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Lake Michigan has a way of conjuring up days gone by

May 10, 2017

Lake Michigan is a giant time capsule. It swallows stuff up and spits it back out somewhere down the line, both in time and place.

All sorts of things get pushed up on the beach by waves in summer and by the freezing and thawing of ice in the winter. When the snow melts in spring, there aren’t that many people combing through the odds and ends in search of lost treasure or even just cleaning up the trash. That means it's easier to see how Lake Michigan is its own special sort of time capsule coughing up treasures up and down the shore.

There are the things you expect.

There are the pieces of charcoal from someone’s beach campfire last summer. Usually, there’s at least one dead balloon that some kid in Chicago must have lost hold of. It isn’t at all uncommon to kick a bleached beer can that fell overboard from some fishing boat. And then, there are often these surreal mash ups of the natural and the manmade – like that blue pen cap nestled up in some seaweed and fish bones.

But every once in awhile, the lake returns some unexpected reminder of the past.

This time, it was a French 5 franc coin. The sand and waves had worn down the goddess of liberty, Marianne, on the head side. The leaves on the other side didn’t look so great either. But “Liberté égalité fraternité” was easily readable, as was the date on the coin, 1978. This coin was almost 40 years old.

Who knows how long it had been tossed around in the lake before being spit out onto the sand at my feet. Francs have been out of circulation for over a decade. Yet somehow, it seemed fitting to me that a Franc would turn up on the same beach known for Petoskey stones.

Petoskey Stones are the most notable of Lake Michigan’s little time capsules. These are rocks that look like just another smooth stone, until they get wet. That’s when you can see the outlines of ancient fossilized coral.

The namesake of both Petoskey Stones and this beach is an Odawa Chief – Chief Petosega – who purchased land in this area after the Treaty of Washington. While his mother was Odawa, his father was a French fur trader. It is a typical story. The founding of this state is a tale of battles, alliances and relationships between the tribes and the French traders.

Fur was the economic currency of those settlement days. And my little French coin is its own time capsule reminder of another currency that is no more.

That’s the thing about this lake. It’s full of reminders of things past.

Humans have vastly altered the land on the other side of the dunes. There are ski resorts and golf courses there. There are highways and fracking wells. But here along the lake, it looks as if so little has changed.

This is the pretty much the same coastline Chief Petosega laid eyes on. It’s what vacationers from Chicago saw from the decks of passenger steamers in the early 1900s. That means Lake Michigan has this way of conjuring up days gone by. Particularly when things wash up that invite you back into the past. To wonder about what happened here last week, last century and last millennia.

Tamar Charney is the managing editor of NPR One. She writes from Michigan about all sorts of things, including her love affair with Lake Michigan.

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