When I told my older brother I was going to Hell, he asked if I was going in a hand basket.
Last Saturday my husband, John, and I were on our way to Hell, Michigan, or close to it for the purpose of cheering on our daughter, Andrea Bray, in her first 5k (3.1 miles) open water event — Swim to the Moon.
Swim to the Moon (unsalted and shark free) is an open water competition that begins at North Star Beach, takes its swimmers through five different lakes – known as the Hiland Chain of Lakes — and finishes on the sandy shore of Moon Lake. Thus the name of the race.
Funds raised from this event help support North Star Reach, a camp for children with life-threatening, serious and chronic medical conditions.
Along the way, I discovered that Hell, situated on Patterson Road about 15 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, is still considered an unincorporated community. It consists of a couple of taverns and a postal substation that operates from May 1 through September 30 in the back of the general store.
According to the folklore of the region, there are several stories about how Hell, Michigan, derived its name. My personal favorite dates back to 1841 (soon after Michigan became a state) when George Reeves, who helped settle the town, was asked what he thought the town should be called. He replied, “I don’t care, you can name it Hell for all I care.”
The hour-to-hour weather forecast was bleak for the following morning – race day. Storms in the area threatened to delay or even cancel the event. However, as it turned out – on this August day – the weather gods were in our favor. The race moved forward with little more than a few raindrops at the start. Under a sunless sky, the air temperature was a tepid 68 degrees and the water was 77 and smooth as glass.
Our daughter’s day began at 4 a.m., in order to be ready for the 7:30 start, but her journey for this race actually began in January – eight months earlier. But then she is used to that kind of early-morning schedule after swimming for Penn High School as a teen-ager.
Andrea’s typical weekly training schedule consisted of logging either mile swims or challenging sets in the pool every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Saturdays were two-mile swims in a lake with her like-minded training crew – the self-dubbed “Murray Swimmers” (aptly named because of the lake in which they trained near her home in Rockford, Michigan).
“I’m not sure how long Murray swimmers have been around as this was my first year with them,” Andrea said. “They are a very welcoming group especially to those new to open water swimming. Members were all training for different events. Those training for triathlons would run after our swims.”
“Throughout the summer, we saw beautiful sunrises and nature’s surprises. One swim, when I was breathing to my right, I saw a majestic blue heron perched on the shore about 200 yards from where I was swimming,” she continued. “The group has seen an eagle and a morning rainbow. Other days there was fog so thick that we couldn’t see the shoreline and would just try to swim as straight as possible.”
“Some swimmers are retired, others work full-time or have kids, but no matter what our days look like, these morning swims gave us a jolt of adventure.”
“After coming to know the lakes, swimming in a pool now feels like a treadmill,” Andrea added. “There is a great sense of freedom in the open water.”
Andrea’s longest training swim was a four miler, which started before sunrise in the fog. This had been her final push and gave her the confidence to compete in this Swim to the Moon event.
When I asked Andrea what the start of the race was like, she said matter-of-factly, “The start was crowded and I got kicked a couple of times. I had to maneuver a bit but then I found my space. Then about half-way through the swim, I ran into some shallow water and almost swallowed two fish!”
Perched upon the water, marking the last quarter-mile of the swim, was an oversized inflated green alligator. “When I spotted it, I was never so happy to see a big green alligator in my life!”
Crossing the finish line and sporting the smile of a champion, Andrea claimed fourth place in her 30-34 age group division and finished 51st out of 247 swimmers in her event.
Holding her age-group award, Andrea chuckled, “Not a bad way to spend an hour and 29 minutes on a Sunday morning.”
And it was near an interesting town, too. Well, at least its name is interesting.
Of course, you know what happens here come December … Hell freezes over.