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Entries in Lake Michigan (2)


Blue Highways: Elberta, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

Big sand dunes can be found at the shoreline of northeastern Lake Michigan.  I will relate my own experiences there, and my impressions of sand dunes in general.  Sounds like a rockin' time, doesn't it?  Perhaps you'll find it interesting, perhaps not, but in any event it's our first Blue Highways stop in Michigan.  To see where William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) disembarks, take some steps to the map.

Book Quote

"The sandy dunes of Michigan glowed pink in the late sun, and at the mouth of the Elberta Harbor, there was a marvelous sight: little slivers of silver jigged on their tails over the blue water.  They were alewives looking for all the world like dancing spoons.  These were the fish that had washed ashore to foul beaches in the days of high pollution.

"The Viking let loose with her horns, the crew tied up and sprinted across the dock and into cars and roared off to supper, and I wished the Viking were sailing all the way to the Atlantic."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 13

Lakeshore beach at Elberta, Michigan. Photo by mr56k and hosted at Flickriver. Click on photo to go to host site.Elberta, Michigan

Sand dunes, or rather one big sand dune, is a big memory of the times I spent in Michigan.

When I was just out of college, I joined an organization called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  While I was placed as a volunteer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin we had an opening retreat in Benton Harbor, Michigan so that we could meet the other volunteers in the region - some of whom would be my housemates for a year - and get into the mission of the volunteer organization.  At the end of the year, the organization hosted a final retreat in Traverse City, Michigan so that we could wind down, say goodbye to our housemates and the other volunteers, and move on into the rest of our lives.

The thing I loved about the eastern side of Lake Michigan is that, of all the other places I've visited in the U.S., it most reminded me of my oceanside hometown in Northern California.  Of course, in the summer the weather was much warmer, and the lake waves were much smaller compared to the roaring surf of the Pacific Ocean.  In other respects, however, they were very similar.  The shore along Lake Michigan has the same feel, the sun set over the lake waters, and the sand dunes blown up by the prevailing western winds were very reminiscent of the dunes in places along the Northern California coast.  I would consider living there as a substitute for the west coast of the United States.

It was while at my first retreat in Traverse City that I first visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is a mere half hour away from where LHM disembarked from The Viking in Elberta.  Since he mentions sand dunes in his quote, it is a shame that he didn't visit the place.  This particular set of dunes rises 150 feet high from the lake and has an interesting story.  The Ojibwe believed that a mother bear and her cubs, fleeing from a forest fire on the west side of Lake Michigan, started swimming across the lake.  The mother bear reached the eastern shore and waited for the cubs.  The cubs however, too exhausted, drowned within sight of the shore.  The two islands in sight of the dunes, North and South Manitou Islands, are believed to be the cubs.  The mother bear, who continued to wait for the cubs, fell asleep and eventually was covered by the sands.  Under the Sleeping Bear Dunes she continues sleep and wait.

When you stand at the top of the dunes, the lake looks very far beneath you.  You start down and gravity just tugs at you.  When I scrambled down, I realized that once you get going, you start taking big leaps and bounds, covering 15 feet per step.  It's almost like being on the moon, except that the slope is about 60-75 degrees.  Of course, sand gets into your shoes, but it's so fun getting down you don't care. 

However, if you go, I must caution you that it can be dangerous to get going too fast.  Gravity, the attraction that two bodies have for each other (in this case you and Earth) and inertia, the property of bodies to remain in either a state of motion or rest, work together to make it very difficult to stop if you get going too fast.  Your loss of balance will make your moving body collide with the sand at a fast rate of speed and if you're lucky you won't be hurt.  I knew a young woman who lost control on her way down and cracked her head on a rock buried under the dune's sands.  She split her head open and had to be accompanied back up by paramedics.  So be careful when you do your moon-bounding thing on Sleeping Bear Dunes!

Coming back up, however, is a real difficulty.  Climbing a 150 foot, 60-75 degree-sloped sand dune really gets your breath going in short gasps, your leg muscles sore, and your heart pumping so hard it feels like it might burst out of your ribcage.  What took you five minutes to get down takes fifteen to get back up, if you add in the stops for rest.  At the top, you almost feel like you've run five miles in that combination of exhiliration that you made it and extreme tiredness.

To me, dunes represent the same type of wave action that governs water except on an infinitely slower pace.  A time lapse photo of the dunes of the Sahara Desert, sped up to normal time, would resemble waves of an ocean in their windswept journey.  The edges of the dunes would lap at, and sometimes inundate and then retreat from, the areas at the edge of the desert borders.  If you stand at the top of a dune, you are really on the crest of a giant sand wave that is slowly, infinitesimally, moving and cresting.  It is a beautiful contrast between the liquid wave motion of water and slow, particulate wave motion of sand or other materials.

I write "other materials" because dunes are not just waves of sand.  The beautiful white dunes of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico are composed of gypsum particles, not sand.  A dune, no matter what it is made of, can cover a lot of ground in its slow movement.  The 600 foot high Sand Mountain in Nevada, a previous subject in the Blue Highways posts, has apparently moved back and forth across the desert floor for some generations, following the whims of the prevailing winds.  It also "sings" due to the shape of its sands.  There are other singing dunes too, as this fascinating video by Stephane Douady demonstrates.

Wherever there is wind and small particles, you'll find dunes.  They have helped create some of the great rock formations that we see in the western United States.  They are also otherworldly.  Giant dunes exist on Mars, and Venus and Saturn's moon Titan also have named dune fields.  I used to see dunes as being iconic symbols of the desert, and we still tend to associate them with desert areas.  They are much more than that, however, and their achingly slow, shifting, and relentless march across all regions of the world, past and present, make them an ever-present part of external and internal landscapes.

Musical Interlude

I know some other good reasons for dunes.  "If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes on the cape," then this song is for you.   Get a little "Escape" with Rupert Holmes.  (By the way, this song has more words on Wikipedia than some Beatles songs).

If you want to know more about Elberta

Benzie County Record Patriot (newspaper)
Frankfort-Elberta Chamber of Commerce
Village of Elberta
Wikipedia: Elberta

Next up: Mount Pleasant, Michigan


Blue Highways: Somewhere on Lake Michigan

Unfolding the Map

On the high seas...or at least the high lakes!  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) takes the ferry from Kewaunee to Elberta, and we're on deck with him, watching Wisconsin grow more distant in the early afternoon.  I'm putting us right square equidistant between Michigan and Wisconsin, so get your soundings at the map.

Book Quote

"On the aft deck I took a seat and watched Wisconsin get smaller.  I had long wondered whether all shorelines disappear on a clear day in the middle of Lake Michigan (the name means 'big water').  I would soon find out."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 13

The Ann Arbor No. 7, later renamed Viking, transported William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) across Lake Michigan from Kewaunee, Wisconsin to Elberta, Michigan shortly before it stopped running for good. Photo at the the Gallery at Click on photo to go to host site.

Somewhere on Lake Michigan

In the short list of things that terrify and fascinate me (spiders, certain types of heights), I'm going to add a couple more.  I know why I have one of these small phobias, but not the other.

Deep water terrifies and fascinates me, but only in a certain sense.  Have you ever been out on a lake or in an ocean, and you jump overboard for a swim, and you realize that your feet are simply dangling and you have no way of knowing where the bottom is?  It isn't the water that terrifies me, but the sudden realization that there's an unknown depth below and anything could be in that unknown depth.  For some reason, that just sends a chill up my spine.  I don't think that's a fear that is unexplainable.  Water is really not a human element, though our makeup is over three-quarters of the stuff.  To me, swimming in an unknown depth is like free-falling in slow motion, or being suspended over clouds off an unknown height where you cannot gauge how high you are.

The other thing that terrifies me, for reasons I cannot fathom (oh, that pun was so intended!), is the sides of ships.  But it's not just the side - if I look at a ship straight on or from a distance, I am fine.  No, the part that terrifies me is imagining that I might be in the water next to the side of a ship.  I think about being in the shadow of that huge thing, with my legs suspended and dangling over an unknown depth, before I'm sucked under the ship and into the propellors.

Mind you, I don't think about these things often.  They are not an obsessive phobia.  And they are not debilitating.  I will still jump off a boat in the middle of a lake to swim despite my uneasiness.  But when I do think about them, I get a shiver and that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I bring this up because Lake Michigan is a huge, deep lake.  LHM wonders just how big it is and before he gets sidetracked by a story told by a fellow passenger on the ferry intends to put it to a test and see if the land disappears completely, leaving him surrounded by water.  There is something magical and forlorn in watching land disappear from the deck of a ship.  The only time I've experienced it is on the ferry from Le Havre, France to Rosslare, Ireland.  I was so excited and fearful of getting seasick (another slight phobia) that the uniqueness of my situation was lost on me at the time.  My imagination has filled in the gaps, though.  The land, the anchor to the world, dissolves into the horizon or perhaps mist off the water.  At that point, which I have experienced, the movement of the ship is betrayed only by the sound of the engines, the movement of air over the ship and the ship's wake.  Otherwise, like a lonely swimmer, you seem suspended between water and sky and often at the mercy of the water, until the farther shore materializes in front of you.

I believe I wrote this story before, about not realizing the size of Lake Michigan from a map.  On my first trip to the Midwest I had to take a puddle jumper from Chicago to Benton Harbor, Michigan.  I expected a short flight.  After all, it was only over a lake.  We took off from O'Hare Airport, flew out over downtown Chicago, and then out over the lake.  30 minutes later, we were still over the lake.  It was only my second flight and I began to wonder if we were lost when the land appeared below us and we touched down.  Later, when I lived in Milwaukee, I loved heading to the lakefront, because the vastness of the water reminded me of being on the ocean where I grew up.

The other theme in this passage is the ferry.  LHM might have been one of the last few people to take this ferry because it ceased running in 1982 after 90 years of service.  The ship, the Viking, was known originally as the Ann Arbor No. 7 and was renamed after it was rebuilt.  The Ann Arbor Railroad train ferries originally ran between Kewaunee, Wisconsin and Elberta, Michigan and expanded to other cities on upper Lake Michigan.

In the chapter, LHM remarks how small Ghost Dancing looks next to the boxcars on board, and when he hears some clanking down below hopes that the boxcar hasn't shifted in some way and crushed his van.  The boxcars were actually loaded onto the ferries, taken across the lake, and then disembarked onto tracks there to continue their railway journeys.  Without the ferries, the route would take much longer and therefore be much more expensive.  I did a quick Google Maps route and found that by car, getting from Kewaunee to Elberta would take about eight and a half hours.  By boat, that would be at least cut in half, and by the time LHM took the ferry, it might have been only 3 hours.

Though the Kewaunee ferry has ended, I am happy to say that there is still ferry service on Lake Michigan from Wisconsin.  The Lake Express has been billed as American's first high speed ferry line, and it runs from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan.  It appears to be one of those sleek, double hulled catamarans and the website says it does about 40 miles per hour (34 knots) during the 2 and one-half hour trip.  The ship has been sailing since 2004.  The Lake Michigan Carferry runs between Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan.  The ship, the S.S. Badger, appears to be more of a conventional style ferry that plied the Great Lakes.  The website touts her as the biggest ferry to ever sail the Great Lakes and did so from 1953 until 1990, when she was tied up in Michigan.  An entrepreneur bought her in 1991 and had her refurbished, and began running her again shortly afterward.  The cruise takes four hours.

A Great Lakes or ocean ferry is a great way to get a nautical experience without having to endure days at sea, and if you pick the route right, you can get a little of everything.  Sometimes there are big waves and big excitement, sometimes calm seas and relaxation.  Perhaps, if you're lucky, you'll catch that magical point just as the land disappears from view and you too are suspended between water and sky on your personal chariot between space and time.

Musical Interlude

You won't believe that there aren't many songs about ferries.  You would think that given their importance to our nation's history and growth, there'd be more written about these forms of transportation.  However, I was only able to find one fun song by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters celebrating the the Black Ball Ferries. If you have any other suggestions, Littourati, let me know.

Black Ball Ferry Line


If you want to know more about Lake Michigan and the history of the railroad ferries
Classic Trains Magazine: Lake Michigan Carferries
Great Lakes Information Network: Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan Circle Tour
Railroad History of Central Wisconsin: A Lifelong Love of Lake Michigan Railroad Car Ferries
RRHX: Railroad Car Ferries
Wikipedia: Ann Arbor Railroad
Wikipedia: Lake Michigan
Wikipedia: Train Ferry
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Lake Michigan

Next up: Elberta, Michigan