A Love Note to Lake Michigan

Drew YoungeDyke is director of conservation partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation.

For as long as I can remember, Lake Michigan has felt like home. And as far as I roam — however long I’m away — its Fresh Coast waves have always pulled me back home again.

I grew up in Central Lake, Michigan, just a few miles from Lake Michigan’s East Grand Traverse Bay. My earliest memories of it are searching for Petoskey stones when my mom took me and my little brother the beach, and driving over the Mackinac Bridge to our family’s western Upper Peninsula cottage.

My great-grandma also had a place on the bay when I was very young, right next to Antrim County’s Barnes Park. Perched on a wooded dune with a long, sandy beach, this public park has been home to most of my formative memories: from my first camping trip with my aunts and cousins to high school hangouts, campfires, and dates. In the summers I worked hard manual labor jobs like baling hay, pulling cherry tarps, maintaining golf course grounds, and digging graves, so after work I would cool off and chill out by driving to Barnes Park, swimming in the lake, and laying out on the beach for an hour or two listening to my Discman.

Further up the coast, Rex Beach was the place for summer high school bonfires where our rusty four-wheel-drive trucks were the only way to get down and back up the rutted dirt road and the beach the only place to park. Now its been restored as the Antrim Creek Natural Area with a paved drive, guardrails, a proper parking area, historical signage, and nature trails through a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant, which I appreciate as a professional conservation advocate grown up from my teenage ways.

College took me away from the Fresh Coast to Michigan State University in East Lansing and my parents moved inland to Gaylord, Michigan. Most weekends in the summers, though, I visited my grandparents who’d rented a house on the bay next door to where my great-grandma once lived. My grandpa and I often fished in Torch Lake and Lake Skegamog, connected to Lake Michigan through Elk Lake and Torch River. I also camped on their beach sometimes, swimming and kayaking on the bay.

I connected to the lake in a new way when my dad and grandpa first took me to deer camp when I was twenty years old. The deer camp abutted a state forest on Beaver Island, about twenty miles out into Lake Michigan. We took the Beaver Island ferry from Charlevoix through rough November waves to reach the island and I learned about the immense power of the lake. I took my first deer that year as my dad showed me how to field dress it and my grandpa — who had founded the camp — looked on with pride. I first learned the value of public land there when my dad explained how we would always be able to hunt that state forest because it was public and would never get sold out by a private landowner. I returned almost annually over the next dozen years before we established a new deer camp tradition in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, closer to my parents’ and brother’s houses.

Well, except for those two years when I lived in Chicago. I moved to Chicago in my late twenties because that’s where my fiancé (now my wife) moved after college. The city was never right for me: perhaps there was just too much concrete for a boy who grew up in a town of less than 1,000 people surrounded by woods and waters. One thing Chicago did have, though, was Lake Michigan. After we got married (back up in north Michigan, with wedding party photos taken at a Lake Michigan beach), we rented an apartment in Chicago only a couple of blocks from North Avenue Beach. When I felt most claustrophobic from buildings that were too tall, I could go to the beach, look out over Lake Michigan from its southern shore, and envision Barnes Park, Rex Beach, and Beaver Island out in that same lake, just a few hundred miles up the coast.

When we moved back to Michigan, I went back to law school with a renewed focus to protect what I loved: the Great Lakes. I took a directed independent study in wildlife law, writing a law journal article on the invasive carp lawsuits underway at the time. The other Great Lakes states were suing Illinois, trying to block the Chicago Area Waterway System that allows invasive bighead and silver carp a pathway to Lake Michigan. Studies predicted the carp would have a detrimental effect on the native and sportfish, which comprise the Great Lakes $7 billion annual sport fishing industry. This research, and a lot of unpaid volunteer work, led to a job with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters analyzing Michigan Supreme Court environmental cases, then to the National Wildlife Federation’s Michigan affiliate, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and eventually to the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. The tie binding all of my work in environmental advocacy has been the Great Lakes, whether advocating for funding to stop invasive carp or to shut down Line 5 before it spills oil into the Great Lakes.

Amid all this work, my recreational connection to the Great Lakes has also strengthened. My wife and I often camp on Lake Michigan at places like Sleeping Bear Dunes, Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, Leelanau State Park, or Fisherman’s Island State Park, or take a day trip to the beaches in St. Joseph, South Haven, and Saugatuck. When I get an opportunity to take a few days off, I like to camp out at my favorite campsite at Barnes Park where I can hear the waves crash ashore on the beach below my hammock.

Surfing has provided me with a new and deep way to connect to this Great Lake I’ve loved all my life. I had taken a lesson and rented a board for a weeklong vacation in Hawaii a few years ago, but hadn’t thought about surfing in Lake Michigan — until last summer. I was filming a scene in Frankfurt, Michigan, with Ella and Annabel Skrocki of Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak for a National Wildlife Federation film Against the Current, about the threat of invasive carp. I wanted to show an example of how invasive carp would threaten outdoor recreation tourism, so we filmed Ella and Annabel giving me a surf lesson. After the filming, I expressed my desire to surf in the Great Lakes more often, and Ella talked me into buying the surfboard I’d ridden for the lesson. This summer I’ve had a couple opportunities to surf at the Lake Michigan beaches I love — finding a new way to appreciate the Great Lakes.

Earlier this summer, back in my hometown to give the commencement address at my alma mater high school, I camped out at Barnes Park. What I noticed now that I hadn’t before were the plaques indicating park funding provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. I’d come here all my life, but only after working in the conservation advocacy field did I become aware of the source of public funding which provided this public access to Lake Michigan. I was immensely proud of the small parts I’ve played in my career advocating for protection of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and for permanent, dedicated Land and Water Conservation Fund funding and authorization.

After my speech, I paddled my surfboard out on a calm, flat Lake Michigan. Looking back toward shore, seeing the paper birches and white pines above the dune grass, seeing my great-grandma’s old house down the beach, seeing where I met my grandpa to go fishing. Thinking of those memories and a million others at Barnes Park. Thinking of my work now to protect that water from privatization, invasive species, and oil spills. All of it came together in a moment of perfect clarity and deep familial love for Lake Michigan.

The least I can do is dedicate my professional career to protecting it.

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So many of our country’s parks and public lands written about in these love notes would not exist but for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This important conservation program was permanently funded when Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act last year. You can learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund here.

Would you like to write about public lands that you cherish? Please email Mary Jo Brooks at brooksm@nwf.org for guidelines. You’ll get this cool sticker as a thank you.

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