Our National Parks celebrate their centennial this year. In honor of these stunning natural Northern Michigan attractions, three writers share thoughts on these cherished realms. Hike Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with Ellen Marlene Airgood and discover the beauty of the Au Sable Lighthouse.
To the Lighthouse
By Ellen Marlene Airgood
The sun is warm, the sky bright blue, the lake a shade or two darker. The air smells of pine and water, and there’s a sharp taste on the back of my tongue that seems important, some taste of life I’ve been missing. The lake sloshes, a jay yells. I stab a stick into the sand with each step, toss it ahead onto rock outcrops when they have to be clambered over, grab it again when I’m past them. The stick is a piece of driftwood I picked up as we walked; the lake has been working on it for who knows how long. It’s silky smooth, except for surprising sharp bits scattered here and there along its length, nubbins that even the endless wash of the waves has not worn down. I want to carry it all the miles to the Au Sable lighthouse and back, stick it in the back of my hatchback, cart it to the campsite, to the motel room we’ll get on the way home, to my apartment, to wherever I move from there.
I also want to leave it where I found it, on the shore of Superior, its home.
I have a red bandana, my sister’s is blue, our hats match, brown felt. My T-shirt sleeves are rolled, though there’s no pack of cigarettes in one, that’s years ago now, five at least, an age. We turn a bend in the shore and the lighthouse rears up, all brick and blueberry heath and splintery boat shed. I smile and smile. I am young and strong and on the brink of everything; I feel it more than ever here. I could throw a lifesaving boat into the lake and row and row. I could stride 10 miles along the narrow path to report the disaster and walk back with my briskness undiminished, trot up the spiral iron stairs to check the lens, fill out the log book, peer out over that wide water and see … well, everything.
Wouldn’t anyone who came here? Isn’t that the power of the place, the magic?
It’s drizzling and chilly and within a few minutes of leaving the truck, I’m damp all over. The air smells of wet tree and leaves, the lake is gray and choppy. The wind sighs, seagulls keen. Their news: the world is a harsh and lonely place. Also the world is wide, and wondrous. I’m content with these conflicting reports. The world is the world. I’m here, and glad of it.
I wear layers for this late October day: sweater, sweatshirt, quilted flannel, jeans, boots, thick socks, hat. My husband is similarly attired. We stump along, him slow for his bad knee, me careful on the slippery path. We wind down the hill from the log slide where the big timber went shooting down to the water to be herded to Grand Marais and into the mills, back in the day. We are the only two out. We say nothing of it—or of anything much—but I know this suits us both.
After a long, quiet time, we turn a bend and duck through a patch of low-hanging branches, and there it is, the light.
Photo by Aaron Peterson
We’ve come upon it from the opposite direction of the first time I saw it, but it has the same magic. The lake roils, the waves crash, and I wonder— how did those lifesaving crews do it, throw their boats into the water and row out to the rescue? Where did they get the courage, or was it bravado, and is there a difference, really? At any rate I must now confess that would not have been the job for me. I’m 46 today. Middle-aged! I still feel strong, but no longer routinely invincible. However, after 21 years here—I wasn’t gone long after I went home that first time—I do still think I could climb the stairs and polish the lens and fill out the logbook and look out at the long stretch of water and endure the loneliness, even revel in it. I know I could. In my way I’ve done so.
We poke around. Peek in the windows of the light-keeper’s house (such small rooms, such a big cook stove!), consider the view, the splintery boat shed, the brick hut where the oil was kept. Eventually, we walk back along the windy path and up the hill, achieve the log slide, drive back to town. We see no one. At home we make grilled pastrami sandwiches, and I eat with quiet gusto. I’m cold and hungry and it’s my birthday and I’ve just been to one of my favorite places. I am satisfied. Life has been complicated—surprise!—but my walk has let me think that I did guess right, all those years ago: you can’t see everything from the top of a lighthouse overlooking Superior, but you can think of looking, and that’s the thing.
Photo by Aaron Peterson
Pictured Rocks Day Hikes
Au Sable Light: I love both approaches. From the Log Slide the route is a little more strenuous and longer than the approach from Hurricane River campground. It winds through old woods and has that lovely variety of twisting and turning and going up and down hill a bit. The walk is quicker and flatter from the Hurricane River campground, but no less enjoyable. It’s great to see the Hurricane crashing into the lake before you set out, and fantastic to spy the remains of old shipwrecks in the sand. From either direction, the appearance of the lighthouse is magical, and inspires thoughts of fortitude and solitude, of hardiness and work, of a time that was both simpler and more difficult.
Chapel Falls Loop: The Chapel area is a little more remote than the lighthouse. The woods feel old and complex in a delightful way: there are ferns, wildflowers, big trees, drooping branches, deep quiet. Sometimes I’ve done a relatively short hike to the falls (about 1.5 miles), which crash wondrously; other times I’ve taken the long loop—about nine miles—all the way to the lakeshore and back.
Sable Falls: This can be a very easy stop—just to the top of the falls—or can be made longer. To the right there’s a flight of stairs down the falls to the shore. To the left is a somewhat less traveled path that leads out into the perched dunes, and eventually to the visitor center. The dunes are a special and rare ecosystem and well worth experiencing. It’s an entirely different world, an almost weird surprise nestled between the long forests and wide lake.
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