Chesterton Tribune

Book chronicles woman's walk around Lake Michigan

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TERRI FINCH HAMILTON,

The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Loreen Niewenhuis walked around Lake Michigan, and you can’t help but envy her — sand between her toes, the song of seagulls.

“I have hundreds of pictures of road kill,” Niewenhuis said cheerfully, on the phone from her home in Battle Creek.

“I was walking through Gary and I was really bored,” she said. “I was walking on U.S. 12 for miles. So I started taking pictures of trash, then I started taking pictures of road kill.

“Rabbits, raccoons, porcupines, opossum,” she recited. “Porcupine explode when you hit them — they have no muscle structure. Once I saw just the severed head of a porcupine — there was no body in sight.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

Your book is called “A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach.”

“I thought there would be a lot more beach than there was,” Niewenhuis said.

Oh, there were beautiful beaches, Niewenhuis said.

“But the terrain ranged from sandy beaches to the side of U.S. 12 strewn with trash,” she said. She walked past oil refineries and steel mills in Gary, Ind., and scaled eroding clay cliffs in Wisconsin.

“In the Upper Peninsula, it was mostly limestone — jagged teeth in the jaw of the shore that I had to climb over.

“There were wetlands, and sometimes I ended up in a bog,” she said. “There were primordial forests I had to thrash through. There were days I could have used a machete. If I didn’t have a GPS, I’d probably still be out there, walking in circles.”

Luckily, Niewenhuis, 48, found her way back.

Why walk around Lake Michigan? Mid-life crisis?

Mid-life adventure, she said.

“As moms, we give and give and give, and it’s important to allow ourselves to do something for ourselves,” said the mother of two sons. One was in college, the other in high school.

“I needed to break up my day-to-day routine,” Niewenhuis said. “The tasks around the house never end. I wanted an adventure that had a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Her husband, she said “was dubious.”

“He didn’t think it was necessary,” Niewenhuis said. “At that point in my life, it was the most necessary thing for me to do.”

She tackled the hike in 10 segments spread over seven months. On the final days of winter, she took her first steps south from Chicago’s Navy Pier, and, with brief breaks between segments, completely encircled the lake and approached the same spot from the north in the first days of fall.

It took 64 days of determined walking, averaging 16 miles a day.

“I wanted an adventure so big that there was a chance I’d fail,” Niewenhuis said. “I wanted to have to push myself in order not to fail.”

She got it.

At one point the blisters on her feet were so intense one formed under her toenail and the toenail fell off.

With 100 miles to go until the end, she looked in a mirror one day and saw the whites of her eyes were yellow.

She went to an urgent care center, then the hospital and learned she had a stuck gall stone and an irritated pancreas.

The surgeon told Niewenhuis she was surprised she was functioning at all and that she wanted to admit her.

“I said, ‘I can’t — I have 100 miles to go. Just make it better.’”

So they took out a huge gall stone and, with reservations, sent Niewenhuis on her way — with instructions to see a surgeon when she got home to have her gall bladder out.

Niewenhuis is an author of short stories and a former medical researcher with a master’s degree in science. Fascinated by the environment, she saw incomparable natural beauty, she said, but also evidence of it being destroyed.

“In Wisconsin I saw the largest algae bloom I had ever seen,” she said. “I could smell cattle waste on the shore. Waste from a feed lot was making its way to the lake and fertilizing the algae so it was growing like crazy.”

She saw lots of Mylar balloons and their ribbons littering the lakeshore.

“I decided I’m never buying one of those balloons again,” she said.

“One thing I really appreciated was that I could have a long thought,” Niewenhuis said of her walk. “A complex thought, uninterrupted by the phone or the computer.”

There was time to ponder her future.

“The lake is so immense,” she said. “I realized I’ve been here over 40 years and that’s half a sigh in time’s eye. We are so impermanent. Each day is important.”

She learned a lot about herself, she said, in the time outside her comfort zone.

“I saw that I can do this,” Niewenhuis said. “You break through a wall, in a way. When you consider the future, limits are not there in the way they used to be.

“Every day there were obstacles that needed problem solving,” she said. “I accumulated a list of skills I didn’t know I had. There are thousands of little streams that connect to Lake Michigan. With each one I had to decide: can I jump across it? Can I cross it on a downed tree? Do I use plastic trash bags as waders to get across?”

She laughs.

“It wasn’t all a stroll on the beach.”

Niewenhuis is pondering her next trip — maybe a walk around five Great Lakes. “I called this ‘the adventure of a lifetime,’” she said, “but then I realized it would be sad if that were the only one.”

The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

 

 Posted 6/28/2011