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In 2022, I had amicably ended a long term relationship and decided to rekindle my first great romance by visiting - and swimming in - all 5 of the Great Lakes.

Up north I went, cutting through the lower peninsula. Quick jump to Huron and a fresh whitefish dinner. Across the Mackinac Straits playing the obligatory song, rushing to catch sunset on Lake Superior but unable to resist stopping to catch a glimpse of Michigan - glad I did!

Sunlight streaming through break in clouds and reflecting on Lake Michigan surface
Jennifer Schlicht

Climbed alongside multiple waterfalls, up and down. Swam in Superior twice, on both ends of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Visited Kitch-iti-Kipi for the first time, a natural spring where the water is a constant 55 degrees, clear, and the most beautiful blue-green. Stopped on the side of the road and just bounced into Michigan, grateful to have this accessibility. I followed down the coast as long as I could, across the straits again and along Michigan's west coast, before reluctantly turning inland to sleep.

Didn't do this in one trip - possible, but decided to be a bit more sensible. One month later and it was time to explore Canada. Going underneath the Detroit River, cutting through Ontario (the province) until I reached Lake Erie. The shallowest of the lakes and yet the most densely populated watershed, I was pleasantly surprised at a wonderful beach, gentle slope into the water, and windmills on the horizon. Ontario (the lake) was a brief visit, but minutes after my arrival I was welcomed by a rainbow.

Huron was next and after driving through to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula I took my time, exploring the Canadian side of the lake on a bike rented from the Provincial park, stopping frequently to take a quick dip or just take it all in. Driving back to Michigan along the coast, picking beaches off the map to stop along the way, I just happened to catch a perfect sunset with a live band playing.

 A couple months later and in October, and spur of the moment decision to revisit Michigan and another National Lakeshore: Sleeping Bear Dunes, which I hadn't climbed since I was a child. Up the Leelanau peninsula and back down again, a quick long weekend break before coming back to work with a refreshed determination to carry me through election day.

Nearly everywhere I went, from a popular National Lakeshore swimming beach to a small city park, people were enjoying the lakes beside me. I traveled alone but met so many people: a retired gentleman spending his summer on a lakeside RV campsite calling me over to point out out the SS Arthur M Anderson (the last ship in contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald) barely visible on the horizon at sunrise. A group of high school friends who decided to meet every summer on the adjacent campsite invited me to join for drinks and sunset on the beach. A local astronomy club set up beside a dune to show the Moon, Saturn, and Jupiter in their telescopes to anyone who wished to catch a glimpse. So many conversations at the end of a long hike to a beautiful reward, phones exchanged to snap pictures, dogs pet, travel plans exchanged and tips given on can't miss hidden gems.

Lake Huron at sunset with silhouetted people and lifeguard stand.
Jennifer Schlicht

Of course, with love there is also pain. It hurts, deeply, to see the ones you love being hurt. The Great Lakes face many challenges - from climate change and invasive species and extraction, stormwater and nutrient runoff, sewage overflows and septic failures, plastic and PFAS pollution, aging and dangerous pipelines and corporate polluters - to name just a few.

They provide us with so much: 21% of the world's fresh, accessible surface water. 3500 native plant and animal species. Drinking water for 40 million people in the US and Canada.  We need to not take them for granted and we need to be vigilant and proactive in protecting them.

And don't forget the creeks, streams, wetlands, and rivers that nourish the greatest of lakes. We all live downstream, and so do they. It's difficult sometimes to connect in your mind that the seemingly endless freshwater seas you enjoy depend on so many little flows, but they do. We do, too.

Enjoy the lakes responsibly and appreciate them - not just while you're on vacation, but everyday.

At the end of the day, I'm just a girl, typing on a laptop, asking you to love the Great Lakes.

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Photos from Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior
Jennifer Schlicht