2018-07-26 / Outdoors

Erosion hammers, reshapes some Lakeshore sites

By Kelsey Pease
of the Enterprise staff


LAKE MICHIGAN Overlook Number Nine is commonly climbed by Sleeping Bear visitors, resulting in both erosion and emergency rescues. Pictured, volunteer Kerry Kelly tells Preventative Search and Rescue program intern Melissa DeClaire about park safety at the overlook. LAKE MICHIGAN Overlook Number Nine is commonly climbed by Sleeping Bear visitors, resulting in both erosion and emergency rescues. Pictured, volunteer Kerry Kelly tells Preventative Search and Rescue program intern Melissa DeClaire about park safety at the overlook. Erosion is natural geological process.

But it’s stepped up the pace in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where changes have come quickly the park’s physical landscape due to increased foot traffic.

“It seems to get steeper and steeper every year at the bottom of the number 9,” said Leelanau district ranger Andy Blake about the Lake Michigan Overlook on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. “It really gullies out at the bottom and is vertical on both sides. The more people go down there, the more it erodes away.”

Some sandy locations appear to be nearing a point of no return.

“Pyramid Point has the worst erosion,” Blake said. “It’s so bad, steep and rugged that we’re seeing that not as many people are even attempting going down anymore.”


GLEN LAKE Firefighters are pictured with their utility task vehicle rescuing a park visitor at the bottom of the popular dune climb on Lake Michigan Overlook Number Nine. GLEN LAKE Firefighters are pictured with their utility task vehicle rescuing a park visitor at the bottom of the popular dune climb on Lake Michigan Overlook Number Nine. Nonetheless, the Lakeshore finds a way to handle more foot traffic every year as visitation has increased annually in four out of the past five years. Rapid growth followed the lakeshore’s recognition as “The Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011.

Visitors continue to flock to one-of-a-kind views of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake.

Most of the park can handle the love, according to deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich. But erosion from foot traffic is visible at localized places, specifically the Lake Michigan Overlook, parts of the Manitou islands, Pyramid Point and the Dune Climb.

“Where people are descending from the top of dunes, foot traffic takes away vegetation that’s holding the sand or soil bank, making the path wider and steeper,” Ulrich said.

There’s been suggestions to cut off public access from the most abused attractions. Instead, the National Park Service is combating erosion by:

 Building stairs and beach decks, where possible;

 Closely monitoring the condition of trails; and

 Attempting to lighten foot traffic through the Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) program, which was established just two years ago.

“We can’t stop someone from going down (a dune), but we are getting compliance from people that don’t know what they’re getting into,” Blake said.

Law enforcement ranger Joe Lachowski recalled one instance last year during which visitors failed to comply with advice from PSAR volunteers.

“When we rescued them at the Michigan Overlook they told us, ‘We should have listened to the volunteers.’” Lachowski said. “It’s significantly easier for people to go down the dune than come back up with the sun beating down on them.”

But the number of people who can’t make it back up the dune is decreasing, he added.

“As of July 14th, we’ve had 24 rescues this calendar year. Park support of the PSAR program has made a big difference. They have, without a doubt, prevented numerous search and rescues,” Lachowski said.

The PSAR program recruits volunteers to work one or two days a week at the Dune Climb or the overlooks along Pierce Stocking Drive. They talk with visitors about hazards and safety precautions to take when hiking and exploring.

The key is to be prepared, Ulrich said.

“Most often they’re people on vacation who might not think about what they’ll need,” Ulrich said.

On an average summer day, PSAR volunteers will talk with about 100 visitors. Topics include protective clothing; having adequate water, food and sunscreen; and the length and difficulty of hikes.

Ulrich said the program has been working well, as confirmed by park service data.

Blake reported that last year the PSAR program reduced the number of rescues by 40 percent and the number of emergency calls by 50 percent percent.

“We also track visitors’ changes in behavior: did they go get shoes, fill their water bottle, put on sunscreen? And those numbers are higher than in years past,” Blake said.

“We want people to enjoy the park,” he added. “But we want them to do so safely.”

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