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Great Lakes Odyessy

Danielle Horvath - August 30th, 2007
College student Brenin Wertz-Roth followed his passion this summer, sailing Lake Michigan by himself to spread awareness about the lakes and their fragile eco-systems.
Piloting a 25-foot Catalina named “Friendship,” Brenin, 22, stopped in on communities along the way around Lake Michigan to speak to community and civic groups at state parks, maritime museums and anywhere people are concerned about the health of the Great Lakes. A student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he has created a website for those interested in keeping up with his travels, at

NE: What do you hope to accomplish by this adventure?
Wertz-Roth: My goal for this summer is to do my part in making people around the region more aware of the place they call home. I wouldn’t call myself an expert of any kind, but I’ve worked hard to learn what I can. It always feels good when I am able to clarify a point of confusion for someone.
Just the other day, I was walking down the street in Chicago and I came across a lady sitting at her kid’s lemonade stand with a petition against BP’s proposal to dump ammonia and sludge into the lake (BP Amoco is an oil company). Everyone who stopped was supportive and I was able to answer their questions and point them in a direction to gain more information.
One thing I’m encouraging everyone to do is get involved where they’re from, in the preservation or restoration of a local part of the lakes, whether it is a dune, river, beach, lake or wetland. Most areas have a group based around the local watershed, and cumulatively, these groups can have a huge effect on the health of the lakes.

NE: What kinds of reactions are you getting from the people you meet?
Wertz-Roth: People’s reactions to my journey have been overwhelmingly positive. Most people are impressed, supportive and often a little envious.
This has been really encouraging. I started with a passion and an idea, but in bringing all the pieces together, there is the danger of losing sight of my intention and becoming lost in the details. Talking with people and hearing their excitement serves as a good reminder of where I started. So far I haven’t had a single negative reaction or disagreement; people really want the lakes to be healthy and strong. Overwhelmingly, they want to understand the problems and do what they can. So the continuing problems with the lakes probably aren’t there because of a lack of public will.

NE: What have you learned about the lake by sailing on it?
Wertz-Roth: The lakes are being attacked on so many sides, from habitat loss, invasive species, and persistent pollutants to climate change. It’s such a mess of factors that the causality of most problems can’t be traced back to any one thing. This combined with the fact that much of the country doesn’t share our concern has made everything harder.

NE: What has been the biggest surprise?
Wertz-Roth: The biggest surprise is perhaps not that surprising, but I have gained a better understanding of the size of the lakes and the region. On a good day I am moving at about seven miles an hour, so there is a lot of time to see and consider every dune, point, cove, island, and town (not to mention the water).
I think the usual forms of travel give us a different sense of scale and a destination-oriented idea of movement. We go from Traverse City to Chicago in a day, and at best enjoy a view or two as it flashes by. That same trip has taken me four and a half weeks and it was never really about getting to Chicago. I’m not really going anywhere this summer. Without any particular destination, I guess you could say I’m going everywhere.
The lakes are really huge! And even though that is probably the most common reaction out there, it is truer than most people realize. That we have devastated them time and again speaks less to their fragility than to the grievousness of our actions.

NE: Have you had any scary moments?
Wertz-Roth: Leaving Leland with the hope of reaching South Manitou, the wind was absolutely howling out of the west. The waves were short and choppy around the mouth of the harbor and it was a struggle to hold my course. Each crest pulled my prop out of the water and I lost a little steerage. When I thought I was far enough out, I started raising my sails, starting with the main. I was pulling on the main halyard, steering with my foot when my engine died suddenly.
I realized right away that a line had fallen overboard in the waves and got wrapped in the prop. When I finished raising the main so I would have some source of power to keep me from getting pushed around by the waves, I pulled the engine out of the water. Having already decided I was going to head back into the harbor and wait until the weather passed, I needed my engine to work soon.
Steering with my foot again, I had to lean way out over the stern of the boat with a knife to cut and pull the line free. Just a few hundred yards away, the beach was full of people and I wondered it they noticed me at all. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the prop was clear, and when I lowered the engine back into the water, it started right away - to my great relief. I dropped the main and motored back to Leland to rest my nerves.

NE: How did you get the funds for this adventure?
Wertz-Roth: I have been funding the project through a combination of personal savings and financial help from my family. I applied for grants, but suppose I didn’t talk to the right people and got no takers. But aside from the initial costs (basically the boat), people have been really generous along the way.
All through the trip I have met people who we excited to help me in some way, whether that meant driving me into town, buying me dinner or giving me a discount at the marina.

NE: Is this part of your college program?
Wertz-Roth: Unfortunately, no. I tried getting credit for this, but my school only gives credit for “accredited” programs. They wouldn’t even give me PE credit because it isn’t supervised.

NE: What do you think you’ll do with the info/experience you have gained?
Wertz-Roth: I hope to continue to share this knowledge with people for years to come. I am already booking presentations for the fall and the winter, and I am considering doing other lakes next summer (maybe Huron and Erie), but that’s just speculation.

NE: What are your career aspirations?
Wertz-Roth: I am looking at a career in the field of sustainable systems - helping people to live and work in less wasteful ways. I am hopeful that people have the capacity and the will to be less destructive, and I want to help them.

NE: How the heck did you deal with this summer’s heat wave?
Wertz-Roth: When the wind is blowing, it isn’t that bad, but when it dies, I go swimming a lot!

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