For 36 years Mary and Dennis Buschkowsky have been in charge of gathering one piece of important information used by state climatologists and a New York scientist who has spent decades studying global warming.
For the most part, as spring weather starts winning its bout with winter by pushing the cold air north, their job is easy. The Buschkowskys can sit at their kitchen table and look out over Madison Lake. If there’s ice in the bay, their job is done for the day.
As that ice melts away, though, their annual job becomes more challenging. It requires getting into the car and driving around the 1,344-acre lake, sometimes rumbling down gravel roads to check every corner. They use binoculars to scan the water for any hint of ice.
They make the trip at least three times a day when the last of the ice is blown into a bay. They’ve even added late-night trips when there’s a chance the ice will disappear before the next day officially starts.
“We’ve been out close to midnight for Mary’s sake,” Dennis said during a recent trip around the lake.
When all the ice is finally gone, the official ice-out date is recorded. The information is sent to two scientists: Pete Boulay at the State Climatology Office at the University of Minnesota and Ken Stewart at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
After that, the Buschkowskys’ job is done.
It’s simple information, but it’s valuable, Stewart said. That’s because, prior to the Buschkowskys taking the job, the late Frank McCabe recorded Madison Lake’s ice-free date for 37 years. For 13 years before that, unofficial ice-out dates were recorded on the side of a barn next to the lake. So the date ice leaves the lake each spring has been recorded since 1927.
“Long-term information on any lake is a rare thing,” Stewart said. “As far as scientific information, very few lakes have much scientific information. Even though they’re beautiful and worth writing poetry about, there is very little scientific information.
“You can sit on the shore and enjoy the sunrise or sunset, but we know very little about them.”
Madison Lake is one of 24 lakes in Minnesota that has been labeled a “sentinel lake.” It’s one of six prairie lakes on the list. The lakes are studied by the Department of Natural Resources to help predict the consequences of climate change and land use on all of the state’s lakes.
The Buschkowskys’ information also is used by Boulay to log Madison Lake’s ice-out date on the DNR’s main website.
“The big value for that is for fishing or people planning to put their docks out,” Boulay said. “It’s kind of a sign of spring. It’s a good measure of how our springs are doing.”
The job of logging the lake’s ice-out date fell into Mary Buschkowsky’s hands after McCabe died. She was his former employee at the Boat Landing, which was originally just a shack where bait was for sale and boats were for rent.
“He drove an old blue pickup truck and had a little rat terrier dog,” Mary said. “He went around the lake about three times a day all the time. Then Frank fell over dead of a heart attack while he was shoveling snow.
“I got his records and I got his old truck. I swear, when I drove that thing, it always pulled right from driving around the lake.”
She and Dennis have lived on the lake most of their lives. Her grandparents lived in the city of Madison Lake when she was a child, so she spent a lot of time at their house near the lake. The Buschkowskys moved to their property on the west side of the lake 46 years ago. They spent about a decade in a smaller, older house, which had been built around the turn of the century, before building their current home.
“I told Dennis when we were married I would live in a shack if we could live by the lake,” Mary said. “He took me up on it and that’s what we did.”
Her connection to the lake is part of the reason she’s willing to keep the list of ice-out dates going. She enjoys keeping tabs on the changes in water level and shoreline.
The average ice-out date has become much earlier during the past quarter century. March ice-outs were rare from 1940 to 1986. The ice has been gone by March 13 of the past 26 years. Ice-outs as late as the middle of April, which is where it will fall this year, have been rare since the 1980s.
Another thing that has changed a lot during that time is the number of people living on the lake, Mary said. She used to know almost everyone; now she only knows a handful of the lake’s residents.
Even though he has been retired for years, Ken Stewart still makes daily visits to offices at the Department of Biological Sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, which is where he became interested in limnology. Also called fresh water science, limnology is the study of the physics, chemistry and biology of lakes and streams.
The university is on the south shore of Lake Mendota, which is one of only a handful of United States lakes he knows of that has records going back more than 100 years. He said he doesn’t remember who told him about Mary Buschkowsky, but he was intrigued when he heard she had ice-out records dating back to the 1920s.
“I have a big network of people,” Stewart said. “Madison Lake is one of many lakes I’m trying to track. The long-term goal is to get enough information about enough lakes in the country to get some information about global warming.”
Sometimes he picks the lakes he follows by looking on a map in an area where he needs more information. He’ll call bait shops or city offices near the lake to find out if anyone has been keeping information on the lake.
Finding those people isn’t easy he said, so he’s hoping someone will take over the Buschkowskys’ job whenever they’re done doing it. Mary Buschkowsky said she also hopes her list will be passed on someday.
She admits the job isn’t as exciting as it was when she was working at the Boat Landing. Back then she would sell chances to people who wanted to guess the ice-out date. The winner walked away with the cash.
In the 1930s the city even had contests where a car was hooked to a cable and a timer and put out on the ice, Mary said. The winner was decided by when the car sank, then the car was pulled out by the cable and put out on the ice again the next year.
“This is a joyous thing to do,” she said. “When the ice goes off, it’s officially spring. It has nothing to do with March 21.”