The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


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

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.


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