Writer Treks 2,000 Miles — One Step At a Time
Loreen Niewenhuis, author and adventurer, looks over her hiking boots that have gone 1000 miles while at her home on Goguac Lake in Battle Creek, Michigan, April 1, 2013. Niewenhuis has hiked 1000 miles along the Great Lakes shorelines. (Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Loreen Niewenhuis, author and adventurer, stands with her pack she used on her 1000-mile hike at her home on Goguac Lake in Battle Creek, Michigan, April 1, 2013. (Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Battle Creek, Mich. — First, she walked 1,019 miles around Lake Michigan. Then, she walked 1,004 more miles along the shorelines of all five Great Lakes.
What does Battle Creek’s Loreen Niewenhuis have inside her that compels her to put one foot in front of the other?
“I’d rather do 20 miles on soft sand than 10 miles on the side of the road,” she said. “There is something about being where water meets land. I feel very clicked-in there. I feel like I can go forever.”
Maybe she has walked more than 2,000 miles in the last four years because she seeks God. Or fears death. Or is on a crazy exercise regimen. Or on the lam from the FBI.
She laughs heartily. No to all of the above.
She’s actually more like Forrest Gump, who one day just put on his shoes and decided to set off on a little run.
“Our older son had gone off to college. The nest was emptying,” said Niewenhuis, 49. She’d earned her master’s degree in fine arts. “But I felt I could stack up novels and not have an agent and be in my office writing novels forever,” she said. “So I thought, let me do something completely different and get out of my office.”
So she put on her hiking boots. She got out the office.
Boy, did she ever.
Niewenhuis lives in a pleasant condo on Goguac Lake near downtown Battle Creek. The divorced mother of two sons, 20 and 23, trained as a research scientist in biology. In recent years, she’s been a novelist and short-story writer. In her loft is her hiking gear (one pair of Keen boots has more than 700 miles on them). Nearby is a writing desk with a panoramic view of the water.
Her first trek in 2009 started at Navy Pier in Chicago and went around Lake Michigan counterclockwise. It was a shock. Beaches gave way to jetties, impassable barriers, busy roads. She saw trash. She sank in bogs. Walked around nuclear power plants. In rain, wind, cold, sun, heat, she kept walking. And walking. And walking. She saw river otters. Zebra mussels. Stunning scenery.
She won’t say how much the first trip cost, but it was “thousands” of dollars, she said. She also tried not to think of the whole 1,000 miles she was walking.
“You put in a day, and it’s 15 miles, but day after day, it really stacks up.”
She stayed in hotels or B&Bs near cities, and her one-person hammock tent in campgrounds and on remote beaches. She packed some of her food in her 35-pound backpack, cooking meals with a camp stove.
The trek took 64 days.
When she finished, she wrote a book, A 1,000-mile Walk on the Beach, which earned her enough money to pay for her second trek last year. This time, she hiked Michigan’s entire sunrise coast (Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair) in the Lower Peninsula, plus portions of the Upper Peninsula (Pictured Rocks, the Keweenaw); Lake Michigan (Sleeping Bear and the Leelanau), western Lake Erie (Port Clinton, Ohio, to Grosse Isle); and the northern shore of Lake Ontario from Toronto to Belleville, Ontario. She ended her trip with a big splash — at Niagara Falls.
Niewenhuis’ second book comes out June 1, A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk. With the proceeds, she hopes to finance a third trek she’s already planning — walking 1,000 miles on Michigan’s islands.
Last year, on Easter Sunday, Niewenhuis walked from Downriver north to Detroit, past the smokestacks and factories. Because she couldn’t walk directly on the shore of the Detroit River, she walked on the streets, a lone woman in her 40s with a backpack and a walking stick.
The only person she saw was a homeless man, who stared.
Then he shouted out, “Happy Easter!”
She hiked 80-90 percent of her treks alone. She never listened to an iPod. She just listened to nature and her own thoughts. Sometimes, she sensed more.
“I’m not a real spiritual person, so this wasn’t a connection-with-God sort of thing, but something happened on the first hike,” she said. “The exertion of hiking fell away, and it felt like the Earth was turning beneath me, like it was completely effortless, and I was completely alive in the moment.”
Niewenhuis talks little about problems on her hikes. She doesn’t recall anything too difficult or lonely. She remembers enjoying herself.
Family members who accompanied her on short stretches of the trips, however, have a slightly different memory.
“If that first day we walked together from Mears to Pentwater had been the first day of my 1,000 mile trek, I would have gone home and found an easier project to undertake,” said Leslie Shipley, Niewenhuis’ sister, recalling wind, rain, wading streams with garbage bags over her boots and wandering through thick brush as she accompanied her sister for two days of hiking.
Niewenhuis’ son Lucas, 20, a student at the University of Michigan, hiked most of a 50-mile stretch of Lake Michigan with his mom. “Something like 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts sandblasted us and the lake raged all the way up to the dunes,” he said. Still, he did not worry about his mother.
“I knew she wasn’t going to get lost, give up or do anything too dangerous. Most of what I know about safety, caring and having an independent spirit came from her.”
Niewenhuis said she has felt a kinship to the Great Lakes since childhood trips to Warren Dunes State Park near Benton Harbor.
Yet what she saw last year while walking the shorelines is different than what a shore walker would have seen, even just a decade ago. It’s a critical time. The beloved Great Lakes are suffering. They hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Forty million people rely on them for drinking water. Yet lakes Michigan and Huron are at their lowest levels ever recorded, falling another 18 inches between June and December of 2012 alone. Toxins, pharmaceuticals and invasive species have attacked the lakes.
Firsthand and up close, Niewenhuis saw the condition of Saginaw Bay, where phragmites clog the beaches, and western Lake Erie, with its toxic blue-green algae sheen.
She drank water out of all the Great Lakes using her filtered water bottle — all the lakes except Erie.
Niewenhuis met many people who told her their goal was to walk the Great Lakes. But as far as she knows, she’s only American to have walked so far. Only one other person, Canadian Josephine Mandamin, has gone farther — walking around every single Great Lake to raise the alarm about modern destruction of sacred Native American waters.
When Niewenhuis tells people she’s been walking the lakes, “quite a few have said, ‘I’ve always meant to …’ and they name that thing they didn’t do,” she said.
“I tell them, that thing, you have to do it. You have to have that thing, that place, that goal. You need to make time for it,” she said. “You’ve got to do it when you can.”