The Vacation of a Lifetime

The big lake was a presence in my life as I grew up, a blue flatness on the horizon that I could see from our upstairs window, or a black shimmering thing out the car window as we drove home from my grandparent’s house. I stared at that sparkling moon path and wondered where it would take me if I stepped onto its undulating silver surface.

But mostly the lake was just there. People complained about heavy fogs that rolled in off its silent surface and made driving difficult, and about cool summer winds blowing off the glacial waters that gave rise to Duluth’s nickname: the “air-conditioned” city.

It was only later, after years of being away, that I began to love the lake. To learn from it. To need it. A trip there was more than just a vacation. I’d arrive, finally, at the edge of its pristine waters and enter slowly, savoring the shock, the thrill of that cold pure water as it moved up my body inch by inch until it covered even my head, the electric ZAP! of icy liquid like a baptism, a cleansing of body, spirit and mind.

Duluth, Minnesota, my childhood home, is perched on rocky cliffs at the far western tip of the greatest of the Great Lakes, Superior, sometimes still referred to by its Ojibwa name of Gichi-gami. Or Kitchi-gami. Or like in Longfellow’s Hiawatha poem: Gitche Gummee, the “shining Big-Sea-Water.” Which it is: a fresh-water inland sea, luminous, radiant, ethereal. At times its surface is mirror still; at other times the winds conjure up rough waves that undulate across the vastness to crash wildly on the shore, blasting bursts of spray into the sky, dousing the tall, skinny pines on the rocky North Shore with cold diamond drops. Or they travel a bit further, those wild waves, delivering loads of driftwood to Minnesota Point, the spit of land where Superior meets its furthest western reaches. More commonly known as Park Point, that skinny bit of land is my favorite place in the world. I cross the dunes and walk the sandy beaches, or just sit and absorb the panorama of sky meeting water, the two of them in tandem making patterns and colors that fill your mind with magic.

When I grew up, only teenagers swam in the big lake, kids who saw the heart-stopping water as a challenge, a game, a rite of passage. And Park Point was for poor people who couldn’t afford summer cabins on smaller lakes.

Not that you had to be rich, but you did have to have a little extra to own a lake place. My grandparents had a wonderful log cabin on a lake west of Duluth, and we never set foot on Park Point or the rocky North Shore. Why would we go there? That cold, cold water that never, ever got warm? While smaller lakes warmed to tepid temps and suffered through the dog days of August, Superior remained clear and bitterly cold. Put your foot in that water in June and it burned down to your bones; in August you could stay in a little longer, but not much.

In fact, I’ve been educated by the lake to be leery of its warmer waters. One summer my sister and I heard waves crashing from afar and we followed that siren song to its source, Park Point, where we found balmy water beating against the sand. We were ecstatic. Warm water! In Lake Superior! Up and down the Point’s miles of shoreline, people were jumping with joy in frothing waves that had been blown in from the south. When I felt something tugging at my feet, I thought nothing of it. It was a lake, not the ocean with its deadly rip currents, right? Then a powerful snake of water wrapped around my ankles and nearly knocked me off my feet. As I fought my way to shore, I saw my sister jumping and laughing further out than she’d been only moments before. I motioned wildly to her to come in, and as she struggled through the foaming surf, we heard the pulsing of helicopters, and then the shriek of ambulances. Rip currents down the shore had taken a dozen or more people on dangerous, frightening rides out into the deep, colder waters, and all of them except one had made it back, most with the help of surfers who were out in force, enjoying the rare epic waves. The one who didn’t make it back to shore was a young man, a family friend, the grandson of my godmother, who would now join her in the heavens that lay beyond those blue, blue skies.

I still fear the warm water. Not just because of immediate hazards, but because of dangers that lie ahead if the lake’s pure cold waters succumb to current warming trends across the earth. It’s not only the devastating environmental problems that come when a vast and complex ecosystem is unable to adjust to profound changes, but I fear the lake will become the next Miami Beach, crowded, cluttered, chaotic, as Florida itself dissolves under rising waters.

Although maybe not.

The lake is like nature herself: subject to wildly unpredictable twists and turns. Currently, fed by unprecedented rains and snowmelt, the Great Lakes are rising. On our last vacation, Park Point beaches were narrower than we’d ever seen them, the dunes eaten away in spots as if by giant teeth chomping, tearing, devouring. And if the dunes go, everything on Park Point, including the Point itself, will be at the mercy of the water. And it has no mercy. The big lake does not concern itself with humans and their endless endeavors, be they ships carrying 25,000 tons of iron ore or houses with a lake view.

I can only hope that the vacation place I so love will continue to be a place, and not just a memory.

Musepaper Essay Prize #36

Jeanne Wilkinson is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY and Madison, WI and she visits the shores of Lake Superior as often as she can. Her work has been on NPR, in Columbia Journal, Cleaning Up Glitter, Metafore, Prometheus Dreaming, and she is honored to appear once again in New Millennium Writings’ Musepaper.

8 thoughts on “The Vacation of a Lifetime”

  1. Visiting Lake Superior every summer has become a family tradition for us. Your writing illustrates the awesomeness of the big shining waters. And I am glad to be warned about the possibility of riptides!

  2. Unlike Jeannie I was grown before I saw Lake Superior, even though i’m From western Minnesota. The “north. Shore” was where you went for vacations and we never had those. This shimmering piece brings back what we felt when first learning it. The cold exhilaration and instinctive shiver

    1. jeanne Wilkinson

      Thanks, Kimberlee. I love the ocean, too, but I love how the lake can go from perfectly still to big waves in an instant.

    1. jeanne Wilkinson

      Thanks, Kimberlee. I love the ocean, too, but I love how the lake can go from perfectly still to big waves in an instant.

  3. Nina Leto-Mayleas

    Great piece! Wonderful memories!
    My skin visibly reacted to the description of the cold, cold water. Don’t know if I would have the courage to completely submerge, I think it had to be in your DNA to do so. Mine was the ocean of Rockaway Beach in mid-to- early August when the water was warmer. When a wave caught you, it propelled you into a high speed blender. Head over heels, laughing at having made it out alive, my sister and I would run back into the next wave. You sent me back there, thanks Jeanne!

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