Lose yourself in Nature and find peace. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a few hours along the lake shores of Western Michigan, one loses sight of many things – and finds so much more.
The old ones say “the journey is the destination,” and many times that is true. There were wonders to be found along the trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes, to be sure. But the destination – oh, my, the destination…
The destination at the end of this trail quickly became my new favorite place in Sleeping Bear: Empire Bluff, a sandy ridge high above Lake Michigan. The path to it snaked through thick forests of beech and maple, ending at a boardwalk along the bluff. Openings in the greenery offered a sneak peak of the vistas to come.
Looking down at Lake Michigan 400 feet below. The variety of hues never cease to amaze me. How many names are there for these shades? Blue, green, turquoise, aquamarine, cerulean, azure, beryl, cobalt, peacock… I don’t think there are nearly enough words to describe the colors of the lake.
The view from the Empire Bluff Overlook. The shoreline stretches north along the Empire Embayment. A sand bar separates South Bar Lake from Lake Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dune itself – or what is left of it after years of wind erosion – is a small dark hill perched on the tip of the sandy bluff in the distance. Offshore to the left, partially obscured by cedar trees, is South Manitou Island.
Everyone comes for the view. Not everyone pays attention to it. Sometimes I wonder where the next generation of conservationists will come from if kids never get their faces out of their phones, even when in the presence of beauty such as this.
At least some folks are putting their phones to good use. I took cell photos here too, mostly to tease my friends: “I’m on top of the world, and you’re not!”
Not all is right with that world up here, but it’s hard to find fault with this loveliness. I was enthralled with the purple flowers that covered the open sandy slopes. I couldn’t resist them, even though I knew them for what they were – a dreaded invasive plant.
Spotted Knapweed, Centaurea stoebe, to be precise. It’s an Eastern European aster that arrived on the West Coast in the 1800s, probably in an alfalfa shipment. In 80 or 90 years, it spread to 26 counties in the Pacific Northwest. 20 years later, it was in 45 of 50 states. A pioneer species, it takes over fields, road sides, sand prairies, anywhere there is open disturbed land. Nasty, nasty, nasty.
But it’s such a pretty nasty…
This metallic green sweat bee thought so, too. There are a lot of species of sweat bees all over the world. Which one this is, I have no idea. It was enough to just watch it flashing emerald green in the sun, busily pollinating the invasive plants.
The joint was jumping, literally. Grasshoppers abounded. If I got too close, they’d hop a foot or two in the air, and fly away with buzzing wings. In flight, they looked like butterflies. Here’s the Grasshopper King, about to take up his scepter.
Every summer I discover a new favorite place.
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Glen Haven.
The Port Oneida Rural Historic District and Platter River Point.
This year it was…
Wait. We have to get there first. In Sleeping Bear Dunes, the journey is the destination. Here are some scenes from the trail.
Glaciers played a large role in shaping the hills and lakes of the area, depositing deep layers of sand and debris. In this poor soil grows a dense forest of maple and birch. Scattered boulders known as “erratics” were carried here by glaciers from their origins far away.
I’d spent my adolescence canoeing, but decades had passed, and kayaks were a different craft altogether. So I listened carefully as Betsey showed me how to get into the kayak, and warned me of the dangers of getting broadside to the waves. Then she gave the stern a little push and said “Paddle!”
Faced with deceptively strong one-foot waves and starting to veer dangerously sideways, I did just what she said. One stroke. Hmm, this odd paddle has a blade on the other end too. Let’s try that one. Two strokes. Then three, four, five strokes, and without knowing it I was out beyond the waves, maneuvering the boat like I’d been born to it.
I was a kayaker.
Flash forward five years, and once again I found myself in Michigan, this time with a lot more kayak experience under my belt. I’ve paddled ponds, lakes, creeks and rivers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, both with companions and alone. Heck, I even own my own kayak now. But until this year, my Michigan paddling had been lake-bound: Lost Lake and Hamlin Lake, Lake Michigan.
No more. This year, I finally got out on a Michigan river. Two of them, in fact!
Up first, the Lincoln River. Getting there required a 1½ mile paddle north on Lake Michigan. During which time I realized that I’d left my waterproof point-and-shoot camera behind. Phooey.
I’d tried this trip the year before, but had been turned back by wind and powerful longshore currents. Don’t the clear skies and crystal aquamarine water of this photo from last year fool you. Lake Michigan is not to be trifled with. Underneath that rippled surface was a northward flow as unyielding as any spring tide.
No such drama from the lake this time! This year she was a lamb, lying calm and blue under sunny skies. The trip to the mouth of the Lincoln River took a mere fifteen minutes. Once there, I sought the shelter of some trees. It was getting hot, and the shade was welcome.
Another happy fifteen minutes took me under a footbridge and into Lincoln Lake. Finally I gave in and dug my cell phone out to take photos. I own two DLSR cameras, four lenses and a waterproof camera, and there I was, using a phone camera.
Looking back toward Epworth Heights. My great-grandfather built a house in this Methodist resort a century ago, and my dad and his cousin Sherry spent summers there throughout their boyhoods. I grew up with Dad’s tales of Michigan, and fell in love the first time I set foot in the state. Must be in the blood.
An even bigger adventure awaited a few days later. My cousin Becky, her husband Ron and their friend Mark invited me to go on a day-long canoe trip on the Pere Marquette River.
Canoeing! I’d lived in canoes as a teenager – I’d paddled, floated, talked, sang, ate and even slept in them. This was familiar as coming back home.
And yet, not so familiar. The rust showed. I was surprised at how awkward canoeing felt. I had always paddled in the stern of a canoe when I was young, so that’s where I asked to be. Poor Mark gamely put up with my out-of-practice (and very different) paddling style for the day. He was generous with his tips and I learned a few things from him. I definitely wasn’t the veteran canoer I used to be.
Our lunch spot along the Pere Marquette River. The river is lined with white pine, birch, cedar and beech trees, along with wild rice plants. Tiny damselflies were everywhere. We passed a white-tailed deer and her fawn, and two wood ducks, and were in turn passed by a Belted Kingfisher.
When we got back on the river after lunch, Mark took over in the stern. I spent the rest of the trip wondering where to put my feet. There is NO space in the front of a canoe. Now I am quite sure that I’ve never paddled in the bow before in my life.
With experienced Brother Mark at the helm, I had time to do a little more photography…
So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter,
The fear that is within you now that seems to never end…
2015 was a banner year for mankind to be cruel to one another. I have been growing more cynical with the years, but it’s hard now to retain any faith in the wisdom and goodness of humanity.
Abroad, terrorists are slaughtering hundreds in the name of a religion their so-called “beliefs” don’t resemble in the slightest. On the home front, politicians vying for the highest office in the land spew hatred, fear and humiliation in the pursuit of attention and power. It’s enough to make a nature girl weep.
Trail time offer a respite from the cacophony. Walking along a peaceful lake or thunderous surf, watching the infinite variety of critters going about their daily lives… All serve to remind me that man is but one of the species sharing this planet. To the bufflehead ducks swimming by, I am of no consequence. Somehow that soothes my soul.
But what in nature can restore my faith in the human species?
…It is here we must begin to seek the wisdom of the children
And the graceful way of flowers in the wind.
Man’s need to create beauty reminds me there’s a flip side to the boorishness and hatred. Even far from paint brushes and sculptor’s tools, the artistic hand of man can be found.
Sometimes on my meanderings, I come across cairns, these small stacks of stones. Cairns originally functioned as directional signals on trails, but have been raised to an art form by creative wanderers.
Once I came across a humorous figure perched on a bridge, placed there just for the amusement of others. And in its serendipity, I am reminded of our sense of community, our need to comfort and cheer one another.
Seeing these works of trail art reminds me of humanity’s love for beauty, and gives me hope that our race may one day put behind us cruelty and hate.
And the song that I am singing is a prayer to non-believers,
Come and stand beside us we can find a better way.
The sun shines brightly in an azure sky laced with fluffy white clouds. All is quiet but for the fading voices ashore and the rhythm of the paddle. Dip, swish, drip, drip; dip, swish, drip, drip.
At the small island’s tip, driftwood and old pilings bleach in the sun while a single tree keeps watch. A kayak rests on the shore, awaiting the return of its paddlers from an exploration of the island’s wild interior.
Across Hamlin Lake lies the inviting inlet of the much smaller Lost Lake. A spit of land barely ten feet wide separates the two lakes.
The Lost Lake Trail spans the inlet on an elevated walkway. Underneath, an uprooted stump has wedged itself under the bridge. This is the land of drowned forests, cut down and buried under water in the name of progress. Progress complete, the lakes are now a place for play.
The coves offer a sheltered place for water lilies and sedges to grow. On the isthmus, a tree leans at a precarious angle. The peacefulness of a summer’s day is deceptive; the Lake Michigan coast is a harsh environment, and whipping winter winds take their toll on trees clinging to the water’s edge.
All too soon, fierce winter will intrude upon peaceful meditations of summer. When it comes, find sanctuary in dreams of sheltered coves and sand beaches. The dip, swish, drip, drip of the paddle. The plants swaying sinuously beneath the clear water, the sparkle of the sun on the surface, the sand and the trees reflected there.