Tag Archives: Lake Michigan

Kirk Park, Michigan: The Beach at Lake Michigan


100_1402This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project. 

Grandpa is usually quite the talker. There are only two things in the world that I know of that keeps him from talking to anybody and everybody still above ground—sleep and going to the beach.

“Who does he think he’s talking to?” Dad asked.

“Why don’t you get off your beach towel and ask him?” Mom replied.

It was the first Saturday of summer. We drove an hour to get to Lake Michigan. The endless water reminds people of the ocean, especially Grandpa.

“I’m not asking the old man anything,” Dad said. “He always keeps to himself when we go to the beach. Been that way for as long as I remember.”

I hear the ocean’s cleaner than any lake. I don’t know. I’m probably the only 11 year old that’s never seen the sea. Grandpa’s been to shores all over the world, places with funny names like Iwo Jima and Ford Island.

“Oh, that’s right. Talking to fathers doesn’t run in your family,” Mom said.

Lake Michigan was cold but the sun kept us warm. The beach smelled like sun tan lotion. The waves whispered whatever secrets they whisper while the seagulls chirp insults at each other or about us.

“He started that tradition,” Dad replied.

Mom looked around the beach like she was searching for someone. “That explains it.”

As a ladybug landed on my nose, a seagull swooped over my head trying to grab a Kit Kat out of my hand. While Mom and Dad kept talking, I thought to myself, Explains what?

“Explains what?” Dad asked.

Mom smiled, put her big sunglasses on and stretched out on a towel. Grandpa continued to keep close watch over the water, mumbling to himself. My little sister was showing off her stupid gymnastics as she walked by him—on her hands. Grandpa and I ignored her.

“Stop ignoring me,” Dad said to Mom. “Explains what?”

Mom answered as the sunshine lit up her face. “It explains why your oldest son isn’t here to enjoy the beach—with his father.”

Big brother Rob stayed at home again this year. He never goes with us to the beach anymore. He pretty much never goes on any family outings—unless Dad stays home. Grandpa stood at the shoreline for a good hour allowing the waves to gain ground on his toes, only to watch the water retreat again and again. When his quiet conversation with the wind finally wrapped up, Grandpa began walking up and down the beach like he was patrolling a perimeter. Marching up and down the beach as though waiting for orders to stand down. While Grandpa marched, my sister decided to prove just how annoying she could be. Shelby kicked sand all over my towel—even got on my Kit Kat. At Lake Michigan cartwheels are just a messy way to show off.

But with or without little sisters, with or without my family not-talking to each other, I love the beach at Lake Michigan—and I’m not the only one. I’ve noticed how ladybugs love the beach. Seagulls, who have never seen the sea, they love the beach too. It’s even possible that Grandpa loves the beach as much or more than any of us, despite his retreat into silence. The look in his glass eye, as it reflected the lake, looked to me like love. But still there was something in his good eye that made me cautious. Eleven-year-olds might not be right all the time. What I saw in that good eye of his could have gone either way. If not love it might have been something closer to fear. Either way, I’ve never seen love or fear that deep in a good eye.

Maybe he was looking for something that was supposed to wash up on shore. Or he might just of been remembering something or someone just beyond the horizon—maybe both.  But nothing floated to shore this year. Nothing ever does. The only shadows upon the waves belonged to seagulls swooping towards us like fighter planes.

“Ooooh, look at the pretty birdie,” my sister pointed out with her toes as she stood on her head.

The white bird swooped in low from the water right at her.

“That’s a seagull, Stupid,” I said, as politely as a big brother can.

Grandpa squinted with his good eye as though he had recognized something—something he’d been waiting for. Standing bravely at attention before the seagull’s descent, Grandpa finally spoke up.

“That’s a strafing pattern,” he said softly.

“What’s a chafing pattern?” my sister asked. But Grandpa didn’t answer. He looked over at Dad, then the rest of us. He looked around at the ladybugs, seagulls and once again at the waves crawling across the peaceful sand—advancing on our position. I figured that whatever was on his mind had nothing to do with who’s talking to whom. There were hidden sights and sounds all around him. But none of us could see nor hear any of it. Not Dad. Not Mom. And Shelby never would. But Grandpa’s glass eye—now that’s another story. The glass eye sees everything. Everything that’s there, was there, and ever will be.

The glass eye saw all it wanted to see of Lake Michigan. Grandpa surveyed the sky in all directions before cautiously retreating to the safety of the parking lot.

Alan Harris is a 61 year-old hospice volunteer who assists patients in writing stories, letters and poetry. Harris is the 2011 recipient of the Stephen H. Tudor Scholarship in Creative Writing, the 2014 John Clare Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Tompkins Poetry Award from Wayne State University. In addition he is the father of seven, grandfather of seven, as well as a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

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The Love Boat: Writer recounts getting hitched while living on Lake Michigan

The author and a tiny crew member.

The author and a tiny crew member.

A young woman in the big city meets a fella, they fall in love and get married. It sounds like a familiar formula. But the guy happens to live on a boat. And we’re not talking like the quirky dude who lives on a boat in a movie or television show, the guy who never seems to have to do any work to the boat or is ever actually seen taking it out on the water. Where the boat is symbol for a carefree, exotic existence. 

No, Felicia Schniederhan‘s newest memoir, “Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss and Mechanical Breakdowns While Living Aboard a Trawler”( Breakaway Books)  chronicles all the elbow grease that goes into a life on the water. When she meets her husband-to-be, the writer is a young scribe about town in Chicago living as most city-dwellers do, in a sensible apartment. But as love brings them closer together, the boat becomes home. And, as the memoir attests, it’s not a carefree existence at all. There’s the limited space. The cold winters on the water. The pumps that break. The six-minute showers because of the lack of hot water. The geese attacks. Yes, GEESE ATTACKS. 

The result is a fun journey on the sea of marriage throughout all its waves and calm waters.  (See an excerpt beneath the interview)

We had a chance to catch up with Schniederhan, who know resides in Duluth, Minnesota with her husband and three children. Schniederhan is also a contributor to our Narrative Map essay series.  

What is your background?

I grew up on the Mississippi River. I first met the Great Lakes when I moved to Evanston, IL to go to Northwestern University when I was 18. I was terribly depressed in college and would go on long, wandering walks, usually by the lakefront. The image of a tiny downtown Chicago to the south, and this huge expanse of Lake Michigan in front of me, was very comforting: the city and suburbs weren’t so big; nature was still the boss.

I majored in theater and women’s studies at Northwestern. When I graduated, I had no idea what to do. I took a year to work at a Whole Foods. I was writing a lot. I figured what the hell, let’s go get an MFA in fiction writing (can’t make a living as an actor, why not try being a writer?).  Writing was something I always did, from the time I was 11 years old. So I got an MFA at Columbia College Chicago.

Tell us a little about the book and how it came to be?

When I married Mark and moved onboard, I wanted to write about the experience to my dad, who was fascinated by living on a boat. There were a lot of other people, too, who wanted to know about it. So I decided to start a blog. Blogs were rather new at that time (2006). New-ish. I didn’t even have a digital camera, and the first entries had no images to go with them. Just brief excerpts of boat life. (There was no shortage of stuff to write about.)  Pretty soon I realized people were reading the blog. Other boaters would talk to me about it. Someone Googled how to pump out their sewage tank, and my blog came up – it’s a point of pride that they learned how to pump out their crap from my blog. Boaters at docks would look at me kind of strange, then admit they read the blog. I realized people knew more about us than I thought.

Around this time, I was working as a freelance writer, pitching articles to editors. As a clip, I would give them the link to the blog. I wasn’t sure how editors would react to blogs, if they were considered legit. But inevitably the editor would come back to me and say, “We don’t want the story idea you pitched us, but can you give us this blog entry…?”  So I started writing articles from the blog.

When we moved to land in Northern Minnesota and the experience ended, I realized there was a complete story arc, and a book. So I started honing down the blog – I printed out the whole thing and began editing, shaping, seeing what was missing. I had to write a lot about the beginning of the relationship, since I never blogged about it. And then towards the end, when I was looking at the entire book, I realized there was a really important aspect of that time completely missing – so I wrote “A Boat from Temperance.”

The author's husband, Mark, dealing with a maritime mishap.

The author’s husband, Mark, dealing with a maritime mishap.


So what’s it like living on a boat?

Fun!  Stressful and unnerving, always interesting. It’s a gift to be able to live in nature no matter where you are, even downtown Chicago. It was simpler, in a lot of ways – we had less room, so we couldn’t have as much stuff. Now we’ve got a four-bedroom house and way too many piles.

 How is living on a boat more difficult in a big city like Chicago?

Well, I never lived on a boat in a small town, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to.  The advantages in Chicago are that there are many harbors to choose from in the summer, and because there are more people overall, there are more people who want to live on their boats year-round (like 10). Year-round liveaboards formed a great community, the “River Rats,” and we would all go to the River City Marina in the winter, since that marina kept their services (water and pump-out) working all year. The River Rats really helped each other out.

In Chicago, there are also a lot more amenities for people on the water – like restaurants you can cruise up to. And boaters are outside the boundaries, in a lot of ways, so we could do things under the radar, like just dock downtown and spend the night, or throw down an anchor in front of the John Hancock building and sleep out.

You have a chapter about geese-attacks. What are some other scary moments you encountered while living on the boat?

My first winter aboard we spent a weekend in the U.P. climbing ice, and when we got back to Chicago we found that the Chicago River had frozen, locking the boat in ice. The experience is detailed in “Surviving Shackleton’s Endurance.” (Which is excerpted below).  That was dangerous because the ice could have cracked the hull, or the engine would have frozen, or pipes could have burst. Luckily we were able to get things up and running again within a couple days. But it was a terrifying couple days (and I really wanted to bolt – but I learned to stay).

You talk a little bit in the book about how living on the boat may have caused problems in your marriage, where you were kind of second billing to the boat your husband was fixing up. What other ways did living on the boat affect your blossoming marriage?

Because we were in such close proximity, it was hard to hide anything. Like anybody, I had my own issues that I brought to the marriage, and such tight quarters brought everything out in the open – resulting in really good changes for me. (I write about it in “A Boat from Temperance.”)  Living on the boat also taught us how to work together, as partners (which has been great preparation for parenting three small kids).

What are your favorite nautical books or writers that inspired you while working on this project?

I loved Guy de Maupassant’s book about sailing, Afloat.  Libby Hill’s book The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History was always really helpful – it was like our neighborhood phone book.  And Julie Buckles’s memoir Paddling to Winter is a fascinating story about a different kind of newlywed boat trip – paddling 2,000 miles with her husband Charly from Lake Superior all the way up to the middle of Canada.

What’s next for you? What else are you working on?

I’m working on a novel about elite climbers. Climbing is not something I do well, but I really admire people who have the drive and the ability and the grace to achieve what seems impossible. I’m interested in the emotional lives of climbers, their intimate relationships.

An excerpt from Newlyweds Afloat: “Surviving Shackleton’s Endurance” 

When I told people I would be moving aboard my new husband Mark’s boat just after our September 30 wedding, initial reactions ranged from “That’s so romantic,” to “Can you do that in Chicago?” Then they would ask, “What about winter?”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.43.57 PM“We live on the boat,” I would tell them.

“No, seriously,” they’d say.

I would explain like I knew what I was talking about: “There’s a heater, and Mark rigged up a furnace. It’s insulated, and he wraps the whole top in plastic. There’s a bubbler to keep the water circulating around the boat.”

They would look at me like I was crazy. “This is Chicago,” they would remind me.

I would shrug. “Mark’s done it for two years.”

I started dating Mark during his second winter on board and even spent some January nights on Mazurka. It seemed like he had worked out most of the bugs of a winter aboard, so I felt confident that the freezing Chicago temperatures would not be our biggest challenge in our newlywed year.

But let’s be honest: Before you spend a winter living aboard, you have no idea what you’re signing up for.

In early February we drove to the UP for the annual Ice Fest, a long weekend of cross-country skiing and climbing frozen waterfalls in subzero temperatures.

You have to really love the cold to want to climb ice. It requires putting on several layers of clothing, procuring the necessary gear (harness, crampons, ice axes, a helmet), and hiking out to a frozen waterfall. Walls of ice are unforgiving, and don’t much care how fit you are or how far you drive to climb them—they are cold and foreboding and will stand firm no matter how much ice you chip off in your attempt to scale the wall and conquer it.

We were exhilarated Sunday night, driving back to Chicago, counting down the temperatures (“Now it’s eight below!”). We returned from a weekend climbing ice to find . . . ice. It was something neither of us had ever seen. The Chicago River was completely frozen over, with geese like new penguins sliding around on the interlocking triangles of dark black ice. The River City Marina was solid; ice closed in on Mazurka’s hull so that it resembled Shackleton’s Endurance at the South Pole in 1915.

We opened up the door to find a frigid tomb. Inside, the cabin temperature was twenty-eight degrees—everything was frozen, including all the faucets, pipes, olive oil, shampoo, and contents of the refrigerator. It felt like an abandoned ghost ship, save for Hunter and Leo, their fur puffed up, looking a bit shell-shocked and thirsty—their water dish was a solid block.

I called my ex-husband (I had asked him to watch the cats over the weekend). When he came aboard Saturday afternoon, everything was fine. We deduced that sometime in the previous twenty-four hours, the Mermaid heater had stopped working, probably when the river temperature became so cold that the water inlet froze and the heater could no longer pull in warm water to heat the boat. The Toyoset furnace (which Mark had just begun fueling with kerosene, before solving the diesel issue) roared through the fuel in less than a day and also quit.

“This is my worst nightmare,” Mark said. He started the engine—the quickest way he could think to warm things up. (We never winterized the boat because we always kept it warm; maybe a day more and the engine would have frozen.)

We heard the terrible crack of a pipe breaking; thankfully it was just the drinking water filter under the sink. Expensive, but not dire. We stayed up till 1 a.m., when the cabin temperature had risen to forty-two degrees, then went to bed on an ice-cold mattress over the water tanks, which were probably frozen, too.

While I love climbing frozen waterfalls as much as the next girl, I like it even more when I know at the end of the day, we’re going to hike back to civilization and back to the hotel, where there’s hot soup and coffee and a sauna and whirlpool. Driving eight hours back to Chicago, I was looking forward to a luxurious six-minute shower, some clean clothes, and a warm bed. Instead, we lay down on a block of ice wearing the same three layers of clothing and hats and coats we’d worn all weekend. I tried to be grateful that I had a roof over my head when there were plenty of people sleeping under cardboard. It was all I could do not to break down sobbing.

“I feel like throwing up,” I told my husband in the darkness. He agreed. It was the first time in four months I thought maybe living on Mazurka wasn’t such a great idea.

The next morning we fretted about living aboard without water. We considered which friends we could stay with. Mark said he would stay on Mazurka to make sure she was okay. I wanted to put my cats in the car and drive three hours to my parents’ house till things heated up, but I thought again; I was married now—I would stick by my husband.

Purchase the book at Amazon. 

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South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan: The Return

Photo by Andrea Miehls.

Photo by Andrea Miehls


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

A hot summer day seemed perfect for the ferry ride to South Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore. A nice family outing was in store for my parents and me with my daughter, who in the mid-1980s was in first grade.

Temperature about 93. . . pretty boat ride departing from Leeland across Manitou Passage under lumpy, piled clouds. . .a swim in the warm, pellucid water. . .a hike to the lighthouse. Finally, a picnic lunch before the return ferry. The sky looked a bit darkish. Maybe rain?

Like a window shade yanked down, a navy blue sky unrolled from the western horizon and raced over us. The turquoise water turned grey. The boat began to hit waves—slap, slap, bounce, slap. South Manitou receded in the rain.

“The return trip will be quicker with the wind,” said a girl in a crew uniform with forced perkiness. She had come down the ladder to the lower deck where we sat.

Scanning the waves, I saw tornado-like dervishes of water dance not far away. “Water spouts,” the girl announced, as incredibly she pulled down one of the life jackets. My unease ratcheted up to fear.

“Will we need those?”

“One of the passengers is very disturbed,” she said and left.

Chaos had erupted over the lake. Thunder, lightening, and rain bombarded the boat and water began splashing below deck. It was the madness of the marching brooms with their buckets in Fantasia—like Mickey we were caught in a nightmare.

This couldn’t be happening to us! We’re good people for God’s sake, just out for a day on the lake!

Though acknowledging the danger truly terrified me, I put my daughter in her Garfield lifejacket. My elderly parents sat tight together resigned like couples in the ballroom on the Titanic. I glanced between the lifejackets overhead and another family bent in prayer. Should we go above deck where we might escape from a capsize or stay below out of the rain?

The delicious, friendly lake had by now broken into pieces. I watched waves the size of my garage race toward and behind us. It was as beautiful as it was terrible. Hikers standing on the stairs to the upper deck screamed as we crawled up the rollers and tipped down the other side, their hair and shirts plastered to their bodies.

“Look at that one! Hold on!” they yelled over the wind. I tried to pull my daughter to the stairs where it might be safer, but she refused.

Finally, we could see Pyramid Point in the haze, and we entered the slight shelter of Good Harbor Bay. It seemed we might make it. I held my daughter less tightly hoping that from here perhaps she would float to shore.

At the dock a small crowd watched for smaller boats to return, which we later learned all did, despite all the Mayday calls. Wet and weak, we stumbled off the boat giving thanks to the captain. In the rain my family trudged along the dock through Fish Town to the Blue Bird restaurant. A waitress took us in, offering drinks and the restroom for comfort. “You poor, poor people,” she clucked.

About ten years later, an article in the Traverse City Record Eagle about storms included reference to this mid-1980s storm as unusually fierce in a hot summer of bad weather. The captain quoted said he figured the passengers thought we might not make it. Whether he included himself in this opinion wasn’t entirely clear.

The treachery of the Manitou Passage was well known to commerce but was a favored shipping lane because it was shorter route to Chicago. In fact, so many wrecks occurred there that two life-saving stations were built in 1901, one at Sleeping Bear Point and one on South Manitou Island. Today, there’s no need to experience a storm first-hand to understand disaster and rescue. The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum at Glen Haven has dramatic photos, early equipment, and re-enactments of rescue drills.

Over the years our Manitou trip became a family legend. During a thunderstorm somebody would always say, “How about a little trip to Manitou today?”

Joyce Hicks retired from Valparaiso University, twelve miles from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Much of her fiction centers on the lives of older people and has appeared in Passager, Uncharted Frontier, Still Crazy, Literary Mama, and others. Since her debut novel Escape from Assisted Living appeared in 2014, she has been at work on a sequel. Her love of Lake Michigan, especially in storms, has long competed with her fondness for upstate New York, her childhood home. Find her online at http://joycebhicks.com.

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