Surrounding Water with Cycles and Perspectives: Great Lakes Commons Charter Bearer / by Ben Weaver

This story was initially written for Great Lakes Commons and published on their Website.

On a bicycle it is impossible to be numbed by convenience. You have to look around. You embrace what comes. You ride it out, ride through it. Ironically, this is also the same path water follows. Not ironic, water was my riding partner for 15 days this summer as I pedaled my bicycle around Lake Superior. Water does not stop to complain and proliferate. It takes the shape of what it passes over, expresses it, and carries on. 

I woke up in Duluth. My clothes smelling of the previous night’s camp fire. Tim Ek, a friend and fellow Salsa Cycles rider had put me up for the night. He lives up on the big hill that rests behind downtown Duluth, to the West of Lake Superior. Home to Skyline Drive, precambrian bluffs, and Hawk Ridge. I ate a banana for breakfast and loaded my tent, other camping gear, clothes, and the most important items, my guitar and banjo onto my bicycle. I said goodbye to Tim, his wife Amy and pointed myself down the hill toward the Bong Bridge, my planned route for crossing the St. Louis Bay into Wisconsin. 

The first stop of my Surrounding Water Tour, a journey that would see me riding 1,400 miles around Lake Superior performing songs and engaging with communities about fresh water, was 75 miles away in Bayfield, WI. As I approached the bridge, I noticed a scattering of construction vehicles, orange barrels and the typical signs of road work. Less than a quarter of the way across the bridge, the bike path suddenly stopped at a cement barricade, and didn’t seem to continue on the other side. Peering over the edge of the barricade revealed rippling water cross hatched by rebar and concrete forms. No more bike path. 

There were two trucks idling about 100 yards away. I jumped over the railing separating the existing bike path from the road and approached the vehicles hoping to find some kind hearted construction workers willing to ferry me across the rest of the bridge. When I asked if they could take me across they just laughed. Maybe it was my cycling outfit. Regardless, the bridge was only open to West bound traffic, and the entire bike path was under construction as well. My route for the day was about to get revised. I had two options. Either take the interstate bridge which had no shoulder and was illegal to ride a bicycle on, or ride 30 miles out of my way around the St. Louis Bay and into Wisconsin through a town called Oliver. I chose the latter, and with that the first day of my trip grew from the modest 75 miles I had planned, to over 100.

It’s moments like this that remind me why I travel by bike. I had crossed the Bong Bridge many times before. I didn’t need a map for that route. Suddenly in having to re route, it was crucial to understand where I was, in terms of where I was going. There would be new roads and new landscape. I would have to pay closer attention. Yes, I had to ride further than expected. My day had become physically more challenging. I would be exhausted by the time I reached Bayfield, and still have to play a show. All of this was worth it for the chance to brush shoulders with the unknown and for the chance to discover.

Because of my detour through Oliver, I saw the beautiful St. Louis River estuary and surrounding wetlands. A part of Lake Superior that I had not experienced before. I crossed an incredible train bridge where the light was filtering through the steel framing in stunning geometric patterns of gold. I was afforded new perspectives on a familiar landscape, and while passing through that landscape my mind was sharpened. It went to different places -- specifically the less often visited corners where surprise and revelation await. 

Throughout my trip I heard a lot of, “That must have been frustrating” when sharing these events from my first days detour. I got strange looks as I expressed positivity and joy about adding the extra miles, instead of taking the bait of commiserating over inconvenient circumstance.  

The status quo has always troubled me, but something I have found truly troubling about it is it’s unquenchable thirst and addiction for convenience. Convenience is an oppressor. Through laziness and lack of creativity it dis-engages us from our landscapes and communities, enabling uninformed and hurtful choices which in turn have detrimental impact on all human and non human life.   

The bicycle is about circles and triangles. The circles represent cycles and the triangles represent perspectives. My bicycle was the perfect tool to help inspire new perspective within the communities I visited, while illuminating potential cycles that could help inspire healthier stories about water. Knowing promotes integration. Integration promotes observation. Observation promotes understanding. Understanding promotes appreciation, and appreciation leads to taking care.

I was fortunate to have a lot of partners and supporters for my trip. A significant partner who  help me arrive at some of the essential questions I used to initiate and inspire new stories about water was, the Great Lakes Commons. The Great Lakes Commons also named me a Charter Bearer to their visionary Commons Charter. Having their support and using their charter deepened the relevance my interactions. Why is the health of our Great Lakes is so deeply connected to the health of each and every individual member of our larger ecological community? How can we be better ancestors? What does it mean to be a ancestor? What can we learn about ancestry from First Nations, animals, and plants? How can the water be a model for more engaged, reciprocal, and creative living? How can we begin to see water as something that connects each and every one of us rather than as a resource to be extracted and exploited?  

As I rode around the Lake engaging with audiences, I began to learn as much about people and how we live, as I was about the Lake and water. So often we blame corporations and big business for the disappearance and negligence of our natural resources. It’s true they are the most obvious and in many cases most guilty culprits, but those businesses don't exist in a vacuum. Someone is supporting them. 

As I met people and heard their stories I began understanding that the answers we are looking for about how to protect our threatened resources are not in counting parts per million, isolating point or non-point source polluters, and not in pointing fingers at the guilty corporations. The answers are within us, in turning the finger back and pointing it at ourselves, in striving to tell new stories and seek more fulfilled, creative, engaged and integrated ways of living.

There were several times on my trip where I had conversations with someone who said, “I know mining is hurtful to the land and water, but how am I suppose to feed my family, what else can I do for work?” Somewhere between Marathon and Rossport, after looking out at nothing but trees, rocks and water for hours and hours the answer to this question dawned on me. Why do we have to choose between clean water and a job? It is not about what job will replace a mining job, it is about how we think about jobs and the idea of work in the first place. Have we grown so far from what is important that we are willing to sacrifice the health of our planet, families and children for a job and the short term financial gain it promises? I spoke earlier in this piece about convenience assaulting our ability to be creative and the things we are willing to sacrifice in order to have it. I became inspired to use my ride around the Lake as an example for how creativity can be implemented in order to re invent work. Before strapping my guitar and banjo onto my bike and pedaling myself from one gig to the next, I spent 13 years in a car driving from town to town. I was unhappy and unfulfilled. Instead of quitting my job, I restructured and used creativity to carve out a new path to do the same work, but in a way that gave back.

My trip flew by and in less than two weeks I was over a 1,000 miles away from that first bridge diversion in Thunder Bay where I performing the 10th of my 13 performances. I shared the stage with a diverse group of folks: Sandi Boucher a representative for the Sacred Water Walkers, Bruce Hyer a member of parliament, and Audrey Deroy who performed a drum song and water blessing at the opening of the evening. I spent some time talking to Audrey before the event. She asked me a question that surprisingly not many people had asked me up until that point. Her question was “which direction had I chosen to go around the lake?” When I responded that I went counter clockwise she was surprised.

Since the moment I dreamt up Surrounding Water I saw myself going around the lake counter clockwise, but aside from the visual, there was no pre determined reason for that direction. As my ride came to an end and I returned home, my choice to ride counter clockwise has become a strong metaphor. People often asked me, “Why are you doing this?” At first I felt required to give a long, grand explanation to justify my act. But my answer became short. “I am doing this for the water.” We need to re acquaint ourselves with the small, humble and quiet sides of life. Perhaps we need to go against the clock, against what has become the “right” way in order to re establish ourselves with these corners of life. The expectation that there must be giant, extravagant and grand explanations for our actions somehow seems to parallel the same distances and disconnect from reality that our addiction to convenience suffers. 

The water is sick. It needs our help. Sometimes we have to do things for the simple reason that we know it is the right thing to do. My trip around Lake Superior was as much about healing the water as it was about healing people, myself included. In the end the water is going to be ok. It will outlive us, just as this planet will. However, being as reliant and as connected to water as we are, if we are going to remain on this planet, we have no choice but to change our stories. No choice but to heal that which we have made ill. After watching that lake roll over on itself day after day, the trees sway and lean, the rocks hold still under the waves and sun, I believe with all my heart and every ounce of creativity in my breath that if we are going to heal water, we first must heal ourselves.