I recently took a road trip with a few fellow ecologists to the Ecology Society of America Meeting in Minneapolis. Leaving from Toronto we headed North around Lake Huron and on to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Towards the end of a long day on the road we pulled off the highway towards the Southern shore of Lake Superior. Michigan (the album) by Sufjan Stevens played through the stereo. The Upper Peninsula (the song) paints a dark picture of poverty and distress. We did indeed see some rundown trailer homes, but as the road turned to gravel and forests populated the sandy soils we started to be entranced by the natural setting. The landscape alternated between stunted pine forests with a thick understory of dainty ferns, thick and rich broadleaf forest, peat bogs, and the occasional sand dune. As the sun approached the horizon and the wispy clouds began to glow with color we crested a small hill and could sense we were approaching something great. Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in the world! Pulling into a sandy parking lot we jumped out of the car, enticed by the sound of crashing waves and wind through the pines.
The turbulent waters were a delightfully clear misty blue and the rocky beach was sprinkled with a great diversity of vibrant rocks of countless colors and textures. The scene had the vastness and power of the ocean but the inviting clarity and cleanliness of a mountain lake. And how great, the shoreline was entirely undisturbed by humans in all directions!
We camped at Blind Sucker Campground just a few minutes from the lakeshore. We settled in at a spot on the edge of a calm little lake featuring a cute island with a beaver lodge adjacent. After setting up our tents and starting a fire we swam out the little island. Looking down at the water from a clearing (made by beavers) atop the island we spotted a beaver swimming right where we had just been. We had been swimming with Castor canadensis, one of the most iconic and fascinating mammals in the world.
The next morning we headed West along the shore of Lake Superior, enjoying the bright sun and blue sky through the trees arching over the narrow roads. We had to swim in Superior, we knew that from the beginning. We stopped at a trailhead and eagerly stomped down the stairs alongside a rushing waterfall carving its way through a robust broad leaf forest. The waves on the beach were quite intense. We clambered across the stones and dove into the waves, shocked by the cold. Bobbing among the waves in the quite frigid water was a deeply cleansing experience. There was no sting to the eyes or salty taste like in the ocean. The turbulence and chill was a bit scary, but everything about the scene was calming: the huge blue sky, the sparkling rocks, the sandy dunes flanked by fingered pines. We shivered as the waves pounded us against the small rounded stones, seemingly scrubbing us of the urbanite film accumulated on our skin. We scrambled back to dry land and enjoyed a few still meditative moments, allowing all our senses to absorb the beauty and serenity. The warm sun countering the gentle cool breeze, the delightful hum of crashing waves, the gentle caress of rounded stones, and the crisp clean lake air through our noses. I love the ocean, but something about this was better, more comfortable, more peaceful. The details were new but this place felt familiar and comfortable, felt like home. Perhaps it’s the similarities to the Pacific NW where I grew up.
I have to say, The U.P. won us over and we think it needs a new song, a song regaling these natural wonders and which flows with inviting beauty. From my map book we learned the official state motto for Michigan: ”If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you”. We looked about and that is exactly what we saw. I’m sure I’ll be back to this great lake and this great strip of land again. Bye for now Upper Peninsula.
P.S. The people we met in the U.P. were heartwarmingly friendly which just adds to our enamorment.