Silver Lake dunes

By Friday, October 19, 2012grafphoto
Silver Lake sand dunes and tree stumps during early morning twilight

Silver Lake sand dunes and tree stumps in the primitive area during early morning twilight, Image # SL-9658

I just returned from a short 4 day trip out to Michigan’s west coast with a couple primary goals in mind.  The first was to visit the Silver Lake sand dunes, which after 44 years in Michigan, you would think I had been there already.   As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know they existed until just a few years ago.   The second was to take in some fall colors that were being reported to be some of the best ever in the northern parts of the state.   However, my real concentration was for the dunes area because I had never been here or photographed such a place before.

The unique aspect of these dunes is that they are the largest freshwater shifting sand dunes east of the Mississippi, totaling about 1600 acres.   I still slap myself that I didn’t know about this spot sooner.  Much of area is completely void of any typical dune grass vegetation you normally see in other Michigan dune areas.   This gives it an especially barren, isolated look – much like Death Valley or the Sahara.

Time of year was also an important consideration for me to visit here.    The 1600 acres of dune area is divided up into sections; a primitive area that is limited to foot traffic only, an interpretive area where a tour operator is allowed to give guided, educational dune rides, and an ORV area, what I could call dune buggy city (or hell if you are so inclined…) in peak season.  While I try to understand that the Michigan DNR is trying to manage all demands of this area by dividing it up, the images I have seen of the hordes of people and dune buggies is enough to keep me away from here except in off season.   Needless to say, even though there were no ORVs out, I stuck to the relatively preserved primitive area of the dunes.

Michigan or Mars?

I was the sole person out here during the mornings I visited, which was quite a contrast to the images of the ORV areas I have seen.   In my first impression of the landscape, it left me feeling a bit like the Mars rover Curiosity and the images it has been sending.  So I posted this shot from my iPhone as one of the first I took in the area.   This morning was a bit rough.   There was slight rain, and the wind off of Lake Michigan that is responsible for creating the dunes was in full force.   So, I was given the full spa treatment of a freshwater sand blasting.   However, it was necessary to get a feel for a foreign place and how to get around.   Once you are in the middle of the dunes, it looks like you are miles away from everywhere and you see nothing but sand.

I returned that evening with my wife Lisa and our malamute to do more scouting in more pleasant conditions and grabbed some shots.  However, the grand finale was the 2nd morning when the wind was calmer and the light spectacular.   The previous days of wind and rain created a lot of wind swept ridges and patterns galore.   That is when I shot the first image in this post, and I quickly knew it would be one of my favorites.  It had all the elements I was looking for come together in a good spot; the ancient stumps, sand patterns, great light, and the dramatic sky.

Thankfully no quicksand!

For that 2nd and last morning, I already had an idea of some of the spots I wanted to get to, so it meant hiking part of the dunes in the darkness to be there for the start of twilight.   Given the previous two visits here, I didn’t think I would encounter any hazards in doing so.  The sand seemed stable, even hard packed in areas from the rain, or so I thought.   While hiking across one relatively flat area, I suddenly felt the ground give out underneath me.

The sand underneath collapsed into a hole that sank me down to about the middle of my thigh.    After the initial expletives and thoughts of sinking into the depths of the dunes had passed, I said thank you to the Dune Gods for not swallowing me whole and for not needing to call someone to dig me out.  I then got out my iPhone to take a shot to document this situation that could have been a bit worse.   You can see my hand print there after falling down into the hole.

The place was filled with endless photographic opportunities.   For someone like me that really enjoys looking for patterns and graphical elements in the landscape, it was like being a kid in a candy store.   It was also nice that the area can be good in both evening and morning light.  Because of the elevation and isolation of the area, you can get good light at both ends of the day.

It is definitely one of the more unique spots in Michigan I have been to.    Given the dynamic, shifting nature of the spot, it is likely to change the next time I am able to make it out there and create many opportunities in the years to come – in off season of course!

Ancient stumps in Silver Lake sand dunes, Michigan Image # SL-9659

Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • Joe Martin says:

    Nice one man. What a sunset. Hard to believe that is in Michigan Thanks again for sharing.


  • Howard Grill says:

    Mark, your Michigan Dune sunrise is simply breathtaking. A few years back I had a one morning opportunity to photograph dunes in Oregon. It was fantastic and I felt like I could have spent days there. You are fortunate to have a dune area relatively close to your home. I hope we will be seeing more of these!

    • Mark says:

      Hi Howard, thanks very much. I don’t know the size of these Michigan ones compared to Oregon, but I can relate the feeling of wanting to spend days. My 3 visits there over 2 days gave me a pretty good exposure, but they will always be changing. So next time back should reveal new patterns, formations, etc. I am working on some more images now, will be sure to post.

  • Tom Whelan says:

    All fine images, but the first one is spectacular. What a place!

    I believe that the Oceano dunes area in California that Edward Weston photographed in the 30’s is now a designated ORV area…

  • Greg Russell says:

    These are really beautiful images, Mark. I really love sand dunes. As you well know, wind is both your best friend and worst enemy in photographing them; when it’s blowing you had better not consider changing lenses in the field! But, oh my, what beautiful trackless dunes it creates.

    Regarding the OHV use, I got a very similar sense when we visited Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah. The OHV tracks have really marred the place, in my opinion. I think to get some nice “grand landscape” shots out there, you’d have to hit it the morning after a really strong windstorm.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks Greg. I haven’t had many opportunities to photograph dunes much, so it was a real thrill to be able to add some of these to my portfolio. That wind from the first morning had erased most of my tracks by the next day.

  • Paul says:

    Mark: That first shot is going to be a very tough act to follow, my friend. Very tough, indeed! What a fantastic find and it only took you 44 years to do it! You’re an overnight success. 😀

  • Earl says:

    Some time in the not too distant past I’d watched a video documentary on this area. At that time I added it to my “bucket list” where it’s remained. However, these photo of the beauty of the place may require some sorting to move it nearer to the top of my “bucket.”

    Mark, that first shot is staggering in it’s stark beauty — the colors and the textures are amazing. I can only imagine how it must look larger, peeking at the abundant pixels from the D800.

    However, the iPhone image is a story unto itself…the look on your face. I’m sure you were ready to toss the camera and tripod to safety if the hole had been deeper. 🙂

    • Mark says:

      Well Earl, if you end up planning a trip, be sure to let me know. Thanks for the remarks – it was one of those shots that you became excited about as you were composing because everything seemed to come together.

      Toss the camera??? No way, if I am going down, it is going down with me. That way the archeologists will be able to piece together the story when they dig me up in 1000 years. 🙂

  • This is amazing scenery (and great job capturing it). It’s difficult to believe that this is in the U.S.A. Not sure why that would be because nature is certainly diverse in North America but this just looks more like Namibia than Michigan.
    Glad you survived to tell the tale 🙂

  • ken bello says:

    I particularly like the shot of the drift wood on the sand. I’m guessing the saturation was boosted (a tiny bit) to bring out the gold color, but it’s suits the photo well.

    • Mark says:

      Ken, actually I am reworking that image a bit. On second look, I think I overdid the warmness of that shot after working a similar one where I found a better tone to my liking.

  • I like the warm tones in the first one. I need to photograph more dunes, but timing is key. My last visit to Death Valley, the Mesquite Flat Dunes had not seen much wind for some time and were overly tracked with footprints, which can work in some photos, but generally are a nuisance. Your photos here capture this wild place very well.

    • Mark says:

      I was also concerned with footprints David – as I generally like the place to be as untouched as possible. That was a good part about visiting this time of year, very few people visiting and we have the dynamic weather of a Michigan October to keep that wind blowing over tracks. In fact, the tracks from my first morning there were practically gone the next day. Thanks for the kind remarks.

  • Love that first image, also, and the fourth one ain’t bad. On my bucket list is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve which I have never visited. It’s only about three hours from here so I have no excuse for not having been there or having any images from there. Glad you are okay because that sure could have been dangerous. And, being alone is even worse. It also turns my stomach seeing the damage and disrespect people have for such places. Nor do I understand the form of enjoyment they seem to get from it. It is my hope the DNR continues to keep that area separate so that nature can do it’s thing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mark says:

      Thanks Monte. I have always loved images of dunes, particularly the formations and lines. Michigan certainly has an abundance of them, but none that I knew were so isolated and free of other elements like trees and grasses like these are. This place is about 4 hours away from me, and look how long it took me to even discover it! 🙂

  • Jack Johnson says:

    Love that shot, Mark! I only see 1 handprint and the tripod is on the surface, so it looks like you instinctively kept your gear safe, like any good photographer! ;^D

    — Jack

    • Mark says:

      Yes, at the very least I would keep the camera from getting buried, and then when someone went to pull it up, they would find a tripod and photographer attached to it. 🙂 Thanks Jack!

  • pj says:

    Good stuff Mark. That first photo is indeed a beauty. Looks like a great place to explore.

    Good thing you didn’t go down head first — we would’ve seen nothing but your feet sticking up…

    I’m inclined to go along with your calling the ORV area hell. Good description of a place crawling with ‘road lice’ as Ed Abbey called them.

    • Mark says:

      PJ – it is really an understatement. When I see all the exhaust pipes and hordes of people, it really causes chills for me personally. It is just unfortunate that the economy of the area and many folks’ livelyhood probably depends on such things. If the DNR can manage it well enough so that everyone is happy, then I can try to go along. The ORV portion is a smaller section of the dunes compared to the primitive area, so I appreciate that.

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