The American West is on fire. Again.
Land is ablaze this summer in a dozen western states. Lightning strikes sparked fires that are incinerating grass, sagebrush, forests, homes, towns. The West is parched from years of drought.
Michiganders, in contrast, are surrounded by water. We had a bit of a dry spell early this summer, but rains returned and drenched the soil. Our streams and rivers flow strongly. Our state is surrounded by four Great Lakes.
We’re living the American Water Dream.
Sure, it’s true we have some water quality issues. Downpours can temporarily introduce E. coli to bodies of water near cities. PFAS and other chemicals have found their way into groundwater. Mercury lurks in some of our state’s waters. But, on the whole, Michigan is swimming in some of the most beautiful water on Earth.
Many of us enjoy swimming in Lake Michigan or the Boardman River, dipping in Glen Lake or the Crystal River. We cherish the sight of sparkling water and can’t resist diving in.
Michiganders’ water-related recreational opportunities are amazing. Michigan has 3,288 miles of shoreline and 51,438 miles of river. Much of that mileage is suitable for boats, bikinis and boardshorts.
While Colorado has 107,403 miles of river, I know from personal experience that much of that mileage is counted in streams quite narrow and very shallow. They’re great for catching brook trout, but somewhat lacking if you want to practice the Australian Crawl. Larger Colorado streams tend to be raucous and rocky, equally unsuitable for a leisurely swim.
I grew up in Michigan, but lived in Colorado for three years. Summer brought on a desperate personal need for a swim in natural waters. I wanted to feel sand between my toes, feel cool water slide past my skin. I discovered, though, that swimmable water is rare in that part of the nation.
Shores of the reservoirs out there mostly are rock or dirt. Snowmelt rivers tend to run fast, too dangerous for swimming. I was reduced to a simple dunk in a two-foot-deep hole in Lime Creek, or just sitting in an even shallower stretch of Pasture Creek. I yearned for deep water.
I thought I hit the jackpot when friends organized a campout at Navajo Reservoir, reputed to be a great place for fishing and water skiing, down on the New Mexico state line. The “beach” turned out to be a slippery, squishy incline of clay. And the water was so laden with silt that my hand was invisible just an inch below the surface.
I did swim, but it was nothing like gliding through the clear waters of Lake Michigan. Looking back at shore, I saw, instead of the stately pines and oaks common in northern Michigan, miles of rolling sagebrush plain, brown and lifeless in the summer stillness. Crawling back to shore, the first steps involved sinking into wet clay almost up to my knees. The experience filled me with nostalgia for the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan.
Excursions to backcountry Colorado hot springs became the only viable substitute for actually swimming. But leaning back in a misty hot pot and contemplating the clouds doesn’t build muscles nearly as quickly as doing the backstroke parallel to a sandbar.
Colorado wasn’t my only temporary hometown that had me yearning for Michigan’s waters.
Earlier in life, I lived three years in a small desert community in northern Nevada. Water was even more scarce up there.
Perhaps in direct response to my temporary separation from the Great Lakes, I took up scuba diving. It was something I’d been interested in already. My first year in Nevada parched my brain to the breaking point and I signed up for scuba instruction just so I had an excuse to get wet in the local pool.
It made all the difference. After classes in town, I ended up diving 190 miles west in Lake Tahoe and Lahontan Reservoir (just down the road from Stagecoach, Nevada), snorkeling in the Humboldt and Truckee Rivers, and getting wet in California’s Bodega Bay and in the kelp beds off Carmel and Monterey. Most of my discretionary spending during that period went straight into the water.
My years in the American West were fun. But I always missed the Great Lakes. My love for water is one of the reasons I boomeranged back to Michigan, and one of the reasons my wife and I settled in Traverse City more than 30 years ago.
Swimming in Lake Michigan, gazing shoreward at oaks, pines and Sleeping Bear, I feel content. And I feel sympathy for the folks out west, who live in states with so little moisture that wildfires rage across the landscape like cinder-dry tsunamis.
Meanwhile, the tourist industry in Michigan is thriving simply by marketing our incredible access to 3,288 miles of shoreline — and all the water-based recreational opportunities that flow from it.