This is what I learned about the Great Lakes when I was in primary school.
They meant as much to me as Mary’s Violet Eyes Make Johnny Sit Up Nights (Period). They were just as far away, distant, and unfamiliar.
The lakes I knew were usually small and too warm and slimy on the bottom with lots of salamanders and newts. Or inaccessible. Think Crater Lake.
Then we moved to Michigan. People who lived here said being at Lake Michigan was like being at the ocean. I was skeptical. Perhaps a tad more. Scoff-tical. A bit of salty pride mixed in there with a dash of defensive homesickness and a sprinkling of beloved memories of frozen legs and Dad’s big hands holding mine fast against enormous waves trying to knock me backward and pull me forward and loving every alive second of it, perhaps?
A lake is not an ocean.
My family used to go to the Oregon Coast for vacation, driving down the Columbia River Gorge, through the mountainous Coast Range of Oregon and at last arriving at the Pacific, rimmed with rocks and tide pools. It was so cold. The waves were enormous and loud, but once my entire body went numb, they were exciting. The wind whipped sand into my hair and eyes, my wind breaker’s sleeves flapping like an untrimmed sail.
My Dad bought kites for my brother and me one year when I was about 12. Some days were actually too windy to fly them, the days I could stand at a 30-degree angle into the wind without falling over.
If I pulled on one of the two strings of my rainbow kite it would tumble and flip to the left or right, swooping like a giant bird. Dad bought them from one of my favorite Seaside stores. It was filled with kites and windsocks, whirligigs and anything that would dance and turn in the wind. My brother got a blue and gray striped one that matched the sea and sky.
At the ocean, we ate too much taffy, played Dark Tower and card games, listened to the waves crash all night, spend hours carving sand into castles and dragons or digging holes big enough to climb into. No sunscreen needed. The ocean was so big and the sand so broad, I could look out into the ocean and my mind couldn’t hold it, had to clear.
This was the coast. This was an ocean. The Ocean.
There were whales out there, Humpbacks and Grays, rolling onto their sides, singing to each other. There were Puffins flapping in circles above Haystack rock, otherworldly anemones the palest red that sucked every tentacle in faster than I could blink an eye when gently poked, my finger dissolving into their squishy/sticky belly? Mouth? Buried clams squirting water up through perfectly round holes in the sand. Crabs and their crabby parts. Enormous ropes of stranded bull kelp made of some alien material impossible to break but so fun to play with.
Washington life was filled with riffs of the Pacific. Long Beach, cold but beautiful. Puget Sound, calmer, with mountains on the rim, ferries, and the two sea otters I’ve seen visiting the shore with their favorite rocks. The strait of Juan de Fuca and the Salish Sea, the San Juans, more open, stronger tides, Orca, sharper rocks, sea lions, and seals. San Francisco’s coast, urban and littered, but brighter somehow. El Salvador, hot, with palm trees and pelicans flying back and forth and shells in shapes I’ve never seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
And now this lake. Lake Michigan.
A year after moving to Michigan, we got in the car and drove north to Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was October, and the dunes were so much colder and bigger than I’d imagined. I carried our 2-year-old daughter to the top and looked out over the lake, the lake so big that it had no shore on the other side.
We hiked to Sleeping Bear Point and there she was below us, Lake Michigan. So blue she was almost teal. Two islands in the distance, the bear cubs. I was moved by the depth of the water, by the legend of mother bear, by the enormity that was as mind clearing as the Pacific, but less loud, slightly less intimidating.
Don’t get me wrong. I would never underestimate her or any of the Great Lakes.
Six thousand shipwrecks in the last two centuries, 1,500 in Lake Michigan. The winds can whip up across the water in no time and the largest ship to ever sink, the Edmund Fitzgerald, wasn’t 100 years ago. No, it was 1975.
This was unsalted water. This was a lake. The Lake.
The next year we drove a state’s worth of miles to get to the Upper Peninsula for the first time. And for the first time in a long time I breathed in the sweet, spicy smell of stands of pine trees and saw the familiar purple swaths of lupine. We were on our way to Marquette, and little did I know that while my husband spent his hours at a conference giving speeches, the girls and I would spend hours on the rocky beaches giving chances to the lake to befriend us. And she did.
At Eagle Harbor’s beach I watched five ladies in low beach chairs and swimsuits lay under the intense, but disappointingly cold, rays of spring sun, soaking up every thermal unit it provided. They all held books in one hand, fly swatters in the other, hovering over their bare skin, which I found odd, until the flies found me. Ah.
This was Lake Superior.
We had driven far enough north to reach the end of the acronym. Gichi-gami was blue and bright and the coldest water that had ever embraced my body. There was a dock out there in Eagle Harbor, one that seemed easy enough to swim to, so I launched myself into the water, swam two strokes, and launched right back out. I hadn’t expected a polar plunge in the middle of May! My husband put our oldest daughter on his back, determined to swim there, but I warned him he would cramp up before he hit five strokes, and he quickly turned back. We were all breathless and laughing and swatting flies. An eagle flew overhead.
Copper Harbor, as far as you can get, and full of beautiful, smooth, speckled red rocks. It was a shoreline like nothing I’d ever seen. There were no tidepools, but there were rocky outcroppings everywhere to climb and explore. I traced my fingers and toes along the contours of the lake, almost intimately, in a way the Pacific does not allow.
And almost every summer since we moved to Michigan, we have been lucky enough to know someone who has one of those “cabins” or “cottages” every Michigander steals away to. On a fire lane in a stand of old growth woods it perches on metal poles, yes poles that reach down into the sandy dune and, I hope, meet some kind of sturdier substrate.
Each year the sand is washed away even further as the slow rise of the Lake marches towards these cabins, beating away the grasses and trees that hold houses in place. There is some debate as to how to save these cabins from the fingers of the lake. Some have built enormous retaining walls, a fast and almost adrenaline induced response to the loss of dune and home. But some research points to the lake’s long wisdom of reappropriating the sand in ways that save the dunes in the long term. Cutting off access to more sand could exacerbate the problem in the long term.
The lakes have been here for 20,000 years, left over from the sea, the ancient sea, the ocean of coral and fish. They hold 20% of earth’s freshwater, these lakes, lapping at the shore.
Does it have waves? Yes. Tides? Not really. Salt? No. Sea otters? No. Seals or sea lions? No and no.
But there are loons and sailboats. Plover and whitefish. And once, while camping at Wilderness Park, I caught sight of a wiigwaas jiimaan early in the morning out on Big Stone Bay.