A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Lake Michigan and the supply of water are again much in the news. I readily acknowledge my ignorance of the substantive detail, factors, and issues that constitute this public policy debate. But what seems obvious is that the adequate supply of fresh water is a long term, regional problem. And if that be true, then one might suggest that the demand for water should be part of any complete evaluation of the matter. I believe that no policy will be complete until we as citizens - individual by individual and family by family - begin to develop a respect for this vital resource. And in order to do that, perhaps it might help to look at Lake Michigan as more than just a reservoir.
This summer my family again vacationed on the N.W. shores of the Lake. Over the course of ten days we circled the entire Lake, hugging the shore every mile. It was a trek of 945 miles, leaving little wonder as to why the Lakes are called, "Great". Up through Wisconsin, over the State line and through one of the loveliest streets in all of America - First Street in Menominee, Michigan. Driving through hundreds of square miles of Hiawatha National Forest, all while realizing that a short hike due north of High Way 2, one would see little evidence that man has ever trod the planet. I gave up counting the endless series of rivers, streams, creeks, and estuaries that fed the mighty body of water, and only marveled that despite their number, each was unique. Our kids thrilled at their first sight of "Big Mac" - Mackinac - the longest suspension bridge in the world. We looked up to the majestic spires of its twin towers, their peaks standing five hundred feet about the surface of the water. We stared down two hundred feet from the surface of the bridge, down upon the Strait that separates two of the four largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Nothing but dazzlingly blue water stretched out as far as we could see, until the surface and the horizon joined in one inseparable line.
The western shoreline of Lake Michigan, from Grand Haven to the Mackinac Bridge, is some of the most spectacular country in America. The Indians of the upper Midwest called the Lake "Missi-Ken" - large lake. And so they gave name to the Great Lake and to the State.
We do the same things every year, never wearying of the routine: sailing, biking, boogie-boarding, sand-dune climbing, kayaking, hiking, and camp-firing on the shore. The days begin watching sunrises over Portage Lake; they end on the western shore of that narrow penninsula, watching sunsets over "The Big Lake". Mornings see bike rides to Missi-Ken, when she is typically gentle and becalmed, then on to the irrepressible, and delicious artesian well, watching as it skips and chortles into our water containers. Huddled on the beach at night, we gaze transfixed as the sun sets; marveling as it slides down the sky like some great, incandescent eye. Before bidding us good night, it perches for a moment atop the surface of the water, then plunges below the horizon, illuminating the sky and clouds with colors so lush as to shame the canvas of Raphael.
The Shawnee Indian Tecumseh was a great American, and sadly, a figure far too obscure in our collective historicy. He lived in the forests and on the river banks of what is now southern Ohio, and often tried to give verse to the feelings he had for the land he so loved. Despite his natural and understated eloquence, he was frustrated in his ability to do so; his powers of articulation inadequate to the task of capturing what the land meant to him.
Like Tecumseh - all I can do is recall individual sounds and images; a tableau of color, imagery, and sentiment: A bobcat darting across the trail of a deep woods hike, stopping briefly to freeze us with its penetrating, alien gaze. The dead weight pull of a Coho salmon; sweat sluicing down your face and tension singing in your muscles as you reel him in. The cries of sail boat captains barking commands to their crew in the crowded start of a regatta; the bows of their craft slicing the water, decks near enough to step from one to the other. Watching your children lay hands on the tiller of a sailboat and, just as you taught them, reading the sails as they luft and grope for the wind. Seeing them gaze upward, ever upward, to the towering enormity of The Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes as we cruise past below; jaws agape and souls humbled by the sight. Seeing the wind suddenly quicken as it gathers over the surface; the mad scramble to reduce sail before it strikes the spinnaker like an invisible fist, heeling the boat to the gunnels, and powering it forward with a savage force. Watching your children; their lithe and bronzed bodies knifing through the surf as their shrieks give voice to their unfettered joy. Gazing up to the shore, the color of the water changing with the depth: slate gray to blue, blue to aqua, aqua to clear; until the sand and shore mesh together in the light choclolate of the wet sand. Finally, your eyes come to rest on the soft green and beige of the dune grasses, as they gently yield to the caress of the ever present zephyrs.
And the exultant physicality of it all - the thigh-burning, lung-busting effort of ascending the mighty dunes, and the rollicking, limb-flailing descent. The taste of the artesian water after a long run in the mid-day sun; sweeter than any iced bottle of Gatorade. Sipping a single malt scotch on the deck of a sailboat, as twilight creeps stealthily over the marina; the happy sound of sailors restoring their gear joining the aroma of their evening meal, as the grooved reggae sounds of Peter Tosh lilt and dance over the surface of the water. Maybe you know a better way to end the day - I don't.
Try as I might, I cannot capture the essence of what this land and water hold for me. How does one articulate the memories of a lifetime; memories seared like a brand onto the skin of my consciousness?
Always I will hear Missi-Ken's call. The primordial sound of the surf in its ageless assault upon the shore, and the matching refrain of that same water's ebbing retreat. The achingly plaintive cry of the gulls as they bob above the surface, their cries mixing with the roar of the surf in a soul-piercing texture; sounding like the audible manifestation of a regretted past.
Perhaps our son captured her essence best while perched atop the dunes one golden evening. Staring out across Miss-Ken, I watched as its majesty laid hold of his spirit, and inexorably quieted him. And I could only nod my agreement as he murmured, "it's not a Lake, Dad - it's an ocean".
We love Lake Michigan.
And our love for her has helped teach us to respect the supply and use of water.