Sometime after midnight, I wake to the sound of breathing. A quick check confirms it’s not the kids, nestled deep in their sleeping bags. No, the noise is definitely outside the thin nylon tent walls; but it’s close, and it doesn’t sound human. A bear, perhaps? No, Winston is curled in a tight ball by our feet, sound asleep as well. The pint-sized English setter isn’t much of a guard dog, but he’d at least bark a warning if anything were amiss.
Suddenly it dawns on me: the noise I’m hearing isn’t breathing at all, it’s the rhythm of waves. In the fog of sleep, I’d forgotten we were camping amid sand dunes, barely a stone’s-throw from Lake Michigan. Awake and alert now, I console my bruised ego with the knowledge that the sound does resemble a bear or a boogieman — or even a slumbering giant.
Now that the perimeter’s secure, I lie back and gaze through the skylight in the tent roof. Tonight’s new moon offers exceptional views of the stars, and I marvel at the whirling vastness overhead. The Milky Way spans the heavens like a violet veil and the aurora borealis shimmers with lime-green foxfire on the horizon. It’s almost too much nature — if such a thing were even possible. Sometimes the only way to feel so insignificant is to put yourself in the presence of something so utterly grand.
Like most experiences of value, this wasn’t earned without effort. Earlier that afternoon, the kids and I shouldered heavy packs and began trekking west from the trailhead. Our destination: Lake Michigan; our route: a series of sandy trails winding through Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area (NDWA). For backpackers, sweat equity is the cost of solitude, and physical exertion is what keeps the madding crowds from descending en masse upon wild places like these. If getting here were as easy as turning off the thoroughfare into a paved parking lot, we’d have plenty of company. But tonight’s “crowd” consists only of my two kids, Autumn and Wil, our English setter, Winston, and yours truly.
From the trailhead, we’d meandered through miles of old-growth forest that surely predated the Civil War. What sights had these ancients witnessed? I wondered. Nomadic Native Americans? Union soldiers? Crippling winters? Scorching summer heat? Although today is a mid-summer afternoon, the dampish-cool of the woods feels refreshing and the air smells sweet. After our two-hour drive, it feels refreshing to be walking, working and wondering. While wandering, I’m reminded that as old as these trees are, they’re impossibly young compared to the surrounding dunes.
A few miles later, the cathedral of trees give way to dune grass, and just beyond, the sparkling expanse of Lake Michigan. Winston races down the shoreline, broadcasting sand and spray with every step. The kids follow suit, running ever faster until they hit the drink with a refreshing splash, clothes and all. For a moment, I lag behind like a sensible adult, but soon ditch my pack and sprint toward the water like a carefree teenager.
Whether you’re a dog, a child or an overworked parent, nothing tops a summer afternoon at the beach — except, perhaps, an overnight camping adventure. Thankfully, Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area offers both.
With Big Sable Point Lighthouse on one side and Manistee’s North Pierhead Lighthouse on the other, NDWA borders Ludington State Park. The sprawling beach is void of cottages and resorts — a rarity anywhere — but especially in the populated Lower Peninsula. It’s a beachcomber’s delight, with waves and wind uncovering (and quickly reburying) treasures by the hour. Autumn and Wil scamper up and down the shore, hunting for hunks of beach glass, lightning-fused sand (fulgurites) and weather-smoothed chunks of driftwood.
Before long, the air resounds with cries of: “Dad, check out what I found! You have to see this — you won’t believe it!”
I do believe it — because 30 years before, I was right where they are now; what I don’t believe is how quickly the years have passed since then.
Growing up in West Michigan, it’s easy to take dunes for granted. The rolling, forested interior and adjacent, sandy shoreline are familiar territory, but knowing what to expect makes the voyage even better — like dropping in on an old friend. Besides, Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area is an anomaly amid an uncommon ecosystem.
“Stabilized dunes” is the clinical term for sandscapes covered in vegetation, and it’s true, the terrain is stabilized by grasses and trees. But what seems so static is actually an illusion; these dunes are anything but stationary. They’re forever shifting, changing shape and position with winds vacillating from a gentle breeze to a raging gale, depending upon the day and season.
Today, the lake smiled upon us with a gentle breeze, and we set up camp atop a dune, along the transition zone where the treeline begins. To our backs, a wall of towering oaks, beeches and hemlocks lined the hillside; to our front, swishing dune grass gave way to a sandy beach and lapping waves. As evening approached, I scoured out a shallow bowl, carefully arranging dry tinder and kindling. Striking a wooden match along the side of a pan, flames licked skyward, setting the stage for an evening to remember.
Twilight drew a velvet curtain across the blushing sky, and stars blinked on one by one until countless sequins spangled the blue-black expanse overhead. Places like these draw out even the most reluctant romantics. As shadows danced upon the towering oaks behind us, it was easy to imagine buckskin-clad Ottawas or Chippewas camped here. Maybe the setting sun prompted them to gather around similar fires, where they told stories, sang songs and dreamed about what lay beyond the wide waters to the west.
As starlight shimmered off the lake, it was clear time hadn’t robbed any of this place’s allure. Eventually, the subtle shuuu-shhhhh of waves lulled us into a hypnotic trance, softly nudging us toward our waiting sleeping bags. As we nestled in, the soft sand conformed to tired hips, shoulders and elbows — a custom mattress no one at Sealy or Sleep Number ever imagined. Modern homes are comfy and convenient, but nothing draws you closer to the earth than sleeping directly upon it.
We needed this. The kids can’t grasp the magnitude yet, but they will, given full-time jobs and bills. Deliberate detachment from technology, deadlines and responsibilities is no easy task in this day and age, but the effort always justifies the means.
With Wil snoring softly and Autumn not far behind, it’s a scene of ineffable peace.
Burrowing deep in my bag, a soft breeze rustles the nylon and I close my eyes while my mind wanders. Before long, I, too, drift off to a world of dreams.
The significance of sand dunes
The recipe for sand dunes calls for three simple ingredients: wind, dry sand and an open area for sand to settle. Michigan’s western shoreline is among the rare places that offers all three. These shifting sand formations aren’t exclusive to the Mitten State, but they’re certainly a signature attraction here, particularly along The Pike.
In fact, Michigan harbors one of the largest freshwater dune ecosystems in the world — over 300,000 acres, dating back to a time when glaciers scraped and gouged their way across the landscape, depositing quantities of quartz in their wake. Rhythmic wave action further eroded orphaned rocks and stones, grinding them into sand. The region’s prevailing winds have been shuffling them about ever since, literally reshaping the landscape by the hour.
NDWA spans 3,450 acres and is part of the larger Lake Michigan Recreation Area, located within the Manistee National Forest. Its dunes rise 140 feet above the scenic Lake Michigan shoreline, offering extraordinary views, including signature sunsets and unparalleled celestial snapshots of the northern lights, meteor showers and constellations.
In Michigan, white-tailed deer are so common that residents often take them for granted, but don’t be surprised to see bald eagles, red and gray foxes, rabbits and piping plovers, too. Vibrant butterflies, including tiger and zebra swallowtails, join monarchs and various moths along the waterline as well.
Come nightfall, listen for barred, great-horned and screech owls. And nothing says wilderness like a howling pack of coyotes. Other, rarer sightings include black bears, bobcats and several species of snakes.
Plant life includes conifers, such as juniper, jack pine, white pine, and hemlock, along with endangered species, like pitcher’s thistle.
Article written by Jon Osborn