I’m starting this series off in a place I feel very at home: Lake Michigan. Didn’t read the introduction? Check it out here.

I have always taken Lake Michigan beaches for granted. Growing up, it didn’t feel unique to live in such an integral part of the Great Lakes. It also didn’t help that the concept of the beach in Michigan essentially disappears for half the year as snow and cold takes over.

However, there’s a reason that tourists flock to Lake Michigan in midsummer, and a reason my parents still live there even though, like me, they hate the winter so much.

In the words of poet Richelle Wilson, a native of rural Michigan, who composed an “Ode to Lake Michigan” (later made into a musical piece for the Michigan Recital Project):

You caress Chicago’s bony wrist
all the way up to the fleshy fingertip of the Upper Peninsula,
rustling winds that ignite daydreams…

I forgive your lake effect snowstorms because summer looks so lovely on you.

What makes Lake Michigan so special? 

On a broad scale, the interconnected Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world, and together hold nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater. Today, millions of people reside in the Great Lakes basin in the U.S. and Canada, and the lakes provide a source of drinking water, irrigation and recreational activities every year. They’re also abundantly alive, home to many important species of fish as well as other wildlife.

Lake Michigan is the third-largest of the Great Lakes, as well as the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the world. It essentially stretches from my home in Saint Joseph – the southwest corner of the state – all the way to the Straits of Mackinac, bordering Chicago along the way. This summer, I visited beaches at both the Northern and Southern ends of the lake.

What does the future hold? 

The Great Lakes are extremely vulnerable to pollution, warming water temperatures due to climate change, and invasive species. All of these concepts are interconnected and together, result in a complex and decidedly detrimental effect on the Great Lakes ecosystems.

Not all of the effects of climate change are visible, but this Chicago Tribune article explains that in Lake Michigan, the beaches are literally shrinking. Due to erosion, rainfall, and buildup of runoff from precipitation in previous winters, water levels are at a near-record high, and there’s less sand to stand on.

I noticed this during my visit to Hagar Park in August. img_7043

This means there’s increasing need for better shore protection, especially as more and more people build homes along the waterfront. There’s also increasing uncertainty regarding what will happen next: “If a storm wants to come in and take out your pier, front yard, or house, it will,” said environmental scientist Tom Murphy in the Tribune article.

The fishing industry in the lakes has also shifted significantly. Salmon and trout have always been trademarks of the Lake Michigan fishery, and help to maintain balance when the non-native alewife, which first migrated to Michigan in the 1960s, threatens to take over. Recently, however, both salmon and trout have declined – dramatically altering the Chinook salmon stock. This is largely due to a decline in the population of alewives, whose nourishment is being taken up by an invasive mussel that spread to the Great Lakes in the early 2000s.

As with rising water levels, it is difficult to predict how warming water temperatures will affect the spread of invasive species and therefore the wellbeing of Lake Michigan’s fishing industry. “The next couple of years are going to be very interesting…we’re fishing different now than we were five years ago,” said Brent Daggett of Sportsmen Sportfishing Charters in an article for the Lansing State Journal.

Fortunately, the Great Lakes aren’t being left by the wayside. Organizations like the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Information Network are consistently working to provide information about what’s happening in these critical ecosystems. Furthermore, annual events like the Great Lakes Restoration Conference, hosted by the Great Lakes Coalition, bring thinkers together to visualize a sustainable future for the lakes. And they can affect change, though it’s not always on the ecological level.

My connection

Over the last few years, the North pier lighthouses in Saint Joseph (my hometown) have been undergoing a major restoration project, where the hope is to restore them to their early 20th century beauty. Citizens, volunteers, and lighthouse supporters have raised nearly $2 million in funds for the project and, this year, were presented with a Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation. That kind of attention to – and appreciation for – the Saint Joseph lighthouses shows just how important the Great Lakes are to the people who live there.

Of the 50 beaches I have visited since January, 16 were on Cape Cod and 18 were on Lake Michigan. It wasn’t until I lived with and loved Cape Cod beaches that I realized just how special Lake Michigan really is. On the most basic level, the sand in Lake Michigan is especially soft, and the dark-blue color of the water can’t really be matched anywhere else. When I was little, I would spend hours reading and writing on the beach. As I have grown up and our climate has continued to shift rapidly, that core connection  has stayed the same. The importance of Lake Michigan, economically, ecologically, and spiritually – cannot be underestimated.

Curt Meine, a conservation biologist at the Center for Humans and Nature who spent time on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, summarized it well in this 2015 essay:

Lake Michigan is where the city repairs. It has that effect.

Lake Michigan is where we leave our conversations behind, our presence recedes, and we stop.

Lake Michigan is where we go to look back at ourselves. It is where we reflect, and are reflected.