Sometimes a new place is a hidden gem

JOHN PEPIN

“Our conversation was short and sweet, it nearly swept me off of my feet,” – Bob Dylan

Under a splash of jack pines, a twisting path of white sand snaked between the yellow daisies and the green grasses grown up over what was once undoubtedly Great Lakes beachfront.

Tucked into a pocket of trees, a woman sat comfortably in a chair, her legs crossed at the ankles inside a screened tent, her hands clutching the hard, blue cover of a book she was reading.

She wore a red, white and blue-checked shirt and dark-rimmed reading glasses.

I didn’t communicate with her, didn’t wave or speak.

I kept walking past her out to a place along the shore where the lake — cast in a thousand shades of blue, green and gray — was swept by whitecaps, pushed up in white, long rows over the water.

I’m sure she must have glanced in my direction over the top of her book, sensing an intruder to her beachside piece of afternoon. After all, up and down the beach there wasn’t another soul.

I wasn’t planning to stay long, just long enough to get a few photographs and move on. But the closer I approached the water the beauty of this place overtook me.

The hilly dunes of the beach were covered in soft grasses, interspersed with pockets of sand and low bushes. Sprinkled in were more yellow flowers that grew nodding in the breeze, about a foot off the ground.

The view of the lake on this windy summer blue-sky day – appearing wild, rough and cool and inviting all at once — humbled me quickly and decisively.

I was hushed to silence inside, though I felt an upwelling, a surge of emotion. I was at once in love with this place and knew I would return.

Just a few feet from the shoreline a lone wooden picnic table sat.

I could see it had been here on this beach a long time. It’s timbers and seats were worn gray and roughed by the winds and water – making it look like the table was originally fashioned from driftwood.

Between the table and the icy waters of the lake, the sand was littered with leis made of grasses, sticks and other materials washed ashore, clung together.

There was a sand castle someone had made not far from the water’s edge, using a beach pail to make a domed tower. A ragged brown and white gull feather was hoisted from the roof, proclaiming this structure property of someone not long since gone.

I had never been here before and I couldn’t figure out why. I had driven past on the highway dozens of times, but I had never taken that dirt road toward the lake.

Throughout the surrounding woodlands, there were marshes back from the beach with trails cut through the wetlands running high above and low alongside – places to explore for hours or days.

In one place, steps climbed through the hip-high bracken ferns to a sandy ridge in the jack pines – the trail continuing in a wavy pattern, like the scales situated along the back of a stegosaurus.

In another place, there was a place to sit high above the breaking surf to watch the world turn and listen closely for whispers from inside. The sky rolled out in front of me with diving and floating gulls, tossed on the wind.

I knew I would return here on a day when I had squirreled away a lot more time. Time to seek my own solitude, time to read my own hardcover book and think about how the world can be so damned crazy and cruel and beautiful and breathtaking all at the same time.

Time to consider the age-old questions of who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going – the heartaches and love, the situations won, lost, wasted and cherished.

Back at the beach, I felt the longer I stayed, the greater the chance I had of encroaching on the peace and serenity the reading woman had found here.

I walked slowly back through the pines along the trail, careful not to even look in her direction. I wanted to let her know I respected her search for solitude and hadn’t intended to intrude – to break the enchanting spell.

Back near my car – which was parked in the shade at a campsite under the trees – with the roar of the waves now distant, I heard a sound slicing through the afternoon I recognized as someone nearby splitting wood with an ax.

I got in my car and started the engine. As I rolled the wheels slowly over the gravel, I saw a man who stood outside a camper. I pulled over under the trees and got out and shut the car door.

He approached. We stopped to talk for a few minutes. I wanted to know what he knew about this place and whether he’d been here before.

A green plastic mat was laid over the dirt near the camper, an ax and hammer were there too, with a saw that sat on the picnic table, next to a plastic water jug and a spray can of bug dope.

Out of sight was a dual solar panel that stood just beyond the trees, connected to a cord that had been stretched out through the brush to the camper.

The man, who was dressed in tan shorts and a comfortable summer shirt, said he could power his camper with the energy collected by the shiny panels that faced the skies.

“If she wants to dry her hair or anything, we’ve got enough power to do that,” he said, nodding past the campsite toward the beach where the screen tent sat tucked under the trees.

He said he’d been here many times before, that he owned a good piece of property a county away, but he lived in the city down south somewhere.

“Got to make a living you know,” he said, smiling. “But not for long. I’m getting ready to retire in a couple of years.”

He talked about how the water level of the lake and the marshes had gone through big shifts over the years – up and down, then way down and now back up again. He talked of exploring the marshes himself.

“We come up here every year,” he said. “Nowadays, there’s hardly ever anyone here.”

He said visitors had carved their names in a bench down by the water, but since halfway through the nineties, the only new name on the bench was his.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said, shaking his head. “I love this place. I’m hoping when I’m gone, my kid will scatter my ashes here. This place has been like home to me.”

Our discussion, though brief, had confirmed what I had come to discern for myself in just a few minutes along the shoreline – this place was indeed wonderfully special.

We wished each other well and the man turned and walked away, down the road, away from his camper. I didn’t ask his name and I didn’t tell him mine. Again, I didn’t want to even imply any kind of intrusion.

He looked up past the branches of the pines blowing in the wind.

“It’s a beautiful day,” I said.

He nodded and looked up again.

“It should be a great night for the stars,” he said.

And with that, it was like he had dropped a magnificent golden locket into my hand, one that concealed the secrets of the world.

I turned away, warm inside – leaving this place with a treasure beyond words.

John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.