Alluring Lake Michigan dunes hide destructive potential

LAKE MICHIGAN - One gobbles entire cottages. Another swallowed a child for hours before rescuers could dig him out.

This may sound like the work of a nightmarish creature from the "Star Wars" or "Tremors" science-fiction films, but it's mostly wind and sand along a Great Lake.

Near Silver Lake in Oceana County — about an hour's drive north of Grand Rapids — people for many years have lost properties to wind-driven sand dunes. And about 175 miles to the south, at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Indiana, a horrifying event in 2013 was enough to shut down an entire area for four years. 

Nathan Woessner, then 6, was walking on Mt. Baldy, a massive, 120-foot-tall dune on the east end of the park, when he fell in an invisible hole. For nearly four hours, he was trapped 11 feet below the surface — he nearly died, but rescuers saved him, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

On July 14, the National Park Service reopened the beach below Mt. Baldy. Access to the dune itself remains closed. Rope fences marked "Keep off dunes" guide the path through sand down to the beach. 

Bruce Rowe, spokesman with the National Park Service, said trees rotting away under the sand's surface create the holes. Eleven have been found in the dune, and it remains closed because of the danger.  

On Aug. 1, a few people could be seen scattered along the beach. Kristy Stucky, 38, of Merrillville, Ill., and Rachel Henderson, 38, of Crown Pointe, Ill., each brought their young children down to play. 

The mothers said they came to the Mt. Baldy beach because it's not as crowded as the nearby state park, there's no charge, and they can bring a dog. And also because it just re-opened. 

"This is incredible," Henderson said. "The shorelines are gorgeous, and the water's gorgeous." 

She said she's not worried about the sand. 

"That never crossed our mind — to go where there's a fenced area," Henderson said.

 At one point, the mothers called the kids back to the beach. Rip currents have claimed dozens of lives in the past year on Lake Michigan. 

The Great Lakes sand dunes are relatively young, from a geologic perspective, as the lakes were covered with ice until about 16,000 years ago, according to a General Management Plan by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources dated March 2012.

It says the dunes' sands come from glacial sediment eroded by streams and from waves along the shoreline's bluffs. Currents moved the sediment along the shoreline, and strong winds carried the sand inland, creating the dunes, according to the management plan.

The coastal dunes, framed in thick forests, are a special place. Stucky said her husband proposed to her, years earlier, at the top of Mt. Baldy — from which miles of Lake Michigan's blue-green waters are visible.

"We wanted to come back," she said. "But it was closed." 

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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