The further we sejourned the delightfuller the land was to us.
It is five in the afternoon. The sun is still a hand’s width above the line between water and sky that serves here as the western horizon. I squint at the glare but decide against putting on sunglasses. In March, squinting at the sun is something midwesterners enjoy. I sit with bent legs, arms resting on my knees. My feet, bare in the beach sand, are almost warm. It is fifty degrees. On the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, in the dunes of the Leelanau, I am quietly pushing the envelope of spring.
I scan the lake for whales. A blow spout. Maybe a flash of dorsal fin or tail. The remains of at least three whales have been found buried in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Ribs and vertebrae of bowhead, sperm, and fin whales. Since the first bones were discovered over a hundred years ago, scientists have speculated about their origin; about when and how the whales might have made their way inland from the saltwater seas. Favorite theories have linked the presence of the whales to a period during and following the most recent series of glaciers. Rivers were swollen with meltwater. A succession of immense lakes, predecessors to the modern-day Great Lakes, covered the land as the glaciers advanced and retreated. There was water enough, presumably, to accommodate the passage of a few vagabond whales.
The thought of whales swimming in these inland seas is a wondrous image, one that I have turned over again and again in my mind since learning of the bones. It is surprising and yet not surprising, given that the lakes have always seemed to have a kind of sentience that the presence of whales in their ancestry might explain.
But the years of speculation took a sudden turn in the late 1980s. In a published report by C.R. Harington, an Ontario paleontologist, it was announced that tests conducted on the various bones had revealed that the whales had died between 190 and 810 years ago. Since no natural conditions existed during such recent history that could support any reasonable route that these whales might have taken from the sea during their lifetimes, Harington’s conclusion was that the bones must have been carried by people from the coasts into the interior. Native Americans of the Hopewell Culture, he postulates, may have brought them along trade routes from the Atlantic.
Still, I search the surface of the lake for sign of them and am not disappointed. I am successful in looking for whales.
I let my eyes play over the lake, the stretch of beach. An undulating row of low sand dunes, maybe thirty feet high, runs roughly parallel to the shore. Inland behind the dunes is a dip down to the water table, a so-called interdunal wetland, and then an ascent to a second, far higher, set of dunes.
These sand dunes, and not whales, are the true legacy of those immense lakes of the past. It was Lake Nipissing, that last of the Great Lakes’ predecessors, that set the level of many of the higher dunes in this system of coastal sand dunes along Lake Michigan’s southern and eastern boundaries. Driven by prevailing westerly winds, the waves of Nipissing brought great volumes of sand to the near-shore region. When receding waters exposed the sand, the wind built of it these high dunes rising from beaches and perched on top of moraine bluffs to heights as much as 450 feet above the current level of the lake. Together with the smaller foredunes born of more recent times, they form a band of sand that reaches as much as five miles inland and nearly continuously up the western edge of the state of Michigan. So vast an expanse of sand is it that astronauts have easily seen it from space—the most extensive system of freshwater sand dunes in the world.
It is a landscape remade continuously. The adage of mountain weather applies: “You don’t like it? Wait a few minutes.” The same winds that played with the sands of the Nipissing era are still pouring from the southwest and northwest, gathering strength across the broad fetch of Lake Michigan, pushing waves and changing the shape of the land and the life that clings to it. The scene around me is nothing if not wind made visible. The dunes reclined in their slopes. An osprey holds stationary in the sky against a stiff headwind, wings outspread. A bent blade of dunegrass swings back and forth, its tip etching concentric circles in the sand. Even the branches of pines on the most inland ridges are grown like flags blown east.
I take up a handful of beach sand. The grains are mostly quartz crystals that shine translucent in my palm, peppered with the darker minerals of hornblende, garnet, black magnetite. Each is an emigrant of some far shore or the bank of some tributary stream that feeds the lake. These grains represent nourishment to the dune community, whose existence depends on the continued resupply of what the winds take away. Their edges, once sharp, have been worn round by their histories. Their simple existence is a testament to their ability to endure where other rocks have gone to dust. I scatter the grains of sand back onto the beach, then rise to walk.
The rays of sun are hitting the beach with horizontal light. It is the kind of light that gives the fleeting clarity of a funeral, casting the landscape in an exacting dichotomy of light and darkness. Every westward, windward face is illuminated. Every lee side is dropped into shadow. Half of my body is warm. The other half, chilled. The topography of the shore is accentuated. Textures emerge. I become aware of a pattern repeated in the alignment of the waves, the faint corduroy ripples in the beach sand, and the deeper swells of the dunes.
I go to the water’s edge, where my feet are shocked into apathy at the wash of the first wave. The ice went out only three weeks ago. As I watch the waves roll in and break offshore, I remind myself that I am not seeing water moving forward but rather a force moving through water as a shiver would pass through my body. I gauge the distance between the crests of the waves at fifteen, say sixteen feet, then divide that distance in half. My result, eight feet, is the estimated depth of each wave’s significant influence under the water: the invisible vertical wall that moves as a shiver of force through the water below each crest I see on the surface.
At the point where a wave breaks offshore, I know that the foot of its underwater wall, eight feet down, is tripping on the rising slope of the lakebed. The sand it kicks up in the process is free to find its way to shore or be carried in longshore currents to be deposited elsewhere. The makings of dunes.
Turning my back to the lake and setting out at a right angle from the shoreline, I cross first a barren band of beach too windswept and worried by waves for plants to be able to take hold. Just beyond it is the storm beach, sometimes called the middle beach. Its inland extent is market by a ragged line of wave-tossed debris, where I find remnants of aquatic plants, driftwood, drowned insects, fish bones, and sodden feathers. This is the cafeteria line of shorebirds and tiger beetles, and of creatures such as raccoons who come in the night to dine on the day’s fresh (or not so fresh) arrivals. The storm beach is temporary home to plants only in summer, when annuals such as seaside spurge and sea rocket rush to set seed before the inevitable storm waves have the chance to tear them from the sand.
Moving still farther inland, I encounter the gently rising slope of the foredune. The location, shape, and height of these young foredunes depend on the amount of available sand, and on obstacles presented to the wind. A plant, a fence, a tree, a person with limited ambition—anything that stays put long enough to trap or slow the blowing sand can form the foundation for a dune.
It is on the lake-facing slope of the foredune, maybe twenty paces from the water, that I come upon the first perennial plants that have managed to establish their roots in the loose sand. Yellow tufts of marram grass. At first widely scattered, the tufts become increasingly dense as I proceed up the face of the foredune. These could be considered tough conditions for a plant: little surface moisture in the soil, extremes of cold and heat, and drying winds. It is capricious ground, with a bent for travel.
Marram grass is one of the few plants up to the challenge. Its leaves can be buried again and again by drifting sand, only to respond with new growth from underground stems that can send new leaves to the surface. Where the grass succeeds in stabilizing the sand, over time, it makes a dune habitable for other plants. Little bluestem grass, sand cherry trees, oaks, and pines each follow as their varying conditions for survival are met.
The skin of vegetation has, at best, a tenuous hold. If disturbance should remove any of the foredune plants, the wind is given a notch through which to pass to the backdune. Once given access it can quickly sweep away whatever small amount of organic soil has accumulated, and carve a great hollow called a blowout. A blowout takes on a life of its own. Its crest migrates inland as sand blown from the windward side lands on the lee side, or slip face. Everything in its path is swallowed. I have seen the slip face of such a blowout, seen the sand rising around the trunks of trees as a snake would walk its jaws around a still-living mouse. Cottonwoods are among the few trees that can take it, and only for a while. They grow fast and send out new roots from their trunks when overtaken by sand. Other trees die long before the sand reaches their topmost branches.
A migrating blowout can quickly undo a thousand years of progress made by the plants that colonize a dune. Few things are harder to stop than a blowout on the move. Few things are easier to start.
From my present vantage on the crest of a foredune, I look at the seemingly stable forest of a backdune. There are traces of snow on the north-facing slopes. A brown creeper spirals up an oak tree. I hear the voices of golden crowned kinglets just returned from their southern wintering grounds. If this scene is to be obliterated, swept clear of plants and consumed by sand, I want it to be from a great storm off the lake. Maybe from the waves of a June thunderstorm with lightning that fuses the sand into daggers of glass. Or from the steady assault of the strongest winds of the year that come in January. I take a long time to descend the dune. It always takes longer when you choose where each foot will land.
At first I don’t notice the gulls. They fly overhead, strangely silent, pouring in a steady stream from the ridge of the backdune and out over the lake toward the sinking sun. I wait and watch, but there is no end to them, as if time itself were measured in white wingbeats. I take some comfort from the thought, then let it go.
Note to readers: This essay first appeared in the book “Far From Tame: Reflections from the Heart of a Continent,” published by the University of Minnesota Press. The book is a collection of essays about natural areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. It was inspired by a map of eco-regions created by Michigan ecologist Denny Albert. Special thanks to Karen Mulvahill, Toben LaFrancois and Brenda Moraska-Lafrancois for providing images for this story. Thanks also to Carolyn Faught of the Leelanau Conservancy, which works to conserve the land, water and scenic character of Leelanau County, MI. Explore their website to learn more.