Normally the sight of a large man lifting a small child up by the ankles and shaking him vigorously over a black-topped parking lot would send me running for the nearest cop. But in this instance, I not only smiled, I laughed.
The brilliant blue waters of Lake Michigan
In Silver Lake, Michigan, with its thousands of acres of rolling, blowing sand dunes, I have a feeling this is a regular occurrence.
The small boy in question, like me, was waiting with his family for his turn to ride over the towering dunes at the Mac Wood’s Dune Rides. As we sat in the parking lot awaiting our buggy-mobile, we couldn’t help but laugh as the father lifted his giggling son and literally shook the sand off of him. The growing pile must have come from every possible nook and cranny – from inside ears, between toes, out of hair, cascading from shorts pockets – and his younger brother danced excitedly beside his father’s leg, shouting, “Do me! Do me!”
By the end of the afternoon, we would all need a good ankle shaking.
Silver Lake is one of those stunning places which should remind us just how transient geography can be. Once home to a towering forest, the dunes of
Little Sable Point Lighthouse
Silver Lake hug the eastern shore of Lake Michigan near the point known throughout western Michigan as “The Narrows” just due north of the Little Sable Point lighthouse These long ago towering forests proved to be too enticing to local lumber barons and they were logged out at the turn of the century. With the loss of their tree cover and its deeply anchoring roots, the dunes began their northward march, moving steadily across the landscape anywhere from one to three feet per year, depending upon the winds blowing off the lake. As a result, the actual lake at Silver Lake is half the size it was in the 1960s, and homes along the northern shore, if not physically relocated, are sold with an expiration date for, eventually, the dunes will win out and take over.
Despite the dunes’ voracious appetite for local real estate, the surrounding citizens have a love/love relationship with their sandy neighbors to the north that equates into untold numbers of dollars in tourism revenue. These much
View from the lighthouse
needed dollars – for Michigan is a state still reeling from the Great Recession – pours in from eager visitors ready to stroll, hike, ride, and/or drive over every significant pile of sand that gets in their way.
Protected and managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the dunes are divided into three sections, with the southern third leased by Mac Wood’s for its thrilling rides and informative introductions to this amazing world, while the middle section is available for public pedestrian use. The northern third is set aside as a public thrill ride tour de force in the form of off-road vehicular mayhem. More on that in a minute.
Our adventure started off appropriately enough at Mac Wood’s where a
An itty bitty dune
chummy older woman with a quick wit narrated from behind the wheel of our 20-passenger dune buggy bus. Pulling off of the public road into the protected area we first passed through forest similar to the now defunct trees that once covered the dunes.
Blasting through the forest, we entered the eerily beautiful transition zone between shade and sun where bleached out stumps from long dead pines pockmarked the landscape like so many abstract sculptures. While taking pride in my ecological bent, I couldn’t help but imagine what lovely coffee table bases they would make with their butter smooth gray and white exteriors.
With a lead foot squarely planted on the gas pedal, our female Helio Castraneves flew up dune and down, around curves and along valley trails, stopping here and there to describe the forces in action. As we had managed to pick a day windier than most, we also got a free exfoliation in the process, and by the time we stopped at a huge dune for a hike up, my face too was now butter smooth, though I had to dust my way through a layer of grit to get there.
It was then our turn to climb a dune, only we did so on foot – or rather, on hands and knees – for the behemoth in question quickly claimed knees, thighs and calves in the process. As our lower extremities screamed for relief, my teenaged children, nieces and I reached the top where we enjoyed an other-worldly view. Imagine, if you will, picking up a section of the Sahara desert – stark, blindingly bright, and severe – and dropping it in the middle of a green oasis of trees, blue lakes, and quaint suburbs. Yeah, it’s like that.
Afterwards, the drive out was no less thrilling and we left Mac Woods with souvenirs in hand and sand in ears thinking that would be the highlight of our meeting with the mighty Silver Lake sand dunes. But no, life has a funny way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” and for us, our adventure was only just beginning.
Steffie and Jackie take it to the edge.
Wanting to see more, we drove to the public access area and hiked to the edge between the pedestrian use portion of the dunes and the off-road vehicle (ORV) use area. Standing there we watched as dirt bikes, sand rails, four-wheelers, SUVs and modified trucks climbed, skidded and flew over the small portion of dune we could see from our viewpoint in a valley of beige. As the six of us stood there taking it all in, a bright red Jeep with no doors pulled up and a man with a Minnesota accent said, “Wanna take a ride?”
Did we? Heck, YES we did!
Now normally I don’t climb willingly into the vans of strangers offering candy, but when the van is a tricked out Jeep and the candy comes in the form of towering dunes, I jump head first into the cargo hold. My niece’s six-foot three inch boyfriend, Michael, climbed in first, along with my teenage son, Jordan, and my niece, Taylor. As the rest of us watched, they drove off, disappearing in a sea of sand for the next 20 minutes. When they finally returned, the grins etched on their faces punctuated my son’s cry of, “It was AWESOME!”
Next, I climbed in with my daughter, Jackie, and yet another niece, Stephanie. St. Paul Tom introduced himself and we were off first on a trail ride
The dunes of Silver Lake
to get a lay of the land. Hailing from across Lake Michigan, Tom was visiting with sand enthusiasts from all over the United States and Canada, and as a regular visitor to Silver Lake, he frequently offers introductory rides to persons standing on the sidelines. BTW, if you meet Tom, don’t even try to offer him gas money. Refusing my initial offer, he quickly scouted out, found and return the $10 spot I shoved in the console.
No, the reward, he said, comes in the form of smiles, laughs and – in our case – screams of joy as he introduces people to the thrills of riding the dunes. For the first ten minutes, Tom drove us through the tamer portions of the ORV area, pointing out hidden marshes, fast, hard flats, and newbies with rented vehicles who he would no doubt be pulling out later that afternoon with his ever present tow strap. Passing a giant dune, I commented on its height which elicited from St. Paul Tom a snicker. “That’s nothing,” he said. “Wait until you see what we’re going to climb.” At that point I questioned his sanity and mine, but as I was strapped in with a three-point hitch it was too late to jump out now. Rounding that dune, we approached the bottom of one that looked to be nearly vertical and Tom turned to us with a smile and asked, “So, do you want to get up it on the first try?”
Stephanie buried her head in her hands, laughed nervously and didn’t answer. My daughter – ever the adventurer – shouted, “Make it interesting!” And I replied, “What she said!”
Without so much as a running start, St. Paul Tom stomped on the gas pedal and we were off. The modified Chevy 350 engine did its magic and it pulled us up, up, up to the crest – amid dozens of ear-piercing screams from front seat
Silhoutted pines on the shore of Lake Michigan
and back – where we seemed to teeter like Wiley Coyote in so many Saturday morning cartoons. Tom stopped and we sat there, laughing and taking in the view. Ahead of us lay dune after dune mirroring the rolling waves on Lake Michigan to our right. It was, as my son had so rightly said, awesome.
St. Paul Tom proceeded to conquer dune after dune before depositing us sandy and spent back where we started. It was an unplanned adventure that spoke to so many things I love about traveling – beautiful scenery, exciting adventures and proof that the world is filled with good people. We thanked him over and over and walked away with memories that will last a lifetime. And as for the sand, it’s still rolling out of my ears.
By Robin Winzenread Fritz
Be sure to check out my article on Travel Culture Magazine:
For more information on Silver Lake Dunes, Mac Woods or dune buggy rentals, follow these links below: