On the western shore of Michigan dwells one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Lake Michigan, or Michigamme as it is called by the Anishinaabek, was first treasured by the Hopewell Indians. After their disappearance over 1200 years ago, the Late Woodland Indians called the land around Michigamme home. When the Europeans arrived to this area in the 1600’s, the land was home to the descendants of the Woodland Indians – the Chippewa, Menominee, Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, Miami, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. Today, over 12 million people live along Michigamme’s shore.
There is a certain magic about Michigamme that cannot be denied. To stand atop the Sleeping Bear Dune and gaze westward across the water, one realizes at once the smallness of the human and the vastness of the Big Lake and the Sky. We can see ourselves as a child of Mother Earth, a part of the larger family of life. The artificial world that we have created is carried away by the ever present gulls, and we are stripped down to our essential beings, an animal standing on the shore of one of the largest lakes in the world. And we are humbled.
There are those who love Michigamme for her beauty. There are those who want Michigamme for her water. There are those who need Michigamme for profit.
There are those who use Michigamme as a receptacle for their poison.
The Chicago Tribune reported that BP dumps thousands of pounds of raw sludge into Michigamme every day from it oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. The Gary Works is a massive complex of blast furnaces, coke ovens and steel-finishing mills about 15 miles southeast of Chicago, and is the largest source of water pollution in the Lake Michigan basin, dumping more than 1.7 million pounds in 2005. Stuff like oil, grease, metals, chromium, lead, arsenic, benzene, fluoride and nitrates flow from waste-water pipes at the mill into the Calumet River, which then flows into Michigamme. We gave them a permit to do this.
The web of life in Michigamme has been forever changed by the intentional and unintentional introduction of fish and invasive species. Lake trout, a native Michigamme fish, declined because of over fishing. This caused an increase in alewife populations. So biologists released coho and Chinook salmon to decrease the alewife populations. Now other species of fish are regularly stocked into Michigamme, so we have a big managed fish pond.
Once while enjoying the Sun on a Michigamme beach, I watched an elder, her wide brimmed straw hat secured firmly to her head by a bright pink string under her chin. White pant legs rolled up, she waded in the shallow water, occasionally reaching down and pulling up a handful of Michigamme bottom – small stones and grains of sand. Curiousity got the better of me so I approached her and asked what she was looking for. “Crinoids!” she proclaimed. “I am seeking crinoids so that I might make a necklace”. She pulled a small white cardboard box out of her pocket, the kind jewelry comes in. “See?” she said. I peered into the box, and there were several dozen small flat stone beads, like tiny squashed donuts. “Pieces of an ancient animal, a fossil!”, she said with glee. “Beautiful” I said, and I meant it.
Sometimes I wonder how Michigamme will be able to survive all the poisons we are putting into her, all the development around her shores, all the dredging of her sands. How will she survive the potential bleeding of her waters by Peoples in the southwest who don’t have enough and want to take hers?
But then, at the end of the day, I go to her shore and I see the People. I watch them come, young and old, with babies and dogs and lawn chairs and blankets. It is the daily pilgrimage to honor the setting of Sun. They leave the comfort of their homes, take time out of the lives, shut off their computers and TVs, to come witness the unique and majestic beauty of Sun ending its day. I am more moved by the pilgrimage of the People than I am of the Sunset, moved to tears. For as long as the People come to honor the setting of Sun on Michigamme, there is hope.
I smile, put on my mask and snorkel, and wade out into the cold water. I am looking for crinoids.