I have left myself landed on South Manitou island, which is located in Lake Michigan, a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I am 40 years old, divorced, with a new world of self-reliance and adventure opening up to me. The dreams that I held as a young woman are now coming to fruition and one of those visions was visiting this island.
I am learning the skill of backpacking without assistance or instruction. I need to learn it my way, without criticism, which tends to kick off my perfectionism which holds me in a state of inertia if I allow it. I was struggling with too much gear at the island's National Park Service landing dock, complaining about my stubbornness, weaving on the wooden boardwalk, heading towards what my map indicates is Weather Station campground, a mere mile walk away from where the ferry is docked.
I'm going to backtrack a little bit before that moment of departure and appear among the small group gathered inside the old boathouse which once contained the island's lifesaving station vessels. The building is a registration point for campers and we are listening to the park ranger recite the behavioral boundaries that we agree to in order to maintain the delicate island's ecological balance.
I stood watching a stray insect fly erratically through the rectangle of noon light as it began to bend into parallelograms on the floor through the open door at the south end of the building. The moldering smell of old wood drifted faintly past my nostrils. My eyes caught what I thought was a barn swallow swoop in a swift curve through the north door's large opening, then halt in a flash of flickering sapphire, then sapphire, entering its nest.
The bird's iridescent blue, the deepestcolor of a black opal's palette, prodded my memory back to the day that I had held a barn swallow in my hands, when I lived in a farmhouse on the Illinois prairie. Coming home one day to the house, which sat marooned in the corn and bean fields of the empty, constantly windy prairie, I had left the front porch door open in order to retrieve groceries from my truck. Prairie animals find farmhouses are useful oases for various purposes and they are not shy about congregating close to them. As I came out from the kitchen for a second trip outside, I was startled by the buzzing wings of what I first thought was a bat, but realized quickly was a barn swallow, trapped within the confines of the porch, battering itself in terror against the windows, which offered the poor bird a confusing promise of freedom. It had apparently missed its turn for the garage or the grain bin and slipped inside the porch.
I wanted to see it closely, but had to balance the desire of handling the bird with the possibility of scaring it into death. I chose to handle it, for it seemed determined to obsess itself at one spot of the window, rather than edging towards the open door, at least, that was my justification for its capture. Birds rate rather high in my panoply of heathen animal gods and the chance to hold one with this kind of star power was irresistible. I held it in my hands, the tiny heart barely felt as a fleeting tapping by the sense of my skin and I was so moved by the spectrum color of blue that its feathers were reflecting to my vision. I knew that the bird felt as though I would eat it, but, of course, that was not my intention. It was quiet, resigned to its fate and did not struggle. I took it outside, not wanting to let it go, wanting to look and look at the colors that words had many descriptions for but no ears to hear save vision.
How can you describe the color of a living, vibrant light which teases your eyes with such pleasure? The fact tenders tell us that bluejays aren't blue and great blue herons aren't blue. A niggling point. Maybe barn swallows aren't blue either, but what matters is the eye's perception of beauty, that it is only what it is and nothing more. The spiritual traditions that insist on reincarnation seem to assume it is a step down to become an animal, but I believe them wrong. Since I am far from perfect, I aspire to return as a bird with feathers reflecting sapphire glints and the ability to curve a good, graceful swoop in flight and subsequent, delicate landing into the rafters of an old lifesaving station boathouse on an island in Lake Michigan. That is a high step up the evolutionary scale in my eyes.
The boathouse swallow entered its nest just about the time that the park ranger was explaining the foibles of the island critters. He warned us that the island was inhabited by "microbears", the eastern chipmunk, tamias striatus, a member of the squirrel family that will chew through backpacks, tents, and other tough material to get food. The name tamias means "storer" in Latin. When I got to the campground location later, I put my carry-ins down on the trail while I wandered up and down to look for a good camp site. As if to remind me of the efficacy of the lecture, I returned in a few minutes to see one of the little striped devils sitting on my pack, looking for all the world like it had struck a creek knee deep flowing in chipmunk gold.
I flashed on that movie "Gremlins", watching the tiny, striped vagrant sitting on my personal property. Its expression suggested experience with this kind of humanoid negligent trust and it seemed to register surprised, disbelieving disappointment at my sudden and unwelcome return. The chipmunk went skittering away in their typical drawn out kissing chatter of excited curses and I received a useful reminder of the aggressive survival behavior of one of the local tribes for my trouble. Needless to say, I had to further disappoint the little bugger and tie my food into a bag, finding the bare branch of a dead tree to hang it securely away from all voracious pests.
Picking up where I left off, before this momentary interlude, after we had been handed around a photograph of the infamous and least wanted poison ivy plant and heard the short lecture about low impact camping, a very good thing indeed as well as a perfect, practical example of Buddhist mindfulness for the uninitiated neophyte, we were released to the run of the island.
After humping my overloaded packages of stuff for the mile-long distance to the campground and weathering the drill with the chipmunk, I am only a little sweaty. I piled my gear near the stake where the ranger said that shelters should be placed and on the rough hewn benches forming an "L" in the middle of the site. I thought about the endless strings of spider web, placed like invisible trip wires at face and chest level nearly every few feet along the trail path. The silky strings are visible when I stop to focus my eyes along the trail's meandering of brown soil and pale yellow sand. The gossamer disappears and reappears in the play of deepening light and shadow of the forest afternoon, they are strung haphazardly from bushes and trees like utility lines hung by some crew of workers who lost their collective minds one afternoon.
Some of the spiders are a pale, greenish gray; shy, reclusive workers, spinning away in this basement of practice looms waiting for sister Arachne to come and weave in her contest against the mighty and wise Athena. I make a mental note to try and find out the answer about what species is producing these tripwires and for what nefarious purpose. The slightly irritating feeling of playing Gulliver to the spiders' little people will later put me in an anxious and annoyed state and feeling for and peeling the fine web lines away from my face becomes frustrating.
This is definitely an animal's island, and, apparently, I've been charged with examining my relationship to this concept. This is a laughably level playing field for experienced backpackers, and thank goodness that it is a very easy place to practice my acquisition of backcountry skills. The fact that there are no predators of any threat here is soothing, but humbling, for I would be knee deep in some kind of trouble if there were more challenge. My desire for self-reliance is guiding me to just what I need at my particular skill level and my own pace. Still, I am already beginning to entertain the notion of becoming an island vagrant, roasting chipmunks catching fish and eating berries from the abandoned orchards, hiding out like a crazed female Rambo, but they'd discover me soon enough and float me off the place in an inflatable straitjacket and I don't want that.
I find that I have whined about the small weight burden of my pack for nothing and for a very small measure of labor, I have a spot overlooking the Manitou passage, directly across from the Sleeping Bear. To say that it is a beautiful campsite, to say that the day is picture postcard beautiful, seems superfluous and a run of the mill observational cliche, but I have already fallen so helplessly in love with this island that I cannot think lyrically. All I can murmur inside my cranium are voiceless sighs and I breathe greedy sucks at the fresh air floating off the lake in a very conscious tingle of vital pleasure. I can be an animal here and no one will mind and likely not notice. I'm sure it is miserable here when it rains, just like everywhere else in Michigan and the snow and ice keep the isolated island stored away in the refrigerator/freezer during the winter months, but it isn't raining and it isn't January.
With the tent set up, my food safely stored, and plenty of water to drink, I walk into the warm afternoon, towards the promise of a shipwrecked freighter, a stand of 300-500 year old cedar trees, one free afternoon tanning session drifting along hot sand dunes, and a blessed solitude. I am a lucky woman.