They call it “Freshwater Life.” It’s the way Michigan’s Great Lakes touch the souls of those who can’t get enough of her shores. Some who thrive on the freshwater life spend hours, day after day, week after week, walking ankle-deep in the rolling waters not just to fill their souls and psyches, but their pockets, beach bags and buckets.
“I tend to go (beachcombing) late afternoon to early evening. I’m on the beach a minimum of an hour or two. For me, walking the beach is about watching for stones, but more importantly, it’s about forgetting stress. Somehow, on the beach, everything else seems less important.”
— Melinda Russell-Haight
They are the beachcombers, found walking the shore searching the waterline as they watch for newly washed ashore treasures. Among the most sought after are beach glass, Petoskey stones, lightning stones (septarian nodules) and fossilized crinoids, commonly called “Indian beads.” And though freshwater life is laid-back, beachcombers approach their beach time with purpose.
“The beach is never the same, never, ever, ever,” says Melinda Russell-Haight, a lifelong resident of southwest Michigan who makes jewelry from her beachcombing treasures. “I tend to go (beachcombing) late afternoon to early evening. I’m on the beach a minimum of an hour or two. For me, walking the beach is about watching for stones, but more importantly, it’s about forgetting stress. Somehow, on the beach, everything else seems less important.”
Michigan’s summer months brings thousands of people to the beaches, with numbers of them scanning the water’s edge for certain stones or colors and shapes of wave-smoothed glass. The collectors who thrive on the quest for beach treasures fill jars or bowls with their finds, and some even re-purpose the washed-ashore pieces of glass and stones in jewelry, artwork and home décor items. Shops in lakeshore towns like Saugatuck, South Haven and Petoskey sell these creations and still more are sold online via websites like etsy.com.
Russell-Haight spends her barefoot hours seeking out black basalt stones and stones with natural cracks in them. Lightning stones, commonly found in southwest Michigan, are one such type of stone named for their appearance. Over time, cracks have formed in the stones, and calcite is deposited in those cracks, forming patterns that look like lightning bolts.
Even during fall and winter months, Russell-Haight can connect with the peaceful feeling she gets from time on the beach, something she credits to the stones and beach glass pieces she finds in the summer.
“When I’m wearing my jewelry, I still have the remnant of that feeling, and playing with the stones around my neck, I think, ‘This is beautiful. This was tossed in the lake for millions of years,’ — and my problems seem less significant,” Russell-Haight said.
Merging her love of beachcombing and creating jewelry brought her peace, but it also created a dilemma. What was she to do with all her creations? The answer came when her daughter-in-law suggested opening an online store to sell her pieces. Russell-Haight chose the name Lupine Prairie for her creations and, in 2014, made her jewelry available for purchase online. Her most popular items are the cairn earrings she makes by stacking tiny stones.
Paula Vogie also loves making artistic creations using the finds from her walks on the beach. Stones are a favorite for Vogie, who makes framed scenes using them. She sells her works out of a storefront at her home in Bridgman. Her most popular items are framed footprints made with arranged stones and the birdhouses she creates using pieces of driftwood she’s gathered.
“I look for stones with specific shapes. I pick up a stone and may say, ‘This looks like a bird or a feather,’” said Vogie, who also collects crinoids and keeps them in a jar in her home.
Although a stone collector, Vogie enjoys finding unusual beach glass and boasts she once found an orange-colored piece, one of the most rare and sought-after beachcomber treasures.
Beach glass seekers have a hierarchy for their finds, with orange, red, and purple being among the most desirable — and rare. Also topping the list of “best of the beach” for glass hunters are pink, yellow, lavender and a pale blue. Glass with letters or words and glass that’s rounded or frosted also are ideal.
Russell-Haight uses beach glass to make what she calls “window pieces.” Like stained-glass windows, hers incorporate pieces of colored beach glass and are made around a theme. She’s considered selling them, but family members claim them as fast as she makes them.
Beachcomber Robin Knapp also searches for beach glass, though she uses her keen beachcomber sight for finding Petoskey stones.
“I’ve done many miles on the beaches around South Haven,” Knapp said, “My passion is making jewelry. Petoskey stones are my favorite to work with, but I like finding crinoids. I go home with pockets and pockets full of things, then I root through them. What excites me is when I find where I can see potential.”
Seeing potential may be what differentiates artisan beachcombers from those who simply wander the beaches for love of the sights and sounds, yet freshwater life also is known to be inspiring. And one never knows when finding that one irresistible stone or piece of wave-smoothed glass if it will lead to the start of a collection or even become the center of attention on a bracelet or necklace.
Julie Williams is an award-winning poet and a professor at Grand Valley State University. Her work appears in a variety of publications.