In the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine six writers who grew up near the Northern Michigan water reflect on how freshwater continues to shape their lives today. Jake Bright, a Traverse City native shares his experiences with water of all kind, from the coast of Cape Cod to swimming in East Africa’s Lake Tanganyika to soaking up the freshwater in Lake Michigan.
“No Salt, No Sharks, No Worries”—that was the slogan for Harbor Springs 2013 Coastal Crawl open-water swim in Lake Michigan. Home on vacation for the race, I connected to the motto immediately.
One succinct phrase captured a dichotomy with water I’d felt for years as a Northern Michigan boy who’s lived most of my adult life away.
While growing up in Traverse City, I spent every summer vacation swimming in its surrounding lakes. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for my brother, friends, and me to pass more of our active day playing in Long Lake or Lake Michigan than on land.
My Northern Michigan background definitely shaped a love of water and a natural inclination to swim in it anywhere I travel. Nevertheless, launching out into the world I quickly discovered I am never truly content in saltwater or any aqua mass where things can eat me. Since leaving home, my natural attraction to big water has recurrently collided with a letdown for swimming in places outside the Great Lakes State.
This began on a Cape Cod summer vacation in high school. I’d never been in the ocean and was keen to jump into the Atlantic. With my first plunge I soon realized my conditioning to Michigan’s inland seas. Coming up out of the water my lips and eyes were burning. I couldn’t see my toes and had no idea what I was stepping on. And exiting the Atlantic, I felt an instant need to shower from all the salt on my skin. My overall reaction was a 16-year-old “Yuck.”
During subsequent ocean swims, if I was able to get comfortable, the pleasure was often interrupted by the Jaws score entering my head. Only a few echoes of “Duuun dun duuun dun duun dun” in the murky ocean was enough to spur a swift swim back to shore. Standing on the Cape Cod beaches the last hot days of that high school summer trip I recall simply wishing I could jump in Lake Michigan.
During college a running injury led me to the pool, where I got turned on to lap swimming for fitness. I soon found the cement pond lacked the enjoyment of outdoor motion and scenery. So on summer breaks home in TC I started strapping on goggles and exploring Northern Michigan’s local waters by swimming them—a form of aquatic hiking. I’d make treks in Long Lake (near my childhood home), in North Bar Lake, and near Old Mission Lighthouse. My preferred jaunt became late afternoon swims in Lake Michigan from North Bar beach along the Sleeping Bear Lakeshore.
I’ve yet to find anything more refreshing and rejuvenating than submersion in the big lake during hot summers. On swims from Empire toward Sleeping Bear Point the water looks clearer than day. Lake Michigan’s ebb and flow creates weathered sand ripples along its bottom that appear sculpted by the ages. Then there are periphery views of happy people in the water and on the beach, which slowly fade into the wider expanse of the Manitou Islands and dune bluffs. On those swims I made it a custom to pop my head up at the halfway point to take it all in before stroking back to North Bar.
Since leaving Northern Michigan, I’ve carried around the world this spirit for exploring big water. This has included long swims in the Aegean Sea, off the Coast of France, in the Caribbean, and from the shores of West Africa. While living in New York City I connected to the growing sport of open-water distance swimming, regularly competing in nearby races in the Hudson or in the ocean off Long Island or Connecticut. I certainly owe my comfort to navigating big water to growing up near the Great Lakes. Still, I am rarely as content swimming in other places as I am back home.
In 2009, I thought I’d finally found a foreign equivalent to Great Lakes in the world’s longest freshwater body, East Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Standing on its shores in Burundi, the sand felt familiar, the water was clear, and it even looked like Lake Michigan. I put on my goggles and swam about 50 yards out with Burundi’s green highlands in the background.
After several laps up and down the shoreline I turned over on my back for the view. For some reason Burundian villagers were frozen in place on the paths of the surrounding hills staring at me. When I returned to the beach a local fishermen explained, “They were surprised you would swim around like that with Gustav out there.” I hadn’t known about Gustav, but he is Burundi’s 20-foot-long killer crocodile chronicled by National Geographic and rumored to have eaten 300 people in and around Tanganyika.
While salt, sharks, and killer crocs haven’t thwarted my penchant for exploring distant lakes and seas, I’ll always prefer the waters of Northern Michigan. On any hot summer day I’m home, there’s a gravitational pull on me to dive in at North Bar beach and swim toward the Sleeping Bear bluffs.
Jake Bright lives in New York City where he is an author and speaker. He contributes to Fortune and the Financial Times and recently published his first book, with Macmillan, The Next Africa, about the continent’s transformation led by entrepreneurs and technology. He graduated from Traverse City Central.