This summer, find your moment of water zen

My family recently took a fabulous camping trip to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. We spent a few days in Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park, enjoyed the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, walked on the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and biked around Mackinac Island (can somebody please tell me why Mackinac is pronounced “Mack-in-AW”??). As a geology and water nerd, I was officially, totally, and completely enraptured for the entirety of the trip and came home with pockets full of rocks and copious pictures of rocks, shorelines, and campfires.

Yet, the place that caught me the most in that water-rich landscape, even with the frequent beauty and majesty of the Great Lakes, was actually a groundwater spring named Kitch-iti-kipi (kitsch-itty-kipee) located in Palms Book State Park near Manistique, Michigan. We were en route between camping spots, hauling our travel trailer, and our decision to go there was somewhat spontaneous. I had heard of the spring, but knew it likely would be a short activity and perhaps of more interest to me rather than my husband and two daughters. Still, it was a spot to stretch our legs, we already had a permit for the MI state park system, so why not stop?

Boy, are we glad we did. Known also as “Big Spring,” Kitch-iti-kipi is one of those places where you feel like you’re entering another world. The 200-ft long spring is nestled among tall conifers with a stoic stillness that requires reverence. It’s a bit of a surreal feeling given that the spring is literally only 100 feet from a busy parking lot, playground and souvenir store. Yet, there is just something about it that evokes a reaction from those who approach it, to the point that the 30-40 people visiting the spring around us were all quiet, as if we all were nervous of disrespecting it by loud noises.

The clouds and fog at the spring surface definitely added to the spring’s mystique during our visit.

The clarity of the water is unbelievable, diving down crystal clear to a depth of 45 feet, with that characteristic emerald hue that graces the most picturesque of water landscapes. We joined a group waiting for the return of the self-propelled raft that travels over the spring via cable, and quietly pointed to the submereged tree branches and lake trout that looked suspended in the depths, slowly swimming about.

A glance into the depths, with the raft in the distance.

The raft has an O-shape to it, with an open center so you can look down into the depths of the spring, and to my surprise, I suddenly noticed how the sand at the bottom of the spring appeared to boiling and dancing about. A quick glance at one of the sign placards on the raft quickly zoned in on why: the bedrock was fractured limestone, and the groundwater in that limestone was under pressure, leading it to discharge more than 10,000 gallons per MINUTE into the spring. In the 20 minutes that we floated over the spring and back, two hundred thousand gallons had entered what appeared to be this still quiet spring, with the outlet of the spring to nearby Indian Lake.

View into the spring through the center of the raft. Note the dancing sands at the bottom where groundwater (ever at a constant 45 degrees F) is entering the spring, and the lazy suspended swimming of the trout.
While you can’t read the diagram, this placard illustrates how groundwater infiltrates the ground at a higher elevation and that pressure builds as the water flows downgradient. Fractured and cracked limestone and dolomite then allow the water to access the surface via the spring.

It was intense and just…awesome! Geology and hydrology for the win, and you could tell the impact it was having on all sorts of people as they took in the experience with the quiet ‘ooohs’ and ‘aahs.’

A bit later, as we walked out of the gift shop with our Kitch-iti-kipi Christmas tree ornament (the highest distinction our family can award a travel spot), I started thinking about other places that have inspired a similar feeling in me throughout my life – where you just recognize that in that moment, something just feels right and you feel humbled and energized by the experience. And not too surprisingly, many of those moments occurred here where we live in the Lower St. Croix watershed.

I had that same feeling the first time I boated on the Chisago Chain of Lakes, particularly as we carefully made our way in the narrow, shallow channel between North Lindstrom and North Center Lakes. I remember being awed by the sunlight bouncing out and through the water and the amazing underwater world of plant and fish.

I’ve enjoyed that feeling along portions of the Browns Creek Trail, enjoying walking along the gorge and creek as it winds its way down into Stillwater. I first visited Fairy Falls just north of Stillwater hours after I learned that one of my mentors from college had passed away – it was so restorative to be in such a ‘secret’ intimate place where I could let grief have its way with me.

Fairy Falls, just north of Stillwater, is a local secret. The park is actually closed to the public now due to increased traffic during the pandemic.

Afton State Park, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, Big Marine Park Reserve, Horseleg Lake in Oxford Township, Wild River State Park, Interstate State Park…in each of them I can recall a time – a MOMENT where things stood still and I was just…glad to be there and content to be.

And of course, let’s not forget the St. Croix River, where friends with a boat treated our family to a ride and I got to watch the most glorious sunset where the colors reflecting off the river made the sky feel it would never end.

Water and sunset. Magic.

It’s truly the best.

I hope that this summer, you’re able to find some nature and water zen. Find those quiet spots for you and yours – enjoy some good deep breaths, some peace, and some awe that we get to experience such amazing places.