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Keeping milfoil at bay

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

SALISBURY — Collin Tompkins was one of the first out of the old Lund boat, springing onto the narrow dock while the 16-foot craft shimmied up alongside its moorings.

He, like the other three young men in the boat, was damp and smiling. It was a game of back and forth for a little while, and the four men, their wetsuits slung down to mid-waist, looked like they’ve done this a hundred times. Someone secured the boat. Another hoisted their dripping scuba equipment into a deep wheelbarrow.

And among the last items unloaded onto the dock, and then piled into the wheelbarrow, were several mesh bags filled with heavy, wet weeds — Eurasian watermilfoil, the invasive species this team of young divers is at work carefully plucking from Lake Dunmore’s lakebed.

Tompkins, 22, Nate Bierschenk, 19, Derek LaRosee, 19, and Will Pitkin, 17, are the specially trained corps of divers that make up the Lake Dunmore/Fern Lake Association (LDFLA) Milfoil Project. They’re charged with keeping the milfoil problem in Lake Dunmore and Fern Lake — Dunmore’s little sister — in check.

But in addition to serving as lake watch guards, these divers also happen to be a friendly gaggle of students — boys happy with a summer job that puts them on the lake, in the water and among good company.

“It’s a nice way to be on the lake all summer and help out,” said Bierschenk, whose family owns a house on Dunmore.

It’s a remarkable team, in large part because Tompkins, Bierschenk, Pitkin and LaRosee — and the “Lake System Monitors” who have staffed the project in previous summers — demonstrate that it is possible to control milfoil in an environmentally friendly way, without chemicals, herbicides or lumbering, expensive mechanical harvesters.

In fact, the project, which got its start in 1994, received an award a few years ago from the Environmental Protection Agency for modeling environmentally friendly practices in milfoil control.

It’s a tricky job. Milfoil was first discovered in Lake Dunmore in 1988. The plant, native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa, is extremely fast-growing — capable, in fact, of growing up to 10 inches in a week’s time. It’s pretty, too, with long, feathery leaves.

But milfoil can be a menace.

“It grows so vivaciously,” Tompkins explained. (“Good word!” Pitkin teased.) Tompkins continued, “It sucks all of the nutrients out of the water, so other plants can’t live. And then in turn, once it grows enough, it will end up killing out a lot of species.”

And, as a non-native species, milfoil doesn’t have a natural predator here, Pitkin said. While there is talk of introducing aquatic weevils to go after the plant, the questions raised by putting another non-native species into the ecosystem are loaded ones.

And most troublesome of all, especially for Tompkins and his crew, is the plant’s propensity to fragment — both naturally and because of human disturbance. If even just a one-inch piece of the plant stalk or root breaks off, it can grow into a new plant.

“You want to grab it by the roots,” said Bierschenk. “Underwater, you can actually hear it a lot better — you can hear the roots ripping and tearing.”

They estimated that a plant will fragment on them up to 75 percent of the time — leaving them scrambling underwater to scoop up the remnants.

It’s an important job, though the milfoil problem can seem, at times, insurmountable.

The monitors start their day with morning surveys. That means peering at the surface of Lake Dunmore or Fern Lake through polarized sunglasses, which eliminate the reflection and function, Tompkins said, “like x-ray for the water.”

Other times, Tompkins said, wielding a bright yellow piece of plastic that resembles a fin, they’ll use the tow board. Wearing a snorkel and mask, one diver will grab hold of the board while the boat tows him behind. Angling the board toward the lake’s floor, he’ll take one deep breath and then swoop down to scan for milfoil weeds.

They drop buoys in areas where they locate milfoil, and then return in the afternoons. Depending on the depth of the weeds — which can grow as deep as 15 to 20 feet — they break out their snorkels or diving equipment and go about the work of hand-plucking the plants.

“We’re not trying to eradicate it,” Bierschenk said — the project is more concerned with simply maintaining the status quo, and the divers are doing their best to keep the problem from spreading.

They’re continuing the work taken up by volunteers. Bierschenk — like LaRosee, a Millford, N.H., native — has a family home on the lake, which he has visited every summer of his life. His parents volunteered in early milfoil pulls, he said. Pitkin’s grandfather did, too.

But in 1994, realizing that volunteer efforts alone wouldn’t turn the tide, the LDFLA began hiring summer workers to hand-pick the plants. They started with two college students, and a few years later they expanded the program — which draws funding from the state of Vermont and the LDFLA — to four divers.

Every year, Tompkins said, the amount of funding that the program receives from the state shrinks a little bit — but the LDFLA has reserve funds squirreled away to sustain the project for at least three years, were state funding to cut out entirely. That — and the continued participation of many lake residents, who chip in through the Shoreline Watch program — keeps the milfoil at bay for now.

The job certainly has its downsides. They keep themselves entertained, the boys said, but they noted that parts of the lake make for messy diving.

“It’s a dirty job,” said Pitkin. They joked about “army crawling” through muddy sections, and abrupt encounters with large snapping turtles.

A GOOD SUMMER JOB

But, all in all, it’s a job all four divers like. Tompkins, a Pittsford resident, is back for his third year, Pitkin and Bierschenk for their second. (first-year diver LaRosee, the other three monitors confided, has been affectionately dubbed “LaRookie.”) Pitkin, a rising senior at Middlebury Union High School, says he could see himself working the job through college. The other three — all university students — agreed that they wouldn’t mind another summer on the lake.

The crew hauled their gear up the hill past several of the Keewaydin summer camp cabins. Inside the cabin the project calls home base — new this year, and donated by Keewaydin — Bierschenk, Tompkins, Pitkin and LaRosee could pass for a gaggle of camp counselors, except for the tell-tale wetsuit hung up to dry in the corner and the tow board leaning against the wall.

Last year, the crew — which included now-veterans Tompkins, Pitkin and Bierschenk — pulled 13,000 plants. Compared with what volunteers and early divers dragged from the lake — upwards of 21,000 plants in 1995 — it’s a modest harvest.

But the team is holding the line on the milfoil front.

Outside, they open the mesh bags over a heap of drying milfoil, dumping the fresh, feathery leaves onto the pile. Here, a hundred yards or so up from the water’s edge, the plant is absolutely harmless.

The young men run a quick tally on the day’s catch — around 250 individual plants they decide, after rattling through their day’s stomping (or rather, diving) grounds.

“That’s a good day,” said Bierschenk.

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