Since I was a kid, I have been taking advantage of the beauty of Michigan. You could say I am a veteran of taking advantage of it at this point. My parents would take my siblings and me on picturesque hikes and to spectacular lookout points, and I would stare out onto the blue horizon.
The first time I went to Pyramid Point, my sister was a napping infant. My mother watched her, while my father took my brother and me up the half mile trail to the lookout, and then down the 300 feet to Lake Michigan. By the time we climbed back up and made it back to the parking lot, my mother and little sister had all but left us for dead. We were quickly forgiven, as the beauty of the water can captivate anyone for hours.
The view from that day is one of my most vivid memories, and the hikes in that area are still some of my favorite.
Two summers ago, I was in Hawaii, helping a woman on her farm. After initial conversation, it came up that I was from Traverse City. Her response was, “I have traveled all over the world, and that is the most beautiful place I have been.” Not to mention, you don’t often hear people talking about other beautiful places while being in Hawaii.
But she was right. Our Great Lakes are a globally significant resource, for function and beauty. I love hiking along Lake Michigan’s shores and being amazed every single time.
Though not the flashiest or most spectacular, this week’s Friday favorite is my regular place to hike. It is less of a handsome tuxedo and more of a favorite autumn sweater. One summer in Traverse City, I hiked somewhere in this network of trails every day. I am talking about the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area, nestled in the old State Hospital grounds.
A perfect place to walk a dog, meet a friend, or test your new mountain bike, the Commons is just that – a common area for everyone to enjoy.
The sixth Great Lake – the groundwater that exists beneath our feet – is the unsung and unseen hero. We rely on groundwater for much of our daily use yet do not often see it, but every so often, we see it emerge as a spring.
This week, I had the opportunity to travel to a new place that I knew nothing about, which is one of my favorite things to do. I was honored to be hosted by Ohio Sea Grant for a stay at Gibraltar Island in western Lake Erie. For such a small island, it has a large amount of history, and it left quite an impression on me.
The island is home to Stone Laboratory – the oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States. It also houses former island owner Jay Cooke’s castle and Perry’s Lookout, a lookout point frequently used by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who won the Battle of Lake Erie over 200 years ago. One of the scientists there recommended this as a favorite spot, and I must admit, it was quite a lookout.
The limestone cliffs on the side of the island are even older and more interesting. Their appearance resembles its namesake, the iconic Rock of Gibraltar, and though I could not find any elaborate maze of tunnels running underground, it was still beautiful to behold.
In addition to the beauty of the place, I appreciate what it stands for. The island is owned by Ohio State University. Ohio Sea Grant uses Lake Erie as its classroom and playground, a place where scientists, faculty, staff, and guests can constantly learn and thrive. While there, I went out on Lake Erie to assist with data collection and visited the Aquatic Visitors’ Center on Put-In-Bay island, where I had the chance to hold a captive Lake Erie watersnake (previously endangered) and an Eastern Foxsnake.
Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab are dedicated to science, education, and informed policy for the Great Lakes. At FLOW, these are the same principles that we live every day.
Simply being in a physical location that exists for this sole purpose was very inspiring, and I look forward to returning.
Friday Favorites is our new series where we explore some of our favorite places in and around the Great Lakes.
The Mighty Mac, the Big Mac, the Mackinac Bridge.
One of the most iconic sights in the Great Lakes region, the Bridge has always been a source of wonder for me. My family took trips to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to go camping, and the best part of the car ride was the five miles over the Great Lakes. My brother and I would peer out the window down to see the water, then up to watch the enormous passing towers.
The structure itself amazed me, it still does today. Built just after the Line 5 pipelines in the Straits, the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957. There is often work being done to maintain the bridge, and we would wave to the workers as we drove past. They never waved back, too immersed in their work.
Nayt Boyt, Office Manager
While camping is not permitted on the bridge, people can “hike” it. The Mackinac Bridge Walk every Labor Day allows people to walk the length of the bridge and witness the grandeur of the bridge and the surrounding Great Lakes. I have done so with my family several times.
Over the years, the Mackinac Bridge has served not only as a path toward camping along beautiful Lake Superior, but as a destination in itself, an impressive and beautiful bridge that I will always consider part of my home.
Last month, I took a plane out to Eugene, Oregon to visit my brother and his girlfriend. We spent most of our time playing pinball and visiting the local tea bar to try out various Oolongs, but one of the days out there, we decided to head out to the coast to see the water.
It was supposedly whale watching season, so on the drive out, I kept imagining these breaching blue whales, creating massive shadows over me, that would forever be imprinted in my mind to remember this spring day. When we arrived, we found a viewing station and gift shop. Down below, we saw nothing but waves. I asked the ranger where all the whales were, and he told me that the swells were too high. While that didn’t quite answer my question, I guessed that they had found calmer waters. They knew better than to play around with big waves.
We left the viewing station and went down to the water. It was a spot known as Thor’s Well – a giant sinkhole in the rock where the vast waves crash over and get pulled into the depths below. I balanced from one rock to another to go get a closer look. The deep colors and tremendous thundering sounds of water on rock were truly humbling. Despite the Well, one wave still powered over the top and managed to thoroughly douse me.
In that moment, I was mostly laughing and glad that I remembered to put my phone in my waterproof pocket. But I also had a profound respect for nature and for water – for the power behind it and what it is capable of. For the simple fact that it is chaos and life.
Water always wins.
Water does not need humans. (In fact, it tried to take me out that day.) But humans do need water.
As humans, we value our productivity. We want to gut the unnecessary and utilize every minute and every inch to its full potential. However, when we aim for 100% productivity, our first instinct will often lead to less productivity.
The worker who works 24 hours each day will not last long. Productivity, if not the worker, will die quickly. It is crucial to eat, to sleep, and to exercise to reach any desirable level.
Our land is similar. If we use every acre of land in a manner that at first seems the most productive, it will result in a mess of roads, farmland, and buildings that is likewise unsustainable.
Wetlandsare considered to be “among the most productive ecosystems in the world.” The benefits are many. The wetlands of the Great Lakes region support over $50 billion of recreational activities each year. A surprising number of species are dependent on wetlands specifically for survival. They protect against storms and flooding. Wetlands also function as a natural filter to keep our Great Lakes water clean, which is now more important than ever. Our lakes are great, and the resulting wetlands are spectacular and quite beneficial.
In Michigan, half of these wetlands have been drained and filled in the past couple of centuries. For newcomers at that time, this land was seen as unproductive, in the context that it could not be cultivated. The solution was to replace the wetlands with land that could be cultivated. Today, more wetlands are lost to development – parking lots, stores, roads, and more.
Whether you see Michigan’s wetland areas as now being half full or half empty, the dangers remain. Today, many efforts are being made to create wetlands – to return land back to wetlands – which can be difficult to do. Despite these efforts, the overall amount of wetlands in Michigan is still declining. It would seem that the most productive method is not to remove them in the first place.
“It is said in the desert that possession of water in great amount can inflict a man with fatal carelessness.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
As a youngster, my favorite novel was Frank Herbert’s Dune, which takes place on a fictional desert planet. Unsurprisingly, this planet houses plenty of sand but precious little water.
Climbing the sand dunes of Sleeping Bear, I would pretend to be walking alongside the protagonist, Paul, struggling across the barren and dry land. I would climb as high as I could and feign shock when I caught my first glimpse of Lake Michigan, pure water as far as the eye could see.
I would turn to Paul and say, “All of our fears were for naught.” He would say nothing, being wiser than me, knowing that a large supply of water came with its own problems of carelessness, greed, and ignorance. Around this time, my parents would reach the top of the dune and worry about me as I stood and talked to myself.
“A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
In Paul’s world, water is sacred. People use full body suits to recycle as much water as possible simply to stay alive. Everyone actively shares the water, as it is vital to the survival of all.
“All the water that will ever be is, right now.”
― National Geographic
In our own fictional worlds each day, we turn a lever that produces water. “Produce” is the verb we use, but it is not an accurate one. Water is not being assembled or created, simply transferred from one location to another. It is the same water whether in Lake Michigan, our body, or in the ground – whether solid, liquid, or gas. Water is not produced. It already exists.
The Great Lakes and the Earth face powerful threats to their water in the near future. Like Paul, we have a limited amount of our shared water. We must protect it fiercely.
Raised on Schoolhouse Rock!, I learned from a very young age that “knowledge is power.” While at first just a witticism I repeated in the show’s quirky inflection, the saying soon became real. This was one of the first bits of power I acquired, and I ran with it.
I learned to read at a young age, and I soaked up anecdotes and information as best I could. Though nowadays I enjoy spending my naptimes actually napping, I spent them as a youth reading rather than snoozing, and I quickly gained the wisdom of the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I memorized my favorite poems, by the great Shel Silverstein.
When I did not become the most powerful of all from this process, I realized that there are other forms of power as well. Unfortunately, not all of these other forms of power are as gentle or as honest as knowledge. Nonetheless, I always found the power of knowledge to be a worthy adversary, the one that wins out in the end, and I have stuck with it.
As an individual, the greatest way to impact the world I have found is through spreading that knowledge. It is the power that expands and grows as it is shared.
In my everyday life, I learn what I can. What is happening to the waters in our Great Lakes? Who is responsible for the decisions that impact the Lakes? Even simply: where does my drinking water come from? I do my best to distribute this power to friends, family, and even strangers. Though I do run into opposition, this is often excellent for the sake of knowledge. A debate often only leads to more knowledge gained on both ends.
If I see a friend of mine planning to purchase a plastic bottle full of water to accompany his sandwich for lunch, I will interrupt to offer my knowledge as well as several alternative solutions. Perhaps he could sip from the drinking fountain in plain sight. Or he could go grab the reusable water bottle in his nearby car. Or he could ask for tap water in a glass instead of bottled water.
These alternatives not only support the wallet, they support the health of the Great Lakes, and the right for safe, clean, and accessible water for everyone. Water is public. Water is a human right, and we should not be paying to allow a private company to profit from our water.
We must share this knowledge, that the Great Lakes and their waters must be protected for our uses. That the ancient but relevant Public Trust Doctrine reinforces the fact that our leaders must protect those waters for our uses. We must first acknowledge any threats to these waters, and then eliminate them, so that this treasure will be here for our use and enjoyment, for our livelihood.
I expand my power of knowledge to you today, and by extension, to the people you interact with. The next time you plan to grab a bottle of water, or see another who does, consider the alternatives. Make sure the actions in your life support a thriving future for the Great Lakes, and for all of us.
As we approach the new year, many of us take inventory. We take a look at the goals we have set for ourselves, set new ones – or the same ones again – and we head into 2018 with a fresh perspective. I will have a physique like Arnold Schwarzenegger by this time next year. I will find the cure for cancer and world poverty by March, and donate the proceeds to FLOW. And so on.
I can see some of you shaking your head, doubting my abilities. But the main reason I could not accomplish these goals is that I do not have the resources to do so. While having an Olympic gym and personal trainer would be nice, I do not have the means to train that way with my current lifestyle. I also do not have the time or the means to unlock the secret link between cancer and poverty, or to change them.
Instead, some of my main goals will be focused on the Great Lakes, and the water in the Great Lakes Basin. One is to shut down the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, removing the oil and associated risk of harm from the water. Another is to educate others about bottled water and reverse the trend of valuing convenience over the health of the Great Lakes and the human right to water. To create a world without disposable bottles full of water and without water full of disposable bottles.
These goals are not less daunting than my original goals. These are still enormous goals. The enormous difference is that I have the resources to help me accomplish these goals. Most of those resources are the people I interact with regularly at FLOW, as well as our supporters and partner organizations.
I have been at FLOW just over a year, and even now, these people impress me so much with their abilities and dedication to the Great Lakes. Each individual is like one of the lakes, expansive and awe-inspiring, and I feel genuine gratitude to be able to work with them. It is the same gratitude I have for our Great Lakes.
As we head into the new year, I look forward to the resources I have around me – the globally unique resources in our backyard, and the ones who help protect them.