My Year in Water, Part 2

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Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls.

Sparkling Waters

At the end of May 2016, Cooper, his mom, and I crossed south under the Detroit River, across the border to Canada. In a small, fuel-efficient car, you can make it across southern Ontario to New York with one tank of gas, no currency exchange required. (Sidenote: you should always take the tunnel, no matter what Google Maps tells you, because the Ambassador Bridge belongs to Detroit’s Mr. Burns, billionaire Matty Moroun. Don’t line his pockets.)

It was Memorial Day weekend, and we were bound for Rochester, New York, where Cooper’s sister lives. Near the end of the Canadian leg of the trip, you catch glimpses of Lake Ontario out the car windows. My family taught me the excitement of glimpsing big rivers under highway bridges, gorges extending into the distance, as well as our gleeful exclamation—“Hawk alert! Hawk alert!”—upon seeing raptors overhead. I was satisfied that it was less than halfway through the year, and with Ontario, I had already seen three out of five Great Lakes that year (an April trip to Cleveland had included a brief stop at Lake Erie; more on that later).

My parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my grandparents on both sides crossed Ontario between New York and Michigan countless times. My Aunt Margaret has lived away from Michigan, on the other end of the Great Lakes world, for more than fifty years now.

I don’t personally know the area well, beyond the asphalt and interchanges, but still this piece of Canada, which was once part of the same inland sea as Michigan, feels a part of my heritage. Each time I make the journey with my mother, she reminisces. She describes detours to antique shops, picnics by the lake, ice cream cones and other adventures that happened long before I was born. She also tells me stories she has read about the Seneca, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) League, whose land ranges across the New York-Ontario border.

Lake Ontario is connected to Lake Erie by the Niagara River; when Ontario narrows on its eastern edge, its waters travel onward to the Atlantic as the St. Lawrence Seaway. When I drive to Rochester through Canada, I reenter the U.S. below the western start of Lake Ontario, crossing the Niagara in the process. It’s faster to avoid the falls, but if you have the time and energy for crowds and parking, you can stop en route like we used to do when we were kids. It’s amazing to think, as you watch the awesome flow of water spilling over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side), that even more water surged over the cliffs before the U.S. and Canadian governments negotiated how much they could siphon off to run their power plants downstream (the water level mandated to astound the tourists varies from day to night, from tourist season to depths of winter).

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Letchworth State Park.

In Rochester, we decided on a scenic drive for Saturday, exploring the Genesee River gorge south of Rochester near the Finger Lakes, in Letchworth State Park. The beautiful river tumbles down three impressive waterfalls and through the deep canyon it has carved since the end of the last ice age. Wooded green hills roll into the distance. At the other end of the park, the massive Mount Morris Dam mars the view, protects Rochester from flooding, and has presumably upended the ecology of that part of the river, although the Wikipedia article about this dam has no environmental section. The Genesee River flows into Rochester, which hosts another big waterfall right downtown, before emptying into Lake Ontario.

Lake Ontario was maybe the second Great Lake I ever swam in (Erie might have happened, but I have no childhood memories of it). I remember two or three summers, where after a week up north on Lake Huron, my brother and I traveled with our closest cousins to my aunt’s house in Rochester. She had to call ahead to check the water quality at the city beach, but we got to swim there a couple times. I remember once when it was safe to swim in, the water appeared almost black—I’m not sure what was floating in it, but it makes me sad. It would be so wonderful, so lucky to live in a city with a Great Lake beach—and so heartbreaking to live in sight of that wide-open water and know that heavy industry and agriculture were making it unsafe for human life. I know: I grew up along Lake St. Clair, the big lake that (along with the St. Clair and Detroit rivers) connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie, and we never wanted to swim in it because of high E. coli levels all the time.

On the drive home to Michigan, we stopped at Hamlin Beach State Park on the Ontario shore west of Rochester. The lake was darker than Lake Michigan often looks, this intense blue-green, but crystal clear in the shallows. The lake may be small in surface area, but it’s much deeper than Lake Erie. Some devotees of Michigan and Superior dismiss Ontario for being smaller, with too many cities—Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Rochester—polluting its nature. Lake Ontario can’t help that. Only we can help that, protect it and clean it and forge a way of life where our cities are clean enough, wild enough—and our outlook is open enough—to appreciate the beauty lapping up on the shore right in front of us.

marisa & cooper at hamlin state park

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Hamlin Beach State Park.

I read somewhere that Ontario comes from an Iroquoian word that could be translated as “sparkling water.” Now whenever I think of Ontario, province or lake, it sparkles.

I guess all that was just to say that I had a few moments with Lake Ontario last year, but it was too early in the season to swim.


+ Subscribe to the My Year in Water newsletter here.

+ Previously: My Year in Water: June, Back to January

 

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My Year in Water: June, Back to January

Personal Mythology

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.

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Lake Ontario does not border Michigan.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

img_9586When I got off the bus at work that Monday, the first thing I felt was the invigorating chill of the October air mixed with the cheery morning sunshine. The prairie patches grown by the university as a less labor-intensive, more biologically diverse and sustainable form of landscaping, still buzzed with life and waved in the breeze. I felt light and free and happy as I strolled past, the earlier dread of missed buses and unknown inbox contents set aside.

How do I hold onto that feeling? How can I possibly hold onto that feeling when I have to wave my ID card at the door, climb the three flights of stairs (my choice, but I don’t always enjoy it), and turn on the computer, that mesmerizing and dulling device that rules so many work lives?

I could have walked the entire way to work, but only if I was ahead of schedule.

I could have sat down on that sidewalk like a weirdo and breathed in, breathed out the peaceful morning smell, willfully ignoring the heavy car traffic behind and the hulking office buildings ahead. But knowing that I was only briefly postponing the inevitable, that I needed to move along and get to work, would have distracted me.

What I thought, as I walked toward the wide expanse of parking lots that I snake through to cut the most direct path to my building, was that this was why I wanted to go up north that weekend. I wanted to leave everything behind except for my boyfriend Cooper (I’d take Haroun and Table Cat too, if they were dogs) and put all my focus in the moment, in the beautiful forests and waters of the Upper Peninsula. No worries except about what’s for the next meal. Feel tall standing on big rocks. Bouncing feet along the trails. Bundled up in sweaters and scarf and jacket against the wind. Experiencing things that really matter.

The thing is, travel is also stressful. There’s always an opportunity cost. In the final four to twenty-four hours before departure, I start to panic. Why do I want to leave this apartment and these cats that on a usual day, I wish I had more time for? Why do I need to skip town, when town is full of good food and better people and really, lots of pretty trails and a cozy bed I know? How will I know what I want to wear two days from now? When will I ever write about the trips we already took, when will I curl up with all the books in my stack and catch up? I rarely get much reading done on trips, because no matter how long we spend away, it’s not quite enough. Often, I get lost and exhausted in the decision-making.

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I don’t know how to be present, maybe I don’t really know what I want, because I want too many things.

We hadn’t planned our getaway yet, didn’t have a place to sleep, but it was only days away. Cooper had a long to-do list, better tended to with undivided attention at home…and yet, despite not working out the logistics, we had planned on an escape to Lake Superior all year. There was nothing I wanted to do more than this.

So We Went, and It Was Glorious

img_2691img_2793img_9795We spent two nights at a motel in the unincorporated community of Paradise, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. We visited Tahquamenon Falls surrounded by the resplendent colors of autumn, all golden light the first afternoon. We visited the Lower Falls again for a longer hike the next day, when we had the world mostly to ourselves, cocooned under cloudy skies with all the trees and the largest lake in the world* in front of us. The final morning, the beach at Whitefish Point was all ours, too, as the blue-green waves crashed and crashed, and the blue sky started to peek through.

Why do I travel? I travel to feel free, to fly loose from daily cares, from what others want from me and from what I demand of myself. I travel because I like to see new things, because I like to bring stories I’ve read to life and build my interest for other place’s pasts and presents. To disconnect, and to connect.

Things were really simple on this trip. Heavy storms the first night and the next morning put our power out, and so we cleaned up and wrote by candlelight, internet-less, until lunchtime. Other than that, our goal was to be outside together—mission accomplished.

*largest freshwater lake by area

Up North Rituals

manistee-bluff-2015The first thing we always do when we arrive is run down to the beach, or up to the bluff, to say hello again to our friend the lake—whichever Great Lake it may be. It was true when I was a kid, up north with my cousins. We’d get to our condo or cottage for the week and immediately ditch the grownups, drop that first bag of the many provisions we were supposed to be unloading from our caravan, and run down the path or over the grass and into the sand, to see our long-lost friend, Lake Huron.

When Cooper and I get to a beach, we usually kick off our shoes and walk up to the shoreline where the waves lap up and the sand is wet and firm. If it’s not swimming weather, we’d still like to get our feet wet. Even in winter, we want to dip our fingers in and commune with these giant bodies of water, which surround the land we live on from so many sides.

Of course, wherever you vacation, you usually want to take stock of your new holdings on arrival, however temporary their tenure as your home may be. You want to claim the best bedroom, perhaps, but more importantly, seeing the lay of the land helps you stake a claim on your vacation, and bring it from the realm of anticipation to reality. Your vacation may begin when you pull out of your driveway at home or your plane leaves the runway—suddenly, predictably, and yet improbably airborne. You get a step closer to vacation when you leave the interstate, or land at the distant airport. Another step closer with that first glimpse of lake through the trees, or foreign signs everywhere, or crossing city limits. You come off the numbered smaller highway and onto country roads with periodic mailboxes and gravel driveways tunneling into the trees, tall and impressive although they aren’t as old as we’d like to dream.

But I’m not really there until I’m face to face, as it were, with the lake. Then, vacation has arrived.

It makes me so happy that Cooper shares these customs with me, this friendliness with our lakes (and admiration for the sea, when we find ourselves on ocean beaches). I don’t know if anyone taught me to feel this way toward the land and water, or if I came upon it instinctively. Not every Michigander acts like me. But Cooper, who comes from a different family, is so similar in this.

In a way they are low-key deities to us, our nature gods to whom we delight in paying homage.

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A beach at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area, near Ludington and Manistee.

There Isn’t Time Enough, My Friends

There isn’t time enough, my friends—
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends—
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

– Kenneth Koch’s poem “You Want a Social Life, With Friends,” via Austin Kleon

Before I get started, you should follow the link to read the whole poem (published in The New Yorker in 1998), because it’s funny and kind of true. I should print it out to hang over my desk, or maybe somewhere I actually routinely spend time, like on the wall by the bathroom mirror, as a reminder to focus on what matters and not get carried away with trying to do all the things.

All the things cannot be done. I know this, and yet I still want so much. Fitting in love, work, and friends isn’t exactly my problem, as long as the ‘work’ we’re talking about here is the job I report to every weekday. Cooper and I spend a lot of time together, I try to see my local friends regularly, and, you know, I sit at that desk and deal with email and go to meetings as expected. But I aim for more than love, job, and friends. When I count the work I’m not paid for, the creative pursuits like reading and writing and tending my little garden, and then throw in a latent desire to be in shape—a distinct need I feel every day to move and stretch more, which is hard to accommodate in the office—and add those to a deep commitment to travelling somewhere almost every month, the time runs out.

This is why I think the entire goal of so-called work-life balance is garbage: why are so many people struggling to elevate their entire non-working lives to the same level as their jobs? Life is made out of many components; work may be one or several pieces of the puzzle, whether paid or unpaid; but I see no reason to split the pie in two and give half to my employer, and half to my friends, family, health, home, and other dreams. This is a complaint and a philosophy for always, although it’s not what I’m trying to write right now.

Suffice it to say: there isn’t time enough, my friends, so mark what matters and go for it.

It Must Be Summer (‘Cause You’re Never Around)

pt pelee toesWhat matters for me this season is travel. Road trips and tall trees and rivers and lakes are what our weekends have been. So I won’t complain about my job, which I am so fortunate to have. Less than two years ago, I had two or even three jobs at a time, with unpredictable schedules and requisite night and weekend hours. 2015 was my first summer ever, really, to hit the sweet spot: weekends free, paid time off, access to a car with air conditioning, and money enough for gas and the occasional plane ticket. Last summer, Cooper and I traveled to New York and Wisconsin, visited Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan regularly, and spent ten glorious days exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was pretty excellent. This spring and summer, though, I’m living the dream. Continue reading “There Isn’t Time Enough, My Friends”