I had my eyes opened last week.
My wife and I and a couple of friends went on
a road trip. We started in Michigan City, Ind., and drove up the Michigan
coast to the point where Lake Michigan meets another of the Great Lakes, Huron,
at the Straits of Mackinac.
Those of us living in Central Indiana can easily
forget that part of this state's northern edge is bordered by an inland sea.
For us, the Indiana landscape tends to be flat, all the better for planting
acre-upon-acre of corn and soybeans. Most of our water comes from rivers and
streams, or manmade reservoirs and wells.
It's no wonder, then, that so many of us, upon first
laying eyes on Lake Michigan, are liable to blurt out something to the effect
that this sure doesn't feel like Indiana.
Lake Michigan gets its name from the Ojibwa Indians;
it is believed to be a derivation of mishigami, or
great water. The lake has a surface area of 22,400 square miles, making it the
fifth largest lake in the world, and the most expansive to be found entirely
within one country. Its deepest point is 923 feet and it offers 1,640 miles of
Our friends, being new to the area, had thought they could
drive around the lake — it was just a lake, after all — in an
afternoon. They got as far as the suburbs north of Chicago before realizing
they were overmatched.
I, on the other hand, spent a large part of my growing
up on Lake Michigan beaches. I'd seen 12 and 14-foot waves, heard the stories
about shipwrecks. I thought I understood something about the lake's scale. But
I had never seen the lake from its uppermost point. This was a revelation.
In Central Indiana, when we want to feel a sense of space,
we tend to look up. The sky provides us with evidence of something more
expansive than ourselves. On Lake Michigan, you not only look up, you look out.
The sheer vastness of it, the distance to the horizon, where the water meets the
sky, is breathtaking.
At the Straits of Mackinac, where an elegant
suspension bridge connects the northern tip of Michigan's mitten with the Upper
Peninsula, you experience this by looking either west, across Lake Michigan, or
east toward Lake Huron. On the map, this point looks like a punctuation mark.
Maps, though, often bear little resemblance to the landscapes they are meant to
describe. In person, the magnitude of the strait is at once humbling and exhilarating.
It can change the way you think about being a Midwesterner.
The most beautiful view we found was from atop a
400-foot bluff along the Sleeping Bear Dunes, about a 30-minute drive west of
Traverse City. The day we were there, sunlight turned the lake into massive
bands of aquamarine and indigo. On the beach at Sleeping Bear Point, looking
out to the islands of North and South Manitou, the rocks were rounded smooth
and the bright, clear water shimmered around our ankles.
The lake, of course, is not only a wonderful spiritual
presence. It is a valuable resource. As Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers told Forbes magazine's Ken Silverstein last May, "Water is the new oil." If those of us living
in Central Indiana didn't know this before, we do now. This summer's historic
drought has underscored the dependence of our state's way of life on its water
As Silverstein wrote: "Energy production is
water-intensive and the vast supplies that are needed to run every type of
power plant — natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewables
— is not well understood." According to the World Policy Institute,
coal-and-oil-fired power plants, like the ones we are so reliant upon in
Indiana, consume twice the water of gas-fired facilities, but use less water
than nuclear plants. Corn-based bio-fuels like ethanol consume greater amounts
of water than drilling for traditional oil.
It's no wonder there's a large coal-burning plant
beside the harbor in Michigan City. Or that oil giant BP has one of the nation's
largest oil refineries located on the lake in Whiting, Ind.
On July 25, the Save the Dunes Foundation posted an
alert to the effect that Enbridge, a multinational oil pipeline company, is
preparing to expand existing oil pipelines in Indiana in order to move tar
sands oil from Canada to BP's Whiting refinery. Save the Dunes has requested
public support for a hearing in order to learn how the State of Indiana plans
to monitor and regulate this work, which will run across the Lake Michigan
watershed. To learn more about this project, go to savedunes.org.
It behooves Hoosiers, in
whatever part of the state they live, to think of Lake Michigan as part of who
they are. It's our freshwater legacy, something that helps give shape to an
understanding of what it means to be from this part of the Midwest.
But it may also prove to be our state's most important
asset. How we treat Lake Michigan, and whether we are willing to stand up for
its health and preservation, could determine what kind of state Indiana will be
for years to come.