Summer Work and High Water

Rising Great Lakes waters are causing havoc once again. // Illustration by Glenn Wolff

Lately everyone is talking about the record high water in the Great Lakes. It’s a subject of particular urgency to waterfront dwellers, some of whom have witnessed their homes tumbling into the lakes. Is it a consequence of climate change? Or a natural cycle?

Both, it seems. There’s no doubt that the warming planet is having an impact on the Great Lakes. Temperatures are warming decade by decade, and annual precipitation is increasing — up 10 percent since 1901, according to a recent study. Perhaps more significantly, the frequency of major storm events is increasing. As a result, water levels rise and fall dramatically.

They’ve always risen and fallen, of course. In the early 1970s, lakes Michigan and Huron were nearly as high as they are now. Beaches disappeared, banks collapsed, houses slid into the waves. In Chicago, a storm surge shoved yachts across Lake Shore Drive. Property owners were desperate to protect their homes.

At the end of my junior year of high school I answered an ad for what sounded like the perfect summer job. I met with a guy named Stan who had an idea for slowing beach erosion and needed manual laborers. He hired me, but with misgivings. “You’re kinda skinny,” he said.

His plan was to build breakwalls that would jut into Lake Michigan and interrupt the longshore current that sweeps up the coast. His theory was that when the current hit a breakwall it would drop its load of suspended sand in front of the structure.

We built the structures from rough-swan poplar plans sixteen feet long and two inches thick that we nailed into cedar pilings.

The theory was sound, but it had a flaw. It turned out the sand collected at each breakwall was stolen from the beach beyond it. Stan didn’t consider that a problem. In fact, it was bonus. Every time we finished a breakwall, the neighbor needed one too.

We built the structures from rough-sawn poplar planks sixteen feet long and two inches thick that we nailed to cedar pilings. Nailed together they looked like unpainted billboards tipped over in the sand, and they were so heavy that it took four of us to drag one into the water. We would heft it upright on its piling-legs and try to hold it steady long enough for Stan to fire up his gas-powered water-jet, stick the nozzle underwater, and blow the sand and gravel away. Gradually the pilings would settle into the bottom.

When the work went well, we could install a couple breakwalls a day. But the work rarely went well. Waves broke over the tops of our chest waders and sometimes wrenched the walls from us and knocked them over. We frequently encountered rocks too large for the jet to dislodge and would have to shatter them with steel bars and sledgehammers. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

By the end of the summer, 20 or 30 breakwalls extended from the shore and the sand they collected gave the beach a scalloped appearance that seemed like good defense against high water. Most of the property owners were pleased, and Stan had made a hefty profit. He asked if I wanted to work for him the following summer. I said I didn’t think so.

All that winter, every time the wind came up, I imagined waves and icebergs slamming against the wooden breakwalls. In April I drove to the shore to see how they’d held up.

Gone. Not a trace. As always, the lake had the final say.

Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis keeps an eye on the Great Lakes from his home near Traverse City.

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