Features

Loreen Niewenhuis

The Great Lakes trekker keeps on walking

Ah, how Lake Michigan draws us with its beaches, dunes, waves, sunsets. We have our favorite places: a state park, a lighthouse, a “secret spot.” We sit and admire the lake or stroll the water’s edge. But to trek the entire 1,000-mile shoreline? Do we love the lake that much?

Loreen Niewenhuis does.

Niewenhuis, who grew up in suburban Detroit and now lives in Battle Creek, has not only trekked the entire shoreline of Lake Michigan, but also walked another 1,000
miles on the shores of the other four Great Lakes and explored 1,000 miles of Great Lakes islands by kayak, bicycle or on foot. And she’s captured all of this in three books about her adventures, the latest of which will be released this month. This new book, A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Island Adventure, is an extension of her first and second books, A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach (2011) and A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk (2013).

In her new book, Niewenhuis explores 30 islands of the Great Lakes, from the wilds of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to Montreal Island, a modern metropolis on the St. Lawrence River. Niewenhuis learned many lessons and experienced many revelations from her first 2,000 miles of lake trekking, but the island adventure intrigued her the most. “There are so many distinctive islands in our Great Lakes, each with its own historical and geological character,” she says.

Niewenhuis began her lake adventures in 2008, at age 45. “I felt something pull at me, goading me to take on something bigger than myself, to challenge myself in a big way,” Niewenhuis writes in A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach. Before that adventure, she considered spending weeks in a forest, but turned instead to Lake Michigan, her favorite body of water. She thought, “Why not walk its shoreline day after day until I had walked all of it, captured it in my muscles, recorded it in my body?”

That fall she told her husband, Jim, and sons, Ben and Lucas, then in their late teens, “This is the adventure I must have.”

Niewenhuis began to prepare for her adventure by jogging and training at a gym. With the intent to “keep as close to the water as possible,” she studied maps and satellite images of the lakeshore, beaches, parks, commercial and industrial structures, and the “wild expanse of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

She also researched the locations of coastal newspapers, electronic media outlets, libraries and independent bookstores. With a master’s degree in biological science from Wayne State University and another master’s in fine arts for writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, Niewenhuis had committed herself to documenting her adventure, and these literary businesses would be the conduits through which she would deliver her story.

Plus, having worked in medical research at Henry Ford Hospital, among others, she saw a connection between sterile laboratory environments and the great outdoors. “It’s all science,” she says in an interview. “I love science and I love writing. The adventure of trekking — and writing about it — allows me to use all those parts of myself.”

Niewenhuis started her trek around Lake Michigan on March 16, 2009, on Navy Pier in Chicago. The temperature was in the 60s, warm for the last days of winter. With the sun glistening over the great expanse of water in front of her, she looked south through clear, bright air, feeling thrilled, scared and “a bit overwhelmed at the scale” of what she was about to begin.

But begin she did, walking through Millennium Park, then past Adler Planetarium, Meigs Field and marina after marina. This part of the walk was easy enough, thanks to smooth city pathways. But then came the “industrial horrorscape” of Lake Michigan’s southern tip: oil refineries, steel mills, networks of railroad tracks and highways that forced Niewenhuis to backtrack and see “many places to dump a body,” she says, well aware of South Chicago’s infamy for violence, Yet, she endured, staying that first night at a bed & breakfast where she had a reservation.

On March 20, she reached Union Pier, having walked 72 miles — the roughest miles — in five days. After a four-day respite at home, she resumed her walk, trekking 53 miles to South Haven in the next three days.

Six months later, on Sept. 26, 2008, and four days after the autumnal equinox, Niewenhuis returned to Navy Pier, on foot, from the north. Over 64 days, divided into 10 segments with recuperative rest breaks at home, she walked 1,019 miles, or an average of 16 miles per day, 80 percent of the time alone, with either a small sling pack and food or a full-fledged backpack with camping gear. She wore through three pairs of hiking boots.

Niewenhuis spent the next two years crafting her first book, writing about Lake Michigan’s nuances, its geology and hydrology, its history and economy, its ecosystems for fish and fowl, and the pollution that threatens all. “As citizens, we need to be aware and vigilant of our Great Lakes,” she says, expressing disappointment at states and communities that industrialize most of their shorelines.

”I had the expectation that I could just explain how beautiful Lake Michigan is. And it is. But, as I hiked, I also saw the abuses and the contortions, the dunes that were carved away for industry, the many Superfund sites that are still being cleaned up. And I realized that, even though these waters are vast, they’re still fragile.”

So it’s no wonder that trekking around the world’s fifth largest lake only whetted Niewenhuis’ appetite for more. Near the end of her 1,000-mile journey, her “adventure of a lifetime” morphed into “This can’t be the only one; this is too much fun.”

Why not walk another 1,000 miles, she thought, this time touching the shoreline of all five Great Lakes?

Thus, Niewenhuis’ second trek began in April 2012, extending from Port Clinton to Bay City — 302 miles in 23 days. Continuing northward, she walked Michigan’s entire Lake Huron shoreline. Then came two segments of Lake Superior, a stretch of Lake Ontario, and a retracing of the Sleeping Bear Dunes shoreline on Lake Michigan. The adventure ended Oct. 20, 2012, at Niagara Falls.

“It was the grandest finish line ever, with the waterfall and the beautiful trail on the Canadian side,” she says.

By this time, thousands of fans were following her through newspaper columns, radio and television reports, her website, and social media. “Walk with me,” Niewenhuis had invited readers in her first book. And many did just that — either vicariously or physically, here and there along the way.

Ben and Lucas were with their mom at Niagara, as they had been from time to time earlier. So were another 50 people, ascending 300 feet, a challenging incline even for a person in average health.

Niewenhuis’ account of this apex is especially powerful, fueled by the energy of her entourage as well as the roaring waters at their side. “This was a moment for me to think back along the hundreds of miles I had covered this year … path and road, rock and sand, marsh and swamp and bog, in two countries. I had seen the earth split open or tunneled to extract limestone and gypsum, sandstone and copper … raging rivers diverted to generate electricity … ravages of urban decay, but also revitalization of riverfronts.”

But this termination point proved to be just another open door in Niewenhuis’ journey. She has become a face for preservation, partnering with environmental organizations such as the Alliance for the Great Lakes, The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. She also speaks at bookstores throughout the Great Lakes states. “I love giving these presentations, and they are very well received,” she says. “I use videos and maps and graphics to connect with an audience.”

Because of her adventures, Niewenhuis has participated in a study of moose bones on Isle Royale, piping plover research on the Manitou Islands, and aquatic exploration with the U.S. Geological Survey. And she accepted an invitation to ride the schooner Scorpion for the bicentennial reenactment of the Battle of Lake Erie, which, with 17 tall ships, was the largest naval reenactment in American history.

All of these endeavors, she says, were away from the mainland — either afloat or on islands — and they planted the seeds for yet another adventure. Why not a third book to complete the trilogy? A book about the Great Lakes’ 35,000 islands?

In June 2013, Niewenhuis began her third adventure: a walking, biking and kayaking journey that took her to islands in all five Great Lakes: the Apostle Islands, the Manitous, Manitoulin (the world’s largest island in fresh water), Kelleys and South Bass islands in Lake Erie, and a few of the Thousand Islands. Plus, she kayaked through many more. This third trip concluded with another grand finale — a walk around the storied Mackinac Island, with a finish on the veranda at the Grand Hotel. “It was a revelation to explore these islands,” she says. “Each has its own character in and of itself.”

To seek revelation and be aware of individual characteristics of islands says much about Loreen Niewenhuis. “I like to be with my own thoughts, and these adventures were transcendent,” she says. “I found that I could really connect with the environment in a way that I didn’t think was possible.”

Niewenhuis says she learned that she “could push well past” the walls that she thought were in her life. “The effort of hiking fell away as though the earth was turning beneath my feet. I felt completely connected with what was around me: sights, sounds, smells—everything sharpened. And the physicality of moving over the land was gone. It was almost magical in some way. It changed me.”

Loreen Niewenhuis’ books are available many places where books are sold. To learn more about her adventures, visit laketrek.com.

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CHECK OUT:

Loreen Niewenhuis' Upcoming Appearances:
  • Booksigning, 5-8 p.m. May 1 (during ArtHop), Nature Connection, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall

  • Great Lakes Islands presentation, 6:30 p.m. May 12, Portage District Library, 300 Library Lane

Find a full list of Niewenhuis' events throughout the Great Lakes states at laketrek.com/author-events.