A Woman’s 1,000-Mile Journey Along the Great Lakes
Lake Michigan has always captivated the imagination of author Loreen Niewenhuis. She longed to explore it more fully and began what she calls “the adventure of a lifetime” in 2009, when she decided to hike 1,000 miles along the perimeter of the lake and document it in a book, A 1,000-Mile Walk On The Beach (see the October 2011 issue of Natural Awakenings).
During that hike, Niewenhuis decided it wouldn’t be the only adventure of her lifetime, because she didn’t want her love affair with Lake Michigan to ever stop. The author immediately began planning her next adventure: a 1,000-mile Great Lakes walk that would incorporate all of the Great Lakes and their varied ecosystems, rather than just Lake Michigan. Niewenhuis just completed that adventure in October 2012.
“There is something about the water that I’m magnetically drawn to,” says Niewenhuis. “I enjoy walking along the edge, where the water meets the land, the most. It makes me feel connected to nature.” Her feelings aren’t unusual. Hundreds of research studies cite the health benefits of being outdoors. Humans crave a connection with nature. By observing its ever-changing environment, we cultivate a more positive attitude, renewed attention and sensory awareness. In the words of renowned naturalist and essayist John Burroughs, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”
Her latest book, A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk, to be released this spring, is more than a book about self-discovery or a hiker’s journal. It explores the geology of the Great Lakes and the natural and human history of Lake Michigan; it raises important questions about preserving our wild places and protecting fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend; and it includes stories gleaned from conversations with people along the route that have a connection with the water.
Hiking Lake Michigan last year was no small feat. It is the fifth-largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, and the only Great Lake located completely within U.S. borders. The five Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water and 95 percent of that found in America, and are home to more than 150 invasive species. It was to be a larger adventure for her.
The hike began on April 1, in Port Clinton, Ohio, and ended with a party with friends and family that came to celebrate with her on October 19 and 20, at Niagara Falls, New York. The entire journey took 76 days and much of it was done solo. She often traveled with a pack weighing more than 30 pounds that contained her camping gear.
The author says she enjoyed every step of the way, despite the fact that some paths were a little trickier to navigate than others due to public access restrictions. On one leg of the journey, Niewenhuis resorted to singing to ward off any black bear encounters. “I was near Presque Isle, in the wilderness, and it was getting dark,” she says. “I was concerned about black bears, so I started singing show tunes. I figured no black bear in his right mind would attack a woman when she’s singing 'There’s No Business Like Show Business,’” she says, laughing.
The hiker didn’t encounter any black bears on this trip, but enjoyed seeing wild animals, including unusually large flocks of turkey vultures, deer, a lynx and even a frog bodysurfing along the water. “I watched him for 10 minutes,” she says. “It was fascinating.”
Niewenhuis recommends that everyone find their own place outdoors that allows them to feel connected to nature. “Find the place that speaks to you,” she says. “Once you find that place, explore it fully. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, a man or a woman. Everyone needs that place at every juncture of our lives.”
Finding a special place allows us to detach from our day-to-day commitments. It’s restorative and much needed to create balance. “Initially, I was considering hiking the Appalachian Trail, until I realized doing so would take me away from my Lake Michigan for too long,” she says. She calls it “my lake,” admitting that she feels a primal connection to the vast body of water, magnetic pull that is hard to explain. “My lake is my adventure. People need to find their own. It doesn’t need to be done at this scale. It’s more important to find the place that speaks to them.”
Beginning in January, she’ll be enjoying a view of Lake Michigan daily when she spends a few months in Chicago finishing up another book she has in the works. “Chicago is so beautiful,” she says. “It has great parks and pathways, and it will be great to wake up every morning and see a view of my lake from the apartment.”
The experience has changed Niewenhuis in a way she didn’t quite expect. Although she was comfortable setting goals and meeting them, both adventures gave her a new perspective on her abilities to tackle whatever comes her way. “I have a newfound confidence that I can complete a goal, even of this magnitude,” she says. “There is an ease in my life now that I didn’t have before.”
Niewenhuis realizes most people can’t take a break from their lives to go on hiking trips lasting for months, but most of us can break away from daily life for a weekend at a time. “Grab some friends or go off by yourself for a weekend and find your place,” she recommends. It’s all about exploration, in the deeper sense of the word.
A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk is published by Crickhollow Books, in Milwaukee. To learn more, visit LoreenNiewenhuis.com.
Megy Karydes is a professional writer who enjoys hearing the waters of Lake Michigan. Contact her at KarydesConsulting.com.