“Flying Rats.” That’s what the attendant of our motel screamed at the seagulls, who were pestering those of us eating breakfast in the blinding-bright sunlight. We were in Mackinaw, which can also be spelled Mackinac, with no change in pronunciation whatsoever.
Our first stop was to the state pier. There we found an icebreaker to remind us that lakes sometimes develop a solid crust.
Icebreaker moored in Mackinaw City, Michigan.
In fact, it is the freezing of lakes that that gives them their unique seasonal behavior of turning over twice per year, bottom waters mixing with top. The thermal expansion of ice and the floes released during breakup provide a strong land-shaping process akin to ice thrusting by glaciers.
Next I saw a sign so self-evident that it was like putting a “danger” sign on an un-caged lion.
Self-evident message on drain at the city pier in Mackinaw City, Michigan, posted directly above the water.
Where else would it drain? Never have I seen such clean water in a working harbor, not even at the edge of the sea.
Landscaping the pier were Matt and a co-worker. When I asked him if he had a water issue, it didn't take him long to answer, "the levels."
He's referring the recent scare that the water level of the Great Lakes has been dropping for about a decade, getting everyone worried that this is an initial signal of climate warming. In the recent past, the levels dropped as much as ten feet, although they've come back up this year. In fact, the pier he is working on had to be redesigned to accommodate this change. It has floating docks with down-ramps that resemble those designed to accommodate tidal variations on the sea.
Rising and falling lake levels are nothing new. Good instrumental data is available for the past century on the levels, which rise and fall on a schedule related to climate, but in complex ways. Geologists and paleohydrologists have worked out longer records that show rises and falls at the millennia scale. Even longer records are provided by glacial lake shorelines. On thing is sure: The Great Lakes will be around until the next ice age.
Annette, a matronly, dark-haired, woman in her sixties was "manning" the counter at the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center. She was the only one on the whole trip to comment on my new cap, which reads "The Thoreau Society." She wondered which of the many Thoreau's I was related to, a common name in French Canada, one of Huguenot origin. When I asked, about Henry David and Walden Pond, she said she had no idea who he was or why a pond would be significant.
Someone named Carol from Cheboygan walked in and looked at me as if she knew I would interview her about water. She liked the idea that you could drink the water straight from Lake Huron. Her main issue was swimmer’s itch, which limits where her young children can swim.
Across the Street was The Island Bookstore. Two women were on staff. Kathy's family has lived on nearby Black Lake in Cheboygan. Inland lakes and the lazy rivers that connect them are much warmer than the Great Lakes, allowing people to swim. Three generations have grown on the water during the summer months. It is central to their identity. How odd to live on the edge of magnificent clean lakes, yet retreat inland to enjoy everything but the view.
This, of course, is due to a most unusual property of water, known as its heat capacity. As a substance, water can hold several times more heat than soil or rock, meaning that it warms up and cools much more slowly. Given the cold winter climate of the northern Great Lakes and the enormous volume of water within them, the water temperatures never catch up to smaller inland lakes and lag far behind them in season.
Swimming is not the attraction, cooling down is. We made transit of the whole shore of Northern Lake Michigan from St. Ignace to Escanaba, and didn't see a single person in the water. Not even at our waterfront hotel room in Mackinaw City. People do swim on hot days in August, because we've seen them many times and we have swum off the beaches ourselves. But not today. The July 6 air temperature at 12:32 had reached a high of 62 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was probably in the mid 50s. Wearing a wool coat on the Forth of July weekend (which we witnessed) is apparently preferable to sweltering in Detroit on the street.
Kathy's main concern was about Canada selling water to the southern United States. Her vision is that they have water pipelines heading for Colorado and beyond from Lakes Superior, Michigan, or Huron to complement the natural gas pipelines already heading to Michigan from the high northern plains of Edmonton and Calgary. The eight states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York are firmly against this idea, and several voted that way last year. But who knows? All it takes is a majority in Congress and a 2/3 majority to override a veto.
There's an ocean's worth of fresh water in the northern Great Lakes. This buoy at Mackinaw City, Michigan sets the scale.
Elizabeth, the other employee, just wishes "they would leave the lakes alone." She is referring to recent suggestions to poison the zebra mussels.
Just before leaving Mackinaw City I went to photograph the famous Mackinac Bridge, which is five miles long and connects Lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula, pronounced, "you pee."
Mackinac Bridge connecting Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula to Saint Ignace on the Upper Peninsula.
My attention was instead diverted to the flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) with rapidly growing goslings, swimming in formation. All seemed right with the world. This animal is forever stamped in my brain as a blessing, their garrulous flocks signaling a commitment to parenthood, the turn of the seasons and the emergent properties of nature. Over the last two decades, however, they've become a great nuisance. Each adult excretes about a pound and a half of noxious, greenish black feces that is the prime source of nutrient pollution in many places, especially suburban lawns and golf courses.
Practically every visitor heading west around the lake is treated to a series of billboards announcing the presence of the famous “Mystery Spot.” I don't know what it is, and prefer to keep it that way. The way I figure, if I learn what it is, it won't be a fun any more. To me, the mystery spot is a lot like religion. I’m fully aware that life is full of mysteries that will never be solved by observation or reasoning. So I don’t even try, despite the fact that I’m quite literally a card carrying scientist.
Mystery Spot, Saint Ignace, Michigan.
I left another mystery behind as well. Between Saint Ignace and Naubinway are more than a half dozen roadside "party" stores selling three hot-ticket items: smoked fish, fudge, and pasties. For years we've driven by those signs. Not once have I stopped to find out what a pastie is.
“Mediterranean Lite.” That's the phrase writer Anna Castillo used to describe Lake Michigan. I couldn't agree more. When I drove by, the water was azure blue above the white sand, and wine-dark further offshore.
Water clarity and color of Lakes Huron and Michigan on sunny days. This photo is from Mackinaw City.
The Great Lakes are inland oceans, complete with lighthouses, cargo ships, dangerous reefs, shipwrecks, and port cities connected by rail. And, like all natural waters, they are slightly salty, meaning they contain dissolved ions of familiar elements of sodium, calcium, chloride, sulphate, and many others in smaller quantities. The boundary between saltwater and freshwater is as arbitrary as the boundary between lakes and ponds. All water is mineral water to some degree, unless distilled in a lab. Some parts of the ocean are saltier than others. Some water on land is far saltier than the sea.
The beaches of Lake Michigan even look like those of the ocean.
Unnamed Beach on the north shore of Lake Michigan.
They have gulls, breakers, a swash zone where the waves rise up and fall back down, berms where the waves have deposited clean sand, and dunes, some over a hundred feet. The main difference is that lakes lack a significant daily tide, though they make up for this with variations in level caused by the water balance. The dichotomy of lake vs. ocean is more about something that can't be seen (salt) then what can.
Dunes on the north shore of Lake Michigan.
Some of the beaches, some of the time, have singing sands. When you step on them, they make a noise. The noises I heard were more like dog barks.
Hog Island came and went. This is typical agricultural practice, to let hogs graze on islands with no way to escape. It’s cheaper than feed or fencing. Top of the Lake was next. This is bleak country, with little but swamp and taiga beyond the edge of the lake.
Nearing the town of Gulliver, we began to see outcrops of reef limestone, which is chalky white and full of voids. Soon, the low, light gray road cuts began to resemble those of central Ontario, or upstate New York. Though we were n the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we were still on the continental platform, not the Canadian Shield.
In this vicinity were a few structures built of dry-laid stone. I saw two cellar holes and a few stone enclosures with fences about six feet high like those of western New England and the British Isles. I wondered what the historic connection was. But I resisted an investigation. After all, this is a lake by lake trip, not a Stone by Stone one. (That's the title of my previous book on signature landforms).
The gasoline at $2.78 a gallon didn’t bring me in. Instead it was the giant statue of Paul Bunyan; locate at the Chamber of Commerce tourist information center in Manistique, Michigan.
Statue of Paul Bunyan in Manistique, Michigan.
It was completed May 16, 2002, and built of plastic composite. This summer it will get a new coat of paint from Lenore Derouin, a self-described artist, who doubles as Director of the local Chamber of Commerce. Every Chamber would be lucky to have someone this nice working on his or her behalf.
Next to the statue was a sign with a colossal error. "Manistique: Home of Paul Bunyan."
Everyone knows that Paul Bunyan is NOT from Manistique. He's from everywhere, especially my home town of Bemidji, Minnesota. I've seen towns in Wisconsin, New York, and Maine that try to claim him as well. My proof that he’s at least from Minnesota can be found in Hackensack, because that’s where his wife Lucette is from and where Paul Jr. was born. I rest my case.
Manistique could just as well have been named Watertown. A river runs through it, there are thousands of lakes and ponds to the north, and several to the southeast, where Lenore was raised, Gulliver, McDonald, Clear, and Lake Michigan itself. She was a water baby, swimming at such a young age that she can’t remember learning how. And because she could swim, she had freedom: her parents let her wander freely, even when young. She has another interesting family story to tell. When cleaning up after her grandmother died, Lenore found the most authoritative history of Manistique ever written. It had fallen behind her dresser chest of drawers.
On the down side, Lenore wonders why her water bill is so high, though I wonder why she has one at all. She and her husband, who she described as “tribal” in reference to the local Native American group, pays the local water utility more than $100 per month for water, even as she is everywhere surrounded by it.
It was in Manistique that I decided to commemorate this road trip with a collage of water-tower photographs.
Historic Water Tower in Manistique, Michigan.
This tower, made of brick and stone, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Here, the tower must be mostly about the power to deliver water to those who need it, rather than the availability of the pure substance, which surrounds the town on all sides. The water tower is located at the site of the Schoolcraft Museum, which was closed. Appropriately, it was located in the largest city in Schoolcraft County.
Cabin at Schoolcraft Museum, Manistique, Michigan.
Though I was a visitor, I was likely the only one in town that day who claims Henry Rowe Schoolcraft as a hero. Manny Rodriguez, Tom Brady, and Paul Pierce (athletes my son’s talk about) mean nothing to me compared with Schoolcraft, warts and all. A smart, gusty, and determined young man from near Albany, New York, he began his career as a mining geologist, documented the source of the Mississippi River in 1832, and then became America’s first ethnologist.
To the west was Michigan’s largest spring.
We passed through Escanaba on the strip of U.S. Route 2. On three occasions, we saw brightly colored plastic fish mounted on poles.
Folk art on U.S. Route 2, Escanaba, Michigan.
Everyone gets the same blank fish body, but adorns it in their own style. This is community-building folk art, similar to what we saw in Vermont but done with a blank moose. And though it wasn’t on our trip, I’ve seen the same thing done in eastern Connecticut, where the blank is a white frog. Note that all three creatures – fish, moose, and frog – are water creatures, appropriate for a freshwater journey. What do they use in Phoenix? A rattlesnake?
How sad. We’re rolling through Bark River, Michigan, a completely landlocked place with no river, lake or conspicuous natural feature. Yet here, with no natural attractions, we find an enormous casino, complete with an adjacent hotel, parking lot, and plastic signs with palm trees on them. This place illustrates the sadness associated with Native Americans. They suffered military defeats, campaigns of ethnic cleansing, and genocide, but never the “final solution.” Instead, they were usually given lousy land for reservations, tracts that nobody else wanted. I suspect this is what happened in this place, which is located on a patch of flat land with acid soils barely above the swamps all around.
Legalized gambling, euphemistically called gaming, is often controlled by out-of-tribe, if not out-of-state, if not out-of-country investors. Perhaps they thought that plastic palm trees mimicking those of Las Vegas would look good in Bark River. They don’t. Surely there must be a better way to restore the dignity of an almost-lost lost culture.
The town of Spaulding-Powers is so small that it must have merged in order to get a spot on the map. This is lumber country. Some guy must have had so many old saw blades he didn’t know what to do with them at first. But then he got creative; making beautiful folk art out of rusty saw blades, most of which were at least three feet in diameter.
Saw blade folk art, Spaulding, Michigan, above and below.
Inventory of folk art for sale, Spaulding Michigan.
If you like them, call the Poupore family or look for the outdoor display on the south side of U.S. 2 just east of County Road 563.
Tom Maynard, with an accent on the last syllable, is a young man from Vulcan, Michigan who goes by the nickname of “Moose.” He could easily make a living as a model posing for Paul Bunyan, or as a bouncer at a biker’s bar. I found him sweeping out an old gas station he’s converting to be “Moose’s Bait and Tackle,” which he hopes will open soon.
Tom Maynard (a.k.a Moose) with his daughter Aryonna in Vulcan, Michigan.
Kristine pointed out how he dwarfed me when I stood beside him. His beard is jet black, his shoulders as broad as a wheelbarrow, and disposition gentle, and his intelligence compelling. With Moose was his four-year old daughter, Arryonna. His son, Thomas Jr., being only two and half, was at home, presumably with mom.
What drew me here was an enormous, and anomalous, statue of a black bear standing seventeen feet tall and twenty-eight feet long. It was constructed in the summer of 2000 by an artist from Chicago named John Radlovic who wanted to help draw tourists to this town with a dead iron mine, which is located downriver from the city of Iron Mountain which has an even larger dead iron mine. This story is documented in the Daily News (Iron Mountain/Kingsford) dated September 26, 2000. A complementary cement wolf is planned for later this summer.
The number one problem with freshwater, according to Matt, is the single invasive species known as Eurasian Milfoil. It’s choking out native aquatics and covering lakes all around. Number two is the zebra mussel, which is coating nearly every fixed surface with razor sharp shells. He has a third gripe with government agents, especially the County Commissioners, who, he alleges, take your money and do nothing with it except make it disappear.
Moose’s main identity is that of an outdoorsman. He hunts, traps, and fishes as much as he can. The best thing about freshwater, he said genuinely: “is to carry out m outdoor legacy for my kids.” If there were more guys like him, Nature Deficit Disorder would not be a problem for our nation's kids.
Ten miles further downstream on Highway 2, in the City of Iron Mountain, was a sign directing us to the Cornish Pumping Engine & Mining Museum. I recall reading “largest in the world.”
Cornish pumping engine, Iron Mountain, Michigan. Woman on platform at left gives scale.
I'll let the facts speak for themselves:
· Flywheel is 40 feet diameter.
· Engine if 54 feet tall.
· Began operating in 1893, ended in 1914.
· Total weight is 725 tons.
· Burned 11,000 tons of coal per year.
· Designed by Edwin Reynolds, chief engineer for what became the Allis-Chalmer's Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
· Pumped water up from 1,500 feet below the surface.
· Pumped 300 gallons per stroke of pistons, up to 5,000,000 gallons per day.
· Ten revolutions per minute on the flywheel, each six seconds in length.
Most of the miners came from Italy, apparently because that is where the mining company had contacts.
Italian miner. Photograph from the museum, Iron Mountain, Michigan.
Such are the immigration stories of so many towns in America. Where you went depended almost entirely on whom you knew.
Just over the Wisconsin border was a cartographic Rorschach test. Clusters of small kettle lakes are known to be chaotic and irregular in shape, mimicking the stagnant ice blocks that melted to create them. Here was a whole chain of small lakes was merged to form an irregular cluster. Someone saw a spread eagle from the shape on the map, and thus the name of the town – Spread Eagle -- was born. To me, the shape more closely resembles Elmo, one of my favorite characters from Sesame Street who was always spreading his oversized hands. But, then again, I wouldn’t want to live in a town named Elmo.
We entered Forest County near Tipler. The moraines were coming; we could see them along the side of the road, sand and gravel hills with small lakes in the depressions. Soon we would be in Vilas County is nationally known for its high concentration of kettle lakes.
Water Smeet Lake, Eagle River, Wisconsin.
We didn’t’ get to stay long. Not finding a place with Internet access, we decided to head south toward the big city of Rhinelander to check into a roadside motel for the night. Driving between Eagle River and Rhinelander was like hearing the same lovely musical phrase over and over, but in this case it was one of hilly forest, flat bog, and sparking blue lake rimmed by cottages. Sugar Camp Lake, and Jennie Lake are but two examples.