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As both life-giving resource and source of joy, we celebrate the abundant water features of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This post highlights a selection of favorite water bodies, activities, and businesses that support those activities; encourages water safety during current high water levels; and discusses how observation of “clean, drain, dry” helps protect water. Let’s enjoy our water together!
By Holly N. Wright | National Park Enthusiast
WATER FEATURES of the NATIONAL LAKESHORE
In the entire state of Michigan, at no point are we further than six miles from an inland lake, stream or great lake; in few other areas on Earth is available surface freshwater more prevalent than in northern Michigan. Water features abound within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; with springs, creeks, two rivers, 36 miles of inland Lake Michigan shoreline, and 26 inland lakes and ponds located throughout the National Lakeshore’s 71,199 acres, water is constantly on our minds.
The sky opens; rain falls coolly on the face of the watershed to recharge underground aquifers and feed streams and swelling rivers; groundwater feeds lakes above. Rivers flow downhill into Lake Michigan; the sun shines; water rises again to the clouds. Plants grow while, invisible to the eye, plankton and zooplankton drift in water, sustaining the aquatic insects which feed the fish which feed the birds; and all the organisms that sustain people. The hydrologic cycle continues, always in motion, connecting everything within the watershed.
WATER and US
As a life-giving and precious resource, the importance of the Great Lakes is clear. According to the EPA, the Great Lakes comprise 84% of the United States’ surface freshwater (about 21% of the world’s total supply) and are the source of drinking water for 40 million people(according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes).
It is well-understood that water makes up a significant percentage of our bodies. As cited by US Geological Survey (USGS), “According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, thebrain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%.” (). If humans go too long without replacing the water in our bodies, blood pressure decreases while body temperatures rise; depending on the individual and their circumstances, death can result quite quickly (according to Scientific American). Of course, we need water.
Biologist Wallace J. Nichols, author of “Blue Mind”, asserts that water does more for humans than simply allowing our existence. In a USA Today article, Nichols stated that “Research has shown that being near, in, on or under water can provide a long list of benefits for our mind and body…” including:
FAVORITE WATER ACTIVITIES, LOCATIONS
With the physical and mental benefits of time spent near water held in mind, the following is aselection of a few favorite water activities, locations, and businesses that support these activities within the National Lakeshore (though many more exist for you to explore!):
NORTH BAR LAKE
Featuring a sandy bottom, North Bar Lake is a visually stunning and swimmer-friendlywater body. Due to water’s property of high specific heart, North Bar Lake’s shallowdepth allows the lake to warm more quickly than mighty Lake Michigan, which is separated from North Bar Lake by a short stretch of low, traversable dunes.
ESCH ROAD BEACH and OTTER CREEK
Otter Creek flows into Lake Michigan at Esch Road Beach, another popular swimming site.
Otter Creek is surrounded by a stretch of the Platte Plains Trail, which follows Otter Creek to three pristine lakes: Otter Lake, Bass and Deer Lake.
Featuring warmer temperatures and more mild wave conditions than the sometimes-turbulent Lake Michigan, the National Lakeshore’s river and inland lakes provide quality paddling opportunities. On kayaking in the National Lakeshore, Mark Jerva of Traverse City expresses, “There’s something really soothing, eternal, peaceful, precious; it makes you forget about life…No—it makes you forget about your problems and appreciate life.”
The Crystal River in western Leelanau County flows from the outlet at Fisher Lake into Lake Michigan near Glen Arbor. This shallow, clear, and generally narrow river winds through diverse and rich plant communities. From forest to swamp, the Crystal River boasts a variety of aquatic and terrestrial plants, wildflowers, insects, and fish, which support striking birds like the green heron and belted kingfisher.
Summer on the Platte River is bursting with wildlife. Dragonflies skim over the river on gossamer wings while frogs chorus from their hiding places. A careful observer may sight the sharp noses of snapping turtles as they lightly break the water’s surface. According to NPS, “The river is shallow and clear, and while it moves along at a good pace, there are no rapids to contend with”.
A few options for convenient Platte River paddle-rentals exist; Riverside Canoe also offers raft rentals for groups as well as tube rentals; tubing the Platte on hot days is an activity beloved by area residents and visitors alike.
If you float or paddle on the Platte to where the river flows into Lake Michigan, a picturesque view of Sleeping Bear Dunesis visible from Platte Point Beach; another beloved swimming and beaching site.
SLEEPING BEAR SURF & KAYAK
Empire’s Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak is an exceptional option for kayakers, paddleboarders, and unique for its surfing resources. Equipment can be purchased or rented; surf lessons and other classes are offered; Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak also hosts special events, like “Full Moon Paddle” and “Freshwater Fridays”.
GLEN LAKE and LITTLE GLEN LAKE
Connected by an outlet called “The Narrows”, Glen Lake and Little Glen Lake are beloved for their clear, colorful waters and scenic views: Alligator Hill from Big Glen Lake, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes Dune Climb from Little Glen Lake. Both lakes featuring several access points for recreation, paddling and boating.
A variety of trout, salmon, and bass species, as well as perch and walleye, draw anglers from across the country to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Muskellunge and pike hunt the Lakeshore’s rivers; along with spotted gar and sculpin, these species represent only a few of the 90+ known species present within the National Lakeshore.
EMPIRE VILLAGE BEACH
Our favorite water and shoreline activities-- swimming, paddling, fishing—and other types of recreation can be enjoyed by the whole family at Empire Village Park.
Nestled between a sandy Lake Michigan beach and South Bar Lake and featuring vault restrooms, drinking water, a pavilion for shade and picnicking, pet waste stations and playground equipment, this public park is equipped for people of varying ages and needs.
This is a site where multiple generations can share enjoyment of our water resources. Children, with noses slathered in sunscreen, romp in and out of the waves rolling onshore alongside happy dogs. Kayakers paddle the aquamarine coastline; sails of distant ships dip and turn like the wings of colossal birds; and the clouds roll overhead.
Ameilia, age 9, and grandfather Joe (of Frankenmuth) report boating and fishing together on South Bar Lake. “Catching fish is really fun!” exclaims Ameilia. “There’s a lot of fish in the lake—bluegill and bass!” Another family on the Lake Michigan beach, who have come together from different cities, agree that the temperature of the great lake still feels cold to them, but explain with laughter that their family tradition is to dive under the water three times “or it doesn’t count!”; with a grin, the grandmother in the group mentions that she bribed her young grandchildren with a small cash reward to perform handstands in the chilly water.
On parking, please note: a fee of $1.00 per hour is required to park within Empire Village Park; parking can be paid on site. Camper/RV parking is not available. Park officials in green vests are regularly present to answer questions.
CURRENT CONDITIONS: HIGH WATER LEVELS
Though Lake Michigan’s water levels naturally fluctuate, the summer of 2019 has brought notably high water levels, which are expected to reach their maximum this month, as reported in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
With high water levels, it’s especially important to practice water safety. Rivers may flow more swiftly; docks and water access points may be flooded in areas; stretches of beach have narrowed and eroded. A recent NPS alert advises park visitors to not go down the Pierce Stocking Overlook dunes; high water levels have narrowed the beach—“the only way is up”.
WATER SAFETY TIPS
CLEAN, DRAIN, DRY to PROTECT AQUATIC HABITAT, WILDLIFE
Clean, drain, and dry your boats, kayaks, and all water gear (including lifejackets) to prevent to introduction and spread of invasive aquatic species. Following simple procedures to decontaminate boats and water gear is an important way to protect water quality, aquatic habitat, and wildlife. For more information, visit the Benzie County Conservation District website.
Water is life—caring for these precious water resources is paramount for the survival of wildlife and for public health. As stated by Wallace J. Nichols, all of the possible health benefits of being near water “depends on these waters being safe, clean and healthy...”
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