Paradise on the forty-fifth parallel


This is your standard camping trip report (I will limit myself to no more than 2 social/environmental critiques). Mary and I spent a long weekend on Manitou Island, ten miles out in the brilliant waters of northern Lake Michigan. The short version: it was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been.

After over a year living in south-central Michigan without making the trip to the northern part of the state, we finally used my birthday as an excuse to head up there. The trip started with a relatively short drive from Lansing to Leland, near the tip of the Leelanau peninsula, roughly where the tip of the ring finger would be on the mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula. Leland is a touristy fishing village squeezed into a narrow strip of land a few hundred yards wide between Lake Michigan and a smaller body of water. I’m not sure how much of it, if any, is still operational other than as gift shops and quaint restaurants, but the gray, weather-beaten fishing shacks looked authentic enough. We boarded the good ship Mishe-Mokwa, a ferry that took us on the hour-long journey through choppy waters. Mary got a little queasy when we ventured to the upper deck of the lurching boat to get a better view of our approaching destination, North Manitou Island.


Playing cards amid a pile of packs while waiting for the ferry in Leland


The Mishe-Mokwa pulling into the harbor to swap passengers


We boarded and were soon off


Our last close-up view of the mainland


Enjoying(?) the fresh air aboveboard

(Social commentary digression: On the boat, the discrepancy between the demographics of National Park visitors and the racial breakdown of the US population at large was clearly on display. The question is: How do you strike a good balance between these two things: 1- enticing people who don’t traditionally do any backcountry camping into parks while 2- avoiding developing some of the few places that still have a relatively small human footprint on the landscape? I have no idea, but maybe I will muse about it in a future post.)

You can read elsewhere about the history of North and South Manitou Islands. North Manitou was once home to a small community of homesteaders, and later some rich vacationers from Chicago kept summer cottages there. Now the buildings, orchards, and clearings they left behind are abandoned, and the land is managed by the National Park Service. It’s a big destination for backpackers because backcountry camping is allowed anywhere on the island. What’s more, it’s the perfect size–roughly circular and about 5 miles (8 km) in diameter. That’s small enough to explore from end to end in a couple days, but big enough for the ~100 backpackers on the island on a given summer weekend to spread out pretty darn thinly. And of course, the island abounds with natural beauty: dunes clad with thick beech-maple forests, dramatic windswept bluffs overlooking the lake, and beaches of many-hued smooth pebbles washed by bright bluish-green waves. The remoteness of the island means that we had our pick of isolated campsites in the midst of this splendor.


Packs on, we await clearance to hit the trail


An abandoned summer cottage near the dock


Mary tries to preempt blisters by the island graveyard


Humble concrete crosses mark most gravesites


Walking in the maple-beech forest inland


On a perch overlooking the lake near campsite #1


The first evening’s view of South Manitou Island

After we arrived and heard a safety briefing from the NPS ranger, Mary and I took off down the trail. We spent the next two days and nights circling the island, with numerous side detours to see abandoned barns, orchards, and the cemetery where the couple dozen hardy homesteaders are buried (including some who spent their childhood there and returned to their final resting place as recently as 2010). We were constantly serenaded by vireos, redstarts, black-throated green warblers, thrushes, and robins that breed on the island, and scolded by vast numbers of chipmunks. On the second night, we were treated to a show of three otters cavorting about 100 yards out in the waters of the lake! A gull and a tern were angrily harassing them, faking dive-bomb attacks and cawing harshly, but the playful otters did not seem to mind. Unwelcome additions to the fauna were mosquitoes and blackflies, but they were not too bad if you wore long sleeves except in a few marshier spots in the forest.

As for the quality of the camping, it couldn’t be beat. The first night we camped on a high, windy bluff in a grassy clearing overlooking the lake on the west side of the island, where the mid-July weather got downright chilly at night. The high temperature was about 70 F (21 C) each day, with sunny skies. The next night, we pitched our tent in the woods just back from a stunningly picturesque beach on the east side. Mary and I enjoyed a romantic time cooking such delicacies as Zatarain’s mixed with soy sausage and canned corn, carefully rationing a plastic water bottle filled with bourbon, and reading creepy Japanese short fiction from the early 1930s to each other.


Kitchen at campsite #1


Stirring the rice and beans for our first dinner


Sipping an adult beverage from a blue tin cup while reading and watching the sunset = living


It stayed light until around 10 PM


Apple pancakes for breakfast on Day 2: sort of successful on the camping stove


Navigating using the trail map


Swenson’s old barn on the west side of the island


Surveying the trail ahead


Cedar waxwings were eating fruit in an abandoned orchard

The terrain was mostly flat and forested, so the backpacking was pretty easy. Every couple of miles, the woods opened up into large clearings with orchards and the occasional barn, which provided interesting variety. Lake Michigan is so big that the lake at the center of Manitou Island is itself a mile or so long and great for swimming. (Yo, dogg, we heard you liked lakes, so we put a lake in your lake.) Of course, I took a dip in the Big Lake–that’s the Ojibwe meaning of the word Michigan–as well. Wonderfully refreshing.

(Environmental commentary digression: The Great Lakes are a unique and fragile treasure. We Americans, entrusted with 20% of the world’s fresh water shared among five lakes, have really messed them up. One thing we definitely noticed on our trip was the beautiful clear water that for some reason had lots of filmy algae floating around in it. Apparently, zebra mussels, which were introduced from ships discharging ballast water taken on in Eastern Europe, have proliferated, filtered particulates out of the water, making it clearer. This in turn releases algae from light limitation and causes huge booms in their biomass, with all sorts of negative consequences.)


We made a small side hike to gawk at this view on Day 2


One of the many obligatory “pure Michigan” selfies we took


Playing dice on an old truck hood in the middle of a bunch of ancient wrecked logging equipment


Mary ponders where to go next


This is the lake within the lake!


Eating Mary’s delicious homemade granola bars after swimming in Lake Michigan


The beach just next to campsite #2


Cooking Pasta-Roni on the second night




We hiked the last couple miles along the shoreline on Day 3


Piping Plover chick!


The dock where the ferry soon came to take us home

I’ll leave you with one final anecdote: On Day 3, which just so happened to be my 30th birthday, we made sure to show up extra early at the dock, not wanting to miss the ferry and be stranded for 24 hours with only a few extra rations of Zatarain’s to tide us over. There, just as we were preparing to head off the island, I started chatting with a Park Service employee who was glassing the beach with binoculars. After asking whether I had a life list, he pointed out four Piping Plover chicks that were foraging in a small puddle on the beach! One of the parents later made an appearance as well. The Piping Plover is an endangered shorebird that only nests on remote, secluded beaches, and North Manitou Island is its biggest stronghold in the Great Lakes region. What a way to end our sojourn on the island–a wonderful weekend in a beautiful place with an amazing wife!



“There is a sort of magic in the drama of the mile” *

tl;dr version: this is a shamefully self-absorbed blog post in which I brag that I ran a mile in under 5 minutes the other day. If you care to learn more, read on.

In a (not altogether rare) moment of introspection back in September 2016, Mary and I were talking about our plans for the future. As our careers develop and our lives go on through the stages of adulthood, and possibly in the future parenthood (no guarantees, Mom and Dad), our responsibilities are increasing. I realized that I had a couple of regrets, self-improvement goals that I had always wanted to do but not ever committed the time to. One was that despite being relatively adept at learning languages, I had only learned one fluently (German) and one decently (Spanish). The other was that I had never run a sub-5 minute mile. The closest I came was 5:10 in college. Almost as soon as I had those thoughts, I realized that those two things did not need to be regrets. They were both attainable goals–but both are skills that fade with time, so I immediately began to pursue them. I decided to go for the athletic goal first, followed by the linguistic goal. A few days later, on September 4, 2016, we headed to the running track at Clay High School north of the Notre Dame campus in South Bend where Mary timed me in a mile run.

can you name all of my running idols?

The mile is a very interesting distance for running. It’s one of the few non-metric distances that is still contested internationally–although it’s being replaced by the 1500m or 1600m run. One mile is exactly 1609.344 m, for you metric aficionados. That’s four laps around a standard 400-meter track with a couple extra steps thrown in. It requires a unique balance of aerobic endurance and anaerobic speed. Having neither of those things in sufficient quantity, I painfully eked out a time of 5:53. That marked the first time over the next 10 months that I would wear out Mary’s patience complaining about how slow I was.

Over the next months, including all throughout the Michigan winter, I kept up a steady schedule of training. The nice thing about the mile is that you don’t need to put in hours and hours at a time, as you would for the marathon. I never did any workout longer than about 1 hour, 5 to 6 days a week. The basic plan was to do 1 to 2 track workouts a week, starting with 200 m and 300 m repeats in the first couple months, then eventually 400 m, 600 m, and 800 m repeats. I also ran 5 to 8 miles a few times a week, sometimes doing a few sprints at the end of the run, and every few weeks a tempo run which was roughly a 5K at 6-minute mile pace. At first, running 200 m at “race pace” in 37 seconds felt like a dead sprint, but gradually longer and longer distances felt–not quite comfortable, but manageable.

The original plan was to have the whole thing wrapped up in 2 or 3 months. When that proved to be ludicrously ambitious, I decided to set a deadline of my 30th birthday: July 9, 2017. With support from a loving wife and encouragement from family and friends, my time dropped to 5:33 in October, 5:28 in November, and 5:20 in December. After a weird illness in February, I reeled off 5:15 in March and 5:09 in April. It was really gratifying to see such tangible progress and to feel fitter than at any other time in my life. I knew I could not get much faster by myself on the track so I had my eye on a few local races.

In late May, when we were visiting Mary’s family in Tennessee, they all came out to cheer Mary’s sister Carol and me in a road race. I managed 5:04 that day, followed by 5:01 a few weeks later. Now for the big reveal: On June 29 (with only 10 days to spare until my birthday), Mary and I headed to the “Bring Back The Mile” track meet at Okemos High School, just a few miles south down Hagadorn Rd. from our place in East Lansing. There, I toed the line with some fast dudes, and, the usual pre-race nerves and pessimism notwithstanding, crossed the finish line in 4:59.7! What an absolute feeling!!!

I won’t bore you any more with race report details or other self-aggrandizing minutiae. I don’t often brag on myself but I felt I deserved to just this once. Now on to the next goal, learning some spoken Mandarin–after I shave a few more seconds off my time, that is! See you at the track. (Pictures below)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(*) quote by Sir Roger Bannister