Sorting by

Skip to main content

A six-pack of IPAs and an almond-currant loaf from the Dutch import store are hard to hide in an expense report, so I’ll probably let it slide. But they bought me a cozy upstairs room and easy, pleasing conversation after a long drive.

Eager to road-trip north and days after turning in my grades, I set the GPS for a friend’s address on the Bayfield peninsula. We started out as collaborators roughly a decade ago. Now we catch up on each other’s lives before doing project business. 

Lake Superior daylight approaches boreal-summer length in May and the late afternoon sun labored for a hard red glare in the west. I saw a satellite map of smoke from forest fires in Alberta before I left, swirling into a thick curl over northern Wisconsin. Approaching Ashland, the sun simply faded into the haze several degrees above the horizon without really setting at all. 

I love this frequent little trip. I can list little pleasures that I attend that are becoming rituals of place. A blackened whitefish plate at the Deepwater Grille, breakfast with a kinsman at the diner on highway 2. Whitefish filets to fix for Carol when I get back, either from the tribal shop north of Roy’s Point or Bodin’s in Bayfield. In a pinch, you can buy packaged filets from the bait shop on highway 2 (yes, really).

Chequamegon Bay

I got in line to fill my water bottle from the artesian well at Maslowski Beach (because it’s the best water anywhere) before walking over to dip a handful from Chequamegon Bay to wet my face. I’m not Catholic, but I self-consciously cross myself with the blessed water running down my arm – a practice inspired by a Lutheran pastor. 

Highway 2 routes through Odanah, a central place on the Bad River reservation. Empty red dresses floated ghost-like along the roadway in the tired afternoon light. They hung on hangers from those wrought-iron arches you can buy for your bird feeders. Elegance and poignancy and attention, silent lingering witnesses to Red Dress Day, May 5, the day given to the memory and horror of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. A sign asked, “What would you do if I went missing?”

Breakfast this trip was at the funky little coffee shop in Washburn where plates and flatware are compostable. There’s an old dock down the hill and you can look across the bay from out back. My friend told me that the building next door was to be reborn as a craft brewery. The windows were papered over. I think it used to be an antique shop. I think I bought my pre-WWII bamboo fly-rod there. That was a long time ago though, back when I really couldn’t afford such things. I still haven’t used it.

Highway 2 crosses the Bad River outside of Odanah. The river has a perpetual red cast to it given the iron content of the sediment it carries and the substrate. During spring floods, it looks like dull red paint. I missed the peak floods this spring but I could see fresh red soil from the bridge, where the river had eroded the floodplain. 

Upstream, the tribes and their allies who “care for creation” are watching with genuine fear. Rivers are living dynamic things that writhe and twist in their floodplains. Upstream the cut bank of a meander has eroded to within feet of Enbridges’s line 5 petroleum pipeline.

 A photograph captured by an Enbridge drone shows flooding on the Bad River that’s caused worsening erosion near the company’s Line 5 oil and gas pipeline.
Screenshot of images from court filings. Source: Wisconsin Public Radio

In 2022, a federal judge ruled that Enbridge was trespassing on Bad River tribal lands and profiting at the tribe’s expense but stopped short of shutting the pipeline down. Earlier this month, the Bad River tribe asked the same judge for an emergency shutdown of Line 5 because spring flooding was threatening to expose the pipeline at the meander (Michigan’s Attorney General filed an amicus brief in support) threatening the singular wetland of Kakagon slough and the Superior lake. On Monday the Judge declined, expressing frustration that the tribe wouldn’t accept some monetary settlement as relief for the trespass or mitigation for the risk. 

“At least four sections of the bank were eroded significantly after just a single storm. One section lost more than 21 feet  of shoreline along the river. Other sections lost between 14 and 19 feet of shoreline. In some areas, less than 15 feet of shoreline remains between the river and the pipeline. Exposing the pipeline directly to the river’s current makes the risk of a rupture more likely. The Bad River has a tendency to flood suddenly and without much warning — a quality witnesses on Thursday described as ‘flashy.’”1


It’s a cynical and insulting decision, seems to me, evidently premised on a presumption that the tribe’s main interest is in shaking down the oil company rather than protecting the water at the center of their culture. Enbridge has money to burn and the judge’s relief seems to want to turn the risk and trespass of a malevolent oil company into an expensive rental agreement to make the issue go away.

The judge opined that the pipeline will eventually need to shut down but that the imminent risk wasn’t yet imminent enough. He knows nothing about earth science (says my geologist friend). How many environmental catastrophes have a similar backstory? Interests of wealth privileged over interests of the community. Shut it down.

We look for comfort in stasis. In the self-referential assurance that things were always this way and will always be. We are less inclined to see and acknowledge change — particularly if it looms in the desperate shadowlands of uncertainty and chaos. But that’s where we’re called.  

Ecologists are trained to think in terms of feedbacks and connections. Profligate burning of fossil fuels feeds back into weather extremes creating smokey red sunscapes and storms in the Bad River region that are increasing in frequency and magnitude (as predicted by climate scientists) which feeds back into unacceptable risks to the fish, the rice, the culture of the Ojibwe, the economies of the lakeshore towns, and the physically and spiritually precious water. Greed for money and convenience feeds back into exploitive and extractive mindsets leading to man camps surrounding the Bakken oil fields and Bakken oil flowing within feet of the flooding Bad River. Where the red dresses were.

Read more:
Federal Judge finds Enbridge trespassed on Bad River lands, but stops short of shutting down Line 5, Wisconsin Public Radio.
Violence from Extractive Industry “Man Camps” Endangers Indigenous Women and Children, First Peoples Worldwide.
Washed Away: Northwest Wisconsin Copes With The Costs Of A Changing Climate, Wicontext

Header Photo: Lorie Shaull, Wikimedia Commons. License.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You got it. Again.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you for speaking out about this.

  • Glenda Buteyn says:

    Tim, a couple of years ago I read your article about this problem. I was concerned, so I contacted my Republican Representative to the State House. He pretty much brushed it off, saying that Detroit needs this pipeline. While I loved reading your piece here today, it saddens me that still nothing is being done to address this problem. It’s just sad. When will we ever learn?

  • James C Dekker says:

    No surprise here in St. Catharines, ON, where we live and still get our natural gas from Enbridge…, alas. Doesn’t that judge or anyone else know anything about Enbridge and the Kalamazoo River from a few years back? Thanks again–sort of. Blessings, jcd

  • Pam Adams says:

    Tim, I read this article and others by you. I appreciate your concern for the environment and your love of the Creator. Continue to speak out. People who don’t know much about the environment are listening.

  • Keith Vander Pol says:

    Thank you for calling our attention to this and other environmental issues. Please continue to give voice to them. I appreciate your naming the underlying motivations along with the consequences of the same.

  • William Nicholas Vander Puy says:

    A tribal member and I on Wednesday fished the Bad River. The changeability of the river is obvious. Clearly eroding. That Enbridge believes 325 sandbags is sufficient to stop the river from meandering and rupturing the pipeline is genocidal thinking. Where the red dresses are.

Leave a Reply