Kitch-iti-kipi, Palms Book State Park, Michigan.
In a state park in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, ten miles from Manistique, there dwells a natural wonder nobody outside the UP seems to have heard of, which may be why it still exists. The Ojibwe name for the place is Kitch-iti-kipi. In English it’s just called The Big Spring.
Once you find the place, in Indian Lake State Park, which is also inexplicably called Palms Book State Park, a short walk through dense cedar woods will take you to a platform at the edge of an eerily blue-green pool of clear water. There you board a glass-bottomed observation raft attached to the shore by a cable, self-propelled with a big wheel.
The ride is short, also silent, thanks to this simple pulley system. The raft moves almost imperceptibly, then stops over the most dramatic view. Forty feet below, everything looks like outer space. The world moves in Fibonacci spirals. Roiling clouds of sand churn like galaxies around ruptures in the lakebed where 10,000 gallons of water a minute gush through limestone. Huge brown trout circle beneath the raft. The water is an otherworldly hue. Centuries-old tree trunks, encrusted with silvery mineral deposits, lie on the bottom like gigantic pick-up sticks.
Jan Ver Meer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” with fibonacci diagram overlay.
Yves Klein, “L’accord bleu (RE 10),” 1960, mixed media pigment on canvas and sponges.
The dog was afraid at first, maybe of the movement under his feet or the sight of the circling fish, but he grew calm, then interested, apparently communing with his fellow creatures below. At embarkation, a blanket of morning mist hung over the water’s emerald surface, undisturbed by the slow moving raft and the remarkable silence of its stunned human cargo. Minutes later, the mist vanished and so did the silence. People get used to marvels.
There’s no billboard announcing this place, no big sign at the entrance. The only dot on the little giveaway map doesn’t even mark the spring, but shows an establishment called Linda’s Bread Box. Suffice to say it’s not a big attraction unless you already know it’s there. A day pass to get into the state park costs $9 — an annual pass is $34 — but the short, mind-blowing trip to the spring is free, a favor to the public in perpetuity, a deal worked out with the state of Michigan by John I. Bellaire, the white man who “discovered” the spring almost 100 years ago under a pile of trash left by a lumber company. Of course, the Ojibwe knew all along that it was there, beneath the junk.
Robert DeJarlait, “Gaagoonyiwinini (Fisher Woman),” 2019, watercolor.
Remarkably, Bellaire wasn’t interested in profiting from the spring. And he had the sense to install an entirely human-powered watercraft that uses no energy other than burned calories, which remains in use today. But he had a Barnum-esque showbiz streak and, to encourage (white) people to visit, he got together with a poet friend to create “Indian legends” to make the place more enticing. They concocted a doozy about a cruel “Indian maiden” who lured her suitor there only to orchestrate his death in the perpetually frigid water. Another of their cooked-up legends claims that Indians brought their babies to the spring to name them. One can only imagine what fun it was for the friends to make up these stories. Last year, Carole Lynn Hare, whose Ojibwe ancestors lived on this land, self-published “The Legend of Kitch-iti-kipi” in an attempt to set the story straight.
The place, like its story, seems so fragile. It’s hard to believe it still exists at all, given the mixture of awe and entrepreneurship that mark our relationship to so much of nature. Or what is left of it. We gawk at the beauty and mess it up every time.
Joseph Raffael, “Life-Times,” 2015, watercolor on paper, 42 1/2 x 50 1/2”. Courtesy Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.
Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah, mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks and water, 1,500’ long, 15’ wide. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation, licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York.
The uncannily warm October day I visited Kitch-iti-kipi followed the warmest ever summer on record in the continental United States. It coincided with a national holiday that celebrates the “discovery,” over 500 years ago, of our already-inhabited continent. It seemed like a meaningful confluence. The day I was there, Upper Michigan’s Hiawatha National Forest should have been approaching peak fall color. But most of the trees were still green, the weather summery. It was a reminder that the earth is warming, oceanside places are flooding, and the north woods look good to people wanting to relocate. A realtor tells us that people have begun “flocking” to the Upper Peninsula.
Two days later, Jeff Bezos shot William Shatner into space. The event called to mind the silent underwater spirals at the spring and the fact that only months before, Bezos proposed moving all polluting industry into space. I wondered how long the spring would remain unpolluted and if we’ll mess up space, too. I wondered if it was wrong to even visit The Big Spring or any natural wonder, if these things should be left alone, if none of this unearthly earthly beauty belongs to us. Maybe we’ve forfeited our right to it, and, like bad guests, can no longer be trusted to handle it.
We fill the world with plastic, then crave authenticity, try to recharge our deadened souls through nature, fill up our spiritual vacuum by flocking to remote and beautiful places, and by doing so, ruin them. The Big Spring was saved the first time by a goofy romantic with an appreciation for natural beauty if not for Native American culture. For now at least it’s being saved by sheer remoteness and bad marketing. But for how long?
Six months ago, The Atlantic ran a cover story by David Treuer, an Ojibwe author and historian, advocating that the National Parks be given back to the Tribes. The land is ours, he argues, and we know how to care for it, how to live with it. The logic is impossible to refute. Of course, it won’t happen.
The best we can hope for is that Disney doesn't find out about Kitch-iti-kipi and turn it into a theme park.