One Step Forward . . .

As toddlers, many of us may well have dreamed of endless sandboxes to play in, but since few remember their toddler dreams, joy in the thought of endless sands probably went subliminal. Perhaps that’s the reason that Michigan’s massive sand dunes bordered by a vista of endless water creates a sort of ecstasy for children and relieves tension for adults. [Sandbox photo source]

I had a free afternoon last week to wander the shore and dunes of Lake Michigan at Hoffmaster State Park just south of Muskegon—finding that such ambling indeed does quiet the spirit, and if you desire to climb the dunes, gives your heart and legs a good workout. Steep dunes, in fact, can provide the reality on which an old metaphor is based: “one step forward and two steps back.” In a couple spots I had to stop climbing upward and go laterally because I was losing ground with each step! And there’s a sort of reversal of that metaphoric reality when you go down the steepest slopes: “one step forward and four steps down!” It had rained the day before and there was a damp crust of firmer sand over the dry sand on the dune I climbed, which meant that when I started down, the sand immediately under foot became a fragile “ski” that would have sent me down in a tumbling rush if a few saplings had not been at hand. (With my new camera around my neck, it could have also become the photographer’s nightmare: sand in the lens!).

After spending a few moments taking some photos for a family visiting from St. Louis (mom was trying to herd everyone into poses from which she would have been absent) I wandered the shoreline for a while—experiencing the phenomenon of “singing sands”: There’s a spot between the totally saturated wave zone and the dry dunes where there is just the right amount of moisture in the sand for your feet to make a squeak with every step, which is not unlike the crunch of snow under your feet when you walk in it in especially frigid weather. You can read about singing (or barking sands) on this Wikipedia link (Go to the bottom right-hand corner to hear a recording of the sound.)

Sand dunes are a very dramatic ecosystem where on windy days change happens as you watch: waves reforming the beach and ribbons of blowing sand moving up and over the top of bare dunes to create drifts and mini sandstorms. Such drifting and shifting sand over the years has buried entire abandoned villages, and to the dismay of landowners, blown away valuable property or threatened to inundate their homes and required them to take expensive measures to stop the encroaching drifts.

If you visit a dune area only occasionally, you are often surprised to find an entirely different appearance every time you go. Where trees once stood solid, you might find them toppling where the sand has been blown away from the roots. The roots of many plants in dune areas go very deep in search of water, and many trees take on a sort of grotesque appearance with bare twisted roots looking more like limbs. The survival capacity of such trees is amazing. Some roots have been exposed so long that they are hard to distinguish from limbs.

On my amble along the shore, some deep yellow flowers caught my eye; so I wandered up into a blowout to discover what they were (a “blowout” in dune terminology is a spot on the shoreline where the wind has managed to clear out vegetation and created a rift of mostly bare sand that projects well into what was earlier a stable, wooded hillside). In a park a blowout is the sandbox of a child’s dream; on your own property, though, it can be a virtual nightmare.

Parks are also great places for botanists to test dune stability and erosion prevention. The planting of native marram grass is the most common way to stabilize the dunes. Once the hardy and deep rooted grass has taken hold, the drifting stops. Then other plants begin to grow. The flowers, I discovered, were the hoary/hairy puccoon, which stood out like torches in the otherwise gray-green setting. After taking a few photos to add to my wildflower picture library, I also discovered a few of the rare Pitcher’s thistles that grow only in the dunes of the Great Lakes. They survive by sending their roots down as far as six feet! Also amazing to find were hundreds of oak seedlings that were taking root from last year’s acorns—no doubt assisted by one of the wettest and cloudiest Mays I can remember. Most will likely be blown away, covered up, or dried up by fall.

The dunes of the Great Lakes are the largest fresh water dune system in the world—which is one reason the US government established the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to help preserve this system and provide enjoyment for millions of visitors. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are the most extensive and tallest dunes on the Great Lakes. Its highest dune is about 450 feet tall (depending upon whether the wind is piling on or shaving away its peak). Some years ago when I was flying from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis on a crystal-clear and cloudless day, I spotted the dunes from the plane as we started across the Big Lake at Muskegon. They were some 115 miles away! I could see them like a white beacon on the horizon as we flew over the lake and on over Wisconsin’s beautiful Door County. They were still visible when we were well past Green Bay. [Dunes photo source]

Sand dunes: what a wonder of creation! (If you follow the links in this account you can learn a great deal about them. And if you have not loaded Google Earth onto your computer, be sure you do that. The satellite photos and tools on Google Earth make a “virtual reality” of such wonders that you could get for real only if you were an astronaut).

See you outdoors,