My birthday at the start of June ushers in the summer, and so the summer is the new year for me. As a kid, I counted my years by the summers, and what shines brightest from them is the time spent with family and friends on Great Lakes beaches. I remember where we stayed each year, near the Au Sable River on Lake Huron: the yellow cottage with my parents, the condo with my cousins that became two condos and then a house and then gloriously two houses together on a private beach, two perfect summers in a row. The up north streak ended by the time I was in high school, although there were also day trips with Emma and even a full week on Lake Huron with Ali and her family. But the summers were marked more by road trips for concerts, my high school trip to France, the summer in college when I lived in a little house with my best friends until I left to study in Germany for a year. The summer Cooper and I started dating, for real this time. Eventually Cooper and I started traveling up north together every summer, and I was so happy to have this piece of my childhood back.
I have a lifelong commitment to swimming in the Great Lakes—to being the first one in the water, the last one out—even if the cold water turned my skin blue. As a child, I was very aware that Marisa was supposed to mean “sea maiden” in Italian, although it frustrated me because it was the lakes that I loved—I didn’t even know the sea! Even so, I wove it into my personal mythology, tied my love of the water to my name.
After my year in Germany, I was overjoyed to reunite with my best friends and my favorite lake, Lake Huron. The summer of 2010 kicked off Lake Michigan’s new status as my every-summer-lake. In 2011, I swam in Lake Michigan and visited Toronto with Cooper, but although we took a ferry to the Toronto Islands and visited the Beaches, I didn’t jump in Lake Ontario. We also didn’t make the long day trip from Toronto to Lake Huron’s massive Georgian Bay, but we did stop along Lake Erie on the way home, bringing the lake total to three. I think that summer was when the enticing dream was born: could I swim in all five Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior—in one year?
The state of Michigan is surrounded by four of the five, so it seems like an achievable goal for a Michigan resident who loves beaches and road trips.
You Can’t Love Just One Side of a Lake
Since then, I’ve wanted to collect all the lakes each summer. Partially because I like things to be complete, all the pieces beginning to end, nothing left out. Partially because I’ve just never done it.
But above all else, because I love the Great Lakes and I’m curious about every side of them. I’ve never wanted to be a typical anything, but in terms of summer, it turns out that I’m a typical Michigander. I’d rather be Up North.
Last year, I finally visited all five lakes in the same twelve-month span, although I didn’t swim in all of them. The different trips took many hours of plotting on my part, thousands of miles in the car, and perseverance when I was tired of thinking through logistics. Thankfully, I powered through, and I’m satisfied with every single trip. Although I ended up replacing a few destinations with less ambitious journeys, Cooper and I still made a point of visiting many beaches we’d never been to before.
“You know, it’s not just one side of the lake that we love here in Michigan, we love the other side, too.“
I hadn’t thought of it that way until I heard Lee Sprague speaking at the Water Protectors Symposium last month, but the truth of it reverberated in me as soon as the words were out. You may have a favorite shore, you may own a specific piece of land along a body of water, but the water within a lake is always moving, and if it’s not safe on one end, it’s not safe anywhere.
Water Is Life
I was sitting on my couch trying to think through this piece. How to plunge in, to weave the litany of beachy weekends into the absolutely essential facts of environmental injustice, injustice toward marginalized communities and everyone who depends on water to live, and it’s so big that I couldn’t figure it out. I was procrastinating, scrolling through Facebook, and I saw a post by Linda Black Elk, the coordinator of the Medic Healer Council at the resistance camps at Standing Rock. She wrote about how she and her almost-two-year-old child encountered Senator Al Franken on a plane in Minneapolis. Her little boy grabbed at Al Franken’s hair as they walked down the aisle, and she recognized the senator and said, “No DAPL.” He replied right back, “Mni wiconi,” which means, “Water is life,” a tenet of indigenous beliefs and the rallying cry of the Standing Rock Sioux and their fellow waters protectors as they stood on sacred ground and prayed that the Dakota Access Pipeline would not prevail. My eyes watered, reading it, because the fight is so important, because water is life, and because I want to help but don’t know how.
2016 was a huge year for water. When I first thought of writing this series last fall, My Year in Lakes or My Year in Water, I didn’t quite realize what it would need to encompass. I’d been writing snippets of things about the lakes all summer, all tangled up and full of excitement from the many trips we’d taken. I knew that I lived surrounded by the greatest lakes in the world—twenty percent of the world’s freshwater is in the Great Lakes basin. I also knew that the state of Michigan had poisoned the drinking water of the city of Flint, and that the water still wasn’t safe to drink straight from the tap (still isn’t!). But I wasn’t thinking then about how clean water is in peril across the United States. Nor did I realize that Michigan’s most important natural resource is under threat from all sides.
I hope you’ll follow along even if your home is somewhere different from mine, because you probably love where you’re from, too. I’m tying this to the Great Lakes because this is my home, that’s my story, but water is important to everyone on this planet, and so I’m sure it needs to be protected, wherever you are.
First Lake of 2016: Michigan
So if I take you back eighteen months to where I meant the year to start, January 2016, that means we begin with Ludington and Manistee, on the Lake Michigan coast in the northwest of the Lower Peninsula (but south of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City). Cooper and I drove up to his dad’s house in Manistee on a Friday evening, a four-hour journey, and arrived under cover of darkness. In the morning, the lake greeted us under blue skies, framed by tree branches and the snowy dune in front of the house, and Cooper’s dad made us breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, bacon, and eggs. Good food and good views; going up north almost always feels like vacation, even if we’re only there for a day and a half. This time, we’d made the long drive in winter because Cooper’s sister was visiting from New York, so we, along with Cooper’s brother and his trusty hound, gathered there for a belated Christmas.
The afternoon found us at Ludington State Park. We’d tried to go hiking in the Nordhouse Dunes, our favorite spot nearby, but in the national forest, they don’t plow the roads in winter, so we’d turned around and headed farther south to the state park. It’s a popular place; on a summer weekend, the parking lot can fill up completely. Before you even get there, you see cars parked on both sides of the road, right up against the dunes. At the end of one summer vacation, we pulled over there too, scampered over the dune following one of many little paths squished into the dune grass. Right on the other side of the tall, sharp grass is the lake.
This was the last Saturday in January, and although the park wasn’t empty, it wasn’t full, either. It was easy to find somewhere to park and a trail to follow. Two miles later, Cooper, his sister, and I stood by the lighthouse, enjoying the wind and the waves and admiring the otherworldly ice formations along the edge. We walked back to the car along the beach, treading on sand solid from frozen water.
My thoughts were not on the greater world that afternoon. They were focused on the here and now, the sand and sky around me, or the book on my lap when we were back at the house. I was reading George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life on that trip. I had gotten past the beginning and was captivated by what I was learning: the way the landscapes of England and Europe used to look before humankind simplified them so drastically, how great an impact beavers and their dams (instead of hydroelectric dams) make to the resilience of a riverbed and its resident species and surrounding ecosystems, that rhinoceroses and elephants used to roam where London stands today in a temperate climate similar to what we’ve had ever since.
Monbiot explains that the way water flows in the ocean has changed, as the number of fish and whales has changed. The way nutrients cycle from the surface to the ocean floor impacts the organisms who can live there. Trawling the sea bottom destroys it all. Everything is connected.
It sounds like a sad story, but what I learned about rewilding is that, given protection from humans and other species that would harm the new growth, given some key elements of the ecosystem that came before, plants and animals are able to rebuild a complex, adaptable environment for themselves. If we don’t lose everything, we can bring some of it back.
What does this have to do with My Year in Water? Something, for sure. Maybe everything. I hadn’t re-launched my blog yet (that came in March), but I was taking notes from the book, trying to capture everything that inspired me so I could write about it, knowing that this welling hope, these enchanting possibilities of allowing our world to become less human-centric, while benefiting humanity at the same time—that I wanted this to be part of my future world. I hadn’t gotten any farther. It was just a tiny shift in perception of my position in the world. But I wanted to know what efforts were underway in the United States, how I could somehow pitch in. I started by telling everyone I knew that they should read the book.
Inklings of Enbridge Line 5
Outside in the January air in Ludington, I was happy to feel chilly and alive, and excited about the mini sand stalagmites we had found in frozen sand caves. I wasn’t thinking about oil pipelines; I’d barely given the concept consideration, although I had casually supported Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL the year before. I wasn’t really aware of the extensive sand mining that had destroyed many Lake Michigan dunes, or the oil leases in Ludington itself. I think by then I must have heard of Enbridge Line 5—that there was an oil pipeline that crossed the state of Michigan, at the Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron come together in a mix of wild currents. I think I’d heard about it, and been outraged momentarily without internalizing what it meant, without understanding the issue as something that could involve me. The National Wildlife Federation report that started the conversation about Line 5 was published in 2012; the University of Michigan Water Center’s pilot report on the currents at the Straits and what they would mean if the twin oil lines ruptured had been released in 2014. Whatever I had read already, as I stood on the edge of Lake Michigan that day, I definitely wasn’t considering what it would look like, what it would mean for all those who depend on the Great Lakes for their livelihoods, if oil spilled in our Great Lakes.
While You Wait for Installment Two:
There are some time-sensitive issues requiring public comment, which will only take a few minutes of your time if you choose to participate. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, as well as I can. If you’d like to follow along with this series by email, I’ve started a TinyLetter newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.
+ Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac / Comments must be submitted Wednesday, June 28!
Enbridge has submitted a new permit request to install additional supports to the Line 5 twin pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac, without first participating in a public hearing process. Submit your comment here saying that the State of Michigan must conduct a comprehensive review of the condition of the pipelines before granting another permit to Enbridge, which has consistently violated the conditions of the pipeline easement. Lots of information is available at www.oilandwaterdontmix.org (the only truly safe action is to shut down the flow of fossil fuels and decommission Line 5).
+ ET Rover Natural Gas Pipeline Encroaching on Ann Arbor YMCA’s Camp Birkett / Construction imminent
This natural gas pipeline’s current route puts a YMCA day camp within the incineration zone. Ann Arbor YMCA was not notified of this fact, and construction is now imminent. The current route would cut off neighborhoods and the entire camp in the event of a pipeline explosion. You can get information from the YMCA here about submitting a comment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The company (Energy Transfer Partners of Dakota Access Pipeline fame) also hopes to skip the expense of odorizing the gas in this area, which means the public wouldn’t be able to smell if there was a leak! More information here, and Washington Post article about the massive (two million gallons) drilling spill caused by Rover pipeline construction, which ruined pristine Ohio wetlands, here.
(Of note: Enbridge Line 5 transports Canadian oil and gas to Canadian markets, with very little sold in Michigan. Michigan land and the Straits of Mackinac are a convenient shortcut for them; an incredibly dangerous risk for the Great Lakes. The ET Rover pipeline will also carry its load to Canada; from my understanding, there’s no demonstrated need for additional natural gas pipelines in southeast Michigan.)