1,000 miles, one step at a time

Loreen Niewenhuis says there's something addictive about her 1,000 mile walking adventures. She just finished her third.
Her Keen boots slouch comfortably in the closet, shoelaces untied. This is not the first pair of boots Loreen Niewenhuis wore on her series of three 1,000-mile hikes, but, at least for a while, this pair will be the last. For her next great adventure, Niewenhuis is clocking her distance by words instead of miles. She is a scientist, she is a hiker, but she is also a writer.

In 2009, as Niewenhuis felt the nest about to empty of her two nearly grown sons, and her marriage coming to what she refers to as a planned conclusion, Niewenhuis had a midlife crisis.

“It wasn’t that it was such a traumatic time,” she says. “But I imagined my younger self and how she would have seen me today. I made my midlife crisis into a midlife adventure.”

So began the first 1,000-mile hike around Lake Michigan, resulting in Niewenhuis’s first of an adventure trilogy, A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach. She began walking in Chicago and would end her walk in Chicago seven months later, taking occasional breaks along the way, walking mostly alone. Her two sons and various friends and relatives would join her here and there, “but I hiked alone about 80 percent of the time.”

Niewenhuis grew up in the Detroit area and has lived in Michigan most of her life. As a kid, she says, “once a summer, my parents took the family to Lake Michigan. There weren’t sandy beaches like that on the east side. And the dunes. The dunes! I thought, this is amazing! That was the lake I grew up on.”

When Niewenhuis announced to her family that she was going to walk around Lake Michigan, at least one aunt was stunned.

“Everyone in my family knows my love for Lake Michigan, so it was no surprise,” she says. “But every time I talked about my plans, my aunt would say ‘no, you’re not.’ Five times she said it. Other than that, to those who know me, for me to do this seemed natural.”

Niewenhuis has degrees in science, and she has worked in a hospital laboratory, in animal research, and on a bone marrow transplant group. She turned her passions to writing while raising her sons, and returned to school to earn another master’s degree, this time in the fine arts. The same year she went on her first 1,000-mile hike, her short story collection, Scar Tissue, was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award. In 2011, her novella, Atlanta, was published.

One year later, Niewenhuis headed out on her second 1,000-mile adventure (A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk). She thought about her second adventure while she was still on her first. There’s an addictive quality to pushing one’s comfort zone, she admits, and an addictive quality to Michigan’s Great Lakes. She wanted more.

“I wanted to explore the other Great Lakes,” she says. This time, she set out from Port Clinton, Ohio, and headed up toward Detroit. She walked sections along all five Great Lakes—Lake Michigan, Superior, Erie, Ontario, Huron—averaging 13 miles per day, 27 miles on her longest day, but 9 miles on her shortest.

“It was a more strenuous hike than the first. I had averaged 16 miles a day on my first hike.”

She had wanted to write her books about the beauty of the Great Lakes, Niewenhuis says, and she did. But she also found a dark side to relate to her readers.

“I was shocked at how fragile our lakes are,” she says, "and what we have done to them. The invasive species, the pollution. As Michiganders, we need to see ourselves as the caretakers of our lakes. They define us.”

And then there was the third adventure. This time, Niewenhuis explored the islands of the Great Lakes. In 2014, she set out to explore islands on all five Great Lakes.  

“I hadn’t realized how many islands there are in the Great Lakes!” Niewenhuis says. In fact, there are about 35,000, so Niewenhuis chose carefully. She hiked the rugged wilderness of Isle Royale in Lake Superior, where she participated in a moose study, working once again with a group of scientists.

“It’s a very prestigious study, now in its 57th year,” she says. “We looked at moose life on Isle Royale and how they interact with the wolf population and their lives in general. Unfortunately, the wolf population on the island is now down to only three. Someone brought a diseased dog onto the island and it spread to the wolves. Parvovirus on Isle Royale was part of the reason that the wolf population has declined on the island. The other reasons are inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity in the population."

Niewenhuis hopes to return to Isle Royale at some point to assist on that study once again, but  she had many more islands to visit on her island adventure, including Montreal Island on the St. Lawrence River.

“I hadn’t realized Montreal was on an island!” she says with a laugh.

Another was Treasure Island, a small island in a lake on a bigger island. Each island is unique, she says, and the people living on the islands as well. She says she found island people to often be more independent in their ways, more self-reliant.

“Out of the three adventures, this one was the most challenging,” Niewenhuis says. “I got pretty bruised and battered, especially on Isle Royale.” Rather than just hiking, this final adventure included biking and kayaking.

A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Island Adventure is arriving in independent bookstores this May, and Niewenhuis is probably covering another thousand miles on book tours throughout the Midwest, giving presentations on her latest journey.

“On my island presentation, I talk about the water system, hydrology, geology, why the islands exist, and I give the audience video glimpses of my hike,” she says.

When the dust on the tour settles, however, Niewenhuis is returning to her work as a fiction writer. A second novel manuscript is underway, although she may yet take another journey overseas for research, but for most of this adventure, she says, “I’ll be sitting at my desk at home.”

Loreen Niewenhuis will be signing books at the Nature Connection on the Kalamazoo Mall during the Kalamazoo Art Hop, Friday, May 1, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Tuesday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m., she will give her Great Lakes Island presentation at Portage District Library. Hear her interview on WMUK’s “Between the Lines” with Zinta Aistars on May 12, or listen to it online here. Her books are available at all independent booksellers in Kalamazoo.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.
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