In late September, Mary Shideler spent an Indian summer day paddling on a lake with a friend. They spent several hours in kayaks on Battle Lake, where the spirits of Sioux Indian warriors are said to still exist. Shideler chose this lake out of 1,007 in Itasca County, Minnesota, and she would know which one to choose – Shideler, better known as Mary the Kayak Lady, has paddled them all.
Her mission came to her naturally, as she grew up in Northern Minnesota and canoed with her family. She turned to kayaking after realizing she enjoyed being able to explore lakes alone, inspired by the tranquility of the water and the independence of the one-woman boat. Shideler decided to explore every lake in the county 14 years ago after finally finding a Pygmy kayak to fit her 4-foot-9-inch frame.
“I wanted the opportunity to see if [a lake] was a clear water lake, or see what the underside of a lily pad looked like or whether the lake had an island or not,” Shideler said.
In her first year, she paddled around 36 lakes. She then challenged herself to paddle 50 different lakes every season. After 15 seasons, she paddled her 1,007th lake last summer.
When word of her mission got out to the general public, the Itasca County Soil and Water office asked Shideler if she would take water clarity readings when she went out. Though the secchi disk she carried was sometimes cumbersome in the tiny boat, Shideler said she contributed hundreds of baseline readings for lakes that county officials had never measured. Many of the lakes in northern Minnesota are clear, and Shideler’s data showed that water clarity was 8 to 12 feet in most of the lakes.
Though the waters in Itasca County are clear, Shideler is concerned about what lurks within the water. Northern Minnesota lakes are plagued by invasive species including zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and purple loosestrife. She hopes that her efforts will raise awareness of the lakes and increase education in the local population so people will be inspired to control, and eventually eradicate, these species.
Shideler’s 14 years worth of observational notes and journal entries about her paddling became a book aptly titled “Mary the Kayak Lady.” In traveling to promote the book, Shideler has inspired many across the country to go outside and explore their own natural surroundings.
“It’s like they have permission to go out and follow their dream,” Shideler said. However, she said, the Itasca County Chamber of Commerce and local government have not been interested in her project or efforts to increase access to county lakes. Luckily, those of the 43,000 county residents who know her are proud of her efforts to explore the area’s precious water resources.
“We have over 1,000 lakes and one mighty river and people are proud of the kayak lady for going out and paddling,” she said. “It’s pretty humbling.”
Though many would like her to start on the next county full of lakes – neighboring Ottertail County has 1,036 – Shideler will continue to promote her books and “get people fired up.” The next item on her bucket list is to visit Antarctica, the only continent on which she hasn’t set foot or paddle.