Ed Wargin’s Fresh Coast Project

The northern tip of Door County, on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan.

Last week, maybe Thursday, I got a call from my friend Ed Wargin, a photographer I met when he lived in Petoskey, but who now lives in Minneapolis. He said he was on the road again, shooting pictures of the Great Lakes, and was looking for a place to stay when his travels took him to Leelanau County for the weekend. No problemo, crash at our place, I said.


Ed arrived Saturday, pulling into the driveway with his extended cab pickup, the bed packed with coolers and camera gear and sleeping bag and stove and all the other stuff somebody needs to sustain a month-plus road trip. Ed hadn’t shaved in a few days, maybe more, and had that happy, scruffy look of somebody working outdoors on a project they care deeply about—even though it meant a long series of 4 a.m. wake-ups and midnight bedtimes sleeping in the back of his pickup truck.


His project is called The Fresh Coast Project and is intended to capture on film—meaning actual film, not digital—the beauty and power of all the Great Lakes shorelines. For the past few years, Ed has been making sojourns to various stretches of Great Lakes shores, and this trip was something of a capstone, doing circle tours of all five Great Lakes. That is something like 10,000 miles.


That evening, Saturday, he and I headed over to the bluffs just south of Empire to photograph the sunset over Lake Michigan. The scene is without doubt one of the most dramatic on the Great Lakes, sitting some 400 feet above the water and looking north along the shore to the grand sand face at Sleeping Bear Dunes, South Manitou Island floating off to the northwest. The scene has been shot without doubt by millions of people, but never by Ed. It was an honor to hang out up there watching that beautiful sunset knowing it would become part of the Great Lakes photographic canon.


Ed’s decision to shoot on film is not just a matter of an unwillingness to evolve with technology. He views the permanence of film, the physical existence of the image and its ability to endure as itself making a statement about the Great Lakes and the importance of taking a long-term view of their stewardship.


On Sunday afternoon, Ed and I sat out under the trees in my yard enjoying an amazingly warm October day, leaves falling from trees above. He told me a story about some digital files he’d had from a separate project that just disappeared from his hard drives once. The event made him forever question the permanence of digital photographs. “I know for certain that film will be around in a hundred years and that it will have the ability to inspire people then,” he said.


Ed is also hoping the project will help finally elevate the Great Lakes to the place they deserve in the national consciousness.


I too have long been perplexed by how invisible the Great Lakes seem to be for people who live in other parts of the nation. How is it we all feel some kind of connection and sense of stewardship for the Everglades or the Grand Canyon—ecosystems far smaller than the Great Lakes—but people in, say, Oklahoma, probably couldn’t place the Great Lakes on a map? This is far more than an idle curiosity, because it translates to fewer dollars for taking care of the Great Lakes. I’ll never forget back when George W. Bush was president and the Everglades got $8 billion (note the b) for restoration while the Great Lakes was struggling to get $1. Couldn’t the Great Lakes have received even, say, $1 billion and the Everglades gotten by with $7 billion?


Well, anyway. Ed has a ways to go on his project, and it has more facets than I can cover in this blog. I suggest you check out his website, thefreshcoastproject.com. Definitely do not skip the gallery. Some dynamite stuff in there that will make you love the Great Lakes more than ever.—Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

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