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.
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.
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!