Outgoing board member Erica Peterson shares lifelong love for nature, passion for the Apostle Islands

Erica Peterson on sailboat

February 12, 2024

“Erica is a force of, and for,  nature.” That’s how park superintendent Lynne Dominy describes Erica Peterson, retiring president and board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Erica finished her tenure on the Friends board of directors at the end of January.  Over the years, she devoted her heart, time and talent to supporting the national lakeshore and to building the Friends group into the strong and vibrant organization it is today.

Friends Executive Director Jeff Rennicke says, “With all of her creativity, Erica came up with so many great ideas she started what she lovingly called her ‘seed’ folder. Through the years, Erica worked to plant, grow, and see so many of those ideas flower through her hard work and dedication to our organization.”

“We would not be where we are today without her and her work will be helping us grow for many years to come.”

Jeff Rennicke

Executive Director, Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Superintendent Dominy puts it this way. “Her passion for the Apostle Islands, her drive to make things the best, and her creativity to overcome challenges enabled her to build and attain a bold vision and create a sustainable foundation for the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Her personal contributions to the success of Friends and to the stewardship of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore have inspired others to join the board and to become members. Her efforts strengthened the relationship to the park and created a bold path forward for our partnership.”

“I will miss her positive energy and leadership, and I am happy that she is now focusing on the personal things she loves to do including creating beautiful flower gardens, sailing, and art.”

Lynne Dominy

Superintendent, Apostle Islands National lakeshore

As she wrapped up her term, Erica spoke with Friends board member Neil Howk about what drew her to the Apostle Islands, her most vivid memories, and where she wants to go from here.

Friends of the Apostle Islands-Board Member Erica Peterson

Neil: Where did you grow up Erica?
Erica: I grew up in the wonderful playground of the Adirondack Mountains, St. Lawrence Seaway, Cape Cod National Seashore, Acadia National Park… Playing in all those wonderful places is kind of where I grew up, but the birthplace was Syracuse, New York.

Neil: As you were growing up, what do you think nurtured your love of nature?
Erica: My parents certainly spent all our free time out camping and traveling to parks. I think the pinnacle was in about third grade.

I went to a nature center and we took a walk with a naturalist. Her name was Minna Common. It was at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center up in (New York’s) Thousand Islands on Wellesley Island. And no one showed up that day except for our family. I was captivated by the things she showed us in the woods. Mostly by scooping up cups of water out of the ponds and seeing all the things that were swimming around. Then we went back to the nature center and looked at things under the microscope. I think that year I asked for a microscope for Christmas. (laughter) And from that day on, I said that I wanted to be a naturalist! I’ve never deviated…I mean mostly never deviated. (laughter)

Neil: Where did you go to college?
Erica: I went to the College of Forestry, which became Environmental Studies and Forestry at Syracuse University. It was part of the State University of New York. I majored in wildlife management and fisheries biology.

Neil: Why did you pick that?
Erica: Limnology. I loved the water, but I loved wildlife, too. There was forestry and entomology and a lot of other things in there. There were a lot of great courses on ecology, dendrology, and all those “ology” courses.

Neil: How did your career in the outdoors get started?
Erica: Well, it actually started when I was hired as a counselor at a camp called Camp Near Wilderness. We had kids for seven days at a time in a very rustic setting. So, I was in charge of programming, and food, and cooking everything in the outdoors, and sailing, and canoeing, and hiking. So that kind of started me down that pathway wanting to do environmental education and outdoor recreation.

Neil: What was the name of the camp?
Erica: Camp Near Wilderness. It was a girl scout camp. It was very rustic, deep into the Tug Hill plateau area of New York.
So, during college I worked at a nature center called Beaver Lake Nature Center. I was their artist, and their naturalist, and their cross-country ski instructor. I also did some research projects in wildlife out there for them. And after I graduated from school, I got a job with the US Forest Service in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area in Colorado. I was a backcountry ranger. Then I went from there to a longer term of employment as interpretive naturalist for them at their newly acquired National Recreation Area that they had just acquired from Rocky Mountain National Park. I did campfire programs, I did environmental education programs for the local schools, I taught classes in art, how to use art in the park. I did all their publications, wrote a recreational opportunity guide for them, looking at all the trails and everything you need to know about any given trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. So, I went from backcountry ranger to that, which was…I didn’t care for law enforcement, and I knew all along that I wanted to be on the education side of things. So that was my step over into education.

Erica and Mark Peterson

Erica and Mark Peterson

Neil: How did you meet your husband Mark?
Erica: When I was working for the Forest Service as an interpretive naturalist, he was working as an environmental educator in an environmental education camp in south central Colorado. I was looking for an opportunity to do pure environmental education and so a mutual friend of ours said I should go down to visit this camp and Mark could show me around…it was love at first sight…with the camp (laughter)…no, it was really Mark.

Anyway, he was several years ahead of me in education, and he was starting a program called “Windspirit” where he took kids from Milwaukee on backcountry backpacking adventures out west. He needed someone to do all his graphic arts for him, his logo and stuff, so I did all that for him. We just kind of started letter writing and from there we eventually crossed paths again.

Neil: Do you remember your first trip to the Apostle Islands?
Erica: Yes, very clearly. I was working for Trees for Tomorrow Resources Education Center as their program director down in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Mark and I were able to slip away for a few days of vacation and we rented a sailboat out of Superior from someone we knew. My brother was with us because he was a seasoned captain at the time. I had taken sailing lessons, but not on a big lake. We took off out of Superior harbor with the intent to sail in three days to the Apostle Islands…an impossible feat, but we didn’t know better.

Erica at the top of the Michigan Island lighthouse
Erica anchored at Oak Island

We had to take somebody on board with us to test us to make sure we were capable of doing it. And everybody; my brother, Mark, and the person testing us were all sick, just puking over the side because of the rough water. (laughter) So we turned around and went back to port to drop off the tester, and they happened to say, “well, if you’re going to the Apostle Islands, why don’t you rent in the Apostle Islands?” So, they set us up and we drove over here and got a sailboat. It’s much easier to sail here than it was to cross the big lake. We spent three days sailing in the Apostle Islands, and I mostly remember Stockton Island. It must have been really early in the spring. There was no one out there. We were the only ones at the dock. I just fell in love with the islands. We came back for vacations a couple times. That was my first experience.

Neil: You’ve had a lot of experiences in the park, what would you say was your most memorable experience in the Apostles?
Erica: I think one of the most memorable experiences was, I think it was the second year I was out here, the Park sent me out to Stockton Island to kind of open up camp, so to speak, and stay out there. I’m not really sure why, because there were no visitors at that time, it was really early in the season. But I got to go out and spend a few days. I was the first one on the island after the whole winter, so it was like seeing the island in its purest sense. There were no signs of humans anywhere. The beach was clean. There were tracks there. The birds were acting like they’d never seen a human. It was such a profound experience. I took a lot of notes. I thought at some point I’d write a little book about it. When I didn’t have to share it with visitors, I became deeply invested in it as a place. I’ll never forget walking Julian Bay beach and just thinking, “I’m the only one on this island, and maybe the only one in all of the Apostle Islands.” It was a pretty cool experience. As an interpreter I was privy to a lot of island experiences and with visitors. I’d have to say that is why I returned later in life as a volunteer for Friends of the Apostle Islands, and prompted by the passing of Martin Hanson, a dear friend and founding member. The islands gave me so much. Volunteering was a way for me to give back.

I’d have to say there was one other memorable experience, though. That was the time that I was asked by the Park Service to take a film crew out to the islands in October to film for the movie that the park showed in its theater starting in the late 80s. The contract said that the filmmakers had to finish it that year and they hadn’t been out the whole summer. So, they called up the park and said, “hey we’ve got two days and we’re going to film everything.” It was fall colors. It was beautiful. (Chief of Interpretation) Jim Mack asked me to be their guide. I said sure.

They had hired Dave Strzok’s water taxi. They spent most of their time filming an eagle nest on Basswood Island, I think. They stopped at Stockton and Manitou, and by noon or so they wanted to do Outer Island. Dave Strzok said, “you know, we’ve got to do this quick because there’s a big storm coming in.” They wanted to film the Lullabye Logging Camp, which was not a quick job. So, we dropped off all their gear (at the dock). It was too rough for Dave Strzok to land and tie up (at the dock), so he kind of floated around offshore. We hoofed it down to Lullabye Logging Camp and, of course, when you are in the interior you have no sense of a storm pending. So, they filmed and Dave Strzok is calling me on the radio saying,” Erica, you better get going and get them out of here. It’s getting worse and worse.”

We had come in on a zodiac and it was on the dock. Already the waves were coming over the top of the dock (when we returned). We were able to get one of the guys out to the boat. I had to come back for the other two and all the equipment. Dave Strzok was circling around and trying to get me as close to the dock as possible, and after the third try, he cut the line. He said, “Erica, you’re on your own. I’ve just got to save the boat!” And Dave Strzok took off! And he had also handed me a broken canoe paddle! It was broken…I tell you. I had these two guys, who were really seasick, and the shoreline of Outer Island with all the white pine trees that slid down the slope into the lake, and huge surf. We had survival suits on.

Neil: Was there no motor?
Erica: No, no motor. Just a broken paddle. So I said, “well, I’ll try to surf in. We’re just flying down the shoreline, but I’ll steer us to shore as much as possible. I’ll try to hit shore, but chances are we’re going to hit a pine tree.” Sure enough, we hit a pine tree and knocked off every one of its long branches, the whole length (of the tree) …pop, pop, pop, pop went the zodiac. The survival suits were great. We landed on shore soaking wet. The guys were afraid to leave the zodiac there because they’d have to pay for it. So, we hoofed it up the bluff.

We went back to the lighthouse…broke into the lighthouse, and I figured out how to turn on the last little bit of gas in there for heat. And then we spent the night there with one peanut butter sandwich and our survival suits. I climbed the tower, because that’s the only place we could get a message out on the radio, and I called Jim Mack at headquarters to tell him we were going to spend the night. I remember climbing that tower, and the whole thing was shaking from the wind. And you couldn’t see the dock at all. I mean the waves were completely over that huge dock out there. I swear the spray from the waves hitting the dock was hitting the top of the lighthouse. The wind was blowing it up there. I got word to Jim Mack and he said they’d try to send a boat out the next day.

The next day, the word was that it was really still too rough. But later in the day, they sent the Pelican (Korean war vintage landing craft) all the way to Outer Island to get us. So that was my shipwreck story.

Neil: When you got blown ashore was it east of the lighthouse where there is a sand beach?
Erica: No, west of the lighthouse where all those cliffs are with those huge trees at the base.

Neil: Well, that’s a great story.

Erica: But, I love Outer Island light. If I had to be shipwrecked overnight, whatever you want to call it, Outer Island is unbelievable. I worked with Karin Kozie out there trying to catch bald eagles for quite a while. Outer Island…again, it’s that pure wilderness with all of Lake Superior surrounding you. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Neil: That’s awesome. Tell me about your connection to Island School. How did that start?
Erica: After I worked for the park service, I was offered a position at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. In my first year there I became aware of a study that had been done of all the local school kids, asking them if they had ever visited the Apostle Islands before. There were very few kids and teachers who had ever been to the Apostle Islands. Northland College at the time had started a quasi-Island School program and they asked me if I would jump in and help with it. Basically, it then became a Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute function with support from the environmental education program at Northland College.

We started offering three-day wilderness experiences to local school kids in the Chequamegon Bay area. We had it out at Stockton at Quarry Bay, to begin with, then we bumped it to Presque Isle later on. It was very rewarding. It’s been in existence for 42 years. It’s an opportunity to see kids’ lives change in an epic way. It’s directed at sixth graders and their teachers. Not only was it getting local school kids to experience the park and the lake, but it also gave budding Northland College students studying science and environmental education, and communication an opportunity to share what they knew with kids in a wilderness setting. It was really a wonderful experience all around.

Neil: So what’s the source of your interest in art?
Erica: I grew up with it. My father was an artist and had an art studio at home…a commercial art studio. So, I grew up in his art studio all the time. Aunts and uncles in both directions were artists also, so I grew up in a very artistic family. When I was going to college for forestry, wildlife, and fisheries, I went to night school for art. So, I picked up skills in that. I also took art in high school. I illustrated a children’s book in high school. Every job that I have ever had, included naturalist, environmental educator, and artist. I think that’s probably why I got many of the opportunities that I did because there was always a need for a naturalist who could also draw. Over the years with the Forest Service, the Park Service, nature centers, and through other contracts I did graphic arts, exhibit design, logos, and illustrations. A piece of every one of my jobs included art.

Erica painting a Lake Superior scene
Erica with frog painting

Neil: Do you have a copy of the children’s book that you illustrated?
Erica: Deep in a chest somewhere. It was a children’s book. This will be interesting, it was a children’s book put out by the Syracuse University publishing company…Publishing for Advocacy, or something like that. It was to promote understanding of accessibility.

Neil: Really!

Erica: Yes. It was about a child, Amy Maura, who grew up in a wheelchair…and how she dealt with that, you know, was able to do the things other children did. It was about her love of nature and other people. So, I had to do a lot of drawings of a child in a wheelchair, which was very challenging. I competed for the illustration position, and I was chosen.

Erica's book cover
Erica's book illustration

Neil: What kind of projects or experiences do you have planned now?
Erica: Personally, I’m just really looking forward to getting back to my roots, which is being a naturalist. I feel like that’s been on hold for many years as I went into more administration/ education. A naturalist is somebody who intimately studies nature and is very aware of what’s going on around them and then wants to, I have a passion to, share that with other people. So, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen, whether it’s through art, or through more programming or growing things, or working with native plants…. I’ve always believed in the organic process of letting things happen as they come along, so I’ll see where that takes me.

Erica camping on York Island

Erica camping on York Island

Erica taking in the view from a rocky Lake Superior shoreline

Erica taking in the Lake Superior view

Neil: And of course, in the near term, you have a big trip coming up, right?
Erica: Yeah, Antarctica. A place, maybe, unlike any other place on this Earth. A place that is drastically changing and won’t indefinitely always be here. I’ve been lucky to work in and study several different ecosystems, but never the ocean and an Antarctic one…the frozen landscape. So, I’m looking forward to understanding that ecosystem a lot more. Definitely an adventure, and I’m really looking forward to just being on the ocean with nothing in sight for two and a half days. It’s a feeling I can get when I’m in a sailboat crossing Lake Superior. I just love that feeling of being connected to a large body of water.

Neil: That’s great, Erica. Thanks for all you’ve done and have a wonderful trip.

Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Friends of the Apostle Islands Board Member Neil Howk

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