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posted: 7/31/2012 11:29 AM

Students kayak along Lake Superior as part of Shedd Aquarium program

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If anyone asks Emily Mandel what she did this summer, the Lisle teenager has plenty of activities she could mention -- volunteering at Brookfield Zoo, practicing cheerleading and tennis, serving as a team leader with Lisle Teens with Character and working on the Lisle Relay For Life Committee.

But few people would guess one of the more unusual of Emily's activities -- kayaking around the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, off the coast of northwest Wisconsin.

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Emily and Melissa Whowell of Arlington Heights were among 14 students who spent a week in early July camping in the Apostle Islands as part of the Shedd Aquarium's High School Ecology program.

"I would recommend it to anyone who is even slightly interested in the Great Lakes," Emily said. "It's really a great experience to have."

Both girls -- Emily, who's going into her sophomore year at Lisle High School and Melissa, who will be a senior this fall at Rolling Meadows High School -- joined the program because of their interest in marine biology.

They were accepted after filling out an application that required them to write essays, provide a multimedia component and think critically about environmental issues. Their academic achievements and letters of recommendation were taken into account before they were invited to a group interview, said Conway Bennett, learning specialist at the Shedd.

"The students were great," he said. "They were really, really impressive."

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore includes a 22-island archipelago and 12 miles of northern Wisconsin coast.

The area, known for its natural beauty, sea caves and shipwrecks, provided the backdrop for the students to study water quality and observe bird behavior. The elusive birds could be more easily heard than seen, but students spotted four or five bald eagles and saw lots of turtles, Melissa said.

"It was really cool. It was a completely different environment than here," she said.

The students traveled 10 hours by Amtrak (including two hours of delays) to St. Paul, Minn., where they stayed overnight. Then they traveled another five hours by van to their base camp on the mainland. Sand Island, where they spent most of their time, was another 3-mile kayak ride away.

A storm blew up the first time they paddled to Sand Island, providing one of the memorable highlights of the trip.

"There were 4- or 5-foot waves. Most of us had never kayaked before," Melissa said. "But we all made it. It was a lot of fun."

Emily said the weather could be hot and sunny, then turn stormy two minutes later.

"Definitely unpredictable weather. Lake Superior just threw you whatever she wanted," she said.

The students didn't see any remains of shipwrecks, but they did see one of the islands' lighthouses and experienced some other notable sights.

"We went through the sea caves. That was pretty cool," Emily said.

They wrote prediction papers on how the island birds might react differently to humans than those on Chicago's lakefront and how the water quality might differ from that of Lake Michigan. They tested those theories in a three-day, post-trip session at the Shedd Aquarium.

Water quality was measured by the presence of plankton, small or microscopic organisms that provide food for fish and larger organisms, Melissa said.

"The more plankton, the more life you have in the water," she said.

Sleeping in tents and cooking together, the students made friends they would not have met otherwise. Emily went knowing no one and remembered how awkward it felt at first sitting around together. Now, she and some of the other students are planning a trip to Six Flags Great America.

"By the end of the week, we were all like a big family," she said.

Bennett said the High School Lake Ecology program is offered once a year. Students pay a fee, but scholarships are available. For more information, see sheddaquarium.org.

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