Friday, 22 March 2013 10:34

Loreen Niewenhuis Brings the Great Lakes to Life

Written by  Kyle Austin
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Great Lakes Expert Loreen Niewenhuis
Portage District Library
April 23, 7 p.m., (269) 329-4544

Some people going through mid-life crisis buy a Corvette or join a gym. Loreen Niewenhuis hiked the perimeter of Lake Michigan. In 2009, the author and native Michigander planned a 1,019-mile, 64-day excursion to forge a more intimate connection with a place she had loved from childhood. The proposition was intimidating, but Niewenhuis knew she had to try.

"Lake Michigan has always been my favorite place, so I thought I would get to know it completely, step by step," she said. "It was so big that I thought I might fail, but I wanted something on that scale, because I knew that if I did complete it, it would change me."

Niewenhuis broke the trip up into 10 segments, each taking roughly five to seven days to hike, researching the geology and history of each area in preparation and recording her research and experiences in a blog complete with photos and videos. At the trip's end, she combined her deeper understanding of the intricacies of Lake Michigan with a moving story of personal growth in A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach.

"Writing non-fiction for me is actually a lot easier than fiction," she said. "You know the story because you're living it. The longer hikes took me out of my day-to-day life, and they became my life. The challenge comes from having to take the reader along with you."

That Niewenhuis rose to the challenge, producing a bestseller that was both informative and personable, is unsurprising when considering how she came to be a writer. After taking a break from her medical research career to be a stay-at-home mom, she began writing to stay mentally sharp, but her hobby quickly blossomed into a passion. Earning an MFA in creative writing in 2007, she began to publish dynamic short fiction, earning a finalist nod for the Flannery O'Connor Award with her 2009 short story collection Scar Tissue.

For her latest project, A 1000-Mile Great Lakes Walk, Niewenhuis hiked 1,004 miles in month-long segments over 76 days, covering different areas of each of the five Great Lakes and focusing more on the way they work together as an ecological unit. Her speaking engagements feature an interactive and informative presentation including photos and videos, maps of the different regions she explored and fascinating hydrological, ecological and geological insights. Ideally, Niewenhuis aims to promote public awareness of the immense complexity and importance of these natural wonders.

"I think people take the Great Lakes for granted," she said. "People think that because the lakes are so large, we can't really have an influence, so we just kind of ignore them. We need a long-term plan to care for and conserve these lakes if we're going to make a difference."

A 1000-Mile Great Lakes Walk will be available everywhere June 1, but select independent bookstores will have the book on April 10, including Kazoo Books (Kalamazoo), The Nature Connection (Kalamazoo), Forever Books (St. Joseph) and Black River Books (South Haven). 

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