Growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, my family would make an annual camping trek to “the Shore” which is how we referred to the Atlantic beaches of New Jersey. I remember the anticipation of this trip: the planning, the coordination of trying to get everyone and everything loaded into our old green Chevy van for the 2 hour trip. The journey was always part of the adventure as we transitioned from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania through the industrial landscapes of New Jersey and finally to one of the commercialized tourist towns which line the coast. Arrival at the shore was announced by an overload of sensory triggers; the sight of the tourist shops and inns, but more powerful and memorable was the smell of dead fish and salt air. We had arrived.
I first visited Lake Michigan as a college student. I anticipated a similar journey to the beach, but instead was surprised to find that the transition to the big lake involved picturesque farming communities, vineyards, and orchards before finally reaching sand dunes and a largely undeveloped shoreline. Looking at Lake Michigan for the first time, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. I had arrived at a vast ocean, yet I had somehow missed the telltale signs. Where was the commercialization? Where was the smell of salt and dead fish? All were mysteriously absent. Also missing were the sea creatures like crabs and jellyfish which were replaced by more familiar land animals like deer and snakes, but also many exotic wildflowers I had never seen before. I could not believe there was such an amazing, pristine, salt-free beach stuck in Middle America and I fell in love.
In The Living Great Lakes, Jerry Dennis turns both of my transitional journeys on their heads. Instead of focusing on a land centered journey to visit the sea, Dennis focuses on a water centered journey relating to the land. He reflects on the water ahead, the water behind and the passing shoreline as viewed from a boat as his journey to truly discover the Great Lakes. Dennis takes us on an amazing travelogue, first aboard a 44-foot racing sloop competing in the Chicago to Mackinac sailboat race and later aboard the 100-foot long, tall-masted schooner, Malabar on an epic journey from Traverse City to Coastal Maine. Along the way, Dennis shares stories and observations, history and natural science. In addition to the physical journey Dennis presents, he also takes us along on a journey to better understand the world around us and how we, as humans, impact that world both positively and negatively.
As part of the 2015 reading together program, we have planned a terrific schedule of events surrounding this book including programs for children and adults focused on Great Lakes science, history, challenges, concerns and appreciation. Help us celebrate these fresh water treasures by taking part in these programs… and make a vow to reconnect with the Great Lakes this year.
~Jason Byler, Reading Together Steering Committee
Kalamazoo Nature Center
While traveling Northern California in 1995, the number of conversations I had with people about where I was from elicited many opinions about the Great Lakes, none of them flattering. Nothing I could say about the beauty of the region could counter their impression of the Lakes as a polluted wasteland. None had ever seen the Great Lakes, but they were certain the lakes, like the Rust Belt, were in great decline.
Since then I’ve had the delight—and a sweet sense of vindication—of being with people when they experience Lake Michigan and Lake Superior for the first time. They are stunned that they can’t see the shore across them, at their breadth and depth. Unlike the oceans many of them know, they are amazed that such masses of water are fresh—and at the expanses of dunes and distance.
It’s this sense of wonder that Jerry Dennis captures in The Living Great Lakes, a weaving of history, natural science, and personal experience that adds depth to our understanding of the landscape, ecology, and natural systems that surround us.
If you want to learn the origins of the terms “Mayday,” “bitter end,” or “three sheets to the wind,” read this book. If you’ve ever wondered about how the Pacific salmon, the alewife, or lamprey got here, read on. Why does Detroit flood? What is the history of algae blooms in Lake Erie? Read this book. Or if you just want a good story about a cramped crew of variously skilled characters trying to get a boat from Michigan to Maine through the Great Lakes, read on. What did I like best about this book? The understanding it gave me about the Great Lakes as a system—beautifully interconnected, fierce, and fragile.
This Reading Together season offers an abundance of programs for all ages about the Great Lakes, including author Jerry Dennis’ visit on March 3. Take a look at the schedule and mark your calendars—what better way to spend the late days of winter than to get out into it with our neighbors?
~Amy Ferguson, Reading Together Steering Committee