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 thousand-mile hikes, but, at least for a while, it will be the last. For her next great adventure, Niewenhuis is measuring distance by words instead of miles. She's a scientist, a hiker, and a writer.
In 2009, as Niewenhuis felt the nest about to empty with the departure of 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 thousand-mile hike around Lake Michigan, resulting in the first of Niewenhuis’s adventure trilogy, A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach. She began walking in Chicago and ended there seven months later, taking occasional breaks along the way, walking mostly alone. Her two sons as well as friends and relatives joined 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. “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.”
Niewenhuis has a graduate degree in science and she has worked in a hospital laboratory, in animal research, and on a bone marrow transplant group. She turned her passion to writing while raising her sons and returned to school to earn another master’s degree, this time in the fine arts.
A year later, Niewenhuis headed out on her second thousand-mile adventure, chronicled in A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk. She had 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 toward Detroit. She walked sections along all five Great Lakes, averaging 13 miles per day, 27 miles on her longest day, but nine miles on her shortest.
“It was a more strenuous hike than the first. I had averaged 16 miles a day on my first hike.”
Niewenhuis says she had wanted to write her books about the beauty of the Great Lakes and did. But she also found a dark side she wanted readers to understand.
“I was shocked at how fragile our lakes are, 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. In 2014, Niewenhuis set out to explore islands on all five Great Lakes.
“I hadn’t realized how many islands there are in the Great Lakes!” In fact, there are about 35,000, so Niewenhuis chose carefully. During part of the journey she hiked the rugged wilderness of Isle Royale in Lake Superior where she participated in a moose study, working with a group of scientists.
“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 available at all area independent bookstores.
Loreen Niewenhuis will read from her latest book on May 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Portage District Library, and at Battle Creek Books on May 16 at 2 p.m.
Listen to Between the Lines on WMUK every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.