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I think I love Lake Michigan
I think I love Lake Michigan
August 23, 2023
“Reel it in!” My dad shouts from across the boat. I reach up to grab the fishing pole, the light, thin line dancing over the water. My little arms are constrained by my bulky, teal life vest, and I can’t quite reach the reel. My dad runs over and unmounts the pole. He stands behind me so we can reel the fish in “together.” The familiar, mid-July water of the lake splashes on my face as the two-foot-long steelhead flops in the waves, fighting against my dad’s strength and decades of fishing skills. I don’t realize how special it is; to be with my whole family a mile off Pentwater’s shore, screaming and giggling as we reel in fish that are bigger than my body. My dad’s boat is nothing special, but it’s his. The tan paint of the exterior is worn, and the brown leather captain's chair sags. It fits me, my sister, my mom and my dad. That’s all that matters to him today. I think I love Lake Michigan.
I’m on a boat again – this time off the shore of Grand Haven with a dozen of my peers, my teacher and a few deckhands. My IMAGE (Identified Members of Academically Gifted Education) class has just wrapped up our month-long unit on limnology, the study of inland aquatic ecosystems. It’s mid-April, and the lake is choppy and splashing its freshly thawed water over the sides of the scientific vessel. I wear clear lab safety goggles that are a bit too big. They're more for show than practicality. I dangle a water collection bucket over the side of the boat while my teacher watches attentively. I struggle to carry the heavy bucket into the cabin. I heave it onto the counter and it splashes me and my friend. We laugh and grab pipettes to get a small sample of water in a dish. I identify microorganisms and algae under a microscope while the boat sways below my unsteady feet. I feel smart. I feel like a real scientist. I think I want to be a scientist.
Two of my friends and I are on a paddle boat. The small, man-made lake I grew up on – Porter Lake – is warm in the heat of early August. No one else is on the lake. Its most frequent visitor is my dad. He knows all the fish in there by name. My friends and I hold hands and jump off the back of the rusty, sky-blue paddle boat. The force sends the boat in the other direction as we plunge into the water. We’re instantly greeted by seaweed and we scream in disgust while the bluegills in their nests below swim in the opposite direction. We spend the afternoon swimming and catching painted turtles and northern spring peepers until the sky turns to gold. Our eyes adjust to the dark as we paddle back to the dock. I think I love Porter Lake and the memories it gifts me with.
I’m tubing down the Muskegon River with six of my friends. They relax the whole time, their feet kicked back on the yellow donut-shaped tubes. I’m more invested in the way the algae clings to the rocks below our feet and the crawfish that hide in the undercut riverbanks. I drag my feet along the substrate. I notice when the river speeds up and when it cools down. My friends gossip, the conversation flowing around me like the river current. I drift along with it, more focused on the world around me than the chatter. I start to think it’s weird to care this much about nature.
I'm lost. College applications barge their way into any second of the little free time I have. I have no idea what I want to study in college. What job will make the most money? What career will make my family proud? What school will look the most impressive to my friends? I ask myself all the wrong questions. I spread myself thin between difficult classes, sports and clubs. This will look good on my college applications. It definitely will. It’s strange to me that, at 17, my friends already act like they know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I think I’ll never know.
I’m still lost, maybe even more at this point. I’m a freshman in college, taking general education classes and navigating a new life in a new city with new people. I’m still asking myself the same questions I was a year ago. The University of Michigan’s endless opportunities present themselves to me, but instead of feeling excited, they overwhelm me. It feels like everyone around me has it figured out. They’re going to be a doctor, a psychologist, a business owner. None of these careers appeal to me. I spend at least an hour a day walking the trails in the woods near my dorm to think and ground myself. I watch birds and memorize which trees the squirrels live in. My favorite walking path leads to the Huron River. I think I’ll try environmental science classes next semester.
It’s October of my junior year. The answer was always there, but I was too busy looking ahead instead of backward. I don’t think that's how the cliche goes, but sometimes reflecting is more powerful than envisioning. I’m pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies, specializing in aquatic resource management and the Great Lakes. I absolutely love school and the opportunities it has given me. I take classes on climate change, environmental psychology, water systems and other cool topics that 15-year-old me would have been so excited about. I spent part of my summer living in a lighthouse, learning about state history and the ecology of Lake Huron. 12-year-old me would think that was amazing. I spent the other part of my summer as a field intern for the Huron River Watershed Council, spending a few hours a day in the mid-summer heat wearing waders and monitoring the watershed. 18-year-old me would be so proud. I sit on the banks of the Huron River on a worn bench and think about 9-year-old me. She would have thought I was amazing. She would have thought I was a real scientist.