Too loud and too bright

This month, some of us in Alcona County, “First of the 83,” are covering our ears.

When the poet T. S. Eliot penned the famous line, “April is the cruelest month,” we can be certain he wasn’t living in Northeast Michigan.

Most people Up North would say February or March are the cruelest months.

But, to me, it is July.

To paraphrase T. S., “July is the loudest month.”

At least, it is where I live, close to Harrisville State Park, in what was once the logging boomtown of Springport. Silence rules here for nine months of the year, broken only by the screaming seagulls, the scolding ravens, and the shrieking salamanders.

July comes in with a bang. The explosive cacophony of the Fourth of July begins at the end of June. During that loud week, Michiganders may lawfully ignite all kinds of firecrackers — ropes of them, carefully braided together in toxic factories in China — and fireworks — quivers full of arrow-like bottle rockets and Roman candles, produced in the same dangerous Chinese workplaces.

It sounds like sporadic gunfire in a Mideast war zone or an American inner city.

The ritual flash and bang of Independence Day used to be confined to a quaint pyrotechnic display over Harrisville Harbor, and kids gamboling around waving sparklers and hooting with the thrill of being so close to combustion, without the experience becoming excruciating (it’s the primal reason why people smoke: painless proximity to fire).

The advent of permissive fireworks laws brought the tents and trailers that sprout in June, which purvey all those Chinese incendiaries. Now, people can determine on their own when it is time to light up the sky and shatter the stillness, any time around July 4, without warning.

The sudden, deafening reports are enough to trigger a PTSD flashback, or to become the stuff of traumatic stress themselves!

Mercifully, the laws prohibiting fireworks resume on July 5, which is a day I celebrate for that reason.

But then the Jet Skis take over, and they are worse than a week of sporadic fireworks, because they roar and race and drone away, back and forth on Lake Huron, week after week, until after Labor Day.

Clayton Jacobson II was only 35 years old in 1968 when he applied for a patent: a “motorcycle for the water.” Jacobsen had learned jet engineering in the Marine Corps while posted at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb had come into being shortly before.

A thrill-seeker by nature, Jacobson got his kicks at motocross races in the Mojave Desert, a sport that comes with a high likelihood of personal injuries.

Jacobson had the inspiration to invent the Jet Ski after wiping out in a competition — there’s a photograph of him on his dirt bike at a dangerous angle in a pack of racers on the day he had the idea! He quit his day job and put his time and resources into designing a prototype. He dubbed it the Bombardier.

In 1973, four years after receiving his patent, Kawasaki Industries of Japan began to manufacture Jacobson’s stroke of genius — actually, it was a two-stroke stroke of genius, with two cylinders powering a 400-cc engine.

Jet Skis, a name copyrighted by Kawasaki that has become a generic term for all personal motorized watercraft, caught on quickly in the late 1970s. But they didn’t catch on right away Up North. The bass beat of those years came from the jet engines of the bombers and fighters based in Oscoda.

The popularity of Jet Skis continued to grow in tandem with the power of their engineering. When Jet Skis first found their way to Michigan lakes — like an invasive species — in the 1980s, they began annoying nature-lovers as they crisscrossed the water, buzzing like mini-bikes.

Now, they roar like Harleys. Some Jet Skis look large enough to fit a family of five, and, if need be, they could bring along a mattress and the dog.

Nearing their 50th anniversary, the largest Jet Skis on the market in 2021 dwarf Jacobson’s original JS400. At 1,498 cubic centimeters, the Jet Ski Ultra 310’s four-cylinder, four-stroke engine is more than four times larger!

Now it’s loud Up North in July.

On a related note, when was the last time you saw the northern lights? Not the arena, but aurora borealis, burning brightly in the night?

For younger readers — hoping there are some of those — the answer may be “never”. If you’re like me, it has been a Long Old Time (one LOT, a unit of measure for weakening memories). Especially in August, which is supposedly the best time for stargazers to witness the mesmerizing, multi-colored sky show.

Lay the blame on “light pollution.”

Light pollution is not a threat to the survival of our species, not in the way that toxic air, soil, and water are.

But it is a sign of changing times.

As shown in Crystal Nelson’s article in The News on Wednesday, July 7, the population of Northeast Michigan has declined in the half-century since the Jet Ski came on the scene (one wonders, is there a correlation?).

Yet, despite having fewer people, the region is far brighter at night now. Banks of lights like a baseball stadium burn all night at big-box businesses. Intense points of security lighting glow around cottages in the forest and along the lakeshore. As seen from the shore in Harrisville, the town of Oscoda, 16 miles away, radiates a perpetual bluish false dawn until the real dawn takes over with shades of pink and peach.

In July and August, if you want to find darkness and solitude, the place to go is Negwegon State Park. There, a vast undeveloped tract tucked under the South Point of Thunder Bay, neither Oscoda nor Alpena blur the horizon with light. It is an official “Dark Spot,” which doesn’t sound like a favorable designation, but certainly is to amateur astronomers. Also, the waters of Negwegon are blessedly Jet Ski free, and will remain that way, like a museum of peace and quiet.

Eric Paul Roorda is a professor, historian, lecturer, author, and illustrator. He has called Alcona County home for 50 years.


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