I Spent the Summer on Lake Superior and All I Got Was This Stupid Sunburn

The first thing I want to tell you about Lake Superior is that she is not a lake; Superior is a sea. She creates her own weather patterns and kicks up squalls out of nowhere. On the Bayfield Peninsula, surrounded by her on three sides, it feels a little like she completely engulfs us.

My first glimpse of her was near Whitefish Point in Michigan in the Winter. The bay was completely frozen. The first time I swam in Superior was in August, a year or two ago, in the coves of the Pictured Rocks. The water was cold and ridiculously clear. I had hiked out with my brother. We had a strange, beautiful beach completely to ourselves. That’s one way Superior is apart from other lakes and rivers—she is big enough, and cold enough, and far enough north that she can make you feel like you’re the only person left in the whole of the world.

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Lake Superior from Oak Island

I’ve spent three and a half months this year up on her South Shore and I will be very sorry to leave. I believe we can learn a lot from nature. I believe that the experiences we have are more important than the things we memorize in a classroom.

I also believe I am incredibly lucky to have lived in a world where I can see six bald eagles in any one day, where the cliffs are red and the water is green and stories of the First Peoples not only survive but are told and woven into the culture of the area.

One of my first weeks here I laid back on the dock of Oak Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and let splinters of wood poke into my back, let my hair hang off the dock and reach toward the water. The dock was the only real refuge from the mosquitos, so about a dozen coworkers-turning-friends and myself gathered on it. The sun sank lower in the horizon and warmed the skin on my face with that distinct sweet orange glow. A breeze tugged lightly on the sun-bleached ends of my hair. I thought about life, and my time in college, and all of the good things that had happened and all of the bad, and how I wouldn’t erase any of it and risk this moment.

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Some losers I don’t know on the Oak Island dock

Someone asked me how I could stand to be so far North, so far away from the city, any city. Am I not bored?

On a calm, sunny day, it’s easy to forget that Superior is dangerous. Spend enough time with her and you’ll get only just a concept of how changeable she is.

On June 30th, I woke up bleary-eyed and stumbled into work. I joked around with some coworkers in the boathouse, and then fitted the participants who would be joining on us on a lovely guided kayak tour with wetsuits.

The wind had already changed direction several times.

At Meyers Beach, the launch point for the mainland sea caves, you can sometimes see 30 miles across Superior to Minnesota’s North Shore. That day Minnesota was obscured completely by a dark cloud, contoured at the top and moving rapidly North.

The water was the stillest thing I had ever seen—gray and not even a ripple. A fog bank rolled towards us. Five miles offshore, the bank swallowed Eagle Island.

“We’re going to wait to launch,” the lead guide told me quietly. The fog bank continued to roll toward us, and now it looked like the darker storm cloud was headed toward us too.

A sheet of 25 knot wind hit us like a slap in the face. The whole lake shivered. We had to shout to be heard. In the time it took us to carry one boat up the 47 stairs at Meyers Beach, the Lake had picked up from glass to 2-4 foot waves. Just to reiterate here—the Lake in less than 10 minutes went from still to potentially dangerous.

Lake Superior is a siren; she lulls you in with her song of sea caves, crystal water and untouched cliff line, and then she reminds you who you are. You are a human, and you are infinitely small on a sea that you don’t understand and that is not yours.

So no, I wouldn’t say I am “bored”.

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Waves building as that storm blew in #thosewitecapsder’aye

It’s funny though, because I expected Lake Superior in all her storied fury to make me feel weak, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Insignificant, sure, but almost never did I feel weak.

Time on Lake Superior has made me feel strong and smart and more capable, not less. I respect the Lake and my size in comparison, but being on the Lake, feeling the waves and the water push, and pull, and stretch far below you, feeling my boat respond to the turn of my hips and covering distances by the power of my own body—that has made me feel very strong. We live in a world that judges us each by a different set of standards, where some people get head starts and have an easier time than others. That dissolves on the Lake. On the Lake the test is the same for each person, and you either sink or swim.

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Live footage of yours truly on an island that was totally named after me (sorry to everyone who is sick and tired of that joke)

In late July, voices buzzed around me, but I wasn’t really listening or trying to. I was watching the lighthouse on the southern tip of Madeline Island blink patient and steady against the dark. The water was warm for Superior. I dove in deep and the world went silent, the shouts and laughter of friends quieted by the Lake. The Milky Way reached across the sky. Night air ran down my back in a shiver. The people around me had been drinking, but I was intensely happy to be sober, because I felt everything so sharply and completely.

I am sure that no one has ever left Superior’s waters not feeling clean and whole.

The primary place we lead kayak tours is the Mainland Sea Caves. Sometimes it feels a little hollow—we take people to what was once Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) land so that they can take a selfie and check it off their bucket list. Other times it doesn’t feel so hollow. Other times it feels like you are facilitating a genuine connection to nature and respect for the Lake, as well as it’s people and stories.

The first cave is called “the crack”. I have heard that it is the remains of an ancient fault line. You can paddle on a thin vein of Superior deep into the Earth, where turquoise water meets layered red cliffs, laced with streaks of purple and gold. You can ease far back in to where the air smells like Earth and has it’s chill. Tendrils of fog linger at the water’s surface. If you paddle far enough back it feels like the rock might not give you up. I think this one is my favorite cave.

I was told that we’re all looking for some specific feeling; something that makes us really feel alive and inspired, but we all find this feeling in different ways. A few people snickered during this telling, but I was on the edge of my seat. It makes some sort of simple sense. Different things and different paths can bring us to the same feelings. It’s much easier to understand other people’s choices and differences when you understand the feeling, even if you don’t recognize the path.

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A sunrise I only caught cause I had been up puking up brie cheese in a pit toilet, an objectively low place to be.

Sometimes, when the wind is just right, the lake turns a blue green and churns, speckled with whitecaps. She’ll look like a sea monster might come up, or like a Viking ship might have sailed her. Sea spray, bright green, and the Lake feels alive.

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Water, probably. I’m not sure.

In late July I received the best compliment of my life.

I had been talking to a woman about my various plans for life now that I was out of school and she grinned at me.

“You’re a bit of a wild thing aren’t you?’

I laughed. “I’m not sure anyone has called me that before.”

Still, I hoped I was.

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A sea of plastic kayaks, otherwise known as “divorce boats”, cause there’s no way you and your SO can agree which way you want that thing to go.

The best place to feel the full power of the Lake might be that thin trail above the Sea Caves. People travel miles to see the caves but they should really travel to hear them. There’s a deep heaving, the sound of water slamming deep into the caves, regular and cathartic. Mist on your skin, the sea is a beautiful green gray, all the leaves rain brightened. The wind howls around you. The forest dances, the sea beats, powerful and regular below you.

I want to shout into it, and celebrate the raw, real beauty of a storm on the sea, and me, just a speck on the cliff side.

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This is some live footage of the beach that has collected at the bottom of my car.

Paddling itself is both intensely physical and intimate.

You are in a boat that may as well be a bit of driftwood in the sea. You move forward by the creak of your own arms and the turn of your own hips. You feel the water stretching below you and feel every turn and twist of the current. The water can be so cold that it hurts. Light mist, low clouds. The Lake beats steady on the beach; you move steady forward. In at the toe, twist, out at the hip. Repeat. Deeply physical. The lake will rock you to sleep long after you have left.

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Look ma, it floats!

Every year, people die in this Lake that I love. That is a fact. This year, three small kids and their father died in an ill-fated crossing, probably due to hypothermia. So how do we reconcile loving this lake with the damage that it can do? It’s easy to want to blame people for the mistakes that they made and the safety gear that they didn’t have, but experience informs decision making. So can you really blame people for not having the experience to make a safe decision? It hardly seems like loosing your family is a fair price to pay for ignorance. But I suppose no one ever said life, or the Lake was fair.

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Basswood Island, around 5pm, the same day that family capsized between Michigan and Stockton.

It’s a popular opinion that nature is indifferent, and maybe it is, maybe that’s true. After hearing stories about people swept off piers and shipwrecks, who am I to say any different?

But when someone who had been guiding for years on Lake Superior told me stories of close calls, he paused to laugh and shake his head.

“The sea goddess must be a good one,” he said. “You can mess up a lot of little things and still get by, or one big thing, and still make it work. You have to really mess it all up, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”

So I suppose it’s possible that the Lake isn’t indifferent at all. I suppose it’s quite possible that she feels things deeply—approximately 1,333 feet deeply.

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What I Learned in Four Years as an Undergraduate Student

So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.

My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.

But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.

Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.

The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.

The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.

My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.

Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.

Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.

I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.

On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.

I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.

I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.

I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—

“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”

I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.

I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.

I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.

I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.

I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.

I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.

I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.

I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.

I learned I know nothing at all.

And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals. 

I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously:

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Because, honestly, college is overrated.

 

You Are Strong

Strength is not the absence of weakness.

It isn’t never being scared, or sad, or heartbroken.

 

Strength is not taking failure, or rejection, or grief gracefully—

And it isn’t even the ability to stand after you fall.

 

Sometimes strength is just getting through it.

And it’s not pretty, or romantic, but it’s real.

 

I wrote this quickly, a few times over.

First, I scrawled it in the bottom of my notebook, in more words, and less pointed. I wrote it as a reminder, and then I didn’t look back at it for a few months.

I wrote it again as I bounced back from a rough week. I wrote it as I mulled over what had happened, and why, and how I should handle it all. That time I wrote it as a mantra—it is okay to not be okay.

I’m writing it again now, more fluidly. I mulled it over this weekend, choosing the right words, cutting and snipping.

It is important to remember that the moment you are in does not define you. You are not your weakest moment, and you aren’t what others see you as. You get to choose who you are.

And imperviousness to weakness, that does not make you strong. It is okay to not be okay. That is normal, I promise.

So this is just a reminder that you are strong—

Even when you are tired, sad, or scared, when you feel like you’ve failed, when you feel rejected and alone, you are still strong, even if you don’t believe it.

There is strength in putting yourself back together, sure, and in turning the other cheek, and all of the things that we usually name strong. But even when you don’t weather it gracefully, even when you feel like you’ve failed, and don’t have a shred of dignity left at all, and you don’t feel strong, just remember that you are.

Because just getting through it makes you strong too—and I will believe that you are strong even if you don’t.

Hey, I hope you have a great day. You have got this.

What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.

Make the Mistake

I don’t want to be the person to tell you that all mistakes are good, or that even the worst things you will grow from, because frankly that’s obnoxious. Maybe it is true that even the hard, sucky, parts of life make us stronger, but I don’t think telling anyone in the hard, sucky parts how they’re going to grow from it is necessarily helpful. They won’t hear you.

I don’t think that you can stop people from making mistakes either—you can’t look at someone you know, gauge exactly where they are going, and then tell them what they’re doing is a mistake. First off, you could be wrong. Second, even if you are right, there are a lot of mistakes people have to make for themselves.

I have stayed out later than I should have, and gone out with people I knew it wouldn’t work with, and forgiven people I shouldn’t have given a second chance. I have run farther than I should have, against advice, I have worked on projects I was told were hopeless. I have drunk near gallons of coffee past 7 pm. As a result, I have gotten overuse injuries, had whole projects scraped, and laid awake in bed wondering why the hell I needed a large black coffee at 7 pm anyhow. And honestly that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing—

Be it your 7 pm coffee or something much, much bigger, some mistakes are worth making.

Maybe it is a mistake to get up at 2 am and drive to try and catch the Northern Lights the night before you have to work. Maybe you’ll regret it in the morning. Maybe not though.

Maybe it is a mistake to pursue a relationship with someone you know is probably not the best choice. Maybe you’ll regret it in a year. Maybe you’ll regret it tomorrow.

Maybe you shouldn’t try climb that mountain, or hike that hike alone. Maybe you shouldn’t stay out late, and you should’ve gone to bed. Maybe you should’ve planned better or paid more attention, maybe you shouldn’t have invested so much in that particular person.

But maybe not—

If you didn’t make any mistakes, what kind of stories would you have to tell? And I know I’ve made mistakes, everyone has, but I don’t regret staying out too late, or drinking too much coffee, or blowing off sleep to look at the stars. I don’t regret some of the bigger mistakes too.

So you know what? Make your mistakes, because they are yours. You get to make mistakes, and you get to show up to class hungover, and you get to date boys your friends don’t like, and eat too much pizza, and blow off studying sometimes. You get to get lost in the woods and pull yourself out, and you get to have hard moments completely of your own creation.

Make the mistake. Some mistakes are worth making. And maybe some mistakes are not even really mistakes at all.

 

The Moments That Make Us

I like to think I have a handle on things—we all do. We all think we know exactly what we’re going to do tomorrow, and we have this rough idea of what next the year, or the next five look like.

We think we know what we’re eating for dinner tonight, we think we will have a boring day tomorrow, we think that we have control.

We don’t have control, and I think to some extent we know that too, but it’s a lot easier to hold on to the idea that we know what is coming tomorrow than to embrace the idea that we actually have no idea.

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A moment I was sitting in a storm, and suddenly it stopped raining and the sky lit up

And then it hits us—you are doing so well, everything is so normal and then one day something happens. Maybe it’s small. Maybe someone says something that alters your perspective a little and it snowballs. Maybe it’s not small—maybe it’s big and it clearly changes everything. But either way, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly you are looking at things from a different place than you were yesterday.

The moments that change us—they are big and small, they are significant in their own way, and they make you who they are. Sometimes they hurt—a lot. Sometimes you feel it like a physical pain.

We don’t get to choose when everything changes and we don’t pick how. You don’t get to choose the moments you remember, the ones you think of, the moments that follow you.

It’ll knock you down, leave you bruised, and it will change you. It is scary to have something happen and all the sudden things are different.

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A moment I realized that I could choose to enjoy even a crappy day, or week, or month

But guess what.

The moments that knock us down, that make us feel confused and scared and weak, the moments that hurt viscerally—they are the moments that make the rest of life so much more vibrant. They stick, they make us uncomfortable, and ultimately yes, they change us. But that’s part of living—growing, changing.

So yeah, it’s hard, and you will change, and it will be uncomfortable and you won’t always like it. But it’s going to be okay, and you are going to be stronger tomorrow.

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A shot of my sister, who has been there for so many moments and would stick it out through so many more

No matter where you are right now, one day you are going to be happy with yourself. And without the moments that changed you,  the moments that made you, you wouldn’t be the person you are going to be. So hang in there—one day you’re going to look back and tell someone about the moment that changed you, and how it made you who you are.