A Lake in Name Alone

Lake Michigan through the eyes of an East Coast transplant. // Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
Lake Michigan

Growing up on the Atlantic coast my impression of the Great Lakes was they were famous bodies of fresh water and little else. I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” many times, but never believed the story was true. How could a lake be big enough for freighters to cross, or deep enough to swallow one whole?

My career in the boating industry took me to the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico where I worked on, and piloted, vessels up to 150 feet long. I raced offshore powerboats and once lived on a 130-foot research and salvage ship in the Florida Keys. I also chased a lot of big fish. But all of that was on salt water.

When I moved in 1998 to the Saugatuck area, Lake Michigan caught me off guard. I was surprised by her size, beauty and mysterious nature, and shocked by her quick temper. Its surface could be as still as bathwater, but when the breeze stiffened it became obvious why her depths hide so many sunken ships.

Lake Michigan shoreI’d seen the Atlantic Ocean churn like a blender and had waterspouts form a mile from where I fished in the Gulf. When Hurricane Georges came ashore in Key West I was tossed around by 18-foot seas for a day and a half while the research boat was relocated to a safer harbor. Yet, none of that prepared me for the potential dangers of the Great Lakes.

You can gain respect for Lake Michigan’s size from the beach, but you can’t truly appreciate her personality until you get out on the water. You can tell yourself it’s “just a lake,” but the tight chop that can unexpectedly develop will quickly change your mind.

I took Lake Michigan for granted only once, when I was asked to take potential buyers for a test ride on a 36-foot trawler and the weatherman predicted 25-knot gusts. Even with those winds the ocean would have been manageable, but the 14-foot waves that were waiting at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, where it met Lake Michigan, drove me white-knuckled straight back to the dock.

Last year a man who had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean three times asked me to bring his current boat across 78 miles of open water from Chicago to Holland. He told me about his sailing adventures as we drove to pick up his boat. I asked him why he didn’t want to make this trip. He said he’d rather go back across the Atlantic Ocean than ever cross Lake Michigan.

That is the most telling statement about the Great Lakes that I have heard. They demand respect — the most important safety tool in a boater’s possession.

The first winter I spent in Michigan made me question my sanity. That December was bitter cold, and when the lake surface froze I thought I might flee back south. Then ice transformed the beach into something magical and the northern lights lit the sky one January night. I came to appreciate Lake Michigan and its beautiful shoreline well before spring thaw and short-sleeve temperatures.

When I moved in 1998 to the Saugatuck area, Lake Michigan caught me off guard. I was surprised by her size, beauty and mysterious nature, and shocked by her quick temper.

At times, I do miss the ocean’s salt-air scent and the cyclical sound of the waves booming and whooshing against sugary sand. But I can’t imagine living anywhere besides Michigan now. I count the days from Nov. 1, when my boat is one of the last to be pulled from the water, to the middle of March when I begin to hope and pray for a mild spring and an early launch. When it snows, I daydream about dropping the anchor just off the Saugatuck or Holland beaches on a calm summer day.

The Great Lakes are lakes by name alone. Looking down from the top of the dunes in December, you can feel the immensity of Lake Michigan’s 300-mile length and 900-foot depths. The far shore is well out of sight, and the cold wind and empty beaches make her seem downright hostile. But the same view in the summer offers sun-bathers, kiteboarders, and a diverse community of boaters.

Blue lighthouse

By June, the big lake will come to life with fishermen making crisscross patterns in search of trophy catches, and pleasure boaters will cruise between the artsy towns that hug the sandy shores. Jet skis will hop from wave to wave while kids hang on to colorful tubes behind their parent’s boats. I’ll sit in the sun watching the activity from the back of my own boat, and I will forget all about the ocean for the 19th summer in a row.

A licensed captain and freelance boating writer in Grandville, Chuck grew up on the New Jersey shore. He spent more than 20 years working in the marine industry. He met his wife Lanie while operating a sunset cruise and followed her back to Michigan where he has since fallen for the Great Lakes. Find him at michigancaptain.com.

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