10/07/2011 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Northern Enclosure

After the perils of Pakistan, an ex-Navy SEAL team leader relaxes and recharges among the glorious fall colors on his private (sort of) 20-mile Michigan lake.


I didn't have much of a summer. At least not a summer of the conventional kind. I was writing a book on the SEAL Team raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the places to which I traveled were mostly dusty and dangerous. Few of them were beautiful -- unless you count starkness as a virtue.

I came back in late August, and shut myself inside my study until the book was finished. When I finally did step outside, it was to find that autumn had come to Northern Michigan -- and that it was lovely and peaceful and made me very glad to be home and safe.

I live in a town that does not have a stoplight, and most of the people who live here, in one way or another, make their livings off the beauty of the countryside, which is rolling, forested and dotted with lakes. In the summer, people come to swim and fish, and in the fall they get in their cars and drive from the city out here -- through the Tunnel of Trees and other Michigan-foliage must-sees -- to the country, to see what autumn can do to a forest. The fall, for me, is the most alluring time of the year, and this autumn it's seemed especially so -- I guess my adopted hometown compares favorably to Abbottabad.

Like foliage-rich east-coast states, Michigan, too, has an "upstate" -- Michiganders call it "Up North" -- and around here a galaxy of smaller lakes revolve around the Great Lakes of Huron, Michigan and Superior. In Northern Michigan, there is a lake for almost every taste. Some of them are tea-colored like mahogany, but many are shades of sapphire and emerald green. They are treasures.

Before I came to live in Michigan, I dismissed the Great Lakes State as fly-over country. I listened skeptically when Michigan lifers tried to describe it to me. They told me that Michigan had more than 3,000 miles of coastline -- more than any other of the lower 48 states. Having lived in Florida and California -- both of which have some pretty serious coastline -- those boasts failed to impress me. They told me about Michigan's glorious inland lakes, but I just yawned. They showed me pictures of incredibly blue lakes -- with turquoise water that looked like it was air-lifted from the Bahamas. I began to suspect some sort of photographic conspiracy.

It did look kinda like the Bahamas.

But then, 15 years ago, I came up here, Up North. I went to the lake they were talking about, I saw, and I was astounded. I have traveled around the world, and I consider myself a "water person." (Guess it would be kinda strange if I was ex-Navy and wasn't a water person.) I used to live on the Mosquito coast of Honduras before it became a diving Mecca. I've spent time in the Aegean and the French West Indies, and I've surfed the Dominican Republic, Polynesia and Baja Mexico. But when I finally saw this place, I fell in love. I moved and I've lived here ever since.

Practiced At The Art Of Deception

There are some places that you have to learn to love. Los Angeles is that kind of place. But there are other places, like Seattle or Tahoe, that can be loved at first sight. Humbler, perhaps, is the beauty of Michigan, but it, too, will hit you all at once.

What makes Northern Michigan especially charming is the vibe -- which is much, much slower and friendlier than down state. People don't stress up here. They're not in a hurry. It is so much slower Up North that it can sometimes feel like a flannel-shirted manaña.

And people up here are very, very partial about their lakes. They're proud of them. They're also practiced at the art of deception: They're sparing with their praise. No one wants more people to come to "their" lake. Lake cabins are passed through generations, and their locations are as carefully guarded as family scandals.

Now I have my own lake. I'm not going to tell you its name -- I'm no fool -- but I will tell you that it is the largest spring-fed lake in North America; it is 20-miles long, three-miles wide and 300-feet deep. It is one of the most stunning places I've ever seen in my life. It's on the 45th parallel of latitude. It can be seen from outer space -- really -- and it looks beautiful, even on a map.

My lake is not very far from where the Hemingways (yes, those Hemingways) have a cabin. They have their lake and I have mine. I like mine better.

In the fall, more so than in the summer, I'm proudest of my lake, and maybe more possessive than ever. People come and gawk and I think of awful things to tell them (think: rabid skunks) so they won't even think of moving here.

In the fall, my lake is changeable and transfixing -- on a gray day, it looks like a Scottish Loch, and on a sunny day in autumn, when the thin October light plays on it, it's a hundred different shades of blue. The aspen trees turn silver and the maples turn a crimson, fire-engine color that's almost hard to believe. There are elms that turn buttery, and iron woods and locusts and gum tress that turn whatever color suits them. The entire forest -- as far as you can see around here -- is so yellow and orange and gold that you'll be stuck trying to explain what you saw to people who won't believe you.

And that's just fine -- it'll be our secret.

Chuck Pfarrer is a former assault-element commander of SEAL Team Six, and author of the bestseller Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy Seal. He has written op-eds for The New York Times and the Knight Ridder syndicate. Chuck's latest book, SEAL Target Geronimo: Inside the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden, will be published by St. Martin's Press in November.

Want other great fall-foliage destinations? Check out more LeafQuest.

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LeafQuest Special: Read Atlantic columnist James Parker's take on New England foliage.

Interested in more stories about Michigan? Go to Patch and scroll the list of states to get great local coverage of your neighborhood.