Story and Film By: Brandon Rieck
Photography By: Micah Carroll
What exactly is a highline? A slackline (a 1-inch piece of nylon or polyester webbing) that is suspended across a gap, with the goal being to walk one end to the other. A main tensioned line is walked, with a second loose line as backup (redundancy is everything in highlining). The main difference between highlining and tightrope walking is the stretchy webbing, which creates a far more dynamic line to cross, as well as the absence of a balance pole. Now that we know a bit about what the sport is, let’s get to how in the world we ended up doing it in places like Michigan and Minnesota.
I was introduced to slacklining in 2014 when I first moved to Marquette, Michigan, to attend Northern Michigan University. I found a few others at NMU who enjoyed slacklining, and we would meet up to share our passion for the slack life. Through a connection with another slackline devotee, we were invited to Moab, Utah, in 2016 to attend a Thanksgiving highline festival known as GGBY (if you want to know what that stands for, you’ll have to watch my GGBY highline film!). Slacklining regularly for the past summer, I felt confident in my ability to walk a highline. As soon as I scooted off the cliff, the ground falling out 400 feet below me, I was completely out of my element and had no chance at standing up. Humbled by the experience, I was determined to stand and cross my next highline.
I spent the next couple of years honing my skills on park lines in Michigan and traveled to Moab each fall to test myself. By my fourth year at GGBY in 2019, my progress in highlining had been quite slow because I was only able to practice a few times, one week out of the year, and I had to drive cross-country to do it. Though our original slack crew split ways, I continued rigging my Michigan lines higher on the trees to get that rush I found from highlining in Utah — a hyper-focus of calming my nerves and being in full flow with my mind, body and slackline. This sensation is unlike anything I’ve found before and what keeps drawing me back to the sport.
Back in Michigan, I found myself among a new crowd of slackliners; Micah Carroll, Joehl Pizzo and Will Otte. We started a weekly slackline meetup on campus, inviting anyone within the community to give it a try. This was a perfect way to reach others with our similar passion, and it’s how we met Adrian Wojcik, who had driven by the meetup a couple of times before finally deciding to stop. With Adrian’s and my prior experience highlining, we introduced it to our crew, who showed interest in it. The only problem was that it was the middle of summer, and GGBY was months out. Surely there could be another way we could highline sooner?
As we kept our heads on a swivel for any local gaps with enough height, it soon became impossible to go for a drive or hike without constantly contemplating whether a spot would work or not. Rigging our very first local highline with the rushing waterfall behind us was an experience that burned deep into my soul. I vividly remember thinking how amazing it was that we were able to do this in our backyard, a 45-minute drive from Marquette, compared to my 24-hour road trip to Utah. Giving my crew the experience of highlining for their first time in Michigan was truly special. It was also much easier on the nerves, being only 25 feet up over the water, compared to the intimidating 400-foot canyons of Moab.
Very shortly after our first rig, we discussed the crown gem of highline spots in Michigan: Pictured Rocks. With up to 200-foot sandstone cliffs dropping off at Lake Superior with nothing to see but an endless blue horizon, we couldn’t get out there soon enough! We were unsure of the regulations but knew ice climbing was allowed in the winter, anchoring off trees. After researching online, we found nothing about slacklining being an issue. Arriving at the lakeshore after a 1.5-hour hike with loads of gear, our breath was taken away by the vibrance of the early-morning water. We proceeded to rig two lines this time, side by side. Unfortunately, our day was cut short based on a misunderstanding with the park rangers, who had never seen this done on the lakeshore before.
Thus began our search for and establishment of more lines along the beautiful Pictured Rocks shoreline. As we passed into the new year, we learned the park had implemented slackline regulations taken directly from Yosemite’s rule book. This, unfortunately, eliminated our access to highlining over water in the park, but we learned their intention was not to cut off slacklining entirely. They encouraged us to do it elsewhere in the park, but being over the lakeshore presented certain issues. We are still currently working with the park to regain our access and adapt the rules to something more suitable for our National Lakeshore. This opened up more time to discover other notable Midwestern areas for highlining, such as Palisade Head and Devil’s Lake State Park.
It’s been an amazing opportunity to connect with Minnesota and Wisconsin slackline crews, traveling to see what they’ve established in their own areas. The slackline community includes truly some of the most unique and welcoming people I’ve had the privilege to meet. While we yearn for those pristine highline views along Pictured Rocks, we continue our pursuit of the slack life wherever we can find it. We hope to preserve these incredible places for all future generations and foster a community that will be able to experience these highlines long after we’re gone.
Read more of our stories in Issue 22 of Lake and Company.