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Northward bound

October 25, 2011

Our family has spent lifetimes enjoying the beauty of the Lower Peninsula, commonly called the “mitten” of Michigan. When Grandpa John traveled Michigan selling lumber for Roseburg Lumber Company out of Oregon, he saw beauty almost everywhere he went and fell in love with the state. Though he had moved the family to northern Indiana for a job with Weyerhaeuser in the early 60s, in 1965 he was hired for the Michigan-Indiana-Ohio, and later to include Illinois and Kentucky, midwestern sales territory for Roseburg Lumber. Once established, he began to share what he found in Michigan with the rest of the family.

Many summers Grandpa John and Grandma Beanie rented a cottage for us to enjoy somewhere in the Lower Peninsula, and we spent years exploring the thousands of lakes that dot the landscape. Some are shallow and warm, some are cold, deep granite scars remnant of glacial violence, mysterious, and to me, a little creepy. But like my father, I was entranced with Michigan and always wanted to see more.

In 1974 we headed to Caribou Lake near Detour Village on the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula, and I learned that prior to that year, I had seen little of the pristine beauty Michigan had to offer. If I could die at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the south end of Lake Superior, I am fairly certain that I would die a happy woman. But Caribou Lake was special. The people were special and its proximity to Lakes Huron and Superior, St. Ignace, Michilimackinac and the Mackinac Bridge, Sault Ste. Marie in both Michigan and Ontario, the St. Mary’s rapids between the two lakes and the Soo Locks provided us with a jumping off point to an almost endless list of places to visit, and things to see and experience.

I had my first experiences water skiing on Caribou Lake (landing with a resounding SMACK right on my ascii – ouch), and watched Grandpa John show off his feat of skiing into the shore. After seeing him release the rope on the back of the ski boat, angle his skis toward the pebbly shore and then walk right out of his skis at the water’s edge, I thought he could do anything.

We fished for smallmouth and rock bass, yellow perch and pike, and an old favorite, sunfish. The occasional catfish that we caught was unceremoniously nailed to the nearest tree, divested of the sticker fins, then skinned from his pouting lower lip to tail. Everyone cleaned his own catch or didn’t eat. Those were the rules.

People living in the Upper Peninsula are a hardy stock and we listened, rapt, to the gravelly voices of commercial fishermen who regaled us with tales of swells and gales and following the life-and-death rules of a great inland sea while fishing Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay and the waters of Lake Huron near Drummond Island. We felt rough nets and scarred orange buoys that were parts of whitefish trap nets to be placed on the lake floor, and ran our hands over heavy cables and winches used to handle the weight of the nets and thousands of pounds of whitefish pulled over the sides of the vessel during harvest. We smelled the lingering scent of fish permeating every crevice of the scrubbed-down vessel moored in the bay, and the unique scent of the freshwater lakes so different from the scent of a salty sea.

It is a fresh scent almost like rain, but lighter, less earthy. It’s the scent of green fronds floating through shafts of sunlight penetrating the dark water, and the scent of sand-covered mussels. It’s captivating. I can smell it as we approach Tower Hill. I can smell it in the spring rain, and am grateful that we live close to the scent that Lake Michigan shares with Superior and Huron.

We admired the well-kept fishing boats, but had greater admiration for the men who had learned to command them—and by extension—command the waters of Lakes Superior and Huron. We were to learn that even those stalwart men of the Great Lakes were not invincible and that sometimes our beloved lakes struck back at those who would try to tame them. When Gordon Lightfoot released his song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1976, we could almost feel the pain of the people who lost loved ones in that tragic sinking on Lake Superior in 1975.

Three of the Great Lakes had me enchanted, even to the point that I needed to have my very own story of their creation. I never could just leave things as they were, and it didn’t matter that the lower left part of the Upper Peninsula was a man-made line. The Upper Peninsula on the map looked like something to me, and a flight of fancy took care of the rest.

I see the Upper Peninsula as a great mythic bird in flight, the crude representation of birds we see on a child’s drawing, and imagine that prior to the creation of the Great Lakes as we know them today there was a huge expanse of water between Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario in Canada, over which a magnificent bird was soaring through the skies, seeking succor from the earth. When she saw the vast expanse of water next to verdant land she settled on the northern border of what is now Wisconsin, where she found sweet water and plentiful vegetation, unclaimed by others of her species.

The great bird praised the gods of the land and waters for her wonderful find, and grew accustomed to the plenty her new home provided. When she thought to soar through the skies in search of a mate, however, she discovered that she had lounged too long, weakening her wings, and had overindulged, causing her left wing to grow an enormous spur that rendered her incapable of flight. In mourning over her lost freedom and with deep regret for her gluttony she spread her wings in supplication, but was rebuffed by the gods of the land and waters. Unable to overcome disappointment in her own irremediable flaws and grief over the gods’ refusal to provide absolution, the great bird laid prone, spread her wings across the land and waters and died of a broken heart.

Her remains divided the vast expanse of water into Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the three lakes whose waters move me. Like their tides, the effect of the lakes is virtually imperceptible, but always there. Timeless.

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