Gales on Lake Michigan can be as destructive as hurricanes, attracting thrill seekers as curious as the tornado chasers on the open prairies. When a Gale Warning alert pops up repeatedly on my phone, I know it’s going to be a doozy.
People have died and ships have disappeared in gales like this on the Great Lakes. But the gravity of that doesn’t stop people from being drawn to the water’s edge to witness it for themselves. So, based on personal experience, here’s what you do: choose a spot on the shore that is exposed to the elements but won’t put you in imminent danger of being swept into the waves. Pull off your hat or loosen your hood and face yourself into the wind. Feel the wind pull your hair back and let the airborne waves splatter your face. If the wind gives you a shove backwards and forces you to shout to be heard by the person near you, you’ve passed the test! You’ll be rewarded by waves that dwarf man-made piers and lighthouses, ramming and rolling over them with ease, creating a splash that temporarily suspends the water twice as high as the original wave. Days or weeks from now someone will discover that parts of a shipwreck once hidden are now exposed, or one that was exposed has now been swallowed by the shifting sands. Provided you’re not a target for flying debris and there’s no lightning, you know you can stand out in it for as long as your crazy obsession lasts. The word “awesome” may be overused in our American vocabulary, but in some circumstances, it’s the first word that slips past your lips as the wind makes you squint and the waves crash at your feet.
Some people take this opportunity to grab their surfboards, don their dry suits and ride the waves for the chilling experience of surfing on Lake Michigan, reminding us that embracing life and taking chances are often one and the same.
While I was thrilled to be out during the gale, I was just as interested in its aftermath. I visited the beaches familiar to me from my morning workouts. Evidence of nature’s power was everywhere. Sand was saturated at least 30 feet inland from shore. Dune grass, bent flat into submission, created beautiful patterns in the smooth, sculpted sand. The finest nature artists, with all their talent, can’t create the spontaneous beauty that nature does. Only nature can make a little slit in the piece of driftwood home for the pebble perfectly embedded there. What human could splay the smooth stones out as tiny moons orbiting an oddly-shaped, driftwood planet in the sand? Only nature could place the tree limb on the beach and decorate it with chains of mussel shells like garland forgotten on last year’s Christmas tree.
Even though the waves are half the height as the day before, they still reach in with icy fingers to grab at my toes while I’m distracted, as if to say, “We’re not as fierce as yesterday but we’re still in control!”
As much as I love the peaceful mornings of purple dawn over a calm lake, I’m drawn to this big water when it’s roiled and angry. Beauty and power work as partners in humbling me and making me thankful to live in one of Wisconsin’s coastal communities.