for Lake Pepin as a boating destination. He emphasizes how the low water is atypical, barges move buoys, and severe groundings are still relatively rare. He might point out certain places of interest or beautiful landmarks. For those experiencing an expensive boat grounding, however, his words often fall on deaf ears.
Despite some inherent tension, everything Zach is advocating for is true. Yes, there are severe sedimentation impacts. Yes, Lake Pepin is a prime boating destination. Right now, they are compatible truths, but not forever. The system is at a tipping point and at this precipice action is urgently needed to protect what we have.
THE VISION BEHIND THE MAN
It doesn't matter if you're a fisherman, kayaker, or recreational boater; people love Lake Pepin because it evokes the same positive emotions in all of us. We all know the morning anticipation as we head to the water, the afternoon laughter among friends or family, and the evening cruise home watching the sunset slide behind the bluffs. But, what if there was even more to love?
Imagine walking to your boat in Red Wing on a summer morning. The family is wearing their entire suitcase; all bundled up as you take a brisk cruise to Bay City, WI. You dock the boat, eat at the local cafe, and then walk around town until your belly feels perfectly satisfied. When leaving, you drive the boat slowly, but don't have to worry about getting grounded because it's deep enough and new islands direct the safest path.
You drive to a large island at the head of Lake Pepin. The kids run on the beach, you have a picnic barbeque, and everybody plays a friendly, but competitive game of volleyball with another family. After an exhausting day in the sun, you get back in boat and head over to Maiden Rock for dinner and family-friendly music. Finally, you carry the kids back to the boat, cover them in blankets, and quietly cruise back to Red Wing, grateful for the new memories.
This is Zach's vision for Upper Lake Pepin, which he is more than willing to adapt to any type of recreational activity. He's animated every time he describes it and always ends by saying something like, "What a great way to spend the weekend. Folks would have more fun than they would ever imagine. Because right now, they don't have that. They have none of that."
Zach's mind seems to operate faster than average. He's constantly spinning with ideas that could make his vision for Lake Pepin a reality. Restoration is a big piece of the puzzle. Ideally, Zach would like the proposed restoration project to improve access to Bay City and Maiden Rock, construct a large island to guide boaters away from shallow waters, and allow recreation on some of the new islands.
To be clear, the current restoration project doesn't extend to Maiden Rock. However, future restoration projects might, and Zach isn't backing down anytime soon. He knows that restoration is formally confined to habitat restoration, but he will continue to advocate for designs that are mutually beneficial.
If given access, recreational boaters seem eager to spend more time exploring Upper Lake Pepin. It's the classic, "If you build it, they will come" scenario that would benefit everybody. It's also a reminder that our interests are interdependent. By advocating for each other, we are furthering a shared vision for Lake Pepin.
"It's important that recreational boaters feel like somebody cares about them and how they spend their time. If they can see that, they'll support it and that's a big deal," says Zach.
With enough support, restoration could provide the necessary spark to attract or retain more local visitors. If realized, Zach's vision might just make Lake Pepin the only place worth boating. Of course, he would probably say that Lake Pepin already holds that honor.
Thank you, Zach, for your generous contributions to Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) and ongoing efforts to restore Lake Pepin. Zach is an LPLA member, sponsor, and participant of the LPLA Council of Champions. Feel free to visit him at Bill's Bay Marina in Red Wing, MN. He loves to tell stories, talk about restoration, and support all your boating needs.