EXCERPTS FROM
WILD LAKE MICHIGAN

By John and Ann Mahan


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(From "The Lake" Chapter)

"I walked down to the water's edge tonight, lured by the luminous pull of the full moon. Sitting on that serenely bright beach, devoid of any other human presence, I watched as each wave crest picked up its bundle of pale light and carried it shimmering and bouncing until it spread its celestial gift gently at my feet. And all the while the waves' never-ending mantra whispered its way into my soul, bringing light and hope and a communion with the presence of all things." -- John's diary, September 16, 1989

Lake Michigan exerts an irresistible pull. What's out there? What's in there? It has faraway places, unseen distant shores, and shimmering islands floating on the horizon. Humans flock to the water's edge and look into its vastness; sooner or later, nearly all of us lean down and touch the water. This simple ritual brings us closer to the lake's wild essence.

But what is out there? And in there? Much more and considerably less than we ever imagined. More in terms of its abilities to provide for our needs, both physical and emotional. Less in terms of its abilities to absorb our abuses and mistakes.

Stretching just over 300 miles north to south and 118 miles east to west, Lake Michigan passes through nearly 5 degrees of latitude and 3 degrees of longitude -- connecting two time zones and nearly thirteen millennia of human history. The lake's shorelines extend over 1,600 miles, encompassing four states: Indiana and Illinois to the south, Wisconsin to the west, and Michigan to the east and north. Lake Michigan is the largest body of fresh water lying entirely within the United States, the second largest of the Great Lakes (in volume), and the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world.

This is a lake of contrasts, from the industrial and nearly used up southwestern shores to the wild and relatively undeveloped northern shores. Sheer limestone cliffs tower along the shores of Door county and the Garden Peninsula, while to the east and south the shores are rimmed with soft mountainous dunes of windblown sand. Prickly pear cactuses bloom on the Indiana Dunes, convinced that they are residing in the desert, while boreal components of the North Woods march assertively down to the water's edge along areas of the north shore. In between, the mixed hardwood component of the North Woods merges with rolling dunes to the east and prairie remnants to the west.

Smooth in contour and with open horizons over much of its length, Lake Michigan changes abruptly in its northern third, sprouting five peninsulas and more than sixty named islands. Underwater, Lake Michigan is separated into north and south basins by a ridge of Silurian dolimitic limestone running from Muskegon to Milwaukee. The southern basin is the shallower of the two, while the north basin plunges to depths of nearly 1,000 feet.

Lake Michigan is a paradox conceived in rocks and born of ice. It is, geologically, an infant cradled in an ancient foundation. Geographically too large to appear fragile and too small to be given its due, it is to this day misunderstood, mislabeled, and misused. But in spite of our abuses, in spite of our misconceptions, it is still a wild and sweet sea. This magnificent ever-changing lake, with its surrounding dunes, forests, and wetlands, is a testament to the permanence of change. It refuses to be taken for granted. Just when we feel comfortable and complacent, the water moves and rises -- eroding and swallowing homes and businesses. And just as rapidly, its level drops, forcing us to switch from seawall building to channel dredging.

Lake Michigan is alive with wildness. True, it is a lake wounded and scarred by human attempts to tame and use it. But for many of us, its wildness is still its most immediate and compelling characteristic -- a characteristic that must be seen and experienced to comprehend. Here are mysteries yet unraveled, wildness still untamed, and inland seas still alive with surprise.…

All images and text Copyright © John & Ann Mahan, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. It is illegal to take photos or text off our web site--for any use, without our written permission.
(From "Dunes" Chapter)

"For countless years the waves have thundered upon the beach and the ripples have murmured along it.
Their music is recorded in the sands." -- J. Ronald Engel

To walk in the dunes is to walk through time. These miniscule grains of quartz that gather together to make such a magnificent community were created long before the coming of humans. Children of the glaciers and wards of the wind, they have for millennia washed and drifted, bounced and tumbled from one age to the next.

These sands are an end product of a long line of events. For over one million years, massive glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Age advanced and retreated across the northern half of the North American continent, grinding and pulverizing rock, while transporting the debris in their icy travels. With the final glacial retreat some 10,000 years ago, the long process of distribution was taken over by rivers, lake currents, and wind. Sandbars created 4,000 years ago by the higher water levels of Lake Michigan's ancestor, Lake Nipissing, became vast sand beaches when water levels receded. With the sculpting of these exposed beaches by westerly winds, Lake Michigan's dunes were born.

Ancient sands continue to wash and drift into dunes along modern Lake Michigan. And long after we are gone, the sand will still be here, or there, or somewhere, ever shifting and drifting. These sands of time have a profound effect on visitors, connecting them with the timelessness of the elements and the natural processes.

Paradoxically, in spite of their antiquity, the sands collectively are an example of geology in fast forward. Dunes are never the same from one day to the next. Indeed, in a strong wind the transformation takes place before our very eyes.

Walking from beach to foredune, and beyond, we observe plant succession and progression since Lake Nipissing. Entire worlds exist with their citizens going about their lives in spaces no larger than a city backyard, sometimes smaller. These dune dwellers live in close proximity, just across the ecological transition line from nearby neighbors that are, nonetheless, worlds apart.

The wave-swept shoreline beach is a harsh environment virtually devoid of plant life. Here sand and gravel are moved and sorted, washed and smoothed. During times of high wind and waves, the beach is torn and tossed about; during times of low wind and gentle waves, it is caressed and smoothed over. Messengers of the sweetwater sea, the waves are in constant communication with the beach -- sometimes whispering, sometimes roaring. And, as in all transactions, aomething is gained and something lost. Sand is picked up here and put down there. The bleached bones of wrecked sailing vessels from another time are covered and uncovered, washed in and pulled out.

This is a place of trash and treasures, the definition of which is entirely in the eye, or stomach, of the beholder. Sandpipers, plovers, and sanderlings dart back and forth before the wave edges, snatching insects and crustaceans. In much the same manner, a child moves back and forth, hoping the multicolored and polished pebble washed away by the last wave will return with the next. And just down the beach, herring gulls scrabble and shout at each other over the carcass of a beached chinook salmon. Oblivious to all this, a couple lost in its reverie walks on the singing sands -- the wet beach along the water's edge, where friction of footsteps on moist quartz grains produces a faint, high-pitched tone.…


Please Note: WILD LAKE MICHIGAN is temporarily out of print. Sweetwater Visions is currently working on a revised, updated edition. Announcement of its publication will appear on this site -- contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.
All images and text Copyright © John & Ann Mahan, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
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