Fall 2010 Michigan Tech Magazine

Ties that Gently Bind

By Marcia Goodrich

Michigan Tech attracts great people because of its quality research and educational programs. What keeps many of them here is a unique quality of life. Here are three faculty members and a research scientist whose avocations tie them to the Copper Country at least as securely as their professions.

Hobby farmer

John Gierke '84 '86 '90 wants to make one thing perfectly clear. The llamas were not his idea.

Of all the critters on his family's twenty-acre hobby farm, they are the crankiest and live here only at the behest of his wife and daughter, says the professor of geological engineering, who researches ways to provide people in developing countries with better access to clean water. "If I figure it out, I'm going to implement it at my farm," he says.

A short drive from Michigan Tech, the Gierkes have three pigs, five sheep, two dogs, five chickens, and two elegant but mercurial llamas named Stuart and Tina. They also have four acres of U-pick blueberries and a grove of apple trees. When the blueberries ripen, it gets kind of hectic, "like the opening day of deer season," says Gierke. But most of the time, the atmosphere is pastoral, except when the pigs sense a meal coming and get rowdy.

As for the other animals, the chickens lay eggs, the dogs are cordial, and the sheep tag along after Gierke in the pasture, jostling his legs and begging for handouts.

The late afternoon light washes their wooly backs in amber, and the call of a hermit thrush floats over from the woods. "We really enjoy it here," says Gierke, by way of understatement.

Apple cider maker

And pluck till time and times are done The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.

—from "Song of the Wandering Aengus," by William Butler Yeats

Aengus may have been the Irish god of youth, love, and poetry, but the poor besotted fellow still only had two kinds of apples. Jim Pickens has his pick of dozens when he presses his signature cider.

Pickens, a professor of forest resources and environmental science, researches techniques for improving the profitability of timber harvesting and forest management. He also makes gallons of cider every year, and as far as he's concerned, the more kinds of apples, the merrier. "I've got ten or twelve varieties in my yard," he says. He also gathers plenty more in nearby woods and fields. Some are wild, some remnants of orchards long-abandoned. Some come from fellow apple aficionado Jim Engel

'82, who selects cuttings from promising trees he finds in the woods and grafts them onto rootstock.

You can make cider just about anywhere with a bag of supermarket Golden Delicious. But to grow and gather varieties ranging from McIntosh to William's Pride to wild mystery fruit, you need a happy confluence of weather and open country. And of course, plenty of apples, which Pickens finds just beyond his back door. There's a stand of sugar maples out there too, which he taps for syrup. But that's another story.

Winter surfer

Michael Dziobak '78 '85 started kayaking Lake Superior's wintery waves in 1988. About seven years ago he switched to a surfboard, tackling the breakers of November "to get ready for the even nicer waves that come in December and January."

"It's really not much different from surfing warmer climes, minus the jellyfish and sharks," says the Michigan Tech research scientist, who studies the long-range transport of air pollutants at remote sites around the world.

It sure looks different, which begs the question: why would anyone surf in weather that hangs icicles on your eyebrows?

"It is very hard to put something like that into words, but I think I have an irresistible urge to make physical contact with the raw power of the natural world," says Dziobak. "And really, it's nowhere near as cold as it looks; modern neoprene is truly a miracle fabric."


L. Brad King researches space propulsion systems, those exotic engines that keep satellites in orbit and power probes on interstellar journeys. He loves his day job, but what really keeps King in the Keweenaw are the winters, the wilderness, and his nine Alaskan malemutes, who like nothing better than to pull him and his wife, Karyn, through the woods on a snowy evening.

"No, we don't race," says King, an associate professor of mechanical engineering– engineering mechanics. "These are old- fashioned working dogs, and we do it purely for the love of the sport.

King became enamored of sled dogs when he was a kid, but his family only had one. "I always said that when I grew up, I'd own my own team."

Working at Michigan Tech has made that possible. "By profession, I love to do engineering and science, and by upbringing I like to do things in the woods," says King. "There are not a lot of places where both those things come together."