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Our Spirit Wedding

A year ago I knew this was exactly where we’d be, my partner Andy and I, on August 18th, 2023. During the summer of 2022, I fulfilled a dream and backpacked 1,160 miles of the North Country Trail through the state of Michigan - a 4-month journey of pain & loneliness, beauty & magic. In August, I came to an enchanted place along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - feet dug into the sand of Chapel Beach with the sound of Lake Superior lapping at the shore and the gentle roar of Chapel Creek spilling into her, the great sea, “gichi-gami”. I was alone then but I knew I would be here with Andy one day, and I knew exactly what I’d ask him…


We traveled from Detroit to Munising, overnighting at Andy’s parents’ place in Naubinway on a Wednesday night to lessen our drive the next day. Thursday morning, we drove northwest for the final 80 miles of our 415 mile trip. The sky was overcast and strong winds pushed our car side-to-side along the two-lane Michigan highways we took to get there. Our excitement grew as the land rose in rocky outcrops and the density of forest hid human settlement from our periphery. Lichens colored the landscape with patches of turquoise, sage, chartreuse, and sky gray. Lakes shimmered cornflower blue. Rivers, rich with tannins, like liquid cinnamon. The further we drove from home, the deeper our breaths became. The closer we got to our destination, the more our dreams were made. We yearned for these wild places. 


The Chapels Falls Trailhead was a reminder that other humans are in love with the outdoors too. The parking lot was full and cars lined the dirt road leading to it. We squeezed into a space not too far away and ran through our mental checklist - we eliminated unnecessary pack weight, finished the lunch we had brought, turned our cell phones off, and laced up our boots. As dozens of cars would imply, the trail towards Chapel Beach was relatively busy for a remote destination. Most visitors wore daypacks and sneakers, walking briskly back to their cars from the direction we headed. I walked very slowly as I tried to absorb each sound, sight, and scent around me. The 3-mile hike to the beach took us hours. I was proud of that. 


Every moment I arrive at the shore of Lake Superior is precious to me. This time was no different. We had enjoyed the many views of Chapel Falls from the trail - water rushing into and over rock ledges, splashing loudly into a foamy pool below. We pulled out ponchos at the first few drops of rain, and were pleased to never need them. We navigated mud, balanced across logs, and stepped aside for other hikers. Then we heard her, the big lake, bellowing in the distance. Andy turned back with a grin on his face. “We’re close,” he said. The trail led us up and down a staircase of roots to the iconic Chapel Rock, perched on a stand of eroding sandstone. We dropped our packs and climbed an overlook. A tree occupied the center of the sandstone tower, massive roots stretched across a wide gap and latched onto the land on which we stood. The lake covered the Earth before us, seeming to hold up and blend with the horizon. This was home. 


Chapel Beach campground was a short hike west along the NCT. We found our site, collected pieces of micro-litter scattered across it, and settled on a spot for our tent. After setting up camp, we cooked and ate a big meal then locked our food in the bear box at the center of the campground. The campsites on either side of ours were occupied, though the occupants must have been nestled in their tents. We never saw them. So we kept our laughter quiet and bundled up for the beach. Another short hike to get there, along spur trails and down log stairs, draped and hanging from a dune. The wind hadn’t forgotten us - it threw sand into our eyes and sent us running for the cover of a conical fort that someone made with driftwood. Inside we watched the waves rise and fold against the shoreline. 


Sandstone cliffs hugged each end of the beach - painted in various shades of red, brown, orange, and black by water leaching minerals from their walls - the Pictured Rocks. Our gaze drifted slowly from rock to tree to sand to water - each moment filling our minds with awe. Andy pulled the small steel tongue drum he backpacks with from its felt bag. I removed the cloth from the mouth of the Native American drone flute I carry. Air blew into her and I blew out, adjusting the block above the sound hole for better tone. Vibrations formed the notes that were lifted away. Andy tapped on different points of the drum with felt mallets. It rang, producing sound that resonated from the hollow body of the drum. We played what the Earth told us to. A seagull wandered past the door of our shelter, stopped to listen to the faint music coming from within, then followed the surf, scooping up water with its beak. Eventually we left the beach and found warm comfort in our tent back at camp, bundled up in sleeping bags and kissed each other good night. 


Chilled morning air tugged me awake. Andy was already out and about. I quietly crawled out of my warm nest and looked around. Trees lit by dawn appeared to have rainbow halos through the mesh screen of our tent. Red squirrels chattered and raced from one branch to the next. The smell of Andy’s coffee mingled with that of pine and soil. The sky was washed of clouds and filled with the colors of the lake. With a quick “zip-zip” I was up and reaching my arms high for a morning stretch. We sat on a log bench eating wild blueberries and drinking hot tea until our energy was restored. Then we carefully packed our belongings and prepared for our next adventure. My heart began to race as the moment I had been waiting for drew closer. 


We hiked back to the beach, rested our packs at the top of a dune, and brought our instruments back to the water’s edge. On a piece of driftwood we sat and played a song for the lake. It was time. My heart began to climb out of my chest, my hands shook. Andy looked forward, smiling as big as the sun rising high in the sky. I took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that there was nothing to be nervous about, that I knew he was feeling what I was already - we both knew we had found the one. “There’s something I need to tell you,” I said with a gulp. He turned my way. I took his hand in mine and continued,


“Andy, you are the love of my life. I have always been certain of that. So certain that a year ago today, at this very spot, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. You are a talented, vibrant, righteous human being and you bring out the best in me. Together we can simply be. Loving someone this much isn’t easy, but it is uplifting. Our love will carry us to the sky if we grab its wings and, with them, take flight. Our love will topple pillars of hate and crush whatever evil stands in our way. Our love is a living creation that we must nourish every day, and I want to watch it grow and transform as we age. If we continue to commit to our love, I believe we can accomplish great things.” His smile grew. My hands trembled in his. “Andy, will you marry me in spirit today?” 


“Yes,” he replied quickly, “Yes!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. He said yes! Our grins were wider than sky, our eyes as wet as waves. We kissed as sunlight warmed our sides and sand cooled our feet. I pulled two hemp bracelets from my pocket - bracelets I made with 6 strands, 2 braids twisted together like our hands intertwined. We wed each other there on the beach, with the wind and water as our witness. Both of us agreed to a marriage of our souls - of our intimate beings - and that neither law nor religion needed to be privy to that moment. Our marriage needn’t wait for an elaborate wedding, the time to plan and ponder our commitment. We both felt that our devotion to love was years in the making - that the right time to tie the knot was present. I tied a bracelet around his wrist and he did the same for me. We thanked the wind and the waves and the sky and the sand for this blessing. “I’m your Spirit Spouse,” he told me giddily. 



Newlywed, we left Chapel Beach and hiked back to our car at the trailhead. The return journey was brisk, both of us thinking of the adventures we had left to live that day - a drive to downtown Munising, a ferry ride to Grand Island Recreation Area, and a 9-mile hike to our next campsite. We moved with zest, excitement, and purpose - bouncing from one destination to the next. North of downtown Munising, we boarded a small ferry that took us the short way through the bay to Grand Island. Before we had fully absorbed the feeling of gliding through water, we were stepping off at “William’s Landing” (I quote this as it is a name colonizers gave to a place that Chippewa tribes occupied far before they arrived).


Packs adjusted and water bladders filled, we left the landing and headed north to Gull Point, where I had reserved our site for Friday night. Clouds seemed to dissipate behind the forest ahead. Andy held my hand, squeezing it lightly with each step. We hiked swiftly, only to stop for berries - raspberries, blueberries, thimbleberries, blackberries dotted the sides of the trail. A few bikers rode past. The 20-mile trail around the island is bikeable and biking is a common way for visitors to explore it. We soon began stopping for magnificent cliff views too. Intermittent cliffs circle the island - the same sandstone formations painted with the red, black, orange, and brown of the Pictured Rocks. We talked about swimming, about dropping our packs at one of the beaches along the way and jumping into the water, though water access was limited. The shores of the island are constantly changing and beaches tend to be absorbed by waves and rocks. 


Near one of the closed beaches, we spoke to a few park rangers about the growing population of black bears on the island. We were warned repeatedly of black bears - that they were a nuisance to campers, stealing food and ripping apart trash bags. The rangers told us that the bears swim to the island. They were setting up a bear trap - a large metal barrel with a pressure-released gate. They were trying to catch bears and return them to the mainland, though they kept swimming back. Andy and I were amused by this. We assured the rangers that we’d practice proper camp protocol - we’d hang all our food and scented products in our bear bag at the bear pole provided at camp. We left with the image of bears paddling across Lake Superior in our minds. 


The sun was lower in the sky. Light dappled the path ahead. A dark, furry creature appeared in the distance. We were expecting a bear cub, though when it stood on its hind legs, the long length of its body persuaded us to think it was a mink. We observed quietly until it bounded back into the forest. Long views of painted cliffs over the lake kept us gazing by the side of the trail. Decreasing light kept us hiking. We reached Gull Point before sunset, relieved to pass a creek where we could access water nearby. After setting up camp and collecting water, we walked to an overlook where we filtered the water and cooked our dinner, watching the sun sink into the lake, sending shades of pink, blue, and purple over our heads. A large boat rumbled past, its passengers hollering at each other over the roar of the motor. Silence was soon a welcome reprieve. Twilight hid us from a mouse which scurried across our belongings. We smiled and sighed, my head resting on Andy’s shoulder, his arm around my side. Sleep came easily that night. 


Andy seized the day before me, as he usually does. I rested peacefully, turning to see the trees above our tent when I was ready to open my eyes. After my morning routine, I set out with the flute I carry to go find my Spirit Spouse, knowing he must have found the overlook tucked in the forest behind our campsite. Before I could leave, a woman’s voice called over the sound of birds. She and her partner were looking for a charger. “Our phone died but we want to take pictures,” she told me. I was startled by the human interruption, though searched through our belongings anyway before remembering we hadn’t brought one. They left disappointed. I shrugged it off, their dilemma, then scooped up my pocket-sized camera and continued on my way. I found Andy meditating under the shade of a tree, perched on the edge of a cliff. We greeted each other with kisses and song - he showed me the new tune he’d come up with that morning on his drum. A breakfast of granola and berries kept us strong. 


We had a 10-mile hike that day to Trout Bay. Driftwood, Little Duck, and Little Dunes 1 & 2 campsites are nestled along the beach there. These sites are first come-first served, so we knew we’d have to be lucky to get one. Since dispersed camping is allowed on the island (as long as you follow the rules) we weren’t too worried about finding a place to sleep that night. We’re both experienced with backcountry camping and my thru-hike of Michigan prepared me for seeking a tent site in some of the most difficult places. Confident in our abilities, we committed to enjoying the day at a reasonable pace, and taking a break to swim along the way. After about a mile hike, we dropped our packs at North Light beach and began to change. Black flies bit our legs. We hurriedly stripped and pulled on swim shorts, then dashed into the lake, hand-in-hand, and dove into the waves together. The water was cold at first but after a few minutes, it was perfect. Hot air hovered around our heads. Painted rocks hugged each end of the beach. Boats anchored nearby, turning to anchor further after experiencing the flies. We swam back to shore, laughing. 

We left refreshed and fully clothed, relieved to be leaving the flies at the beach. The trail climbed the tall cliffs we had seen in the distance. We stopped for long views and berries. Bikers strained uphill and whizzed past downhill. I spotted chanterelles along the edge of the trail. We pulled out a foraging bag and carefully cut them at the stem - leaving at least half of what we saw. I hung the bag from my pack’s chest strap, wearing the earthy scent of fungus like a perfume. We paused to pick up micro-litter - small pieces of food wrappers and camping gear that fall from unsuspecting hikers. Too large food wrappers caught my eye. I scooped them up and winced at the rotten fishy odor wafting from them. The bags felt slimy. It was hard to imagine they formerly held coffee. I unzipped my plastic trash bag and pushed them inside, using a bit of water to wash my fingers after. “A bear must have gotten these,” I said to Andy. We giggled at the thought of a caffeinated bear.


A lunch of fried chanterelles and sunflower seeds filled our bellies. Our water was low and we scolded ourselves for not collecting any at the beach, but remembering the flies, we gave ourselves a bit more empathy. We hiked quickly as the trail veered inland away from the breathtaking cliffs. By evening we made it to “Road’s End”, where the trail fades to a road that buses can travel around the southside of the island. There we saw oyster mushrooms growing on a log. We harvested some and continued onward. Our next challenge was to find a campsite. The first 2 sites along the beach at Trout Bay were taken. With sore feet, we hurried past boats beached along the shore, with groups of rowdy, drunken folk strewn about, ignoring the sweaty, dirty backpackers slipping by. Our hearts sank, seeing site number 3 occupied as well. We surveyed the end of the beach ahead, contemplating where we could access that was far enough from the water and the protected tombolo (an area where sand had built up over centuries, creating forested land between two islands, forming the Grand Island of today). When we reached the last site and saw that it was unoccupied, we breathed a sigh of relief.  


Our last night on Grand Island was just as magical as our first, and every moment we had spent there to boot.  Another swim and water collection rehydrated us. Andy built a fire as I cooked dinner with dehydrated rice and beans, wild mushrooms and greens. We could hear waves knocking the base of the cliffs in the distance. The sun seemed to set fire to the tips of the trees that covered them. The boaters had left and the beach was finally quiet. We held each other as flames devoured the logs we had fed them. I pulled a pouch of tobacco, cedar, and birch from my pack. In an attempt to pay tribute to the native Grand Islanders, we sprinkled the tobacco over the fire and placed the cedar and birch on top - speaking to the land around us with gratitude and respect. We had read stories of the Grand Island Chippewa, of the legendary Powers of the Air and his parents Sound of Wind in the Trees and Autumn Duck, of their tribe’s demise and integration with mainlanders, of the colonialism that stole sacred land from their people and from native culture everywhere. We wondered what we could do differently to show our admiration for the people who lived here before our ancestors. 


We fell asleep to the sound of water moving across sand. By morning, Andy was showing me a handful of blueberries he collected. We slowly gathered our belongings and packed our packs. We played music for the sun, then read more about the Grand Island Chippewa from a book written by historian Loren Graham*. The rangers we had seen on our first day strode up to our site. “Great book,” one said enthusiastically, “Loren used to live in a lighthouse on the northside of the island. The park service owns it now and we’re working on making it accessible to the public.” They asked if we’d seen any bears. I told them about the garbage I collected and they agreed that bears must have carried it from a camp. We chatted a bit before they left to continue their bear report. Andy and I slung our packs on our backs for our final hike of the weekend, back to the ferry dock and, eventually, back to Detroit. We thanked each other for a wonderful time and thanked the trees for sheltering our sleep. 


As we hiked back to the dock, a rustling in the forest caught our attention. “A bear!,” Andy exclaimed as quietly as he could. About 20 feet away, a bear cub turned to look at us. We stared at each other for a moment - me trembling with excitement at my first wild bear sighting - the bear possibly wondering why we had stopped and what our intentions were. Andy coaxed me forward. “Let’s leave him alone,” he told me. Onward to Murray Bay, where we took a break and watched boaters rumble away. A little further along and across the road was an old cemetery. We walked carefully through it. I began to complain that there were no signs of the native people that had once been buried in the area, and scoffed at the thought of their bones being taken by white settlers. A few visitors appeared from the trail and startled me. I ceased to rant, still fuming. We continued along the road, sharing a resentment of the pioneer mentality and sorrow for the people whose names no longer describe these places on a map. “An orange salamander!,” Andy suddenly yelped, “I’ve always wanted to see one!,” he added, teasing me for saying the same about the bear a dozen times. We stood over the creature in the road and hoped a biker wouldn’t crush it before it retreated to the forest.


Soon we were at the dock and boarding the ferry. The joyful boat captain welcomed us and drove us back to the mainland. There we reunited with our car and headed to downtown Munising for a celebratory beer. Over a pint, we reminisced about our many experiences along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and across the Grand Island National Recreation Area. We were fueled by the wonder of the plants and animals we encountered, stunned by the beauty of land and water, and tickled by interactions with other humans. As we finished our drinks, we looked into each other’s eyes with a message saying, how lucky we are to be alive, to have found the love of our lives. Spread before us on a table was another map, we pointed to places we’d want to visit next. I remembered to turn my cell phone back on. “Well, we better tell our family we’re married now,” I said. Our spiritual union, we agreed, would never end.

*The book mentioned is "A Face In the Rock" by Loren Graham. It is a historical account of the Grand Island Chippewa, written with many creative liberties. Andy & I spoke to a Native American man before returning to Detroit and, from his perspective, gained some understanding of how sensationalized stories were in the book. Graham portrays mainland Chippewa tribes as war-hungry - a direct contrast to the peaceful Grand Island tribe. "We were all peaceful people," the man told us.

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