Sparks in the Sky
We were treasure hunters, and Lake Michigan was overflowing with bounty.
By Jerry Dennis | Illustration by Glenn Wolff

On summer days, when I was a boy, my family and I often walked the shore of Platte Bay, from the mouth of the Platte River to Otter Creek. I remember one day in particular, in August of what must have been 1968 or ’69, when the salmon were running and Dad was out in the boat fishing.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes were a hazy yellow mountain in the distance and the lake was very blue. My mother, brother and I walked barefoot, slapping our feet on the wet sand. Waves swelled and broke and washed high on the beach, then sank, leaving swash bubbles. I found an orange fishing lure lost by a salmon angler. Mom spotted a five-dollar bill tumbling in the waves and waded in to retrieve it.

We were treasure hunters, and Lake Michigan was overflowing with bounty.

In those days, we often had the beach to ourselves. Many people still thought of the shores of the Great Lakes as undesirable — too cold, too windy, too plagued by blowing sand and biting insects and by the alewives that periodically died off by the millions and fouled the beaches. But my brother and I loved the shore just the way it was.

To a kid, few places are more magical than an empty beach on a summer day.

The magic took many forms. We found drowned monarch butterflies, plastic toys washed pale of color, aluminum floats lost from the nets of commercial fishermen. There was driftwood shaped like herons and gazelles and whole tree trunks worn smooth and faded silver by the sun. In the gravel were Petoskey stones and bits of beach glass as smooth as half-dissolved candy. Gulls and terns soared above us and pencil-legged sandpipers ran along the water’s edge ahead of us.

Often I would close my eyes and listen to the waves and be convinced that I could hear voices.

In the evenings, my parents sometimes built bonfires of driftwood on the beach and we sat up late toasting marshmallows and watching meteors. After dark, Lake Michigan seemed smaller, a lake rather than an inland sea. Some nights it was so calm that there were no waves at all. The stars then were as bright on the water as they were in the sky, and we sat next to the fire and watched the sparks stream toward the Milky Way.

When there was wind I noticed that if I put my ear to the sand I could hear the impact of a wave breaking moments before it came through the air. Later, I would learn that sound travels much faster through soil than air, but those nights I assumed I was hearing echoes or the thump of waves far down the beach. It was another mystery in a world filled with them.

Until you reach a certain age, everything is amazing. Waves romp through the earth, sparks fly off to the stars and, if you listen very carefully, you can hear voices in the waves. ≈

BLUE Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City and has collaborated with fellow regional artist Glenn Wolff on many books including the national bestseller “It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky” (DCA, Inc.;