Growing Up in Lake Country

Growing up in Michigan meant that I was always figuring out how to make decisions. And they all had to do with water. That’s because Michigan has over eleven thousand inland lakes, which means that each of the 83 counties has an average of a dozen lakes within its boundaries.

Kalamazoo County, where I grew up, has at least sixteen lakes. These aren’t cheesy reservoirs, like they have out west where I now live, but natural incubators of minnows, weeds, and snakes.

In the summer, I had the option of whether to be in or on the water. On the water meant sailing our little Sunfish, paddling the rowboat, driving the used and very rigged-up faded red motorboat with the too-heavy motor, or flying behind said motorboat on my water skis (the rare times I could pretend to some athletic skills).

Since I was a girly girl, for the most part, I usually had to have help sailing, paddling, or driving any of our boats. Therefore, on the water ended up meaning setting up my chaise lounge on the dock, covering it with a beach towel, and flipping open a book.

Young teen me on the lake

Young teen me on the lake

In the water meant floating around on some kind of well-worn flotation device, too lazy to get out, and becoming waterlogged in the process. This could be accomplished out past the weeds, but we were on the shallow, swampy side of the lake, and not too far out there was a large plateau of shallow water, lily pads, and bullfrogs. And other creatures as yet unknown to humankind. Therefore, I didn’t actually go in the water very often.

If I did decide to enter the water, I had to plan it out. Sometimes I’d walk slowly into the water. Depending on the weather, I’d do this either to get used to the cold or to luxuriate in the balmy water cooling my over-heated skin. This now brings back memories of stepping onto the lake bottom, its wet sand massaging my feet when I dug my toes in.

No, wait. I’d forgotten how we got such a smooth lake floor. It’s coming back to me now. Dad used to put me to work with a hoe summer mornings, and by lunchtime my back would be temporarily bent over and painful if I tried to stand up straight. He did plenty of hoeing himself, too, but much of the time we had to reach down closer to the roots and yank with our hands. I’d come up snorting water out of my nose and tossing back my wet hair so I didn’t have to smooth it with my hands which were slippery with weed-slime.

To enter the water for fun instead of work, instead of wading slowly, I’d cannon ball off the dock into the deep water with my head tucked so that the water didn’t blast into my skull. Then I’d swim to the old raft which floated atop four watertight barrels. From there, I could stay clear of the majority of greasy weeds.

The next decision I would over-think—and this only happened when I actually did get over my squeamishness with the weeds and the animals flitting past my toes underwater–was how best to haul my soaking wet self out of the lake, heavy water sloshing out of the seat of my bathing suit, threatening to take the bottom half of the two-piece off with it, and how fast I could scramble for a towel to get warm and not end up with skin like a plucked chicken.

It’s amazing that there was yet another decision after my ambivalence with our marsh-called-lake. I had to figure out how to make it through the winter when the lake had semi-frozen into a giant Icee. Come the first thaw, we would head out to the lake. No matter that we were still wearing jackets, no matter how many mosquitoes had sucked my blood the summer before, no matter how many water snakes I’d witnessed peeking their heads above the water line like miniature Nessies, I always wanted to go back.

Do you have any water memories from your childhood?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing

42 responses to “Growing Up in Lake Country

  1. I loved your water story until we got to the snakes part. Holy cow! Snakes swimming around in the water with you?? Gaah!! You have to be the bravest of them all!!

  2. Wow, you look like a professional on those water skis, Luanne. 🙂
    I was always fearful of swimming in water where I could see what was swimming around me.
    We had an in-ground swimming pool in our back yard and that’s where I lived during the summer months. I loved visiting the ocean, but I typically built sandcastles along the shore.

    • I think people who grow up around pools are usually afraid of lakes, but we mainly had lakes, not pools. I can’t remember going in a pool until I was in 8th or 9th grade, now that I think of it. Other than at the YWCA, of course, where the old indoor pool smelled like a vat of chlorine bleach instead of water.

  3. Nice story Luanne, I reckon those days you vividly described must be fun! I hardly venture out near the lake near my sleepy hometown, though I’m fascinated by water.

  4. I could relate to the part about coming out of the water, with the water-logged bathing suit bottoms and in many cases, the problem of where to step in the marshy part of the gooey shores of our lakes. You look fab in the water-skiing pic.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one with the bathing suit problem!! And, yes, the where to put your foot down! I always imagined there were critters living down a few inches in the goo–and there probably were! Thanks re the photo. Oh to go back to those skinny days haha. I didn’t realize I was skinny when I was skinny and now I wish I had known so I could have figured out how to stay that way!

  5. I grew up on water skis on the Chattahoochee River. Some of the best memories of my childhood.

    • Oh SK, that sounds wonderful! One great thing about water skiing besides the fun is that you don’t have to worry about snakes and stuff because the boat clears them out of the way for you first! 😉 I’m sure I’ve seen your beautiful river many times, but I’ve never been out on it.

  6. This sounds wonderful! So descriptive of the lakes and yet you also tied them into your own, teenaged personality and how those lakes affected you. Or rather, how you affected it, and your memory of it.

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you liked it! I want to go back and hoping that I can this summer! Once I figure out if I can get away from work to go, I have to steel myself for the changes, but I think there will be things that haven’t changed at all either.

  7. My water memories involve trying to learn how to swim at the YMCA. Growing up in an Asian household, my parents had a such a fear of water and never let us stray too far even if my sister and I were in no real danger of drowning. Consequently, we spent many vacations looking at the water, but never experiencing it.

    • Rudri, I do understand that fear because although my parents had no problem letting everyone run around a big lake in our backyard, when I was little and we went to Lake Michigan they were so fearful and made me wear a bulky orange life vest the whole time I was at the shore. I was so jealous of the kids running free in their bathing suits!

  8. My grandparents lived on a lake. (in a three-lake community) I spent my childhood summers there. Sometimes other breaks or weekends here or there, but always summer. My memories are simple, but delicious. Diving, swimming, catching minnows, fishing, boating, water skiing, digging out crawdads, hanging out under docks when it rained, hoping to never find a water moccasin. Oh, they were the best days.
    I am so deeply impacted by it, that all of my fiction works take place in lake settings.

    • Joey, yes! I so understand that about lakes having a big impact on your writing! I’ve written a lot of poems that take place at the lake, and I feel it wanting to creep into my memoir. It’s such a primeval and/or archetypal feeling. Digging out crawdads must have been great! I actually was afraid of under the dock. It was kind of like that space between my bed and the wall when I was a kid–where everything scary and unknown lurked. My brother used to catch bullfrogs for a local restaurant, but I couldn’t bring myself to “hunt” although I thought the big bullfrogs were kind of creepy looking (not like toads, which I loved).

      • Bullfrogs are a lil creepy, I agree. I love toads, too. We had them everywhere, all the time when we lived in Georgia — not so much here. When the back 40 gets floody, I can hear them 🙂

  9. I love swimming! We used to be able to swim in our reservoir, and the big kids could swim out to a big raft in the middle of the reservoir and hang out there. We’re not allowed to do that anymore.

    • Why can’t you swim in the reservoir any more? I used to love to swim out to the raft. It was such fun to have a destination that was smack in the middle of the water! And fun to play those games of keeping the other team off the raft, though any means possible! Glad you’re enjoying the beginnings of your new job, Robyn!

  10. Luanne, my favorite place in Michigan is Mackinac Island, and for a Kansas- and Colorado-based girl–where water isn’t abundant–the island was a wonderful change. You took the water theme and wove it into a wonderful, full post!

    • Oh what a lovely place. And I can’t help but think of the movie “Somewhere in Time.” Thank you so much for your visit and your kind comments, Marylin!

  11. Ah I’m a water baby. And my babies are water babies (not so much ‘babies’ anymore but I digress). There were two muddy and shallow natural lakes on the outskirts of the African city I grew up in and that is where you would find my sister and I on weekends. They were unsafe back then and apparently deadly now because of various pollutants and parasites. But that didn’t stop us from wind surfing and canoeing and it goes without saying 🙂 swimming.
    Now that I live in bountiful Canada (lakes everywhere!) my soul doth sing every morn at the sight of all the glistening water…great post Luanne 😀 brought back many memories.

    • Yolanda, what a marvelous childhood that sounds like! It sounds like a story I’d like to read! And, yes, it’s lovely to live in the midst of many lakes. My soul really craves them now that I am stuck in the desert!

  12. I enjoyed reading about your lake decisions and experiences. Much as I adore water, it also scares me, and your words evoked some of those fears –tangling weeds, water critters. Certainly we can all peacefully coexist, but it takes awhile to desensitize one’s skittish self from a live fish flitting by. On the other hand, I recall swimming in Lake Alma in southern Ohio, with minnows always in the shallows. I’d try to grab a few, but they’d always get away. I love to write about water because it’s so beautiful and frightening, and I am so much a part of it.

  13. Yeah, the snakes in the water thing kinda scares me a little. And the one time I tried water skiing — complete disaster. Let’s leave it at that.

    I applaud your courage and I love the answers to Jill’s questions over on her site. Nice to meet ya!!

    • Renee, oh no, what happened with the water skiing? If I can do it it has got to be a piece of cake. Maybe somebody wasn’t a good driver for you? So nice to meet you!!

  14. I’ve lived in Michigan all my life and only enjoyed the water minimally. Reading your memories I am jeolous, although I have made an effort since I had kids to get out to the Metro Parks and help them appreciate all that the waters of Michigan have to offer. I guess there is still time for me to embrace the water. Two summers ago I started taking a day or two a month and heading out to kayak by myself – “me time” I called it. This year I think I’ll bring a friend with me and maybe even take the kids to the beach. Thanks for the great post ~ Tilly

    • Tilly, oh my, living in Michigan around all those lakes. I’m so jealous! Kayaking sounds like so much fun. Tell me, if it hard? I brought it up to my husband last week and he kind of rolled his eyes about it as if it was too much for me. I do have a health problem where I really have to protect one foot from injury. Do you think it’s a sport where you can injure yourself (other than straining a shoulder or something)? It doesn’t appear to be to me. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading!

      • I started kayaking a few years ago because I wanted something that I did alone, just for me. I told no one except for a neighbor with strict instructions she was not to tell anyone unless I didn’t come home. I was nervous at first, but it is very easy. I doubt you would have to worry about your foot. It would get wet while you got into the kayak, but other than that, this is pretty much an upper body workout. If you’re nervous, they do make two person kayaks so you could bring a friend.

  15. Great and exciting post, Luanne! I was proud of your water skiing and your not being afraid of anything. You don’t seem like a ‘girly girl’ to me! Anyway, I grew up on Lake Erie, went to my grandparents in Clearwater and always loved it when there were ‘waves’ whether they were made by boats on the lake or actual ocean waves. I loved the way the liquid sand could make castles and little drips could make spires on the castles. Those are some of my favorite times, when I could just sit in the warm sand, with my feet out into the water, building sand castles. The Clearwater newspaper featured my doing this, one time, and my brothers were so ‘ticked’ because they had just helped me to build the castle and were rinsing off their bodies and hands! Smiles, Robin

  16. The abundance of (normal colored) water in Michigan was one of the things I was truly homesick for after moving to Oklahoma (where what water there is is often brick red). It was pretty typical for people in the area I grew up in to have swimming lessons by the time they were five. And of course, you knew you were in the big leagues when you were allowed to swim “out” to the raft!

    The other thing I got homesick for was fall – a true season filled with brilliant sugar maples and oak leaves that reminded me of a Fruit Loop commercial (red red, orange orange, and yellow yellow – assuming I have the right cereal!)

  17. Loved the memories, Luanne. And the photo!

    I too grew up on the water — the beach. We lived just up the road and I spent every moment I could there — no matter what the season. I remember the crushes my best friend Liz and I developed on the life guards and how we constantly pretended to drown in hopes of getting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

    Water of all types draws me! But when going into a lake, I always throw rocks first to scare away the monsters of the deep!

  18. I love how your post evokes memories, Luanne! One of my aunts had a summer cabin at Caroga Lake, NY, and every summer relatives would descend on that tiny cabin for weeks at a time. I vaguely remember taking swimming lessons, but mostly we’d just work our way to the floating dock and (if lucky and no one else was there) lay on the dock and get sunburned. I enjoyed being in the water until I saw Jaws and even though lakes tend not to have sharks, I was afraid of being in the water after that. Then a cousin and two friends drowned in a canoeing accident. Then I moved to Florida where the rivers and springs are swimming spots for alligators as much as people. I tend to stay out of pools (chlorine), especially if little kids are around 😉

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