Dockside: Starry Trek

By Juliana Thill, DOCKSIDE editor

Reprinted courtesy of Hutchinson Leader/Litchfield Independent Review

Don Kotila and his teenage grandson, Achillez Jaquith, headed to lakes in Meeker County on a sunny Saturday morning in search of one thing: aquatic invasive species — primarily, starry stonewort.

The two were among a handful of Meeker County volunteers who participated in the third annual Starry Trek in August, and among about 250 volunteers statewide who searched for starry stonewort and other AIS.

This was the first time Kotila and Jaquith volunteered with Starry Trek.

“It was interesting. I want to learn more about (aquatic) weeds and how to identify them, and eventually, hopefully, prevent the spread (of AIS),” Kotila said.

Starry Trek is an opportunity for people to team up with fellow Minnesotans to better understand AIS and to help inspect the state’s lakes.

Starry stonewort, one of Minnesota’s newest AIS, is an algae that looks similar to other native plants and can form dense mats, which can interfere with use of a lake and compete with native plants.

Starry stonewort was first found in 2015 in Lake Koronis, which straddles Meeker and Stearns counties. It has since been confirmed in 15 of Minnesota 11,842 lakes.

The Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center and the University of Minnesota Extension in partnership with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have organized Starry Trek each year. Minnesotans have searched more than 200 public water accesses since the inaugural Starry Trek event in 2017.

“Starry Trek is a great way to get to know people and learn what’s going on,” said Ariana Richardson, AIS coordinator for Meeker County.

Richardson, who has a degree in biological and environmental sciences, started in her new role in June.

“Lakes are part of our culture and are worth protecting,” she said.

Identifying starry stonewort

Starry stonewort is similar in appearance to chara, a native plant, but starry stonewort develops star-shaped bulbils that typically aren’t visible until August.

The invasive species most likely spreads when fragments have not been properly cleaned from trailered boats, personal watercraft, docks, boat lifts, anchors or other water-related equipment.

While starry stonewort has never been eradicated from a U.S. lake, treatment and careful removal has helped reduce the risk of it spreading.

Before beginning their search this year, volunteers in Meeker County met at Lake Ripley’s Memorial Park in Litchfield. Volunteers received a brief training on how to identify starry stonewort and other select AIS.

Steve Stepien, a licensed AIS level 1 inspector for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and under permit, brought a sample of starry stonewort from Lake Koronis for identification and allowed the Starry Trek volunteers to examine what to look for when they visited area lakes. Stepien was under permit to transport AIS, which normally is illegal to do.

Stepien showed the volunteers the live sample of starry stonewort, which volunteer Brian Knox appreciated.

“I’m sure glad I saw that sample of starry stonewort because looking at the pictures is kind of deceiving. You think it’s going to be a big plant, but it’s not.”

A group effort

After receiving their instructions, the volunteers divided up into groups of two to inspect select lakes. Volunteers used a tool that has the prongs of a rake tied to a rope Standing on the dock at each lake’s public access, volunteers threw the rake end into the lake at five different spots, each time pulling in the rake and checking the plants and animals that came up with it.

This was the second year Knox participated in Starry Trek. He has lived on Lake Francis for the past 16 years, since retiring and moving from the Twin Cities, and takes an active role in trying to keep the lake clean.

Knox helps line up AIS inspectors for the lake, which straddles Meeker and Wright counties and, he said, “I do all the water samples on our lake. Every month in the summer we take water samples and check for water quality. I’ve done that for 13 years on the lake, and do all the secci disk readings. Hopefully, we don’t find any invasives (on Lake Francis). But, if it’s there, I want to find it.”

Knox teamed up with Tate Marschall, of the Meeker County Sheriff Boat and Water Patrol, to search lakes Francis, Little Swan and Big Swan during Starry Trek.

This was Marschall’s second summer working with the Meeker County Boat and Water Patrol.

“It’s a pretty good gig,” he said of his summer job.

In the fall, Marschall of Dassel returned to Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he is a junior and majoring in law enforcement.

During his time with the Boat and Water Patrol, he and other officers checked lakes for safety violations and followed up on calls or complaints. He also worked at public accesses on lakes in Meeker County that didn’t have boat inspectors, and checked watercraft for AIS.

While Knox and Marschall were doing their inspections, Kotila and Jaquith searched lakes Greenleaf, Erie, Manuella, Round and Stella. Meanwhile, Stepien and AIS inspector Kurt Dahlquist checked Long, Spring and Washington lakes. Stepien and Richardson also later searched additional Meeker County lakes.

After inspecting their designated lakes, the three volunteer groups returned to Lake Ripley and shared their experiences and findings.

Each group brought back samples of unknown aquatic plant species in sealed containers. Stepien brought the samples to his laboratory and examined them under a microscope.

“All good news. I’ve identified all the questionable samples brought back,” Stepien said later in the day, adding that each sample turned out to be a native plant and not AIS.

Official statewide results from this year’s Starry Trek were not available until after Dockside went to press.

“The main thing is, starry stonewort — nobody wants that for sure. All the efforts are needed by everybody to make sure it doesn’t spread,” Kotila said.

He has lived on Lake Minnie Belle for 32 years and attends AIS events, “and I still need to learn more. It’s going to take time,” he said, when it comes to being able to tell the difference between native aquatic species and invasive species. Education is the biggest thing.”

If people think they’ve found starry stonewort, they should report it to the DNR. Details about starry stonewort and other aquatic invasive species are available at

To learn about MAISRC’s starry stonewort research, visit

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