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The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes

The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes

by Jerry Dennis

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"Our country is lucky to have Jerry Dennis. A conservationist with the soul of a poet whose beat is Wild Michigan, Dennis is a kindred spirit of Aldo Leopold and Sigurd Olson. The Windward Shore---his newest effort---is a beautifully written and elegiac memoir of outdoor discovery. Highly recommended!"
---Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior:


"Our country is lucky to have Jerry Dennis. A conservationist with the soul of a poet whose beat is Wild Michigan, Dennis is a kindred spirit of Aldo Leopold and Sigurd Olson. The Windward Shore---his newest effort---is a beautifully written and elegiac memoir of outdoor discovery. Highly recommended!"
---Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
"Come for a journey; stay for an awakening. Jerry Dennis loves the Great Lakes, the swell of every wave, the curve of every rock. He wants you to love them too before our collective trashing of them wipes out all traces of their original character. Through his eyes, you will treasure the hidden secrets that reveal themselves only to those who linger and long. Elegant and sad at the same time, The Windward Shore is a love song for the Great Lakes and a gentle call to action to save them."
---Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

"In prose as clear as the lines in a Dürer etching, Jerry Dennis maps his home ground, which ranges outward from the back door of his farmhouse to encompass the region of vast inland seas at the heart of our continent. Along the way, inspired by the company of water in all its guises---ice, snow, frost, clouds, rain, shore-lapping waves---he meditates on the ancient questions about mind and matter, time and attention, wildness and wonder. As in the best American nature writing---a tradition that Dennis knows well---here the place and the explorer come together in brilliant conversation."
---Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Conservationist Manifesto

If you have been enchanted by Jerry Dennis’s earlier work on sailing the Great Lakes, canoeing, angling, and the natural wonders of water and sky—or you have not yet been lucky enough to enjoy his engaging prose—you will want to immerse yourself in his powerful and insightful new book on winter in Great Lakes country.

Grounded by a knee injury, Dennis learns to live at a slower pace while staying in houses ranging from a log cabin on Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula to a $20 million mansion on the northern shore of Lake Michigan. While walking on beaches and exploring nearby woods and villages, he muses on the nature of time, weather, waves, agates, books, words for snow and ice, our complex relationship with nature, and much more.

From the introduction: “I wanted to present a true picture of a complex region, part of my continuing project to learn at least one place on earth reasonably well, and trusted that it would appear gradually and accumulatively—and not as a conventional portrait, but as a mosaic that included the sounds and scents and textures of the place and some of the plants, animals, and its inhabitants. Bolstered by the notion that a book is a journey that author and reader walk together, I would search for promising trails and follow them as far as my reconstructed knee would allow.”

Editorial Reviews

Dave Richey Outdoors
"A truly wonderful read by a favorite author."
Dave Richey Outdoors

— Dave Richey

Dave Richey Outdoors - Dave Richey
"A truly wonderful read by a favorite author."
Dave Richey Outdoors

Product Details

University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Windward Shore

By Jerry Dennis

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dennis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11816-8

Chapter One

Winter Comes to the Keweenaw

We drove north in the season of falling—aspen leaves and stock prices, rain, sleet, the earth in its orbit (that perpetual plunge), the mercury in the thermometer, the spirits of those who are seasonally affected. A flock of snow buntings tumbled from the sky and scurried across the highway ahead of us. Soon snow would fall, too.

Cam's Jeep showed its brake lights and turned into the drive of what must be our cabin. Tim jumped out to unhook the chain blocking the way, grinned at us in the headlights, climbed back into the truck. We followed the two-track through an evergreen tunnel and pulled to a stop. I doused the lights, and we sat for a moment in darkness. Then Gail and Aaron threw open their doors, and from somewhere nearby came the booming of surf. The air filled with the cold aromas of balsam and big water. Lake Superior is so large that it exhales immensity.

We had arranged to meet Tim Schulz and Cam Williams here, near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Tim's a fishing friend of mine who teaches electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. Cam runs the physical therapy program at Houghton's other college, Finlandia University. His family owns the cabin where my wife, Gail, son Aaron, and I would stay for the next two weeks.

The Upper Peninsula is less densely populated with people than almost any place east of the Great Plains. It is a land of boreal forest and tamarack bogs bounded by the rocky shores of three of the five Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, and Huron. At its northern reach, like a sixty-mile-long thumb jabbing the belly of Lake Superior, is the Keweenaw Peninsula. "Keweenaw" is Ojibwa for "place of the crossing," in reference to the ancient portage route across the base of the peninsula, now a shipping canal that separates the twin cities of Houghton and Hancock. The tip of the Keweenaw is more than six hundred miles from Detroit, about the same distance as Detroit is from Alabama, causing many Detroiters to think of it as the Yukon of Michigan, if they think of it at all. Summers there are brief, and winters last more than six months, an imbalance that makes it necessary for a motel in downtown Houghton to keep signs posted in its rooms reading, "Please Don't Use Bathtowels to Wipe Down Your Snowmobiles." North of Houghton, in the village of Kearsarge, about halfway up the peninsula, is a curiosity-and-collectibles shop named "The Last Place on Earth," which seems about right. Not far up the highway is a forty-foot pole marking historic snowfall amounts. At neck-ache height is the record, set in the winter of 1978–79, of thirty-two and a half feet. For the past half century the average has been twenty feet.

Tim and Cam, with their flashlights bobbing, led the way up a series of stairs to the cabin. Two cabins, actually. The main one is constructed of chinked log walls containing a small pine-paneled bedroom, a bathroom just big enough for one person, and a snug kitchen/living area with a large window facing the lake. A few paces across a stone patio is a slightly larger cabin built in the 1930s by a Calumet banker for his daughter, who aspired to be an artist. It is octagonal, built with natural light in mind, with windows on seven sides open to the water, and the eighth dominated by a stone fireplace. The single room was encircled by couches and easy chairs and a few shelves piled with books and board games.

We returned to the main cabin, where Cam switched on an electric heater and showed us how to operate the appliances. Water was piped directly from Lake Superior for the shower and sinks, but for drinking water we would have to fill jugs at the little grocery in Copper Harbor or from a pump at a public park down the road. You can drink safely from much of Lake Superior, but here, in a bay, with houses along the shore, it was inadvisable.

One other task remained. As the cabin warmed dozens of houseflies crawled from gaps in the woodwork, found use of their wings, and began bumping sluggishly against the picture window. Cam pulled a vacuum cleaner from beneath the table, removed a wad of paper towel that had been stuffed in the snout of the hose, tapped the starter button, and began hoovering flies from the glass. The nozzle inhaled each with a satisfactory thup. He replaced the plug of paper towel and pushed the vacuum back under the table.

Finally we broke open a bottle of scotch and toasted one another's health, then the generosity of Cam and his family for allowing us to stay in the cabin, then the generosity of Lake Superior for allowing the cabin to stay on the shore. Later I walked with Tim and Cam to their truck and watched them pull out of the driveway and set off on the forty-mile drive to Houghton. When they were gone I stood in the darkness and listened to the waves thumping on the shore. The lake remained hidden, but its presence was unmistakable, as if it were a living thing, with a pulse and lungs, and as big as the sky.

* * *

Is any place in North America as poorly understood as the Great Lakes? I'm no longer surprised to meet people who have no idea of the size of the lakes or of their significance to the history and geography of North America or even much of an idea of their location. A magazine editor in New York called to discuss a story I was writing and asked, "You're from Iowa or Ohio or one of those places, aren't you?" He thought both were Great Lakes states. About the five lakes themselves he had no clue. He would have been shocked to learn that they are too large to see across. Or that they and the St. Lawrence River are bounded by eight states, two provinces, and nearly two hundred tribal governments. Or that they are encircled by as many miles of shoreline as the combined Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United States. Or that pollution has not reduced them to toxic cesspools.

A few years ago the editors of a Utah-based magazine for elementary-school students decided to profile the Great Lakes. Their research directed them to a Web site devoted to whale-watching in Lake Michigan, an activity so compelling that they decided to make it the subject of a feature story titled, "'Thar She Blows!' In Michigan?" They wrote: "Every spring, the freshwater whales and freshwater dolphins begin their 1,300-mile migration from Hudson Bay to the warmer waters of Lake Michigan." They explained that although there are several locks at Sault Ste. Marie, the whales and dolphins prefer to forge a faster route through Canadian rivers, until, by mid-June, they reach their breeding grounds in southern Lake Michigan. There they feed on abundant populations of Coho salmon, lake trout, and zebra mussels, while sporting happily in the fresh water, where, finally free of salt residue, they can swim 40 percent faster than in the ocean. Local residents welcome the returning migrants, they wrote, as they have since the Navajo first settled the shores of Lake Michigan many centuries ago.

A fourth-grade teacher in Muskegon, Michigan, named Deb Harris had begun reading the story aloud to her students when she realized that something was fishy. She halted in midsentence and exclaimed, "Oh, my goodness! There are no whales in Michigan!" And the Navajo? She called the editorial offices of Studies Weekly Inc. and informed them that they had made some mistakes. A staff member replied sniffily that the magazine stood behind the story. Deb Harris was quite certain the story was wrong. The staff member insisted it was right. Deb Harris said, "I've lived here all my life—there are no whales in Lake Michigan." Later the magazine printed a retraction, revealing that the Web site from which they had gathered their information was a hoax. "We at Studies Weekly want this to be a lesson to you as well," the retraction read. "Not all Web sites are true, and you cannot always believe them."

The Great Lakes region is so large and complex that it can be geographically confusing. An acquaintance told me about a conversation he had with a coworker in his office, a young woman who had lived for the first eighteen years of her life in Escanaba, Michigan, a small city on the southern coast of the Upper Peninsula. He asked what it was like growing up there. "It was great," she said. "Such a pretty town, and it was wonderful having Lake Superior right outside my door."

"Lake Michigan, you mean," he said.

"No, Lake Superior," she said.

"Escanaba is on Lake Michigan," he said.

"No it isn't," she said. "It's on Lake Superior."

He found a map and showed her. She had lived in Escanaba for eighteen years without, apparently, looking at one. "Well dang," she said. "You learn something new every day."

Superior might be the one Great Lake that comes closest to being understood. Some credit for that must go to Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot for his haunting ballad about the 1975 loss with all hands of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald. Because of that song, even those who don't realize that the Great Lakes are too large to see across understand that the largest of them at least can muster storms powerful enough to swallow ships 729 feet in length. (For the record, all five can.)

Early cartographers named it "Lac Superieur," not because it was the largest of the Great Lakes but because it was the northernmost of them and therefore located at the top of the map. But the name is appropriate in every sense. At 350 miles long and 160 miles wide, the lake exceeds all of the earth's freshwater lakes in surface area. It is the largest, coldest, clearest, and deepest of the Great Lakes and is surrounded by the wildest and most spectacular shores. At 31,699 square miles it is almost as big as Maine, and is bigger than Scotland. Only Russia's Lake Baikal and Africa's Lake Tanganyika, because of their immense depths, have greater volume. Not that Superior is shallow. With a maximum depth of 1,333 feet and an average of nearly 500 feet, it contains 2,935 cubic miles of water, as much as the other four Great Lakes combined (plus enough for three more Eries), or about 10 percent of the unfrozen fresh water on the surface of the planet. The volume of water is so great, and the energy it stores so potent, that Superior generates its own weather systems. Storms sweeping across from the Canadian plains intensify when they pass over the lake, cranking minor winds into gales and squalls into blizzards, often in winter burying the windward shores with hefts of lake-effect snow that can overwhelm houses. The lake is a wilderness in the full sense, untamed and untamable, where people who lose their way can lose their lives, and is so immense that it casts a wilderness shadow beyond its shores. None of its shoreline cities are large, but even the largest of them—Duluth, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette—feel like frontier outposts. Just outside (and frequently within) their borders live many of the North American animals we associate with the untamed North, including moose, wolf, black bear, and loons. In the spruce forests along the north shore are lynx and woodland caribou. Only two roads and a railroad track stand between that shore and the iceberg-clogged waters of Hudson Bay.

On the Keweenaw nothing stands between Michigan and the Canadian North but a hundred miles of Lake Superior.

* * *

In the morning the cabins were new to us. It was as if we had awakened in a different place altogether. Rain streamed down the windows, and the waters of Agate Harbor were gray and wind-streaked and bordered by rock formations capped with golden tamarack and black spruce. Beyond the mouth of the bay, in the open lake, rollers broke white against reefs. Farther out, and as far as we could see to the horizon, the lake flashed with whitecaps.

We stood before the window sipping from mugs of coffee and watching the weather change: Now it was spitting sleet. Now wet flakes hurled silently against the glass, melted, and slid to the sill. Now the sun came out, and the drenched earth gleamed. Now clouds cut across the sun, and snow pellets rattled on the ground. It was volatile out there, and we were glad to be inside, next to a heater, with a coffeepot on the stove and a stack of books on the table.

Later we put on our rain gear and went outside to explore. Sunlight sprayed through cracks in the clouds, and the cold air tasted like iron. We followed a path from the front of the cabin around outcroppings of rock and between cushions of ankle-deep moss to a natural stone patio overlooking the lake. There a wooden bench, weathered to gray and covered with a scruff of lichen, was well along on its journey back to the earth. We could see no other cabins and no other evidence of humans whatsoever, so it was easy to imagine that this rock-cleft shoreline had changed little since the glaciers departed. For ten thousand years these same waves had broken against these same rocks. This same icy rain had fallen.

Here and everywhere else we went on the Keweenaw, we became engrossed in rocks. Most of the beaches around the peninsula are in coves scalloped between headlands of bedrock and are heaped with stones of every dimension, from pebbles to boulders. Waves have sorted them by size, the smallest near the water and the largest shoved farther up the beach. They have been water-shaped into every variety of round: plates, saucers, biscuits, buns, softballs, bowling balls, and cobbles. Some are oval and some nearly but never perfectly spherical, and many are flat enough to stack unsteadily until they topple.

If we found a stone we liked that was nearly round or egg-shaped and fit comfortably in our hands, we carried it with us as we walked. At first we would be reluctant to give it up, but eventually it became a burden. We would heave it toward the lake and watch it plunge into the water with almost no splash and a sound like a gulp. If the waves were small we collected skippers and whipped them across the surface. Aaron found a good one and skipped it, counting, "One, two, twenty, ninety-nine, two hundred—a new world record!" And we looked for agates, but our luck was poor. Lake Superior agates, with their translucent red banding, are famous among rock collectors around the world. The first day, in three hours of searching, Aaron found a single pea-sized specimen with one side chipped off to reveal a vivid patch of red-and-white bands. Gail and I found none. We consulted geological field guides and a locally published guide to agate hunting, but for the first few days we were not really sure what we were looking for.

The days soon blended together. Mornings we usually stayed inside, reading, writing, and sketching. When we grew restless we would split pine boards into kindling and haul firewood from the outside rick to the fireplace.

For lunch we drove to the Pines Restaurant in Copper Harbor, where we took advantage of a wireless Internet connection to answer email on our laptops while we ate whitefish sandwiches and chili. Often it was raining or snowing, low clouds scudding over the lake, so we lingered over coffee in the restaurant then ducked into the few stores open in the tiny downtown.

Because it is located on a natural harbor along one of the most dangerous coasts on the Great Lakes, Copper Harbor is automatically welcoming. For boaters it is a haven—it must frequently seem a godsend—and for landlocked visitors it provides easy access to the water. The harbor is the economic heart of the town, drawing commercial and recreational fishermen, scuba-diving charters, and the small ferry that in summer makes daily trips to Isle Royale National Park, forty-five miles out on the lake. Tourists come looking for a view of the water or to walk the beach and in warm summers might find the water tolerable for swimming. An aura of red-cheeked good health hangs over the town. Maybe it's something in the water. Or the air. The facade of the Harbor Haus Restaurant near the marina reads, "You are now breathing the purest most vitalizing air on earth."


Excerpted from The Windward Shore by Jerry Dennis Copyright © 2011 by Jerry Dennis . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jerry Dennis is the author of many literary and popular works about nature, science, and outdoor recreation. His essays and stories in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and many other publications have won numerous awards and are frequently anthologized. His books are widely acclaimed and have been translated into German, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Czech. In 1999 the Michigan Library Association named Dennis the Michigan Author of the Year. He and his wife, Gail, live near the shore of Lake Michigan not far from Traverse City.

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