Winter on Lake Michigan

January 17, 2018

I found and fell in love with Mae's photography through the Instagram blackhole, and then fell in love with her person when I met her and she introduced me to her Lake Michigan and the Sleeping Bear Dunes from a local's eye during a lakeside shoot last spring. She knew the beach, the sunset sky, and the water SO WELL - a true lake-lover, indeed. The Internet decided to play a fun surprise on us, as Mae also knew the ladies I was joining for the weekend at the Fieldguide Farmhouse for the True North Market and not only was planning on attending the market, but was happy to spend the afternoon with us where we created bonds over both fun and hard conversations, ample rosé, and basking in the sunny yard facing Central Lake. Today she gifts us her words along with her images, telling of her first "official" winter in Northern Michigan. 

I moved to Northern Michigan last January, in the midst of a mild Michigan winter. My neighbors reminded me of its benign temperatures all year, warning that a real winter would take me by surprise. As I stood at the beach in August next to village locals I had only just met, they warned me “just wait until winter really hits.”

So I waited. I waited without much forethought, immersed in the perfection of summer on Lake Michigan, enamored with the rhythms of this tiny village. I walked to the Lake daily, bumping into my neighbors along the way as they walked their dogs or headed home from the post office in shorts and t-shirts. At the beach, I watched as tourists circled in their minivans to find an open parking spot, watched the yellow-vested parking attendant diligently ensure those without a village parking pass had paid the fee. On Friday nights the locals took over the last lot, perched themselves on the wall between the sidewalk and the beach with wine and cheese to share. Everyone would stay well past the 9:30 sunset, lighting fires and lingering late into the night.  

As the water warmed up and the season droned on, I spent entire afternoons swimming in Lake Michigan, kayaking and paddle boarding the nearby rivers and lakes. When Lake Michigan was calm, I would paddle on Her, too. I rode my bicycle on the Scenic Drive before sunset some nights, passing carloads of tourists at each lookout, the Lake Michigan overlook atop the dune covered in hundreds of bodies. Most nights, I ate dinner in my backyard to the sound of birds chirping overhead, the rustling of leaves as the deer would catch sight of me and turn to run back into the bushes. If I woke up early enough, I could catch them grazing in my yard at dawn, feasting before the rest of the village had begun to stir.

November brought faint dustings of snow to cover leftover autumn leaves and abandoned summer houses, flurries that were followed by forty degree days and a melt. Maybe this winter would again be mild. But by December my little house was buried in snow, each day dumping more than the day before, hemming me in. I started each day in the driveway, digging a way out. Life began to slow down, trickling out ever so slightly like the water from my pipes, the shower constantly dripping to ward off a freeze. Lake Michigan grew colder each day, the snow forming further and further offshore so that now in January, it is falling on us almost constantly.

It is safe to say that winter has arrived. A real winter, the kind that makes me nostalgic for childhood and snow forts and ice skating on frozen lakes. The kind of winter my neighbors have been warning me  about all year––roads left unplowed for days, temperatures hovering close to zero, lake effect snow my landlord shovels off the roof.

All year I expected to not be overly surprised by the winter they warned me of. But as I sit in what feels very much like a snow globe, I cannot help but be astonished. Winter demands my attention, and I wonder now if this is what my neighbors were preparing me for. Perhaps they weren't cautioning me or telling me I couldn't handle it, but they were waiting to see if I would appreciate the engagement winter requires. The way winter imposes itself upon me, requiring that I savor it with intention.

I still see all the same neighbors outside everyday, dressed now in parkas and thick winter caps as they walk their dogs and trudge to the post office. I still run into friends at the beach for sunset. Now, instead of sprawling on blankets around campfires or perching atop the wall, we huddle in our cars sipping hot tea out of thermoses, hoping the sun will peak out from behind the winter clouds. The fire rings have been pulled off the beach, the trash cans and picnic tables tucked away. Ice forms on the shoreline, a little more each day. The scenic drive is closed until spring, and the only way to access the best views of Lake Michigan is to cross country ski or snowshoe to the lookouts. We don our gear and do this often.

The land looks foreign all covered in white, the deer are more plump and they come closer to my house in search of whatever food they can find. Last night I walked the shoreline and watched from afar as a deer stood up on its hind legs, picking the leaves off a cedar tree. When I came home and settled into bed, I could hear a deer doing the same just outside my window, huddling against my house for warmth. Rabbits have created a home under my front porch. The shoreline is peppered with only a few visitors at a time, most of whom step out of their car only for a moment to snap a photo of the view, returning quickly to their heated seats.

It is true that my encounters with Lake Michigan are less immersive in this frozen season. I stay tucked away more than I do in the summer. The village streets are quiet most days and I walk right down the middle of them to avoid the snow-covered sidewalks. The parking lot at the beach is empty and unplowed. Even still, I walk the shoreline. I layer my body in fleece-lined pants, pull on a pair of hefty boots, stuff hand-warmers in my gloves, and walk down to watch as ice slowly takes over the surface of the Lake, snow quietly falling from the sky.  


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Mae Stier

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