We were heading down Port Oneida Road to spend the day near Pyramid Point, one of my favorite spots. Up ahead, where the road makes a quick turn to the right, stood a line of tall trees. Above them and around them, the sky was radiant with a brighter, whiter light. Even though you couldn’t see the water, you could tell by the light that Lake Michigan was there, just beyond the treeline.
Lake Effect. It’s one of those things I love explaining to visitors who aren’t familiar with the Great Lakes region: the powerful influence these massive bodies of water exert on our weather. They warm us in the autumn and cool us in the spring, bring winter storms that alternate between impenetrable flurries and glorious sunlight, and give us summers that our neighbors in the hot plains to the south and west can only dream of.
But there’s another, deeper kind of Lake Effect. In Michigan -- and particularly here in the water-cradled dunelands of Michigan’s Northwest -- we are inescapably People of the Lakes. These great sweetwater seas around us influence more than just our weather. They inhabit our dreams, comfort and terrify our souls, prod our imaginings in ways we don’t always acknowledge even to ourselves.
In Traverse City, when we write about the Lake we use capital letters, to distinguish Lake Michigan from all smaller lakes and to distinguish our Bay from all lesser bays elsewhere in the world. For the Lake and the Bay are our constant companions: our front yard, our playground, our highway, our horizon… and sometimes our final resting place.
Consider that for the first four decades of its history -- until the first railroad arrived in 1872 -- Traverse City’s main link to the outside world was by water. Those lighthouses at Mission Point, Northport and South Manitou Island weren’t put there for decoration -- and neither was the lifesaving station at Sleeping Bear Point.
Today, those places are evocative reminders of a romantic past, like the shipwrecks haunting the sandy shoals of the Manitou Passage. We play along the shores of the Lake; we sail, fish and paddle across the Bay without a second thought. There’s more love than fear in our relationship, and that is as it should be.
Because, honestly, there's so much fun to be had when you're visiting the Lake. Thanks to its many bays, coves and islands, the Traverse City area has 234 miles of continuous Lake Michigan shoreline, and the sheltered waters of Grand Traverse Bay are a sailor’s paradise. You can rent your own boat, take a leisurely jaunt on the 114-foot schooner Manitou, or sign up for an educational outing aboard the schooner Inland Seas, a “floating classroom” for environmental education. You could head out across the blue water in a sturdy sea kayak. (For an unforgettable trip, try paddling along the face of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, or taking a paddling/hiking trip to Power Island near Bowers Harbor.)
But as with any relationship, there’s always a danger that you’ll start taking things for granted. One day, you’ll be walking down the beach thinking about something that happened back home or planning where you’re going to have dinner tonight, and you won’t notice that you’re ignoring one of the most magnificent things in the world.
So stop for a second. Listen to the gulls crying in the sky, the whisper of waves along the strand, the musical chiming of halyard shackles and masts from the marina, the splash and squeal of kids in the surf. Smell the scents of suntan oil and sun-warmed water, feel that cool breeze on your face. Soothe your poor work-weary eyes with the sight of that vast, ever-changing, luminous blue. Let yourself feel the Lake Effect.
As babies, our children were lulled to sleep in their cribs by a cassette from Song of the Lakes, Traverse City’s homegrown maritime ensemble. I was a little surprised last year when my 30-year-old son popped a remastered version of that same album into his car’s CD player as we were driving along. He’d sailed around the world as a naval officer and here he was, back in the Lake Country, listening to the same old tunes:
Lake Michigan, glorious pearl of America, thank you for leading me away.
Thanks for blue waters and seafaring daughters,
Thanks for the sails on the Bay!