True North

Thanks to Stephanie Irwin for sharing her True North with us. 

When I was little the car ride up north was long.  My grandparents had a cottage in Oscoda and my family drove up from Flint most every weekend in the summers.  My mom, brother and I, bags packed, would wait eagerly for my dad to get home from work on Fridays and we’d head out of the driveway only minutes after he’d pulled in.   Just when the car ride was getting the best of me I’d hear my mom say, “There it is, the big lake behind the trees!”  From the back seat I would sit up tall, crane my neck to the right, focusing on the spaces between the trees and searching for glimpses of blue.  It was always exhilarating yet at the same time calming to connect with Lake Huron again. 

Sunrise over Lake Huron

When I was 12 my grandma sold her cottage but the big lake hadn’t seen the last of me.  We would be drawn back together some 30 years later when I was least expecting it.  I had never given much serious thought to buying a place up north, I guess figuring I could never afford that kind of luxury, until one day in January of 2006 when what had always been just a romantic notion suddenly became a real possibility.  By word of mouth I happened to hear of a little one-bedroom cottage for sale in Au Gres.  When I heard the particulars and saw a picture of the view, I don’t know if it all began to blur or if it became perfectly clear.  I could do this, by God, I could do this!   

When I told my brother I was buying a cottage and that it might be a whole new chapter in my life, he claimed that was an understatement and that it would instead be “a whole new book.”  It has indeed been just that.  It turns out the cottage is on that stretch of highway where Lake Huron is first visible, a hidden jewel called Hammel Beach.  It’s such a treasure that I just can’t keep it to myself.  I invite every friend, relative and colleague to visit, hoping they will feel and experience what I do: the fascination with nature’s simple complexities, that it lives and is conscious, and the miraculousness of it all.    

The view of the lake isn’t just a sea of blue.  There’s White Stone Point to the left, Charity Island straight ahead and Point Lookout to the right where the wealthy from Bay City used to come by boat to vacation 100 years ago.  Between Point Lookout and the island is the Gravely Shoal Lighthouse which marks the shipping channel.  Day and night, seven days a week, freighters pass by in either direction between Charity and the light.  Up the beach is a little tributary flowing into the lake called Silver Drain and there’s actually a cottage built on a bridge over it, between the lake and the highway.  That bridge I’m told was on the original road, later replaced by the highway. 

I find that I’m a better version of myself at the lake.  I read more, write more and paint again.  I walk the beach with my camera and meet neighbors.  Hammel Beach is my muse.  It even feels good to do chores and maintain the place.  There’s a hardware store/fudge shop across the road, run by a couple from Ann Arbor who moved north to live their dream.  I find that fixing the sink is more palatable when you’ve “got fudge” as their sign says.  Nearby is the Cozy Cove Resort run by Martha and Stuart.  And up the road a bit is a gas station/ice cream shop owned by my next-door-neighbors.  It’s decorated in a tropical motif inside proving even people who live in paradise have their fantasies. 

A good friend of mine, as her little boy screamed in delight upon their arrival, said, “Oh I’m in heaven.”  I agree.  When you see bald eagles soaring by on a regular basis and yet it never becomes commonplace, heavenly is the word.  Reflective sunsets make the whole sky pink and blue and lavender, sometimes with a streak of rainbow, long after the sun itself has disappeared.  You discover that the lakes have tides that are visible within half an hour’s time.  Blue herons feed in the moonlight and the swans sleep out on the water.  On a clear day the thumb is visible with the naked eye, even the new wind turbines dotting the horizon.  A friend of mine finds a Petoskey stone.  You take a tube out to the sandbar and let the waves gently carry you to shore as a loon feeds and her eight black fuzzy babies take turns riding on her back.  Children catch tadpoles, build sandcastles and wish they could stay longer. 

Stephanie Irwin is a lifelong Michigan resident.  She writes essays and has been published in magazines and newspapers.  She also takes documentary photographs of the Lake Huron shoreline, several of which have been published as well as sold through the Flint Institute of Arts.

  • Stephane Irwin

    They left off my last paragraph so here it is:

    All this is there for you. When next you get that first sight of blue between the oaks and pines, turn in and take a look or better yet a walk. Maybe your reaction will be similar to that of one of my visitors. She stepped from her car, looked out at the lake, gasped and said, “And some people say there is no God… How?”

  • Erma Thomas

    Stephane – this is great. It has evoked memories for Ken and me of the times we traveled “north to God’s country” with your Mom and Dad many years ago. Congratulations on all your accomplishments.

  • Jim Sitko

    Stephane, I enjoyed revisiting “True North”. It hardly seems possible that five years has passed since you purchased your getaway. You’ve certainly made the most of the experience. I look forward to returning this summer when I’m back on my feet. It’s always an enjoyable experience to gather with our fellow skiers for a cookout on the lake.

  • Linda Wallace

    Stephanie, You really have a gift for writing! I had the same reaction when us girls arrived at your cabin last summer. It is truely a gift and luxury to still have spectacular views that we have of the great lakes, and the view from your cabin is no exception! Take care and I truely feel blessed that I was able to get re-aquainted with you and some of the other girls from school this last year through Facebook. Congraduations on all of your accomplishments!! You have every right to be proud!

  • Tina Bindschatel

    Very nice! This is truly a great description of the “True North!”

  • Lisa P. Stevenson

    Stephanie, I too am a Michigander, and we are kindred hearts. My grandparents also had a one bedroom cottage on the Lake, and I remember those long car rides from Waterford as a little girl to the tiny village of Arcadia south of Manistee along Lake Michigan. I unfortunately moved with my family so that my dad could help tool up the new GM plant in Shreveport, LA. Now every summer, my husband and three kids make the 25 or so hour drive from Louisiana to northern MI. We have even taken my inlaws, who are as southern (or you could say “redneck” as they come!), and they fell in love as well. My kids talk excitedly about our trip all year long, and constantly ask me when we are going to move to MI. Luckily my grandmother, now 97 yrs. old, still owns her little cabin, so we have a free place to stay just a few steps from the beach. We visit her surviving friends, stroll past Victorian homes beautifully restored, and yachts and sailboats harbored in the tiny marina, search for Petosky stones, and roast marshmallows on the beach at night. I spend the rest of my time writing, painting, and doing crafts with my kids. We pick cherries and eat them till our fingers are purple. I even wrote an article I called “My True North.” I would think these details we share a very strange coincidence, except that I know there are thousands of us kids whose minds wander back there even when our bodies can’t follow to experience our own little slices of heaven. Thank you for sharing yours!
    Lisa P. Stevenson