I placed my snow boot covered foot onto the frozen water. Just five months earlier my parents had tried to convince me that the endless expanse of freshwater and towering dunes—made up of sand so hot in the mid-day heat that it burned the soles of my feet—were an acceptable exchange for the Rocky Mountains and humidity-free Wyoming air that I had spent five years growing to love. Now, instead of heading into the mountains to find a Christmas tree or tube down a hill safely nestled next to a mountain pass, my parents had brought their sullen 16-year-old to the snow and ice-covered beach. The frozen surface appeared to stretch for miles, although I wouldn’t have wanted to walk more than a hundred feet from the shore. The surface may have looked safe, but I knew what dangers lurked beneath my feet. I took one step, and then another, creeping out and then taking braver steps toward nature’s frozen ice sculptures, waves that had built up and frozen in layers with the dropping winter temperatures. I was too proud and bitter about where I was to admit that I was completely enchanted. The lake was trying to win me over, and eventually it would.
Over the next twenty years, Lake Michigan would become an anchor in the turbulence of my growth from adolescence to adulthood.
For the last two years of high school, the lake, only two miles from my parents’ house, became a bright spot in what was otherwise an exercise in survival until I would be able to move out and away from southwest Michigan when I left for college. That attitude slowly changed when I met Jeff. At the time I was ready to hightail it out of town, but when a floppy haired blond boy asked me if I wanted to go to the fireworks, I said yes. It was the Fourth of July, one month after our high school graduation and a mere three weeks after mutual friends introduced us to each other. After the fireworks display, we walked up and down Silver Beach for hours. Every July, when the rest of the country is celebrating the nation’s birthday, I’m dreamily remembering an unseasonably cold summer night, bare-feet strolling on the cool sand squishing between toes, and a sheepish hand-hold between two teenagers just enjoying a summer before entering college. We stayed out long past my recently changed curfew, waiting for the endless line of cars to finally clear out so that Jeff could take me home. From that moment on, Lake Michigan has always been a part of our story.
No matter where we’ve lived, no trip to visit our parents is complete without at least a drive-by past the lake. And I’m a lake girl, through and through. I spent much of childhood proud of the fact that I was born in Southern California, trying to wear my native birth and first year of life like a badge. But I wasn’t Pacific Coast raised, I was Michigan raised. My first memories of water were brief moments in Lake Huron when visiting my grandparents in Ontario or traveling with my family (and half of the Detroit metropolitan population) to Lake St. Clair during unbearable summer heat waves. As much as I may appreciate a beautiful ocean sunset photograph, I don’t appreciate salt-water and I don’t seek out time near ocean water.
But of all the lakes I have visited over the years, my family’s move to Southwest Michigan instilled a love for Lake Michigan that continues to grow despite the miles of separation. During our dating years, Jeff and I spent summer nights strolling along the beach, visiting restaurants on the bluff in St. Joseph, and walking to the end of the pier. When we got married in December and while we waited for me to get a teaching job, we rented a little one-bedroom apartment that was a condo for rent during the summer months. It was just within our paltry budget and as a bonus, had a view overlooking Lake Michigan. We spent our last winter as Michigan residents fighting the cold wind as it came off of the icy water, often bringing with it snow and slick roads.
When we moved an hour away to northwest Indiana—or Chicagoland—we discovered a new side of the lake. While Jeff and I had both visited Chicago many times before, living just over an hour from downtown opened up more opportunities to travel into one of my favorite cities in the US. If we didn’t take the train in, our drive usually included driving down part of Lake Shore Drive, the Navy Pier off in the distance. The summer we moved into our first house, one of my college friends stayed with us for a couple days following one college roommate’s wedding. She and I kidnapped another college friend, who I worked with at the time, so that we could visit Navy Pier. The next summer Jeff and I decided to go downtown for the Taste of Chicago and the Fourth of July fireworks, which the city shot over the calm waters of Lake Michigan. That night we witnessed the most spectacular show we have ever seen in person, and narrowly missed a shooting that broke out shortly after we started booking it back to the train station so we could travel home.
But some of our best memories have been the time we’ve spent camping along the lake.
As soon as the snow melted following our winter wedding and still riding on the high from our camping trip in the Rocky Mountains the May before, we started taking advantage of the beautiful state parks right along the shores of Lake Michigan. We camped in the rustic sites at Warren Dunes State Park and then worked our way up north. One particular camping trip, well before we had children, we got a spot at Grand Haven State Park in Michigan. Our camping spot was right on the beach, and the first night that we were there a quick thunderstorm came up off of the lake. We had never experienced water in our tent before, but the water came down so hard and fast that we didn’t know what hit us. We stayed in bed, convinced that we would only wake up to wet sand surrounding the tent, but when we got out of the air mattress the next morning, our feet landed in puddles of water and wet sand. We continued camping through the weekend, walking along the boardwalk, riding our bikes and getting ice cream along the way, but we had a lot of drying out to do when we got home.
During our summer with the Roo—our first camper—we took the hybrid up to Michigan for a trip to Warren Dunes. We spent a full Saturday taking the kids to the playground to swing and climb and run around. We invited friends and family over for outdoor cooking and fellowship around the fire. That Sunday we attempted the climb to the top of the sand dunes before dipping our feet in the lake, but the kids weren’t quite old enough for the climb. Used to solid hiking ground, they weren’t sure what to do with the sand that constantly shifted, their feet sliding back a couple inches with each step they took, no matter how large a step they attempted with their little legs.
Much of our years up north centered around time spent on the shores of Lake Michigan. Our parents live right around the corner from each other and only two to three miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline and, until we moved to Texas, our children spent time playing in the sand and waves of the best of the Great Lakes every summer of their young lives. But because the lake is surrounded by four states, we didn’t just have to go to Michigan. One of the parks on our Indiana state park bucket list was Indiana Dunes State Park, right on the shores of Lake Michigan and bordering the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Park) visitor center. A visit to the state park would give us a weekend at our favorite body of water and a chance to get another stamp in our National Parks Passports.
Over the course of a single weekend, we went to the nature center and read about shipwrecks and wildlife and flora. We swam in the lake and got out right before a thunderstorm hit unsuspecting beachgoers. We went to the National Park Service visitor center and got our passports stamped.
But the highlight of our weekend was successfully completing the 3-Dune Challenge with our three-year-old son and five-year-old daughter.
The 3-Dune Challenge is a one and a half mile hike with a 552-foot vertical climb to the top of the three tallest dunes in Indiana Dunes State Park. For regular hikers, that may sound like a small challenge, but this isn’t a one and a half mile hike through normal hiking conditions. This is a hike through soft, fine Lake Michigan sand. Climbing a dune isn’t like climbing any standard hill. Depending on the conditions (damp sand is actually the easiest kind of sand to walk on and we were thankful that it had rained earlier in the morning before we left for our hike) a person can take one step forward and find their feet sliding half a step backward, especially when going uphill. We all eventually ditched our shoes and completed the hike in bare feet, both of us holding a kid’s hand to help them step over roots and to prevent a head-over-heals tumble down the other side of each dune as they picked up steam from running downhill. This hike offered more than a solid morning of exercise before packing up and leaving for home; the top of each dune revealed a breathtaking view of clear blue skies and the sun sparkling on the surface of Lake Michigan.
When Jeff’s family started talking about a possible short reunion the following summer so that his younger sister’s Florida born-and-bred children could see what Michigan looked like without snow on the ground, we immediately suggested a Fourth of July trip to Indiana Dunes. We could camp as a family and we would still be close enough to go “home” to watch the Fourth of July fireworks at Silver Beach in St. Joseph.
Our July return to Indiana Dunes started out during an unseasonable cool holiday weekend. We bundled up in sweatshirts to watch the fireworks on the park beach, forcing our skirt-wearing daughter to put leggings on underneath her typical camping outfit. We watched as both kids ignored the cold and dug in the sand, getting closer and closer to the shoreline and then finally returning to us with wet, sand covered sleeves. The night before their Florida cousins arrived, our kids enjoyed having Jeff’s older sister and brother-in-law all to themselves, our daughter burying her legging clad lower body in the soft, damp sand and both kids snuggling with parents and aunt and uncle as the fireworks show began.
The nights were cold during our holiday trip, but the days were perfect. We returned to the dunes and once again completed the 3-Dune Challenge, this time with our new puppy Bella and Jeff’s younger brother and sister-in-law. Our daughter colored and drew inside the camper with our niece who is only three days younger than her. We threw our sweatshirts back on to walk along the beach and capture hazy sunsets. We visited the National Parks visitor center and got more stamps.
It was our last trip to Lake Michigan before we moved away and the lake would no longer be a regular part of our lives. Even though our kids have never lived in Michigan, with two sets of grandparents who live a five-minute drive from the beach, Lake Michigan was part of their earliest memories growing up. While excited about a new adventure and a much-needed fresh start over 1000 miles away, leaving the Lake was one of the more difficult parts about our move. And while we’ve had our moments on the Gulf, nothing beats the shores of Lake Michigan. It will always hold a special place in our hearts.