I grew up in the west, a part of the country where we like to believe we have rugged mountains, raging rivers, expansive forests, intriguing beaches and lakes, lakes, lakes. And, of course, all of them are breathtaking. I am particularly partial to the water that is omnipresent in the Pacific Northwest (no, not the rain). As a kid, we were within walking distance of grand Lake Washington, where we spent summers diving for marbles. Why they were in bottom on the lake, I’ll never know, but at the time we didn’t question it. When we weren’t on the lake we were on Puget Sound, swimming (apparently, brother and I will swim in anything), setting hard luck shore crabs to sail in clam shells or just generally screwing around on the beach. Aside from the the obvious oceans, my heart has always believed that the Pacific Northwest has the monopoly on water. Yes, I know there are some great lakes out there, but really, how big can they be?
Beyond my comprehension.
My first view of Lake Michigan was as we came into Milwaukee and I’m damn glad I wasn’t driving. I would have steered us right off the bridge. I kept looking back and forth between the road and the lake – which couldn’t be a lake because there was land and then there was water and then there was nothing else.
Until the horizon.
Isn’t the definition of a lake that it has land on all sides? This thing never ended. I kept looking out and then away because my sense of reality knew, just knew, that what I thought I saw – the endless water – was wrong and, if I could just catch it from the right angle the opposite shore would show up. Of course. Just like, when the keys you want aren’t in the drawer, you just keep looking in that same drawer, and they’ll appear, right? No? Damn.
And anyway, Puget Sound is big. I mean, that’s a Sound, and I can see the other side of that, so what’s going on here?
Apparently, Lake Michigan is a very large lake, and it’s not even the largest one.
The reason we were in Milwaukee at all was to catch this ferry.
You see, despite my heart’s belief that the Pacific Northwest is the place for water, I did have a suspicion that the maps with those giant fingers of blue named the Great Lakes might just have a point. In order to take an up close and personal look, we chose to ferry from Milwaukee, WI to Muskegon, MI on the high-speed cat ferry Lake Express. This baby is nothing like our rusty iron tanks (which I will always adore). First, note the closed front doors which should tell you something about the kind of swells they encounter. And even as we were waiting, they loudspeaker periodically reminded us that the weather service had been tracking three to five foot swells across the lake so please, please, please take your Dramamine now if there’s even the slightest possibility you’ll puke on our boat. But they used slightly different words.
They also weren’t kidding. We flew, topping out at 35 or 40 mph for over two hours (We went straight across. You do the math.) and it was better than any amusment park ride I’ve ever been on. If it had been a plane, we all would have been considering mixing prayer with valium. It was great.
Best, however, was the observation deck. Once we were out of sight of land, which happened quickly, we were truly out of sight of land. On all sides. In all my life, on all the boats I’ve sailed on, paddled or leaned off the deck of, I have never been this far away from land. 360 degrees of water and horizon. And more water.
The day before our ferry adventure, we joked about how touristy and, well, childish it would be to play “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as well pulled up the the dock. Yes, I know, wrong lake, but it’s close. But standing in the middle of this smaller member of the Great Lakes I realized that men have sailed these lakes. For centuries now men have shipped across these channels, weathered gales on these waters which by name are contained a placid little lake but in truth….
In my mind, there is a whole new category of boatman, beyond those of us who poke in and out of little harbors, never wholly relinquishing our grip on land. And clearly, with our piddly little lakes and diminutive (but gorgeous) sound so scattered with islands you can almost hopscotch across, we in Seattle don’t really know our big water. But hey, we’ve still got The Mountain. When the clouds are kind enough to let us see it.
At 40 mph in the middle of a very flat lake, the wind really picks up.