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Water, Water Everywhere: I Am Made of Lake Michigan

A dispatch from the home waters of the Upper Midwest

Where I come from is north a bit, a meeting place of river and bay, both polluted by the paper industry. In this same place of confluence members of the Oneida Tribe—those who split off from the Iroquois Confederacy and came to Wisconsin in the early 19th century—were nearly destroyed by the white pioneers, but that is a different story altogether.

In the second half of the 20th century my home river, the Fox, was polluted by polychlorinated biphenyl, PCBs, and it is still a Region 5 EPA Superfund site. My father told me stories of swimming in it as a child. I looked at it almost every day of my life, but I never once swam in that river. It wasn’t allowed by then. I swam in a chlorinated pool instead. In high school, I drove over a bridge that spanned the Fox and would only sometimes look down and consider it, think about what it meant. We all have home rivers. The Fox is mine.

Beside the Fox: mountains of coal, tankers docked, the groaning smokestacks of Midwest industry. On the upside they are dredging; they are trying to pull up the poison. My mother told me, though, long after I was grown, that she sometimes used to look at the smokestacks of our home and wonder whether all of us—sister, father, me, her, everyone—would one day die of where we were from. Her comment now seems to be both a metaphor and not, and in that way exceptionally true. She knew things; she came from Northern England, where they’d been destroying water for centuries, so her home waters informed her and helped us understand. The Fox has been flushing hundreds of pounds of PCB-laden sediment into Green Bay and Lake Michigan for decades, relentlessly sweeping, pushing, brushing, shoving. Which is impressive as well. What’s also true: I am made of Green Bay and I am made of Lake Michigan. I am grown now, I live in Chicago. I therefore drink Lake Michigan every day. The lake is in me and is me.

Go straight east from where I was born, and you get to Kewaunee. And once there you are at the shores of Michigan itself, and that lake is a grand and beautiful thing. Larger even than the sludge and suspended solids that enter it each day from the oil refineries and steel mills in Whiting, Indiana: BP, U.S. Steel, ArcelorMittal, to name just a few. You have heard those names and know about things like hexavalent chromium, and you are not concerned that in 2011, the city of Chicago found hexavalent chromium in the treated drinking water. In a way it’s blasé. Without context such findings are irrelevant; the drinking water here adheres to all EPA standards. I do not mean to alarm. Lake Michigan is bigger than all tests, anyway. Isn’t it? That lake is the sixth-largest in the world. That lake is ancient. In places, that lake is nearly one thousand feet deep! More than 10 million live here on its shores. That lake used to be an ocean.

Green Bay was first called Green Bay because of the plankton, the everlasting gobstopper feast for the old fish. Plankton are now largely gone from there and from Lake Michigan—sucked away by the zebra mussels and quagga mussels that arrived on the hulls of the tankers that came from places like the Adriatic Sea and tankers that drifted up the St. Lawrence Seaway and deposited their cargo to us in the free world. The lake trout are all gone as well, fished into early retirement (ecological absence, death) by the hungry settlers of the 19th century, some of the same people who worked hard to fool, cheat, infect, and damage the Oneida. And because the lake trout were gone, the alewives, international travelers like the mussels (but not stowaways, of course, they’d gotten there themselves), had no predators, and their population blossomed.

My most vivid memory of these two bodies of water, my home waters, Green Bay and Lake Michigan, comes from the day I floated across Death’s Door on a kayak, just a friend and me out there in the water, and down below us the submerged hulls, the bones of old ships that had sunk trying to shorten the trip. Death’s Door is the gap of water between the very tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and Washington Island, the dotted i of the state. Vessels used to try to save time by pulling hard around the mainland instead of going all the way around the island, and the choppy water where the bay meets the lake has surprises in store. I was there on that little tiny kayak. I think I was depressed. I don’t know why we did it but we did. The water was not clear enough to see the sunken boats down there, even though the quagga mussels have worked so hard to make it clearer, as is their wont, but I knew what was under me, and I floated in silence, amazed that I was perched a thousand feet above them, on water, in a yellow carbon-kevlar husk.

* * *

Now, ten years later, it is an unusually warm day in Chicago at the tail end of an unusually warm winter. I have a chest cold. I am down under Michigan Avenue, going east on Illinois, heading out to Navy Pier to see what I can see of the Jardine Water Purification Plant, the largest water filtration facility in the world. One billion gallons of Lake Michigan’s water flow through Jardine each day, and that water services only half of the city’s needs. There is another plant on the south side. The Water Department tells me that I, Chicagoan, use 150 gallons of water a day. I am incredulous, but I figure that it must be so. They have the statistic right there on the website. I try to catalogue: my oatmeal, my coffee, my flush, my shower. 150? Maybe it could add up. Maybe. But how much water did Joliet and Marquette carry with them in 1673 when they portaged from the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, a gamble, or from the Illinois back to Lake Michigan, another shortcut? Surely not that much.

The water that runs through Jardine comes in from the lake through offshore cribs. If you’ve visited Chicago and looked out at the lake and said to someone, “What are those?” you know what I’m talking about. They look like barges anchored out on the horizon. What are they doing? They’re pumping water. They are a crucial part of the Wonka-esque miracle that is the Chicago water system. Reversed river, locks, Bubbly Creek, which used to bubble because of the decomposing cattle carcasses at the bottom, shown to the world by Upton Sinclair. Michigan waters now come inward and get flushed out to the Mississippi Basin. Chicago’s toilet moves in the opposite direction Joliet and Marquette moved on their return journey. There is a cap on how much of the Great Lakes Chicago is allowed to suck away each day, though—2.1 billion gallons only, says the EPA. Only that much. So I suppose that we are stable.

I look. From here, out on Navy Pier, I can see so much. It is a gorgeous day, it feels like June. There wasn’t even a winter this year. I can look left, north, and know that I’m looking at where I come from. The past. I can look straight out, east, and just barely see the shores. I can look right and see the smokestacks. That’s Whiting. I go home. My cough worsens and I go to our son’s room and get the humidifier. Its top is shaped like an elephant, a bubbly cartoon elephant, and I fill the base—perhaps a half-gallon of water, 1/300ths of my allotment—and turn it on and lean toward the elephant’s trunk, eyes closed, breathing the vapor.

* * *

Two days later I am north of Chicago, standing at the lake again, this time at Fort Sheridan, the army base created by the plutocrats of Chicago during the Gilded Age. I’m slightly better. This place suits me, I think. The stone and gravel beach reminds me of home—I close my eyes and hear the water instead of Graham Nash singing “Chicago,” an inescapable semi-psychedelic sonic experience on Navy Pier. People stroll along the beach. A child plays with two dogs that in turn play with each other. Far to the north I can barely see the outline of Zion, the dead nuclear facility that has not yet been deconstructed, but I am not haunted by it even though it’s just the type of thing. Here, now, I feel as though the best of the lake is in front of me. That feeling. Wind that’s 5 degrees cooler than the air at my back blows in my face. This is it. This beach is clean.

There’s a woman looking out at the water too. She sees me taking pictures and asks what I’m shooting.

“The lake,” I say.

We talk. I tell her that I’m writing about Lake Michigan, or that I’m supposed to be, and she smiles and tells me some stories. She grew up in Lake County. I ask her what the beach was like when she was a girl and she frowns, shakes her head. “There were so many dead alewives,” she tells me. “They were everywhere. But now it’s beautiful. They’ve really done great work.”

I tell her that I spoke to a man at the Alliance for the Great Lakes and we talked about Chicago, pollution, chromium, Lake Michigan. I tell her that he was more optimistic than I expected him to be, which is true. I don’t know what I expected. He talked about the challenges, but he said we were moving in the right direction. I found myself feeling hopeful. “I think that too,” she says.

“Maybe so,” I say.

I ask her something I asked the man from the Alliance: “Who owns Lake Michigan?”

He told me that we all own it, which I thought was nice but wrong. Maybe not wrong, but irrelevant. An echo of a Native American notion that would crumble in a plutocrat’s court.

“I don’t know,” she tells me. “I don’t know the answer.”

We walk and talk some more. Then, mid-sentence, she stops talking and leans down and picks up a piece of green glass and shows it to me.

“We used to call these frosties,” she says, holding it up. “From broken beer bottles.”

She tells me that when she was a girl, they were everywhere, and she would collect them. She says it’s almost impossible to find them anymore. Lake Michigan would polish shards and turn them into small gems coveted by young girls running and playing on beaches. Now they are rare. She says it’s because things are cleaner. It’s an index of something bracing, some thin trickle of optimism I did not use to have. I want to believe her, even though I know better.

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