I was a student at Western Michigan University when I first saw her, a turquoise pearl, a vast liquid altar stretching from a threshold of golden sand and wispy green dune grass to a distant sky that covered her like a baby blue blanket. I had ascended the dune from the brushy, inland side with five college friends until we broke from under a canopy of shade and mosquitoes into the daylight of mid-May. With the advantage of a two-hundred-foot elevation, I gazed out, down, and upon Lake Michigan. Her beauty held me breathless, and, suddenly, I was unaware of the pretty coed, my date on that clear summer morning, who stood at my side.
Lady Michigan’s cool, clean body lay before me. Her gentle waves softly whispered a hushed invitation to race down the dune and plunge into her, to immerse and be absorbed. I swooned at her splendor, hesitated to drink in more of the love-at-first-sight vista, then moved with quickening strides that pounded my soles against slippery sand.
My movement was contagious, my friends’ response instantaneous. With coolers, towels, and Frisbees in hand, we descended the dune faster and faster as though we were mere slivers of steel drawn toward a powerful magnet.
We dropped our stuff on the last gentle slope of beach, held hands six abreast, and raced to the edge of the water where two-inch waves lapped the shore. We ran as best as possible until, like children, we were knee-deep and tripped into submersion. We were, I was, part of her, part of the Great Lake…
Since that day, twenty-seven years ago, I’ve moved to other parts of the country and back again. I’ve frolicked in the majestic lady’s waves, climbed her dunes, walked her beaches, and sailed along her Michigan shore. I’ve flirted with her sisters: cold howling Superior, plain wide Huron, shallow Erie, and industrious Ontario; but there is none like Lady Michigan.
Finally, I’m fulfilling my longtime desire to sail across her. There are four of us on two boats. Norm Guillaume and Dan Erlandson on Norm’s twenty-six-foot Pearson, Agape, and Dave Davies and me on Dave’s thirty-foot C & C, Mega.
Our plan is to go north for two days, from Holland to either Muskegon or White Lake, then head west to a destination in Wisconsin to be determined by the lady’s mood and the direction of her winds.
We cruise out of Holland at 8:00 p.m. … Winds are light and southerly, the water is sun-drenched and warm, so Norm and Dave drop drag lines, and we take turns being pulled through refreshing seventy-degree-Fahrenheit water.
At night she serves brightening stars and stronger southerly winds. The houses become spots of electric white…
With the hint of dawn, the lady is as gentle and vibrant as she is mysterious. She kisses our eyelids with early morning dew, and as though serving breakfast in bed along with stimulating conversation, she offers a bright predawn cloud the shape and color of a fiery forked dragon’s tongue. She tops this with a rising, thin, crescent-shaped fairy tale moon.
Then she suddenly turns a cold shoulder and, with dense fog, secrets Wisconsin from our view until we nearly stumble into the Port Washington pierhead at high noon, twenty mostly sleepless hours after leaving her eastern shore…
Lady Michigan is placid as we start our return trip. Leaving at noon, we motor south along the shore until encountering an area where bearpaw ripples border channels of flat calm. We shut off the motor at 2:00 p.m., turn east, and steer toward the blurred, nail-file surface in search of wind. A few miles off shore, the lady presents perfect southwesterly breezes. She wears blue, and we frolic, sometimes dipsy-doodling the two boats a half mile apart and sometimes running so close that Dave, standing on Mega’s bow, passes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to Norm, holding onto Agape’s transom lifeline. They celebrate the moment with high fives while Bill and I hold course.
As day becomes evening, the lady dons a black gown capped with fringes of white froth. Over her Wisconsin shoulders, she throws a black rain veil highlighted with white and pink lightning.
We continue to run with full sail, watching the distant storm slowly gain on us. Winds increase as night and the storm close in, silhouetting Agape, to our stern, in bright celestial flashes. The lady begins to rock’n’roll, and Dave and I replace a 150 genoa with a self-tacking working jib. Dave says, “The time to reef the main is when you first think about it,” and we follow his instincts.
When crossing to Wisconsin, the lake confused us. On this return trip, she’s confused. Waves can’t decide whether to precede the storm coming from the southwest or to respond to clocking winds that now blow strong out of the north.
I go forward and take down the jib as Dave holds the tiller as steady as possible in seas that follow from both the starboard rear quarter and the port rear quarter. I attempt to put a second reef in the main, but when I release the halyard, the howling wind holds it tight and unmovable against the starboard spreader and stays.
When lightning threatens above us, Lady Michigan seems to change her mind about the storm. The winds die, and our speed drops from eight-plus knots to less than two. We take advantage of the lull, and I drop the main as Dave starts the engine. He tells me he’s heard stories of storm gusts tearing out webbed bungee cords like the one that holds our roughly folded sail to the boom, so I take two spare dock lines and make sure the main is securely tethered.
We’re twenty-two miles out and mercury vapor lights from Muskegon glow, dead ahead, on the horizon. Grand Haven is a dimmer luminescence to the south. Dave says, “It’s time to get off the lake,” and we motor in the last three hours while the lady chops at us with two-fisted rogues.
I’m disappointed that we had to start the motor, but I acquiesce to Dave’s wisdom, and we part the pierheads of Muskegon at 1:00 a.m., eleven hours after turning east, slightly more than half the time of our westerly crossing.
We’re dry as we tie up in transient slips at Harbor Towne. We’ve outrun the storm, and I’ve accomplished something I’ve wanted to do for many years. I’ve shared two wonderful sleepless nights in the watery bosom of Lady Michigan.
Kalamazoo resident Robert M. Weir is the author of four books. His website is robertmweir.com. This essay was originally printed in Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine.