A Drifter's Voyage across the Big Lake

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Biological Sciences  Professor Nancy Auer with the drifter that traveled all the way across Lake Superior.
Biological Sciences Professor Nancy Auer with the drifter that traveled all the way across Lake Superior.

On Thanksgiving Day, Michigan Tech Biological Sciences Professor Nancy Auer was walking her dogs on the Lake Superior beach near her Allouez Township home when she found a beat-up object known as a drogue—a hand-built floating device dropped off a dock or boat. When she examined it, she discovered that it belonged to Sam Kelly, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Apparently, the small float had drifted all the way from Grand Marais, Minn., to Houghton.

 “I find it pretty amazing that one scientist releases a drogue and it happens to land at another scientist's beach front,” said Auer.

She contacted Kelly, a researcher at UMD’s Large Lakes Observatory. He was stunned. "

This was the first I'd heard about any of the drifters since mid September,” Kelly explained. “I was amazed the drifter was still afloat after three months and several storms. I figured it would have sunk or washed up on the north shore during the first big storm. The fact that it was found by another scientist that studies Lake Superior while she was walking her dogs is so incredibly improbable it's even a little bizarre. It made me immediately realize that although Lake Superior is very large, it's definitely not infinite. The things I put in the lake directly impact the lives of other people around the lake." 

Kelly said the drogue, which he calls a drifter, was assembled on the deck of the Research Vessel Blue Heron and dropped into Lake Superior, where it floated away. It was a prototype, he said, based on designs available online. The drifter Auer recovered was equipped with a GPS device. “Unfortunately, it did not work as well as I had hoped,” Kelly said, “so I do not have data during most of its voyage.

Kelly’s longterm goal is to develop a drifter program using better designs. He wants to get undergraduate researchers and local community members involved.

And Auer has a word of advice for drogue/drifter enthusiasts: “ You never know how far or long the gear will float, so be sure contact information is boldly located in several places. It is always fun to make the connections with the original source, especially when you think about Lake Superior having 2,800 miles of shoreline.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.