Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A volunteer who made a difference

Mardy Jackson began an effort that continues 36 years later

Penny Jackson
Posted 12/27/18

LAKE VERMILION— As someone new to the area I was surprised to learn that lots of local residents take part in the annual Lake Vermilion loon count. From what I’ve been told, this event happens to …

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A volunteer who made a difference

Mardy Jackson began an effort that continues 36 years later


LAKE VERMILION— As someone new to the area I was surprised to learn that lots of local residents take part in the annual Lake Vermilion loon count. From what I’ve been told, this event happens to be a premier volunteer opportunity, in such demand that people can wait years to be assigned a territory to count.

I wondered “Why?” What draws people to volunteer for this now longstanding tradition on Lake Vermilion? And who started the event? With a few questions in hand I sought out Mardy Jackson, who agreed to tell me her story of counting loons for so many years.

As a child, Mardy and her family spent much time at their family cabin located on Sand Lake in Britt. With 30 acres of their own land, Mardy, along with her brother and three sisters, spent summers at the lake, picking blueberries, swimming, playing in the woods, running wild and feeling free. “It was a wonderful, wonderful life,” she recalls. “All of us became so enamored of the north woods.”

As an adult, the north woods and lakes were forever calling her back to cool clear waters and tall pines. In 1973, her husband Bob suggested they look “way up north” for a place on a lake. She immediately knew an adventure was in sight and she was ready for the move.

Bob looked for properties and found one on Fabian Bay of Lake Vermilion. It had just enough land, a cabin and multiple outbuildings. Needless to say, Mardy was extremely excited and could hardly wait to see it. But to her disappointment it wasn’t the cabin she always dreamed of. Her dream cabin was a log home with a split rock fireplace and this didn’t even come close. She looked at Bob and promptly told him “It looks like any other house we could have bought in town. It doesn’t even look like a cabin.” After a lot of negotiations, Bob finally talked her into it.

It was late August in 1980, while spending time on Vermilion, when Mardy spotted 26 loons gathered near Strawberry Island. In all the summers she had spent at Sand Lake as a child, she had never ever seen that many loons gathered together. She assumed she had witnessed something phenomenal and just had to tell someone. So, she wrote a letter to Carroll Henderson, who headed the DNR’s nongame wildlife program for many years.

It took until late fall before she finally received a reply, but it was the start of a correspondence between the two that lasted for decades. Henderson’s first letter was quite long and suggested, among other things, that she report to him the following summer the positions and amount of any loons she might see on the entire lake. Her first thoughts were “The man must not have a map of Lake Vermilion. He can’t mean the whole lake. Doesn’t he realize how big this lake truly is?”

After giving it much thought, she waited until the following July and took it upon herself to do a personal loon survey. She got out her colorful map of Lake Vermilion and charted her way. Once out on the lake she placed a black dot on her map for every adult loon she saw. For every chick she placed a red dot on the same map. If she saw people around she would ask them if they had seen any loon families around their bay. If so, she would add this information to her map. This process took two-and-a-half weeks, just to count the loons from the east end to Oak Narrows. Anyone in their right mind could have guessed that this would not be an accurate count.

But, as luck would have it, around that same time, Greg Raps, president of the Sportsmen’s Club, put out a call for projects that had to do with the lake. A light bulb went on! Mardy contacted Greg with her idea and the Lake Vermilion loon count was born. With the help of Bob Daggit and Barb Shook, the lake was divided into 23 territories and volunteers were found to help with the systematic count of all the loons on the lake.

For the past 36 consecutive years, the loon count has taken place during the second week in July. This week was originally chosen as the chicks have survived any predators and are large enough to swim on their own. The counting day is set along with an alternate day in case of inclement weather. At 9 a.m. on the designated day, the counters steer their boats in a grid pattern traveling very slowly back and forth on their assigned territory. They count singles, pairs and chicks. The final count gets tallied at the end of their assigned timeframe and the numbers are recorded. Over the years the loon population on Lake Vermilion has remained remarkably steady. This year, the volunteers counted 235 loons.

Just imagine what life would be like without volunteers like Mardy Jackson asking the simple question “Why?” or “How many?” Without her curiosity and enthusiasm, we may have never considered the task of counting loons on Lake Vermilion. And each year many dozens of volunteers would not have the opportunity to get out on the lake and add their beautiful loons to the count.

After all these years, Mardy no longer coordinates the annual count, but she still maintains the territory she’s counted for years and goes out on count day with friends Tom and Renee Aro, since her eyesight isn’t what it once was.

Perhaps you, too, can make a difference like Mardy. Maybe you have something in mind that you would like to do or implement. Or maybe you’re just looking for information to volunteer. The Vermilion Lake Association would love to hear from you. Contact Pat Michaelson, Volunteer Program Leader at or check out the website at

Penny Jackson is an occasional contributor to the Timberjay. She is no relation to Mardy Jackson.


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