BEMIDJI-On a sunny Friday afternoon, Vicki Meyer ran her hands along the underside of a boat, checking for the sandpaper-like feel of Zebra Mussels.
"How long has the boat been out of the water?" she asked the man who towed it to the Cameron Park boat launch in Bemidji. Since Friday, or maybe Sunday, he replied.
"And what was the last water body you were on?"-Lake Bemidji.
Meyer tapped the man's responses into a small tablet and, after a few more questions, went back to her SUV, which doubles as a kind of office or ranger station.
She's one of several aquatic invasive species inspectors in the Bemidji area-county employees or volunteers who work to keep lakes around here free of "aquatic hitchhikers" that can stifle ecosystems and hamper tourism.
Inspectors like Meyer look for water that hasn't drained out of a boat properly and whether a boat has its boat plugs inserted or not. They also check for mud and vegetation-anything that could harbor an invasive species or allow it to survive from lake to lake. A commonly used mantra is "clean; drain; dry."
"Sometimes we find watercraft that you pull the plug and it doesn't drain because they have a minnow or something stuck in their line," said Bruce Anspach, Beltrami County's aquatic invasive species lake technician. "The big things to look for is inside your live well, anchors, and then on your trailer. Trailers are actually higher threat than boats, sometimes...We also like people to drain their motors, because we're worried about that last chunk of water that goes up into the motor."
"Aquatic invasive species" earn that name if they harm the environment, human health, or the economy, and zebra mussels do all three, Anspach explained: they eat away at the base of a lake's food chain, which threatens its ecosystem; they're "sharp-shelled," which means the can, say, slice open a beachgoer's foot; and they can hinder tourism by altering how a lake is used and enjoyed. Young zebra mussels, called "veligers," are microscopic, he said, and can theoretically survive in a sheen of water.
But other species can also pose a threat. Anspach said Starry Stonewort has been found in a harbor in Upper Red Lake. It's a macro-algae that grows thick and deep, forming dense mats of vegetation that hinder boaters and swimmers and outcompete native plants.
If Meyer or another inspector detects the signs of an invasive species, or if a boater refuses to remove mud or vegetation from their boat, she can deny them access to the lake. If they launch their boat anyway, she can call the DNR and a conservation officer or sheriff's deputy can respond and, presumably, levy a hefty fine.
But inspectors aim to be more like teachers than cops-they'll grab a bucket of water and help clean mud off a boat, Anspach said.
For instance: anglers are sometimes caught off-guard when Meyer or another inspector asks them to dump their bait water.
"They can keep their bait, but they can't keep the water that they take off of the lake," Meyer explained. She recommends that lake-goers keep water in their car or truck and switch it into their bait containers when they get off the lake.
And Anspach said some Minnesotans don't know that state law requires "moored equipment"-docks, lifts, and so on-to be dried for 21 days after it's cleaned off before it can enter a new body of water.
Clean, drain, dry
So what should boaters do to prevent the spread of invasive species? Clean all the aquatic plants and potential invasive species from boats, trailers and other water-related equipment, according to the Minnesota DNR's website; drain boats, ballast tanks, motors and so on before leaving a water access; keep drain plugs removed between lake visits and dispose of unwanted bait.
Some of the state's inspectors are volunteers. Others, like Meyer, are county employees. She's a former biology student at Bemidji State University, and said inspecting boats is a part-time summer gig.
"I get to meet a lot of people, and most people are really nice about it," Meyer said. "It's really great when I get to actually teach somebody something that they don't know."