Could we be Swimmer's Itch Free by Next Summer?

Ginanne Brownell Mitic June 2017

It is most assuredly the biggest topic of conversation at the Crystal View, at Crystal beach, on the ball field, in the Assembly building and most everywhere else across the Congregational Summer Assembly at the start of each season: How bad is the swimmer’s itch this summer? How many cases have been reported? How many duck broods are on the lake? And what is being done about it to make this problem go away? 

I have spent a good portion of time since last summer doing investigative work into swimmer’s itch and my story on the dreaded itch (also called cercarial dermatitis), came out a few weeks ago in Scientific American. For me, swimmer’s itch (let’s call it SI for short) is personal as I get a bad case at least once a summer (there are between 20% to 25% of people who luckily do not have an allergic reaction to SI). Both my own anecdotal research as well as research done by experts have found that the more times you are exposed the worse your reaction gets: the itchiness, the red spots and I now also get a low-grade fever and lightheadedness. It is, as Patrick Hanington from the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health told me, similar to an allergic response that people get from bee stings or pollen.  

So let’s quickly go over the biology: in general terms, SI is caused by something called schistosomes, which are also known as flatworms or blood flukes. On the planet, there are about 100 species of schistosomes—70 of which are avian schistosomes (so that means they infect birds) and about 30 of which infect mammals (but don’t worry, only three species can infect humans causing human schistosomiasis —a neglected tropical disease— and are found only in Africa, Asia and South America). While cercarial dermatitis has been found in 30 states in the US (and there have been cases reported from France to New Zealand, China, Chile and Russia), 95% of the reported cases have been in the northern states that border Canada. So that’s from Maine to Washington. 

Here’s where it gets rather confusing—each schistosome species is particular not only to a specific kind of bird but also a specific kind of snail. So in northern Michigan—north of Cadillac—our SI schistosome is called the trichobilharzia stagnicolae and it has found the perfect host in both the common merganser duck (we had five broods last summer on Crystal) and the stagnicola emarginata snail. Eric Samuel Loker, a snail expert who teaches in the biology department of the University of New Mexico, told me that while the trichobilharzia stagnicolae is very common in places like Michigan and the upper Midwest, you do not find them elsewhere. “There are different species in different locations and these different parasites rely on different birds for their transmission,” he told me. That means, for example, that the Canadian geese and seagulls that we see on Crystal, aren’t infected by the trichobilharzia stagnicolae. It’s just the mergansers. (But those geese and seagulls could carry other schistosome species that, with the right snail species, could be infecting lakes somewhere else that they may migrate to or from). 

However the general premise of getting the itch is pretty much the same: the adult schistosomes pass their eggs through the GI track of birds—and in the case of the schistosoma douthitti, it’s through muskrats—so when the animal defecates in the water the eggs take about an hour to hatch into the larvae stage called miracidia, which then looks for its host, the snail. Once it penetrates the snail, it develops into another intermediate stage where over a period of four weeks they can asexually produce thousands of cercariae that then leave the body of the snail, heading up to the sunlight. Dr. Loker told me that what makes them “most happy” is to encounter the foot of a duckling (their feet and skin are easier to penetrate than adult ducks and also they have not build up strong immunities yet). But if they don’t find—in our case on Crystal, mergansers—then they will try to burrow into our skin instead. Though the cercariae die trying to burrow into our skin—they can’t get through the epidermis layer—75% of us have a reaction to them. And that’s where the itching, the red welts and the general drama come from. 

There was an old legend that toweling off would stop SI, but that is simply not true. Many people, including myself, can actually feel them (or at least begin to feel the allergic reaction) while still in the water. Toweling off only works in the case of schistosoma douthitti and another schistosome species that target muskrats—those cercariae try burrowing in as the water dries off on people’s skin. There are a few researchers this summer that are going to be experimenting—not on humans—with what kinds of skin creams seem to work best. Some, like me, swear by creams like Safe Sea that are marketed to protect from jellyfish stings, while liposome-based deet products are also said to help prevent getting SI. Since cercarial dermatitis is an allergy, a number of people (including doctors) suggest taking an antihistamine like Claritin or Zyrtex before going for a swim. These are only anecdotal of course so if you have a formula you swear by, by all means keep it up. 

So how do we get rid of the itch? There is a debate in the field over whether it makes sense to get rid of the snails (that’s why the copper sulfate is rumored to have been used back in the 1960s and 1970s) or get rid of the mergansers. Hunting in the autumn has minimal effect—first of all they are said to taste horrid and those adult ducks are probably commuting down from Canada to Florida for the winter and so aren’t the actual summer culprits (plus for every one cercariae that gets in an adult duck there are 100 that are in ducklings). On Lake Cadillac and Lake Mitchell a number of years ago they too had a problem with SI. But turns out, it was the mallard ducks that were the hosts (for a different species of schistosome and snail) and researchers found that the heartworm medicine given to dogs and cats could also kill the SI. So scientists spread the medicine on corn and left it out for mallards, who, as anyone who has ever fed them bread will know, mallards love people food. The medicine killed the schistosomes and the mallards, bellies full, were none the wiser. Not more itch on those lakes. 

But mergansers are fish eating ducks and are very shy as well, so the corn option won’t work on them. But hopefully a solution to SI was started in earnest in June. Thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of the Michigan Swimmer’s Itch Partnership (MISIP), co-founded by our very own Joel Buzzell, the state of Michigan this year has given $250,000 to the Department of Natural Resources (to be distributed by Tip of the Mitt), for SI control and research. Biologist and swimmer’s itch expert Curtis Blankespoor (who will be speaking after the Women’s Association annual meeting on July 18) has been working this spring and summer to identify the nests of mergansers. They will be captured, along with their less than eight week old ducklings and transported to the Lake Huron side of the state where there are few Stagnicola emarginata snails. If you capture a merganser duckling before eight weeks, places like Crystal will not imprint on their memories so they will instead nest next year where they were released this summer. 

Meanwhile while the stagnicola emarginata snails in Crystal are infected from last summer (they live from about June until the following September), the snails that hatch this summer won’t be infected because the ducklings are gone. So next year, we could be fairly SI free. Researchers are also keen to find out how air temperature, wind velocity and wind temperature can be factors when there are particularly bad cases of the itch reported. And the MISIP, the first of its kind in the US that focuses on lobbying and sharing research on cercarial dermatitis, hope to help lake associations in Wisconsin and Minnesota set up similar bodies. “We can show people what we have done, that we have a model they can use to do the same kinds of things that we are doing,” says Jim Vondale, the co-founder of the MSIP. “And we believe as the idea expands our influence and our ability to move forward will increase even further.” Let's hope the knowledge increases while the number of SI cases decreases. Happy swimming!

CSA Traditions

By Julia Davis - August 19, 2016

As Tevye passionately states in the beloved musical, Fiddler on the Roof, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof.” Here at the CSA, this is something we live by. As times change, our traditions come and go. Let’s take a look back at some CSA traditions of the past.

The Monday night children’s dances have seemingly gone on since anyone here at the CSA can remember. But when Jane Cooper was young, there would be social dances for thehigh school and college students after the children had cleared out on Monday nights. Music was played from a record player, and there were chaperones that would sit around the edges of the community room in the Assembly Building. Jane was there during some of the earliest days of rock and roll, so the music was still relatively traditional, and they would dance to songs like “Blue Moon” and “Stardust”. Square dancing on Wednesdays was another hugely popular tradition during that time. “Everybody knew how to square dance,” Jane recalled. “And you wouldn’t have thought of not going.” Just like in the film “Dirty Dancing” dancing was a major part of the social life at the Assembly in the 1950s, but faded out around the 1960s when it became less popular.

However, the teen dances had a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s through to the early 1990s.  In the 1970s when Holly Freeburg was a teenager, the dances were huge. She remembers hearing “Smoke on the Water” and everyone stomping on the floor so hard that it felt like the floor might open up and swallow all the revelers. Up through the early 1990s the teen dances continued to be an Assembly staple. Ginanne Brownell Mitic recalls a DJ out of Traverse City –who went by the moniker Moby Disk – playing all the 1980s hits, including “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police and “You Spin Me” by Dead or Alive. Teens from the CSA and the surrounding community would come to these dances, so it was a great time to make new friends and spend time with old ones.

Another tradition Ginanne remembers from growing up in the 1980s was the “Come as You Are” pajama parties, where the youth activity leaders and volunteers would surprise kids early in the morning, dragging them out of bed to go for breakfast at one of the beaches or in the Assembly building. The youth leaders would call the parents the night before to make sure their kid wore something appropriate to bed, but Ginanne recalls one time when one boy’s parents either forgot to tell their son or couldn’t convince him to wear pajamas to bed, which caused major embarrassment when all the kids showed up to pick him up the next morning and he wasn’t wearing anything. “They were fun because of the element of surprise…that you knew it might happen in the summer but were never sure which day,” Ginanne recalled. Another traditional youth activity from further back in time was going hiking on “The Crater”, a large, sandy, bowl-shaped area on the top of a dune overlooking Crystal Lake. Kids would pack a meal and then trek out to the Crater to eat and play games like Capture the Flag. There also used to be overnight hikes for middle school to high school students, led by the youth leaders. They would hike near Point Betsie, or even go as far as South Manitou Island to camp. Jane remembers bringing an army-style blanket roll for these overnight trips instead of a sleeping bag.

On the ball field, the bachelors vs. married men softball game that we’re used to having as part of the Fourth of July festivities used to be a weekly event. Another ball field event Doug Fuller recalls was the annual Mallory vs. Clemens family football game. There were many additional rules to the game, aside from the basic set. The most important rule was that the game had to end in a tie. Doug remembers seeing one team dancing with each other on the field while they were in the lead in order to let the other team score a touchdown and thereby even out the score.

The typical day-to-day CSA uniform are comfy shorts, a t-shirt, and very sandy flip-flops, but back in the day church wasn’t the only thing people dressed up for. The Women’s Association used to host traditional bridge games, for which formal attire was a must. The women had to wear white gloves and dresses, and they would have proper tea served on a silver tea service. And on Sundays, nobody used to swim after church. Instead, people remained in their formal church attire and would usually go to Sunday dinner at the Dining Hall (now known as the Assembly Building). 

Our traditions are what keep us coming back to the CSA year after year. It’s comforting knowing that next summer, people will be sitting at the beach in the same spot they always sit, that there will be potluck dinners, operettas, and old friends.

Making the CSA a Better Place at the Annual Meeting

By Julia Davis - August 4, 2016

If you’ve passed by the Crystal View recently, you may have noticed commotion at the fire pit with kids roasting marshmallows and adults having a good talk and a laugh. Or maybe you have gone by the Meeting House and suddenly a new Wi-Fi network appeared on your Smartphone. Ever wonder how those changes—small yet significant—came about? Well, it all happens at the CSA Annual Meeting.

That fire pit at Crystal Lake and the internet at the Meeting House wouldn’t have been possible without CSA’ers just like you coming to the Annual Meeting and proposing them. Along with other important business that gets discussed, one of the things that is a constant conversation—both at the meeting and on the beach— is what would you do to make the CSA a better place?

For some, it was having a fire pit installed to make up for the lack of a sandy, bonfire-friendly beach at Lake Michigan this year. For others, it was getting free Wi-Fi for all to use, especially those who need to check their work emails. As we prepare for this year’s Annual Meeting, it’s important to take stock in terms of the history that has been made at these yearly meetings. And what improvements that might come next season from this year’s annual gathering.

The biggest concern at the Annual Meetings of the early 1900s was the growing desire of CSA residents to build barns on their property. The board was not happy with this and ultimately decided on banning the building of barns on CSA grounds. It’s hard to imagine the Assembly woods dotted with bright red barns. They likely didn’t have to worry about Swimmer’s Itch, a topic that will surely come up at the meeting this year. Recently passed proposals include a ban on smoking at Crystal Lake Beach,  and the existing policy on jet skis has been changed to say that they are to be operated and moored under the same guildlines as all power boats. Paddleboards will also now be specifically mentioned along with kayaks and canoes in the Fee Schedule under Type C Beach Boat Storage. If you have any questions or concerns about these policies, you are welcome to attend the meeting this Saturday and have your voice be heard.

The Annual Meeting is a great place to learn about what all of our committees have been working on this summer. Each committee presents a report detailing what they have been doing in recent months. You may be surprised to find out that some of the committees that were being formed at the Annual Meetings in the early 1900s still exist today. These committees include Spiritual Life, Buildings and Grounds, and Nominations. Another thing that happens is that the people in attendance at the meeting can vote on certain issues. What you may or may not vote on depends heavily on your membership status. According to the bylaws, Members, otherwise known as CSA lot owners, may vote on bylaw amendments, proposals that may involve a major change to the appearance of the Assembly, proposals that might involve a major change in the uses or availability for sale of Assembly property, a major purchase of additional Assembly property or a major change in the character of the Assembly. Associate Members, on the other hand, may vote on any other issues like the fire pit proposal.




Many issues discussed at the Annual Meeting require financial support. The CSA has a budget every year, which comes from various sources including membership fees, the Crystal View and donations to the Pilgrim Fund. See chart of the breakdown of the CSA’s revenue.

If you have any ideas on how to improve the CSA, you too can bring your own proposal and present it to the Board of Trustees. And it takes 40 people for a quorum---so get the coffee brewing and please come out at 9:30 Saturday morning.

Humans of the CSA

Inspired by the work of New York City photography project Humans of New York (, we walked around the CSA and asked people about their favorite CSA memories, funny stories, the first time they came up here, and more. For the full album click here!


 "My first visit to the CSA came in 1942 and Jack Terry brought me up here with a group of other boys just before we went into the military service in World War II. We stayed here three weeks and I always held a fond memory of that time. In 1965, my family and I were living in Virginia and we wanted a place to go on vacation and couldn’t quite decide, and I said, “Let’s go to Crystal Lake!” And we have been here year after year ever since that date. I’m still going at 93, and my goal now is to be here when I’m 100."


"When I was in college, I was working the Assembly office, and we worked for Tom Williams, who was very strict. One evening, I coerced one of my very proper friends - we knew the doghouse was going to be repainted white – so we went down late at night and we painted polka dots all over the doghouse." [Pictured in her hat from the Operetta] 


"My favorite memory of the CSA is going to bonfires at Lake Michigan."


"When I was about 10, David Eley and I went to sleep out on lake Michigan. It's all grown over now, but between where the new stairs are and the old stairs, there used to be an area that was kind of hollowed out that was all sandy. But it was kind of on a hill. So we slept out there, and when we woke up we had slid down the hill in our sleeping bags and we woke up in the bushes. Being 10 year old boys, we thought we must’ve slept for 100 years and that the bushes had grown up around us!"


"In the winter, we miss our CSA friends the most."

The Ecology Committee: Turning Research into Action

By Julia Davis - July 28, 2016

On a hot afternoon in late July, a group of children are eagerly gathered around the picnic tables next to the Assembly Building. Kevin Kinnan, a Benzie Central high school teacher and main instructor for the Ecology Fun program, is creating a glacier out of ice cream scoops, chocolate chips and coconut. Kids watch wide-eyed as he piles vanilla scoop on top of scoop until gravity gets the best of the ice cream tower and the scoops topple to the bottom of the pan - a fun and tasty way of illustrating the formation of a glacier. The crowd is huge, about twenty children have come out for this popular day of Ecology Fun, and not just because there is ice cream involved.

The Ecology Committee was formed in 1990 and has been hosting the popular program for kids for almost 10 years now and although this program is a CSA favorite for kids the Ecology Committee actually does a lot more than just Ecology Fun. According to Committee Chair Linda Campbell, the purpose of the committee at the time of its formation was to report on the condition of Crystal Lake and the erosion of the Lake Michigan shoreline but it has expanded greatly since then.

One of their biggest successes besides the Ecology Fun program has been a major environmental assessment of the CSA grounds, which was completed in 2009.  Using a random sampling of plots on the CSA, two interns worked alongside three university professors to take data on what species of trees make up our forest, what invasive species we have, and more (see chart). This is the most accurate information we have to date about our forest, and the report can be checked out from the office anytime. This research has been the basis for the committee’s activities and program decisions. Committee member Nancy Baglan emphasized that taking a scientific approach and making sure actions are based on scientific research is a core part of the Ecology Committee’s mission. The committee strives to be action oriented. This means not just putting out information to the community, but using that information to create meaningful programming and inform future endeavors.

Some recent examples of putting this information to work are the new Butterfly Garden on the east side of the Assembly Building and the committee’s small forest restoration projects – like the wildflower garden on the east side of meeting house and a few trees planted on the other side of the building. Nancy and Linda agree that these projects are important as a way to let people know that they can do small things to restore their little section of the forest at their cottages. As Nancy pointed out, “We shouldn’t try to make our woods look like a park-like setting. It can be a bit messy looking, but diversity is really important.” Diversity in the forest creates a healthy environment.

The main challenge the committee faces is similar to that of many other committees at the CSA: getting volunteers, and figuring out the best way to access them. The Ecology Committee is still using porch sign-ups and word of mouth to garner extra hands to help with activities. Another struggle is that their only sponsors are the Women’s Association, Pilgrim Fund, and donations; they are not an official budget item for the CSA.

A big upcoming problem for the CSA environment is an invasive grass, an example of which is on the Assembly Building porch and figuring out how to get rid of this. Because of the discovery of this grass, the Ecology Committee has made its next big project taking on invasive species like Dame’s Rocket and Baby’s Breath. They are partnering with the invasive species network in Traverse City to tackle these, which are quickly spreading in the CSA. Their goal is to get to a point where we can recognize invasive species early, before they spread making eradication impossible. They also want to go beyond beauty: taking out invasive species, like Dame’s Rocket, that may look pretty, but are really a danger to other plants.

Nancy pointed out that not all non-native plants are invasive— in fact most are not. But the invasive species crowd out the native plants and the native plants are a vital part of our woods and the wildlife that live here. For example, monarch butterflies will only lay eggs on a milkweed plant; if milkweed plants were to be crowded out by invasive species, then there would be no monarchs here. Community efforts to keep invasive species at bay make a huge difference. Nancy and Linda agree that the push to get rid of garlic mustard a few years ago has been highly successful in decreasing the overall amount of it at the CSA and making our environment healthier.

Some of the Ecology Committee’s upcoming events are the Wings of Wonder presentation, co-sponsored with the Women’s Association on August 2 at 10:00am in the Assembly Building. Later that afternoon, they will host a bird banding demonstration at 5pm at the Michigan tennis courts and on Wednesday morning at 11am at the corner of M-22 and Thomas Road. The committee is also looking for volunteers to help restore and clean up Crystal beach of invasives on next Wednesday, August 3rd. Meet at 9:30am at the Doghouse. (Bring your own gloves.) Anyone who is interested in learning and contributing even a little to the CSA environmental future can join the Ecology Committee and all are welcome to attend workshops and volunteer.