Stateside Podcast: Man vs. Sand
The state of Michigan is lined with hundreds of miles of sand dunes. The sandy giants were created by the sand left by glaciers 10,000 years ago.
“Michigan is absolutely loaded with sand,” said Alan Arbogast, dunes expert and researcher in the Department of Geography at Michigan State University. “Michigan is like a big sandbox, especially in the northwest corner of the state [with sand] from the ice ages.”
About 5,000 years ago, dunes began to form around the modern day Great Lakes. They were formed by both wind and gravity, and their shapes are influenced by structures and vegetation. According to Arbogast, vegetation is one of the most crucial components of dune stabilization. In the early stages of dune formation, beach grass becomes a focal point for sand deposition. On a dune that’s around 150 years old, creeping juniper will start to move in. When a dune gets to be 300 to 400 years old, hardwood forests will start to grow – providing the most stabilization yet.
There are dunes that are unstable in Michigan – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, and Silver Lake State Park on the west side of the state. Silver Lake dunes are constantly moving; so much so that homeowners in the area are faced with the ever-growing problem of the dunes consuming their cottages.
The dunes are destabilized in part due to human activity across the state park. Vegetation hasn’t been able to take root due to dune buggies being driven over the dunes, as well as dune tours and park-goers traipsing over them.
“You can think of Silver Lake as sort of being the big sandbox for the state of Michigan,” said Arbogast. “We all played in sandboxes when we were kids, and that's sort of the big adult sandbox in the state.”
Arbogast described the picture most people have of unstable dunes: bare sand blowing everywhere, creating both odd piles and massive formations. He said Silver Lake is “that picture on steroids.”
Dan Behm is a homeowner at Silver Lake. He bought his first cottage there around 30 years ago, and his mother owns a cottage next door. Behm said it is his wife and children’s favorite place in the world. They spent decades watching the dunes swallow a forest, a farm, and, eventually, his neighbors’ cottages. Behm’s newest acquisition is the cottage closest to the encroaching dune – he purchased it five years ago.
Since the acquisition, he has been working to move upwards of 15,000 cubic yards of sand a year off of his property. He had to purchase his own machinery – a wheel loader and a freightliner dump truck – to keep the costs down of moving the sand out. Behm wants to save his cottages, his mother’s, and his neighbors’.
“I wanted to save all the cottages, and I wanted to preserve the memories,” Behm said. “Our kids have wonderful memories up here. And if somebody didn't take on this particular cottage that's next to the dune, all of the cottages would be wiped out.”
Listen to today’s pod to hear more about Behm’s efforts and to learn more from Arbogast about Michigan’s dunes. This was the first in a series of conversations we’re having this summer about how environmental and economic factors are reshaping summer lake life in our state — so keep an ear out for the rest of our chats.