Surprised by Beauty

Detroit waterfront offers breathtaking views.
Lake mural
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

Not long ago, my son Aaron and I were invited to help deliver the 64-foot sloop “MicJay” from Charlevoix to Toronto. We packed foul-weather gear, a change of clothes and Aaron’s cameras — he’s a documentary filmmaker — and joined a crew of four others and set off before daylight from the marina on Round Lake, under the city lights of Charlevoix.

We motored beneath the lift bridge on Bridge Street and down the Pine River canal into Lake Michigan. Then we raised the sails to catch a snapping wind and were on our way.

I’ll remember sailing through the night on lakes Huron and Erie, watching the glow of cities on the horizon and freighters lit as brightly as stadiums.

Years from now, I’ll remember the Straits, with the Mackinac Bridge off our bow, where Aaron filmed the crew discussing why the aged Line 5 petroleum pipeline should be removed from the bottom of the Straits before it ruptures catastrophically. The owner of the boat, a businessman from Detroit, argued for the economic necessities of clean water and air. The rest of us outlined ethical, aesthetic and commonsense arguments.

I’ll remember sailing through the night on lakes Huron and Erie, watching the glow of cities on the horizon and freighters lit as brightly as stadiums. The late hours on Lake Erie are especially vivid, when Aaron and I sat with Captain Geoff at the helm telling stories beneath stars so bright I thought we would bump them with our masts.

I’ll remember passing through the locks at the Welland Canal, those engineering marvels whose history is entwined with the upper lakes and the entire continent beyond, and the storm on Lake Ontario, when a line of squalls overran us with 50-mile-an-hour winds that raised waves to 8 feet in a heartbeat and tore the bimini cover from the cockpit. Black clouds swept down from the north, and the air temperature dropped 20 degrees in 10 minutes.

However, the best moment was at the end of the second day, when we were sailing down the Detroit River at sunset. It was a gorgeous evening, the summer’s best, and people were outside enjoying it. Pleasure craft of every description were on the river, from canoes and kayaks to fishing boats and yachts. On shore, pedestrians walked in pairs along the RiverWalk. Anglers — solitary or in small groups — sat on lawn chairs with their rods leaning against the railings.

Suddenly, as the sun neared the horizon, the world was bathed in light and color. It was what photographers call the “magic hour,” when sunlight passes through the breadth of the atmosphere, as if through a thousand miles of sheerest silk. It washed everything around us in showers of scarlet and gold. Sunlight streamed in rays through the city, between skyscrapers and apartment buildings, past the Renaissance Center, Cobo and Joe Louis Arena. Then it sprawled across the river like a golden quilt and climbed the brick buildings along the Windsor waterfront.

It was stunning and mesmerizing, and it gave me much to think about. Sometimes, this up-north guy needs to be reminded the Detroit waterfront is one of the most beautiful places in Michigan.

Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis is the author of many books, including “The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas.”

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