Most people understand the basic rules about ice: Coaches teach hockey players to keep their sticks on the ice. People who live on lakes know that when the hues of water under the ice begin resembling summer colors to stay off of the ice. Ice fishermen allowing their fishing shanties to partially sink during weather warmups should rethink their hobby. Drivers quickly learn that black ice on roads can cause a carousel of spinning cars and trucks and swiftly bury them in snow-filled ditches. Signs remind us that bridges freeze before roads. Our mothers tell us early on to stop chewing ice or our teeth will start to look like craters on the moon. When we are older, wizened drinkers advise us to avoid ice when drinking red wine or scotch. A friend recently told me that ice cube balls are better than cubes in beverages, and bigger is better. I am ashamed to say that I did not know this rule, but I will abide by it as soon as I receive my new ice cube trays. Last week, I learned another new ice rule, and I feel the need to share this with the world: Do not be a giggling gallivanter strutting across wet sand on a beach along Lake Michigan in March. Wet sand sometimes masquerades as very, very slippery ice.
When I was much younger and discovering the rules of the world in Kansas, my mother often said to me, “You are walking on thin ice, young lady,” when I would inform her and my father of some new adventure I had decided I needed to embark on. After being told no, I often swore. Since my father had a habit of swearing, it’s something I grew up with, kind of like having our own secret language. My mom, famous for her downward-head-tilt and dagger-like-mom-glare, frequently warned me to watch my language. Rebuttal time existed in the confines of my room or down by the dam where I complained to my dog, the cottonwood trees, and the Arkansas River. Thin ice! Language usage! It was a lot to learn for a teenager who was mostly interested in music, dogs, and boys.
In western Kansas, we really didn’t have much ice other than the ice my mother made in silver ice cube trays to fuel our passion for very cold iced tea. If only my mom had known about ice cube balls, but maybe no one had invented them yet. When the irrigation ditch running parallel to the road in front of our house froze over one winter, I put on a pair of ill-fitting ice skates. I skated down towards the Wilroads Gardens Elementary School, about a half a mile away, on the skinniest ice rink in the world. This wasn’t the Netherlands, and I was no Gretel. Ice wasn’t really something I learned to negotiate.
At the age of 21, I left Kansas for California where I discovered earthquakes and traffic. I quickly learned that pulling out in front of oncoming traffic was a requirement if a person wanted to get anywhere. I moved to Michigan a few years later, and I learned an entirely new set of rules for winter driving. I landed a job with a construction company rebuilding the downtown fire station in Ann Arbor. We worked out of a trailer on-site, and I was the office manager which basically meant that I typed reports on an ancient blue typewriter, fielded phone calls for my boss, and listened to grown men swearing about everything from the weather to the ups and downs of the Michigan Wolverines. I was hired because my future boss asked me if I minded people swearing. Seriously. I told him I was perfect for the job, and I called my father that night to thank him for all the years he had prepared me for this decent-paying job.
I had lived in Michigan for a few weeks, when I got my first taste of a Michigan blizzard. Since the fire chief and my boss said that the weather was going to be bad, I decided to park my four-speed Toyota station wagon in a garage underground. As I left the garage that day, I started up the ramp, and my car slid right back down and into the spare tire on the back end of a pickup truck. The following “BOOM” provided me more attention than walking down the street in a mini-skirt. My next stop was at my new car insurance agency where the confused agent asked me to repeat the story about five times. Even after I showed him the blown out rear window, he still asked me for the umpteenth time how I managed to blow out the window and not cause any damage to the pickup truck. Didn’t he believe me? Did he want to go to the scene of the accident? I was freezing! He told me I ought to cover up the gaping hole in the back of my car until I got it fixed. No s*#t, Sherlock?
From then on, I realized that ice rules were strictly followed in Michigan. When playing hockey or ice skating, one should always have sharp blades, or a person might lose an edge and fall down. The Great Lakes freeze over some years, but people should only drive across them on snowmobiles along a tree-lined path if they don’t want to die. Inland lakes claim a few bodies, people, and vehicles, every year because someone drank too much red wine or scotch with incorrectly-sized ice and decided to go for a joy ride. Chewing ice is only allowed if someone is a patient in a hospital and not allowed to eat edible food. When driving on snow-covered roads, drive like a person with a brain and not a death wish. I suppose I should stay off of the ice, but since I live in Northern Michigan, I don’t have a choice.
So far this year, I have willingly placed myself on ice for a variety of reasons and I managed to injure myself each time. In December, as I cross-country skied in the woods, I hit a patch of ice. My rear end hit the ground like a meteor dropping from the sky without any media coverage or fanfare. After a few choice swear words for no one but myself, I thrust myself upright, and I skied off to search for someone to feel sorry for me. At Cross-Country Ski Headquarters, I walked to my car, loaded my gear, and waited for my son to arrive after his much longer and more difficult ski journey. He was fine. Me? My left elbow still vibrated (California-shake style), and my neck seemed to be bit more compact as if I were a bobble head doll stuck in an awkward position.
In February, my son played in a pond hockey tournament in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Near the downtown of St. Ignace, I ventured out onto East Moran Bay (Lake Huron) to watch his team play hockey and shoot photographs. After trying a variety of footwear the day before, ice clamps on my tennis shoes and snow boots, I decided on my brand new boots with special technology geared just for walking on ice. I quickly learned that if snow fills in the spaces between all of this “special technology,” then I could perform a combination of those wild sixties dance moves, the mashed potato, the jerk, and the pony, all at once. My spectacular landing didn’t really hurt, because I had three layers of clothing on. I managed to save my camera, swear in front of a group of small children (What boots were THEY wearing?), and, along with my husband in his regular winter shoes, to watch the game and shoot pictures without further incident.
Having survived February mostly unscathed, I decided to go on an adventure with my photography pals, Sandi and Jo. I felt confident about starting out at Esch Beach, south of Empire and near Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan. We had already stopped along our route to shoot pictures of sheep and eagles (not together!), now we were ready to shoot pictures of the water and the beach. I headed north walking along the shore towards Otter Creek. Waves rolled slowly towards the shore. I had on hiking boots and carried my camera in my left hand, the camera strap snug around my neck. One minute I was up, and the next minute I was down. What appeared to be wet sand was actually a thin layer of ice along the shore. I fell on my left side, clutching the camera so hard that my hand hurt much worse than my leg, which suffered a nasty little bruise below my knee. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
When I hit the ground with my camera, my lens shot into the sky like a fat pop bottle rocket before it began its first and last swim in Lake Michigan. Jo saw me pop up off of the ground and immediately jumped into the water to save my lens, thoroughly soaking her Converse tennis shoes. Sandi, watching the scene play out before her, attempted to help both of us at once. She later said she felt a bit “dazed and confused” by all of the action playing out on the beach. Although I was dirty, bruised, and angry at my own stupidity, I swear I heard my mother’s voice say, “See! I told you that you were walking on thin ice!” Even though she passed away in 2008, those words rang in my ears like church bells. After drying off, cleaning off, and pondering the fate of my lens, we continued our photo journey to Glen Haven and Glen Arbor. We ate lunch at Art’s Tavern where I ordered a nice cold beer to soothe my ego. After a brief rest, we headed to the camera shop in Traverse City. The shop’s employee Molly cleaned all of the sand out of my camera, and my bruised but functional camera survived my attempt at killing it by the icy shores of Lake Michigan.
We made it safely back to Higgins Lake, munching on exquisite brownies Jo had made and tasty treats Sandi brought along, before parting ways. After Jo and Sandi headed back to Midland, I realized that I was really sore and still very dirty. I thought about how my mom and dad would have been proud of me for picking myself up after yet another huge error in judgment. I guess that’s something they always knew about me: I’ve always been willing to walk on thin ice, because I like the danger.
People sang songs around campfires as fireworks lit up the sky. The three of us formed a partial pinwheel around our softly glowing fire pit on our beach at Higgins Lake, Michigan, as we watched red, white, and blue bursts of light scatter across the sky. Neighbors up and down the shoreline clapped and cheered while boaters cautiously parked their vessels close enough to see the action, but stayed far enough away to avoid the shrapnel. The celebrations on the 4th of July were breathtaking on this clear summer night. My husband, son, and I enjoyed the celebration before heading inside as the sky filled up with stars.
The night of the 5th proved to be another festive night of celebration although somewhat more subdued, but the night of the 6th caused my ears to start “ringing like a fire alarm” as our neighbors about three hundred feet south of us fired off boomers—loud and pointless fireworks—and sang karaoke songs through an amplifier possibly on steroids. If I never hear “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” again, it will be too soon. I longed for the previous week’s mini vacation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where, as we forged deeper into the woods, waterfalls released their dissonant sounds, robins and chickadees trilled in the woods, and fellow hikers quietly greeted us as the sounds fused together as if a body breathing. What a difference a change of scenery makes. Sometime after midnight on the night of the 6th, I closed our windows in disgust and considered this new fusion of sound: noise pollution. I tried to imagine the sound of the waterfall I had fallen in love with the week before.
My family has always been intrigued by Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and I have always been drawn to water’s ever-changing symmetry. When Matt was young and became involved with travel hockey, we headed to Houghton, Michigan, for hockey camps for several summers. Although the trek from Midland to Houghton took about eight hours during good driving conditions, we enjoyed our time spent together and our chance to explore new and unfamiliar places. We hiked through the Porcupine Mountains, enjoyed the beauty of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and climbed into and around as many lighthouses as we could get to. When Matt graduated from high school in 2000, we headed to Isle Royale for the ultimate three-day adventure. The four-hour boat ride from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale across Lake Superior during a storm from hell with a bunch of puking Boy Scouts was enough to make me want to never leave home again. However, I figured if we were going to die, at least we would all die together and perhaps Gordon Lightfoot would write a song about us. Unlike the Edmund Fitzgerald, we survived and Lake Superior on the boat ride back was so smooth that we sat on a bench and played cards. We were never sure what became of all of the Boy Scouts, since they did not return on the day we did.
For our newest adventure to the UP, Matt was in charge of the trip. Rain and fog did not dampen our spirits, but Matt altered his plans a bit. Jim and I had no idea where we were going, and I thought of Chuck Berry’s song about “riding along in my automobile” with “no particular place to go.” After crossing the Mackinac Bridge, we headed north on 123 towards Paradise along Whitefish Bay before heading west towards Tahquamenon Falls where we had lunch at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery. Animal skins, stuffed or flattened against the walls, reminded us of what might be waiting in the woods when we started exploring.
The fusion of sound with the visual scene of the waterfalls is difficult to explain. Photographs do not do justice to the immense beauty of this area. The water, almost braid-like with its strands of gold, copper, brown, and white, drops into the chasm some fifty feet below the precipice and creates a soothing and yet ominous sound. If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear the fusion of sounds, as if the waterfall’s crescendos were playing counterpoint with the seemingly still waters below. We finally had to give up our viewing spot to allow others to witness what we were seeing.
Our next stop was Grand Marais where the crisp blues from Lake Superior were outlined by miles of shoreline filled with rocks and sand. Several kayaks worked their way around the Grand Marais Harbor Range Light at the end of a pier. As we walked towards the shore, thunder rumbled behind us, and we noticed the purplish-blue clouds of a summer thunderstorm trailing behind us. We hopped back into the car and headed for Sable Falls where we found another beautiful waterfall and at least a gazillion hungry mosquitoes. As we ran for the car, we started singing various versions of the “Mosquito Bite Blues.” We briefly stopped at the Grand Sable Dunes, but the fog started curling around us like a ghost.
Later, we checked into Holiday Inn Express-Lakeview in Munising and went up to our third-floor room. Although the fog created a Stephen King-like atmosphere, we were still able to see Murray Bay, Grand Island, and Lake Superior. The next morning we awoke to overcast skies and—you guessed it—more fog.
We then headed towards Miners Castle where nature has provided reminders of its semi-permanent status. Miners Castle used to consist of two turrets, but in 2006, one of the turrets collapsed. The website for National Park Services provides this information: “The Miners Castle Member consists of crumbly cross-bedded sandstone that is poorly cemented by secondary quartz, according to U.S. Geological Survey Research Ecologist Walter Loope.” We had seen both turrets in previous visits to this area, so the realization that part of Miners Castle’s lifeblood had broken apart and now survived only in our memories was not lost on us. The fragility of the earth is never more apparent than when one must rely on memory as a way to provide one’s referent.
Although the fog prevented us from taking shots of the distant scenery, we were able to take photos to remind us of our time there before we headed to Laughing Whitefish Falls. When we arrived at our newest destination, we sprayed mosquito repellent everywhere except our eyeballs and headed down the trail to the falls. As we approached the falls, the rush of the water became hypnotic. I felt as if I could slip over the edge of the waterfall at any minute and tumble to the rocks below. I imagined myself avoiding each boulder or fallen tree as I slid along the layers of rock until my body became motionless against the flatness of the earth. At the bottom of the waterfall, my breathing and the water would fuse into that moment where life and death collide.
After enjoying our moment of reverie at the top of the falls, we followed the curving pathway of steps down to the bottom of the falls where we stood on a small viewing platform. I felt as small as one of the hundreds of mosquitoes surrounding my repellent-covered clothing and body. As we walked back up the series of stairs and began our hike through the woods back to our car, I felt the enormity of the woods and wished I knew all of the secrets it held.
Before we returned to the Lower Peninsula, we stopped at the Fayette Historic Park and Seul Choix Lighthouse. Again, history and beauty combined to create a space for discovery and wonder. On Highway 2, we passed countless numbers of semis hauling logs, and one logger had a sign on the front of his semi that read “Fetchin’ Sticks.” As if to remind me of a trip my father would have loved, particularly because of his love of the large freighters on the Great Lakes, we spotted a lone freighter working its way across Lake Michigan as we neared St. Ignace. We pulled into a scenic area and snapped photos of the Wagenborg as it made its way under the bridge. Although magnificent in its size and glory, the Wagenborg, an unlikely fusion of steel and water, glided through the waves of Lake Michigan. Days later I would realize, as the sound of karaoke and fireworks split the night air, that if I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself floating across a body of water, my breathing, slow and steady.