Dr. Heather Smith, MD?

Believe it or not, our very own Grand Traverse Bay WATERKEEPER could be treating patients today instead of protecting our waterways.

In her own words, Heather says: “[In college] I thought I was going to do the pre-med track, but I did not. I ended up taking a couple environmental classes and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is where it’s at! I want to be in and on our waters, protecting the Great Lakes during my career.'” When you hear this, it’s no wonder that Heather says “This is only the greatest dream that’s come to reality that I am now the Grand Traverse Bay WATERKEEPER. I remember driving by The Watershed Center building and thinking ‘Some day, some day I’m gonna get a job in that blue building and help protect the bay!’ So you can imagine how geeked I was when I got hired.”  

Heather didn’t always think she’d be an environmental scientist; she also never saw herself swimming competitively. Growing up in Traverse City she always loved competing in sports, and she spent her summers sailing on Lake Michigan and swimming in the bay, but she never received any formal competitive swim training. Heather started working for The Watershed Center around the time that we hosted our first-ever Swim for Grand Traverse Bay and it didn’t take long before our legal counsel, TJ Andrews, persuaded Heather to compete. (She already had a wet suit from her time living in sunny California after grad school, so why not?!) Heather recalls her first training swim with some of our race regulars, like Ashlea, TJ, and Staci. They swam Cedar Lake and Heather was convinced the race was more than she could handle. A couple trainings early on with flippers helped her build her stamina and confidence, but her nerves caught up with her again before race day. She couldn’t sleep the night before she planned to swim the practice course, she was so anxious about being able to complete the entire race course.

Even with the anxiety and the challenge of juggling training with raising two young girls and working full-time, Heather will have competed in each of the four swims we’ve hosted since she joined our staff.

So, why take on such a challenge? It’s personal for Heather.

“The Grand Traverse Bay is unique, it’s valuable, and it’s ecologically rich and diverse. I have a special connection to the bay. It feels like it’s my space, it’s the ecosystem that I belong in. Having this deep and  special connection my entire life to this bay drives me to protect it.” As someone who’s spent her life splashing in the bay and studying it under a microscope, Heather feels “there’s no better way to celebrate it than participate in a fundraiser where I get to experience the bay in a new, different way.  It’s really soothing and rhythmic once you get into your stroke, there’s no distractions. It’s just this surreal experience.”

With so much time spent on the water, it’s safe to assume that when you ask Heather about her favorite memory on the water, it’s hard for her to choose. But, after a little reflection, Heather mentions that “One of my favorite things is seeing my kids playing in the water, experiencing it and loving it the same way I did as a child. I feel so much gratitude for the experience that we have, to raise our family in this community and on this bay. That is so magical.”  

While Heather does a lot to keep our region’s water healthy, she points out that it’s not something that can be done alone. “We all have this shared responsibility for protecting this thing that we all love. Grand Traverse Bay makes our region special. The inland lakes, streams, and wetlands make this place a desirable place to live and recreate. Far too often, we just take it for granted. …If we want to protect it for generations to come, it is going to take all of us to do that.”

You can share the responsibility of protecting Grand Traverse Bay by helping Heather reach her fundraising goal for the 2024 Swim for Grand Traverse Bay.