Between Love and Water: Neal’s Landing

Sunset, Marquette Island
Sunset, Marquette Island

I took my chances by booking a plane ticket to northern Michigan in early June. The early summer weather in Petoskey and, especially, on Marquette Island in the Upper Peninsula’s Les Cheneaux Islands, is similar to that of Montana: not quite warm and not quite dry. It’s rain and cool weather for much of June in both places. Alas, I wasn’t going to the island for the weather, I was going home.

It’s been ten years since I left my native land for Montana and in that decade I’ve failed to return home during the summer months (or near-summer, as it is) to spend time on a chunk of land that bobs against the current of Lake Huron. I’ve gone back to the island where my grandmother “M” lives only a few times and those trips have all occurred in the fall. The cabin, “Neal’s Landing” was closed up for the winter, the buoys pulled from the lake and winds howling off the great lake were bracing. As much as I’ve been trying to settle into my life in northwest Montana I’ve come to realize that I can’t, nor do I want, to pull my roots from Neal’s Landing: the cabin on Marquette Island where my family has spent nearly fifty years. This place where people are at their best (and I’ve only hoped to be). Be it the hushing sound of the waves washing over the rocks on the shoreline or the feeling of solitude with no cars or roads to distract you or, really, be it this location where friends and family gather to celebrate.  Be it a million reasons between the unparalleled natural beauty or the guests who gather, this is the place for me. And summer is a fine time to be at your best, so I had to go. I’d been missing it much too long; my heart ached to be surrounded by water.

Sadly, Cole couldn’t join me as the construction on the brewery demanded his full attention. Cole has been to the island–on those cold trips in the fall–and I know that in the future, once the brewery is “fermented”, he’ll have a chance to visit with me in the summer. Although I missed my husband, I spent close to a week basking in old family stories and watching the sun set into the pine trees. Each day I saw a freighter edging out in the distance: way out in them mighty pull of Lake Huron. The ship was just a silver on the horizon between Little LaSalle and Marquette Islands.  I paddled my grandmother’s kayak to the bordering Duck and Peck Bays and saw the two nesting bald eagles dip and dive in the sky. It did rain (of course) and the weather was cool (obviously) but it didn’t stop me from lying on my favorite chaise lounge in my swimsuit and thumbing through a book with my grandmother, my mom, and my Aunt Dru by my side. I drove my grandmother’s steadfast and loyal Boston Whaler through Muskie Bay to the mainland and realized how rusty my skills are docking a boat were. Nights were spent tucked in close to the fire my mom would build–with one match, always–in the large brick fireplace. I thought I was brave enough to go  swimming but when I dipped my toes in the water I screamed; it was that cold. How impervious I was as child. I used to swim on Mother’s Day weekend. For shame. I hugged a cousin I hadn’t seen in over ten years and we traded stories about our youth spent on the Club side of the island with my grandmother and Phil, her deceased husband and a man who filled the title “grandfather” quite well for me and my brother, JD. Like the endless chain of waves, rolling in from Lake Huron to the protected and sheltered channels and bays of the island chain, I was there to reconnect with place, memory, and people.

Sailboat drifting by Little LaSalle Island.
Sailboat drifting by Little LaSalle Island.

On the page I’ve been chasing my past for over a year now–untangling, unraveling and then spinning together memories from Neal’s Landing. When I returned to the island, many things had changed, like they do in life, no matter how badly we want to freeze them in time. The water level of Lake Huron is drastically low, so low that the old boathouse is now rendered useless. It’s full of sand, not water. It is mighty troubling–just like the rapidly melting glaciers in Montana is disconcerting. Yet my love for this place hasn’t changed. Each night, after dinner, I’d wander down to the dock and watch the sun set. And I knew that I’d spent ten years running away from this place, so determined to carve out my own life among mountains and rivers of Montana, the first wave of my independence was born in the currents of Lake Huron. My childhood spent on Neal’s Landing is what directed me to Montana: In forever scanning the limitless horizon of Lake Huron to the east of the old dock, I was taught to look further and further. To grasp on to those glimmers like freighters.  To wonder what was in and beyond that great expanse of blue. And in my exploring and seeking, I realized, standing on the dock and taking in the scent of pine and cold, clean water, that just because I’ve gone west, it doesn’t mean that I can’t come home. Neal’s Landing and certainly my family has shaped me into the person who keeps her eyes trained on the horizon and while my sight line has been focused on looking up at the tops of peaks, I realized that this all started on one small densely wooded island, nestled between the mighty Lake Huron and the love of my family.

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