State park is home to research station

Kamariea Forcier

While tourists flocked to the headwaters of the Mississippi River to kick off Memorial Day weekend on Saturday, Daniel Traun sat on the front porch of his Lake Itasca State Park home, feeding jelly and oranges to the area’s native orioles.
Traun’s house is near the lake shore opposite the headwaters and its frolicking tourists. The quiet shore is also home to the University’s Lake Itasca Forestry and Biological Station.
Traun, the station’s resident manager, does not often have time to enjoy the park’s natural beauty. With more than 65 University buildings to care for, he and two other staff members work full time to maintain the school’s research laboratories and classrooms in addition to many cabins.
The University’s Itasca station, leased from the Department of Natural Resources since 1907, has hosted academic research and teaching since 1909. Since then, the school has held summer classes on the site every year except three, 1943-1945, when classes were cancelled because of World War II.
In his 18 years as the station’s resident manager, Traun has become an expert on the history of the site.
“I grew up in this area. I handle whoever comes through here” during the off-season, he said. In the summer, Dorothy Bromenshenkel, the ecology department’s principal secretary, handles the administration of the station.
Two five-week biology course sessions and a three-week forestry session keep the site busy during the summer. Classes on aquatic ecology, the natural history of fish and plant biology are taught side by side with classes on cellular and molecular research techniques through the neurology department. In addition, the site hosts individual researchers from other institutions.
Part of Traun’s job is to help those researchers complete their work.
For three winters Traun’s team plowed snow off the lakes so one researcher could finish his work on winter fish habitats.
“Through our work, he got his graduate work done,” Traun said. “Sometimes we would get him out of bed to do his work. Without the help of maintenance his work would never have gotten done.”
Aside from plowing lakes, Traun’s team makes sure the buildings on site are maintained throughout the years.
The station’s oldest building, a faculty cabin built in 1912, was recently renovated. New siding and a remodeled interior keep the building livable.
“You have to do that,” he said. “Otherwise the buildings just fall apart and then you have to start all over.”
Many other buildings have been taken down because they were too primitive — log cabins with dirt floors, for example — to be remodeled, or because of poor location. Several buildings were removed years ago to make room for a central field where Traun played softball as a teenager.
Traun said he and his friends often came to the research station to challenge the summer students to softball games. Sometimes when there weren’t enough locals to form a team the students would join his side.
But now, he said, students have lost interest in the sport; they prefer volleyball instead. “I don’t know what it is — a sign of the times maybe,” he said, his voice falling silent as he looked out across the meadow where the games were played.
Walking around the property, Traun pointed to each of the buildings he helped remodel over the years.
Many of the buildings have required work to keep up with the research being performed. Where students once primarily conducted field biology research, now high-tech cell and neurobiology classes share the summer facilities. And the prevalence of computers has made updated electric connections essential.
All the buildings are power-ready; most were equipped with electricity between 1920 and 1960, though the generator that made lighting possible years ago has since been abandoned for the power grid.
But even with DNA labs and Internet connections, the station retains a strong connection with its natural setting.
The station has only one television, housed in the dining hall and recreation building, and a single telephone for public use.
Without many modern entertainment devices, visiting students and faculty members are all but forced outdoors when the weather permits. The University owns a number of boats that visitors can borrow for recreation and research.
When the station lacked funding for research materials in 1935, students pooled together to purchase the site’s first three rowboats.
The site can house up to 45 people in the off-season from October to April. The University rents the space on a first-come, first-serve basis through the ecology department.
“People should know about this place,” Traun said. “We’d like to have people here more often.”