A Photo mini-Essay
Recently I have been reading stories of polar explorers. I have long been fascinated by the men and women who strike out into the most desolate places on earth. I love the pictures of their hardened, stoic faces poking out through furry hoods, covered in frost and I love the images of endless landscapes of white. And so it was with the long journeys of these explorers in mind that I set out to Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area looking for a little winter adventure.
The famous antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton wrote, “Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices,’ the mysterious fascinations of the unknown.” I have felt a little of all of these calls at different times and it is part of why I do this work, to make sure that when the little voices call, the unknown can be found a lot nearer than the poles.
You might think it’s a stretch to compare the shoreline of Lake Michigan to the vast and unending polar landscape. We may not have anywhere near the five and half million square miles of undeveloped space or the -75 degree temperatures or the 200 mile per hour winds of the antarctic. And you definitely won’t find any 15,000 foot mountains of ice. But Shackleton’s “little voices” will call regardless. And I think most of us would prefer less extreme condition to feed our curiosity. As it turns out, epic adventures can be found a lot nearer to home than the ends of the earth.
After tromping through the deep parking lot snow, the beach came into view. But in this winter landscape, the word “beach” does a poor job of describing the scenery. The proper sand beach was hidden under a crust of wind-whipped snow that stretched out far beyond the summer water line with spots of slick ice showed where the snow was blown away. The flats led up into a crest of ice hills, where earlier in the winter waves splashed and froze, splashed and froze. The crests ran parallel to the beach as far as I could see. Just beyond that, another flat leading to a more distant line of crests. Eventually the cold open water made it’s appearance dotted with chunks of ice.
On my other side was a high ledge leading up to the dunes. The snow was deep and formed cornices over the peaks of the dunes and in some places the snow was whipped into swirling formations like weathered white sandstone. The bare trees stood stark against the whiteness of dunes.
Eventually, I ventured off the beach and into the dunes where the snow was piled, sometimes up to my knees. Except for the trail behind me, the snow was clean and unbroken in all directions. With dunes rising up on each side of me I could imagine I was trekking across some endless landscape with days or weeks ahead of me and only my thoughts to keep me company. Looking backward I could see my trail disappearing over the last rise and could imagine a long vastness behind me.
Though my car was only a 15 or 20 minute trek away at any point during my adventure, it was good to be in a place that felt much bigger, much more wild than than my usual domestic haunts. I will probably not be visiting either of the poles any time soon. But for an afternoon, Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area quieted the “little voices” and provided a moment where the trodden paths seemed far away.