1/14/18: Lake Michigan’s Power- And Secrets 

Bryn-dog and I love to walk along the shore of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, even in winter. There are so many different ‘water colors’ -slate gray, black, vivid blue, pale aqua, emerald green, brown, clean frothy white- that trying to capture them all on canvas must give painters fits. 

This huge lake breathes in and out; some years its beaches extend to huge distances. Other years, shorelines vanish. I’ve witnessed both extremes multiple times. 

Occasionally we’ve seen unusual things, like a drowned deer floating in deeper water next to the Clinch Harbor Marina, or a very large fish leaping high. Sometimes human-made items wave lazily to me just beneath its surface. Last year I managed to retrieve a once- lovely, rather expensive waterlogged, monstrously heavy king-sized comforter. I dried it out in the garage for months, then laboriously shook out mountains of sand. A close inspection revealed six 4-inch-long slash marks –perhaps from a propeller or knife. The fabric around the cuts was too compromised to fix. 

I’ve found small wads of bundled money, too, resting on the lake’s sandy bottom. One time there was nearly $40. 

The word ‘Michigan’ means ‘Great Water.’ It’s the only Great Lake whose border isn’t shared with a foreign country. 307 miles long and 118 miles wide, with 1,640 miles of shoreline, this glacier-created freshwater wonder is the sixth largest on earth and boasts the world’s largest freshwater dune system. It’s the only place on earth that Petoskey stones (fossilized coral) – are found, and then, only in northern Michigan. 

I was amazed to learn that its nearly 1000-foot-deep water changes, or refreshes itself, every 100 years or so. And there is a very small tidal effect that occurs, unnoticed. 

As pilots, Joe and I flew over America from coast to coast many times, noting that much of our great country is blanketed by thick forests and gigantic plains, most of them nearly empty of people. Villages, towns and cities, though, can always be found close to any body of fresh water. (12 million people, mostly in Chicago and Milwaukee, live along Lake Michigan’s shoreline.) 

Water is an irresistible draw. 

This immense lake contains many unnerving mysteries, too. 

A few stand out for me. 

Over a campfire when I was a girl, a family friend told me about a big schooner that set out to deliver a cargo of logs to Chicago in 1891. It was a routine run. But the ship, its captain and all seven crewmembers never arrived at the port. Frantic searchers found precisely nothing. Not a stick. 

And in 1993, right here in Traverse City, I remember a shocking incident that occurred on July 3, the day before the Blue Angels Air Show for The National Cherry Festival. An older Russian jet trainer (a MIG L-39), flown by an expert pilot, took off from Cherry Capital Airport with one passenger, a flight instructor for the Northern Michigan College (NMC) Flight School. The MIG’s pilot wanted to review the part he would play in the airshow by flying over the area where he’d be performing. It was a lovely day. Routine radar contact was maintained- until the jet, on its way back to the airport from far out over the lake, neared the South Fox Island area., where it suddenly disappeared from the radar screen. Not one clue was found. No debris. No aviation gas on the water- no flotsam. Nothing. 

To this day, despite repeated attempts to locate it, the lake has yielded precisely nothing. 

In April of 1937, a big ship had successfully navigated through some of Lake Michigan’s very deep water, where ice floes had been spotted. Finally, having skillfully dodged the danger, Captain Donner turned the bridge over to his first mate and retired to his quarters to grab a nap. When a seaman went to the captain’s quarters a couple of hours later to notify him that they would soon be approaching port, the captain didn’t answer his knocks or repeated calls. Finally, sailors broke down the locked door. The captain was gone. No trace of him was ever found. 

And in 1950 the worst aviation disaster ever to occur in the US at that time happened over Lake Michigan. A fully loaded commercial airliner from the east coast was bound for Milwaukee. The big plane vanished soon after passing over the town of Benton Harbor to fly above Lake Michigan’s huge aspect. No distress signal was sent. There was nothing to indicate a problem had arisen. 

The plane, and every soul aboard, had simply disappeared. 

I suppose there could come a day when the enigmatic Big Water’s depths, still almost as inaccessible as the moon, are penetrated. Lingering mysteries could well be sorted satisfactorily. So far, though, our lake continues to withhold all knowledge of its deepest secrets.

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