Monday, July 19, 2010

Big Water

"By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining big sea water. . ." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha)

I have lived virtually my whole life in the state of Michigan. And the dominant geographic feature of the state of Michigan is the Great Lakes. Michigan has shorelines on four of the five Great Lakes, and save only for Alaska, has more shoreline than any other state. In fact, there is no place in Michigan that's more than a two-hour drive from one of the Great Lakes (alas, I think these days I live pretty close to the point that is the farthest one can get from one of the Great Lakes in the state of Michigan. . .)

The lakes have featured large in my own young life. When my family moved Up North 'for good' in 1963, our house was about seven miles south of the city of Alpena, on the shores of Thunder Bay, which is part of Lake Huron. Which is to say that Lake Huron was our back yard. Which, for an 8-9-year-old boy, was a pretty good working model of heaven. Every day of the year, I could look out the back window, and see the big lake stretching to the horizon.

My favorite days were the breezy summer days with a clear blue sky, or maybe some puffy cotton-candy clouds, when the whitecaps stretched off to the blue horizon, and the onshore breeze blew in our faces. On other days, the sunlight and the clouds played on the water, turning it from deep blue to a softer blue-gray to a blue-green, or green color, the colors moving and shifting almost magically. On other days, we'd watch rain clouds out over the lake, their wispy fingers stretching down toward the water. Some days, especially in the spring and fall, when it was too cold to swim, we'd just stand on the shore and watch the freighters slowly travelling back and forth along the horizon.

All summer long, we could walk out our back door and be playing in the waves in minutes. Some days, we'd just wander up and down the shore in the shallow water, looking for interesting stones or dead crayfish. Others, we'd wade out to where the water was about chest-deep. Depending on the wind and water currents, we might ascend and descend multiple sandbars on the way out; it always seemed like magic when the water, which had been belly-button deep, was suddenly only knee-deep, even though you were further from the shore. Chest-deep was about where the waves would start to break. We'd just jump and float in the waves, letting them crash over us, or body-surf them, for hours on end. Prune-skin on our fingertips came to seem like the most natural state for us.

Even in the winter, it was fascinating to watch the ice formations as the lake slowly, progressively froze over. My brother and I liked to walk out on the ice (which was a good bit more dangerous than we realized at the time), playing games around the ice hills that formed as the ice buckled and shifted. One time, we just kept going out on the ice until we encountered a huge ridge in the ice. Climbing up to see what was on the other side of the ridge, we saw open water stretching to the horizon. Very cold open water, which made the ice even more slippery than usual, and for which we were ill-prepared. Turning for the first time to look back to the shore, we realized how very far from shore we were, and for the first time, understood how dangerous our situation was, and how very afraid it was appropriate for us to be. We stayed closer to shore after that.

We lived in that house for two years. When my parents divorced, Dad and us two boys moved to a house in town, and we no longer had the lake for our back yard. Even so, for the rest of the time that we lived in Alpena (virtually until I graduated high school), I could hop on my bike and be on the beach in five minutes. Needless to say, I spent many carefree summer hours on the beach, while we lived in Alpena. When I was in junior-high, I had a paper route that required me to be out delivering papers at 5AM; part of my route was along the shore, so during the summer months, I saw many a spectacular sunrise over the lake. . .


So much of life in Michigan involves the Great Lakes, eventually. So much natural beauty here has the Lakes as its backdrop, be it Sleeping Bear Dunes in the northwest Lower Peninsula, the Pictured Rocks along the Lake Superior shore in the Upper Peninsula, Mackinac Island overlooking the strait (crossed by a majestic bridge) where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, and on and on, from Grand Traverse Bay wine country (and yes, Michigan does have 'wine country') to the Keweenaw Peninsula at the far western end of the UP, spectacular lakeshore vistas are in almost embarrassing surplus here. Heck, even Niagara Falls has nothing but Great Lakes water flowing over it.

I once attended Mass at a church in Oscoda (on Lake Huron, about 45 miles south of Alpena), where the entire back wall of the church was glass, overlooking the lake. When I got in line to receive Communion, I realized that I'd hardly paid attention to any of the Mass, having been mentally lost among the whitecaps. When I had my 'conversion experience' in my high school years, it was at a summer camp on the Lake Michigan shore, near South Haven, which included a prayer service on the top of a 200-foot dune, watching the sun set into the lake. At the end of the week, I was baptized in Lake Michigan.

When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm from Florida, and he took great delight in extolling the greatness of the ocean, and pooh-poohing our beloved Lakes. So one warm spring Saturday, a group of us 'kidnapped' him, tied him up with a pillowcase over his head, threw him into a car, and drove him over to a state park on Lake Michigan. Walking him down to the beach, we removed the pillowcase from his head, and showed him Lake Michigan, and the blue water stretching to the horizon. He acknowledged that indeed, standing on the beach, it looked just like the ocean (except for the lack of dead jellyfish, and the fact that you don't have to take a shower after you swim in it). Which was really the point we were trying to make in the first place. So we had a little beach party to celebrate his 'enlightenment'.


Jen also grew up about five miles from Lake Huron (not quite as close as I did, but she could still get to the 'big water' with a not-terribly-rigorous bike ride), in Michigan's 'Thumb', north of Port Huron (here is where I mention my favorite tease of my mother-in-law, who doesn't pronounce 'Huron' as 'hyer-ahn', like most Michiganians, but homophonically with 'urine'; I have not been above asking her if the water at the southern end of the lake has a more yellowish hue). The first time Jen took me to meet her parents, we went down to the lakeshore, and I was struck that we were a couple hundred miles from where I grew up, but it was the same lake I'd grown up looking at. . .

My mom's (I'm talking about my 'stepmother' here) father had spent some time before he married, working on the lake boats, and he grew to love the Lakes. He bought a five-volume set of books on the history of the Great Lakes (one for each lake, dontchaknow; and those of us who live in these parts use the acronym HOMES as a mnemonic to help us remember the five Great Lakes). When he died, my mom inherited the Great Lakes set. Sometime in my 30s or so, I asked her (with a degree of fear and trembling) if I could have them; she looked at me long and hard before saying I could (so long as I kept them in the family, and never sold them), and to this day, they sit on my bookshelf, both reminding me of my grandfather, and teaching me more about the beautiful Big Water that has bounded my life. . .
Sunrise over Georgian Bay, in Ontario; taken from the back porch of our vacation cottage in 1985


  1. I love this sort of writing (which is a good thing since I'm prone to inflicting my version of it on others.) What sort of writing? Fond reminiscence, with just the slightest tang of nostalgic melancholy, imparting (in your case, definitely; in my case, hopefully) a wistful yearning for something with which the reader may or may not have any past experience. Well done. I enjoyed this tremendously.

    (For what it's worth, I was taught HOMES while in Boston schools, so it may be somewhat more widespread than you imagine. Or perhaps my teacher of that time had Michigan roots?)

  2. Thanks, Suldog. From one who writes as well as you do, I'm flattered. Or humbled. One of those. Anyway, 'Fond reminiscence' is pretty much what I was aiming for. . .

    The HOMES thing. . . It's nice to know that it's not just a 'local color' thing. I've lived here all my life; I guess I'm not terribly aware of how other 'regions' look at ours. . .

  3. Those are some GREAT memories, Craig! And how cool to have been baptized in Lake Michigan!

    I spent a week in July 1985 at Maranatha in Muskegon and remember some spectacular sunsets there. Also enjoyed a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes a few years back with my family. The water was a beautiful shade of blue and much more pretty than our Lake here!

  4. Thanks, Cocotte. And yeah, getting baptized in Lake Michigan was very cool - in more ways than one. . .

    The Lake Michigan shore specializes in spectacular sunsets. 'Course, 200-foot dunes help that a lot (to say nothing of Sleeping Bear, which is more like 400 feet. . .)

    And listen - last time we were in your town, the Lake looked just fine; no need to apologize for it. . . ;)

  5. Grandma Skip (my wife) is from Michigan. Her brothers still live in the Detroit region, So, every couple of years we make a trek from the North State back to visit them and sometimes to attend high school reunions, which just happen to coincide with the Woodward Dream Cruise.
    About the only thing she claims she doesn't miss about Michigan is the winter, particularly snow.

  6. Hi, Skip! Thanks for stopping by!

    I've never been to a Dream Cruise, believe it or not (I don't live in the Detroit area) but I'm told it's a pretty cool time.

    I don't mind the snow so much, but it's more fun when I don't have to drive in it. . .

  7. I can relate to so much of this. I always wished for a place on the lake. And on the experience of suddenly discovering a sandbar under your feet, yeah....I was right there with you. And watching the lake freighters and surfing the waves and seeing the lake ice-locked. About a year ago I went over to Port Sanilac on a whim in the dead of winter and was amazed to see the entire surface undulating with the wave motion underneath the ice. It was eerie and scary and mesmerizing. I wrote a post about it and the lone ice fisherman I saw.

    Anyway, I'm glad you pointed me to this.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Yvonne!

    The ice surface undulating with the waves. . . Now there's an evocative image. . . Not sure I'd be brave enough to go ice-fishing on that. . .