A Lake Michigan Storm

This story was sent to us by Joyce of Valparaiso, Indiana. She writes: “A day trip to South Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore convinced me of the power of storms on the Great Lakes. Our ferry was caught in a storm on the return ride to Leland: I wasn’t sure we would make it back!”

Here is her story:

Under towering, lumpy clouds with the temperature about 90 degrees, we set off on the ferry for South Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A swim in clear water, a tour of a Lake Michigan lighthouse, our picnic on the beach–all were picture-perfect. Then it was time for the return ride. The sky looked a bit darkish . . .

Like a yanked window shade, navy blue raced from the western horizon blocking out the light blue above us. The lake turned grey. The boat began to hit waves, slap, slap, slap. South Manitou receded against the dark sky.

I settled down for a choppy trip back, scanning the water behind the boat as the wind picked up even more. Suddenly, something incredible appeared in the near distance– tornado-like columns were dancing across the water.

“Water spouts,” announced a young crew member, as she pulled down a life jacket from the netting above the seats. My unease ratcheted up to fear.

“We’re not going to need those,” I said. “Right?”

“One of the passengers is very disturbed,” she said and disappeared.

On Lake Michigan chaos had broken out. Thunder and lightning crashed over the sloshing and growing waves. Rain pockmarked the surface. Water rushed down the slanted lower deck to our feet as the boat nosed over one wave after another, after another. It was the madness of the marching brooms with their buckets in Fantasia—like Mickey we were caught in a nightmare. This couldn’t be happening to us!

I put my six-year old in her Garfield-the-Cat lifejacket and held onto her. My elderly parents sat tight together, stoic like passengers on the Titanic. My eyes darted from the wheel house, to the lifejackets overhead, and to another family bent in prayer. Should we go out into the bow in the rain or stay here where we could be trapped? Should I grab a life jacket?

The friendly lake was now broken into mammoth pieces, crazy in the storm. I watched waves the size of my garage rear up over the stern. Younger passengers, hair and shorts plastered to their bodies, stood in the bow screaming as we crawled up the rollers, paused, and tipped down the other side.

“Look at that one,” they yelled hanging onto each other. Finally, we entered sheltered water. It seemed we might make it.

On the dock people stood waiting for smaller boats to return, as we later learned they all did, in spite of the “Mayday, Mayday” heard on radios.

Wet and weak we stumbled off the boat, thanking the captain. In the rain we trudged along the dock through Leland to the BlueBird restaurant. A waitress took us in, offering drinks and the restroom. “You poor, poor people,” she clucked.

It’s a family joke now for us when the weather is stormy in Traverse City. “How about a boat ride?” someone always says.

Thank you for sharing that story, Joyce. Glad you, your loved ones, and the others who were on the sea that day all made it back safely!

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