Beaver Island, Lake Michigan NASA
We departed from a small airstrip on the shore of Northern Michigan, near the town of Charlevoix. Our destination was Beaver Island, referred to by locals as the “Other Emerald Isle.” It was situated in a small group of green atolls, thirty–some miles off shore.
In the firmament our plane was buoyant, incessantly lifted up and set into the next rising air tide. It was like a county fair joyride, the difference lay in the upward surges happening in feral air, straining the aluminum wings with an insistent flexing and groaning.
The pilot was 19-ish, rough built and quiet, lacking any fear and obvious emotion. He was a stark contrast to the moss-green forests below, where our forward motion revealed clearings and hidden lakes amid the dense charcoal-green expanse. The temperature of the island air, rising from the ground below, would hastily push us higher, and as suddenly as we rose, we would plummet, not feeling gravity for a moment or two. I was paralyzed with fear, but I soon realized we had returned to our original height, with the plane’s altimeter re-measuring a safe descent. We caught the scent of unfamiliar flora and dampness. Though we had fallen like a stone moments before, the new scent was a balm to my emotions. Just over the tops of the trees, we seemed to be bouncing on an amiable, invisible cushion.
When we neared the end of our descent, I felt relief as the plane ceased its creaking and bouncing, setting us slowly down onto a broad green pasture, where the gaps in the trees beyond the runway revealed an endless expanse of aqua-green water….this was the center of Lake Michigan.
We landed with a smoothness that reminded me of a curry brush across the flawless coat of a thoroughbred. We were gliding across a silky plait of perfumed tresses. It enveloped the wheels of our plane and held fast against our motion, cautioning our re-entry onto the ground. This was a splendid moment…
As we coasted to a stop, I bolted from the plane’s door onto the ground. The sudden lack of fear made me a bit giddy. I barely caught my bag as my brother threw it from the craft. He confidently stepped onto the grass. I was finding my breath.
“Dammit bro! How in God’s name did I ever let you talk me into this shit? Do they have any clothing shops around, I need a change!”
“What’s with you G?...What? Never been in a four-seater?”
“Yeah, but with a real pilot and some explanation about rising air and stuff…damn!”
My brother had that big-brother smirk that went back-and-forth between disgust and concern. He picked up his bag before the dust settled and he walked towards the cab waiting on the runway. He opened the trunk of the cab, threw his bag in and looked back at me. I could tell he was not surprised to see me still standing dazed, seeming to have more questions.
“Gary! Come on man! I’m paying this guy by the minute! Could you please let go of the drama? We’re here now…come on!”
The cabbie was doing the best he could to avoid potholes and wandering deer along the way to Saint James, the little harbor City of Beaver Island. Any ground transportation was fine with me after the plane-ride. The view from the ground, as we passed numerous lakes and natural meadows made me think of a few of the storybook illustrations that fueled my childhood imagination. For some reason I still believed in an unspoiled, balanced vision of nature. if you were a good person, you had simply to find it, hidden and waiting. It was nestled in the backwaters and dark corners of canyons and mountain valleys, or in deep in caves with natural springs, fresh air and great natural windows in the rock ceilings that exposed the sometimes torpid underground life to the glory of the sky. In these warm recesses, the earth could lock me in. Regardless of my fear, I knew the importance of flight , but waiting to arrive by ground in my travels gave me ample time, in my imagination, to experience air travel. That could suffice.
At the edge of the beautiful little harbor of St. James, we stopped at the entrance to the small public beach. My brother paid the cabdriver, we collected our bags and walked towards a small structure; the changing hut. I had recovered my nerves, but still needed something; perhaps a liquid refreshment.
“I thought we might have a drink in town before swimming. You said the Shamrock was the town meeting house. Let’s check it out!”
“Consider how deeply satisfying the cocktails will be after a vigorous swim G. You wanted me to teach you how to snorkel. Believe me, you’ll be ready for a drink when we get through.”
Under the surface of a warm lake, this lake, with water clear enough to see further down than the light was able to reach, I knew he was right and I could find some adventure and exhilaration to erase the terror of the plane ride. There was a small world to explore, and my brother’s instruction would offer possibilities I would have skipped otherwise. I’d really never swum any deeper than most conventional swimming pools.
We donned our trunks and headgear, waded to the beach-floor’s still visible edge and stood for a moment gazing out into the circular harbor. Looking back down to our feet, the water beyond the drop-off point was deeply hued in blues, aqua and reddish-green. The optical distortion made the space bellow seem endless.
“Now, you want to remember normal breathing is the best way to prepare to hold your breath. Normal breaths then hold it and plunge down. You want to get down and see the stuff on the bottom. Place your arms to your sides, and plunge down…like a javelin. Don’t push it. When you need a breath, slowly resurface and give yourself a few moments to re-oxygenate.”
“What’s down there?”
“Well…we can find out.”
“Don’t do that shit where you disappear and then come up somewhere out of sight. I’ll freak out.”
“I won’t do that. This is serious stuff. Come on!”
He dove into the darker water with me close behind. I saw him make his body vertical with his head down, then plunging like a pasty white seal, he disappeared to the depths beyond the sunlight. I floated a few feet away, and when I couldn’t see his body any longer, I was mildly alarmed. I wondered if I was seeing one of those visual metaphors poets write about where we confront our mortality...or stupidity. Seeing his kicking legs and flippers disappear into the darkness made me uncomfortable, but I sensed he would be okay.
In a few moments, I saw him coming back up to the surface. He was rising slowly and gracefully. Waving me up as we both broke the surface, taking a large breath in unison. He was smiling as we faced each other, treading water and laughing.
“Come on down with me this time. I saw something…I want to get it.”
“Ok…one, two, three!”
We both turned and plunged downward. My brother was slightly in front of me. With my arms at my sides, I pumped my flippers so vigorously that I passed him and brushed him as he turned into me, swimming to a certain spot on the bottom. I was astonished at the flecks of sunlight interspersed with the shadows that made it easy to see this part of the lake floor. He pushed my shoulder, then pointed to a spot where there were some large timbers scattered in a flat area. We swam deeper. He pushed ahead and touched the floor surface with his hand. I could see through the dispersed debris that he was clutching something. He pointed up and I shot upwards beside him. After a few seconds we broke the surface at the same moment.
We swam to the shallows and found areas to touch with our feet so we could stand. He held something up. It was a heavily corroded chain; a dog chain. Several aluminum tags were attached. They were anodized and less affected by the water. He read the engraving on the red, heart-shaped one.
“You won’t believe this. It says ‘Reefer.’ You had a dog you called Reefer. Back in the late 60’s…remember?”
“Yeah! Heh! Now that's a kinda' creepy coincidence. You remember him jumping out of the car in Riverside Park? I looked for him for a long time, but I really think he had a bowl and a bed at someone's house by evening. He was one of the great ones. I only had him for a couple of weeks. Remember when he swam in the Little Arkansas trying to follow us to the dunes?”
My brother thought for a moment.
“He was really like another guy, just smaller and hairy. That’s the kind of dog to have on an island like this. He would probably be more popular than anyone. I’m sure that kind of dog would ride in a plane really well."
I was remembering.
“He would have been your faithful office dog Bro. Whenever someone showed up, he’d let you know. I think a law office needs a good dog. Maybe this coincidence is some sort of sign.”
My brother smiled.
“I need to lthink about it. I'd be happy with a dog like that. I think about him once in a while.”
It was such a strange, wonderful thing.This small discovery took us back to a time we both remembered so clearly. That dog was one of the things that brought us together as friends, finally understanding each other’s humor and moving beyond the sibling crap and general enmity most brothers have.
We were a little chilled, but also tired, in a good way. We dried, dressed and walked to the King Strang Hotel. We made small talk, but we had to yell between the sounds of an air-horn from a ship entering the harbor. The air was mild and smelled of lilacs. My brother’s room was small, but when I saw the couch, I knew it would be just fine. We dumped our things, strolled over to the Shamrock Tavern, and ordered a pitcher of Guinness.
The mood was warm, with the local folks laughing and singing across the tavern hall. The two of us sat and mused on what we might do tomorrow. The picher was already half empty.
My brother looked up towards the front of the tavern and held up his index finger, the waitress nodded and placed another pitcher on deck.
After a long draught he said:
“You know, the Hotel is named after a Mormon King. King Strang. He broke with the other Mormons about 14 years after the assassination of Joseph Smith in Illinois around 1830. He brought a group of followers to this island and was crowned as the only monarch to ever rule in North America.”
“What about The Mormons in Utah?"
I was curious.
“Strang broke with them and established his own sect. At one point they controlled this island, then, as with so many utopian societies, things went sour and Strang was assassinated too.”
“Man, there’s a book in there somewhere.”
“Yeah, a few have been written, but I’d like to write the definitive history of Strang and his Mormon Kingdom. That would be a great retirement project.”
We sat silent for a while. My mind was painting a complex picture of this former Mormon Kingdom, and I could almost see my brother’s mind envisioning the story. Then, as brothers often do, we drank more, and the subjects ranged wider. We traded our blubbering thoughts on family, the uncertain future, and building our collections of jokes and stories we could one day publish, or at least pass on to the little ones yet to come.
Northern Michigan, early 1980’s photographer unknown