On the eroding shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron, a buried eighteenth-century century lumber port, and the stakes of inaction
By Natalie Tomlin
We were proud that Gabe had walked over a mile, all the way from the parking lot to Lake Michigan without making us carry him. Granted, we bribed him with a bottle of iced pineapple mango juice, which I twisted open when the maples, beech and hemlocks parted. He gulped it down with his eyes on the lake, breaking the seal of his lips as he ran off, suddenly thirstier for swimming.
It was 2019, and Gabe was three years old. My husband Raúl and I had taken him to Saugatuck Dunes Park for one of our first family excursions out of our neighborhood in Grand Rapids. I read on a sign that the park contains some of the only forested back dunes in the world, but the beach was our goal, so we cheered on our toddler’s meandering footsteps. And because I was mostly thinking about reaching the beach, where I could lie on a towel in line with the horizon, I didn’t consider until later that we trekked atop tenacity and rarity: in sand left behind by glaciers that covered Michigan thousands of years ago, trees had taken up residence. Their deep roots allowed us to make it to the shore, where dunes bowed deep, humbled by the whim of the westerly wind.
But when we finally reached the beach, we realized that there barely was one. Past the drop of dunes was a bit of graduated sand and a darkened crust, as tender as a cuticle, dotted with umbrellas and coolers. And this beach would likely be very different the following year—scientists predicted the Great Lakes would follow a pattern that had been established in the last couple years, ebbing from record highs to record lows. That year, the lakes had reached their highest levels in history. A Weather Channel headline in early May read: “Great Lake Water Levels at ‘Precipice of Disaster’ with Flooding Occurring or Imminent in New York, Ohio and Michigan.”
After he swam, Gabe chose a dune and scaled it, moving as if on an escalator, each foot stepping up hopefully and then immediately shifting downward. I reached for my camera. Luckily, this dune passed the test for both of us: steep enough to provide him a challenge, but not so high as to pose a threat. Gabe gave up after he let me take a few photos, so we headed upward, through the steep cleft in the grass. I held his hand tightly, fearful of him turning toward the edge of the dune and flipping, feet over head, to the bottom.
When we reached the summit of the dune, Gabe took off through tall grasses. We watched him closely, ever aware that he could approach the edge in the blink of an eye. But not everyone up there shared our vigilance. At the tip of the dune, in the late afternoon sun, a young woman in a straw hat posed for a photo shoot. White macramé decorations swayed in the trees, and the roar of the lake made it impossible for her to hear Gabe’s babbling nearby.
Later I discovered what could have happened if we hadn’t watched Gabe closely enough. ‘Enjoy the view from here,’ a sign read in a story about Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Northern Michigan. People were getting stranded at the base of the four-hundred-fifty-foot dune, and the online newspaper MLive reported the rescue fees had increased from $652 to $2280 because record-high lake levels had complicated the rescues. “There’s virtually no beach left,” Glen Lake Fire Chief Bryan Ferguson said. “There’s no driving down to the beach, and that was our primary way of getting people off the face of the overlook.”
A few months later, at the dunes exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Gabe wasn’t interested in the giant glass that magnified sand two hundred times, each grain a glowing orb. Instead, he ran to a fiberglass tumbler. Filled halfway with beads of plastic, it looked like a pale waxing moon. 32 degrees, said a nearby sign. “This is the angle of repose,” I read to him. “Have you ever tried building a sand castle from dry sand? It’s hard to do, isn’t it?” He held tightly to the metal circle in the center and reared the cylinder back and forth so that the beads swayed loudly. The ‘sand’ never stood a chance to reach the angle, which was drawn with a bold, black line at the back of the cylinder.
On Wikipedia, I read that the angle of repose, or critical angle of repose, “is the steepest angle of descent or dip relative to the horizontal plane to which a material can be piled without slumping. At this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding.” Shredded coconut, bran and chalk had the highest angle of repose at forty-five degrees, while the angle of wet excavated clay was fifteen.
I read to Gabe, “Take away a lake boat’s anchor and the watercraft drifts with the wind. A similar “moving experience” happens on a sand dune. When plant root systems are disturbed, they no longer hold, or anchor, the sand in place.” I didn’t get to explain any more, as he was already on to the nearby wetlands exhibit.
After Gabe started preschool in September, I went back to the museum alone. Twenty feet back from the diorama, I found a dusty maroon couch shrouded in dim light. Not a soul passed as I sat for ten minutes, far enough away so the titles were no longer legible: Beach to Beeches, Catcher in the Wind, Dunes Migrate to Form Backdunes. Instead, I took in the larger dunescape that was probably designed in the early ‘90s: the sharp angle of the dune and beach was assumed to be beyond this flat scene, where Cedar Waxwings and Rufous-sided Towhees dangled from fishing wire. Yellow plastic meadow rue popped up when sand met tree trunks; sand broke through grasses, mounding near the center, where the eye naturally wandered. I never could decide how I was supposed to feel about the red and white cooler and pair of hiking boots abandoned there, where the path toward the shore became a soft curled mouth. The shocking blue paint of the backdrop was indifferent, as were the speakers in the corner that wired in a faint loop of crashing waves.
Earlier that summer, before our visit to Saugatuck, we drove from our home in Grand Rapids to visit my parents in my hometown in the thumb of Michigan, on the opposite coast. My parents still live in the house where I grew up, just north of Port Huron, in Fort Gratiot. The house is so close to Lake Huron it almost feels like a houseboat; the view of the lake takes up the entire picture window in the living room. On days when the lake is especially wild, the floor seems to gently sway with the crash of waves.
Ever since Gabe was born, I had wanted him to experience the lake I grew up on, but now I started wondering what that even meant. In my childhood, the lake was an all-encompassing reality. In fourth grade, I would wear my bathing suit under my clothes so I could strip down as I ran down the driveway after school. I could spend an entire afternoon digging through layers of rocks until water appeared, playing tag with waves until I figured out how to stop the tide from completely wiping out my footprints. Nights with my bedroom window wide open, the crash of waves set the rhythm of my breath.
But our beach had changed over the last few years. Unlike on the west side of the state where beaches were disappearing, here high lake levels had heaved sand forward and our beach was huge. A small tree grew where a jetty used to be, and during our visit, a group of cousins dug up a picnic table that had been buried during a recent storm. A few years ago, when the lake was low, this same sand was fifteen feet out and we meandered there, the lake up to our waists. This year, after wading in, rocks relentlessly bruised my feet and I turned around when I hit a steep drop-off.
On the second day of our visit, we walked a short expanse of beach with my mother. Beach walk, beach walk, Gabe sang, falling silent when he spotted a rotting fish. The waves had been strong recently, so I asked my mother if she was worried about the lake levels. She replied evasively, ever the optimist: “well yes, south of here, in Marine City, they are really in trouble with flooding…”
Maybe because I didn’t live on the lake anymore, the changes seemed more drastic. The shock drew me to Rising: Dispatches from the American Shore by Elizabeth Rush, which documents rising sea levels on the east coast. I was captivated by the poetic way that Rush wove together scientific research, interviews with residents who grappled with whether or not they should leave, and Rush’s own anxiety in the face of it all.
When my former neighbor on Lake Huron formed a book group on Facebook, I suggested Rising as the May book. From fourth grade onward, when we weren’t playing Zelda, Shannon and I were outside, stirring together dirt potions or spotting the homes of fairies in tree trunks. When the lake froze each winter, we became Cave People, living in the village of icy crests that the waves created on the beach.
“Have you all noticed the lake levels lately?” I posted to the Facebook book club even though the discussion on Rising had not yet started. After I shared my dream with the book club, Shannon’s mother, who still lives four doors down, admitted she had a similar dream years ago. I then wrote a comment about how I wished I had taken action sooner: how twenty years ago, as a community college student, I was part of an effort to spread awareness about what was then called ‘global warming.’
There wasn’t much of a response to my comment, and the group soon moved on to David Sedaris’ new book. Shannon lives in Missouri, so our only real contact after that was through posts we made online that summer, which included photos of each of our little boys playing alone on the shore when our families made the trek to Lake Huron. I knew what was behind our photos: those long road trips with toddlers as we hurtled toward the wide arms of the lake. One of my photos became my Facebook banner, and Gabe set off the symmetry of the shore as he skipped stones in the corner of my browser window, walking toward the end of water and rock.
I never finished Rising. I made the mistake of reading a lot of breaking environmental news while reading it and finally had to take a breather from calamity. But I was not alone in my overwhelm. Early on in Rising, after Rush attends a conference on rising sea levels, she explains that she began “to suffer an acute form of anxiety. Nameless storms so large they leave my house lightless and full of water spin into my dreams.” Rush brought to mind a dream I had, when the lake eventually reached the enormous picture window of my childhood home. Froth the color of shattered glass crashed into the living room. Silvery fingers crept across the laminate floor, toward the kitchen.
After our 2019 hike on Lake Michigan’s dunes, we headed to Saugatuck’s quaint beach town to get something to eat. Gabe stopped to stroke dogs tied to fire extinguishers, clogging sidewalks flowing with people. As in all tourist towns, I was most interested in what was happening behind the facade: what made the waitstaff laugh as they smoked in alleys? What exactly was the host typing on his phone before he carried menus to our table? Why did the teenager move so slowly as he scooped my son’s Superman ice cream?
Then, in front of the old City Hall, amid the scent of warm fudge, I found a historic plaque that introduced more of the mystique I was looking for: Beneath the sands…lies the site of Singapore, one of Michigan’s most famous ghost towns, it read, ending with a line that made me want more: Gradually, Lake Michigan’s shifting sands buried Singapore.
Back home, I visited the local history floor of the Grand Rapids Public Library to do some research. Singapore, which was a lumber port from 1837 to the early 1880s, eventually exhausted its supply of white pine trees rebuilding Chicago after the Great fire. In “The Great Significance of the Old Singapore Site Today,” James Schmiechen details the huge volume exported: in 1873 alone, “the schooner ‘O.R. Johnson’ carried over 6 million feet of lumber to Chicago in 57 trips…”
In contrast to the romance of the historic sign I discovered, which labeled Singapore a ‘ghost town,’ Schmiechen’s 2010 document declares the town “an early American ‘disaster city.’” He puts the situation into stark terms that wouldn’t be appealing for tourists eating ice cream cones: “clear cutting of nearby forests and…blowing sands… eventually buried the town.”
In Lost & Found: Ghost Towns of the Saugatuck Area, Kit Lane and Robert C. Simonds directly call out this historic plaque, which they say gives “the impression that the town exists, unchanged, beneath the sand and someday, if the prevailing winds persist, Singapore will emerge from its covering, a midwestern Pompeii on the shores of Lake Michigan.”
In actuality, the authors explain, after the lumber was exhausted, most residents moved to nearby Saugatuck. Singapore’s mill was taken by a schooner, tug, and steam tug to Michigan’s upper peninsula in 1875 and “whole houses were put on sleds, pulled by horses down the frozen river and placed on new foundations in Saugatuck where they continue to serve as residencies and shops.” Then, the large foredune of Singapore began blowing inland and covering the remaining buildings.
I admit that a part of me was disappointed to discover that Singapore, known as the Ellis Island of the Midwest and once filled with immigrants from Germany and the Netherlands, was a responsible place where people had the foresight to move their homes before the sand progressed. That is, until I stumbled upon some black and white photos of half-submerged houses on the cover of Singapore, The Buried City. “In the 1920’s an occasional rooftop emerged as the sands around Singapore blew and shifted,” said a caption. There was no photo credit that pinpointed the actual physical location, but I wondered: why am I so preoccupied with the buried homes? Why was it more compelling to read about people who chose to stay in shifting sands, rather than those who had the forethought to pick up and leave?
And then I discovered a golden nugget: in Lost & Found, the authors explained that a boarding house called the Astor House was too large to move. In the last decade of Singapore, fisherman James Nicols inhabited the structure:
“As the ground floor gradually filled with sand, he moved to the second floor, at the end of each working day climbing the steep dune of soft sand to his home. When the sand level reached his second floor windows, he moved to the top floor. When the sand began blowing down the chimney he moved away.”
When I was nine or ten, I started summer mornings with a blinding walk on a wide plank, stepping off sand and onto a concrete jetty that jutted into the lake like a dumb fin. My jetty, really. All day, I jumped off and slithered up, the lake a sheet of glass or a swollen emerald, depending on the angle of the wind. The smell of fish licked my shins when it got wild, waves flapping and nodding in the underbelly of the jetty, in that cave, eroded beneath me, where green-black seaweed shimmered. I swung my legs as the fat tongue of the lake clicked its concrete roof, over and over.
A little more than thirty years later, in early summer of 2020, when we were visiting my parents, an old man stood there, looking back and forth toward my family’s property and in the other direction. He looked lost and vaguely confused, clothes hanging on his thin body. “Who’s that?” I asked my mother. “That’s Mr. Boyland,” she said. “He completely lost his beach this year.”
The Boylands had a summer house next to Shannon’s. Later, when I stepped on my jetty, which was nearly submerged in water, and looked down the shore toward his house, I realized that Shannon’s family had lost about ten feet as water nearly touched their break wall. In the other direction, where my childhood Girl Scout leader used to live, the coast curved in drastically. Before the erosion, another jetty stood, silent and blameless, a sign of our shortsightedness. More than twenty feet of beach lost.
And yet my family rose above all of this, at least for an afternoon, forming a chatty semicircle of chairs on the concrete patio: my mother’s best friend, my grandmother, and a few other family friends. Sand had traveled up the sidewalk toward our house and we dumped a bucket of toys for Gabe to play with as we discussed the best SPF to put on our legs and which cousins were pregnant. Michigan had lifted the COVID-19 lockdown a week prior, and it felt good to ponder my next pedicure color choice or take in the rounded wall of water from a slightly reclined chair. It goes without saying that this view is universally beautiful, but something made it uniquely pleasing then, after my family had sped across the state, only using open air rest stops on the way. At the same time, the lake seemed willful, disobedient. Jet skis in the distance buzzed on and on like hungry flies. I focused on the sound of the waves.
The pandemic and the recent strange weather had pushed me to the edge of my faith. It had been twenty degrees cooler than average that April, during the lockdown. We did the Teddy Bear Walk around our neighborhood in Grand Rapids in our winter coats. Everyone put something in your window for the kids! I helped Gabe paint a rainbow and tape it to our front window, called my mom every night, scored a giant empty toilet paper box and made it into a playhouse, complete with window flaps and a trap door. This was after I doom scrolled until one a.m. and it rained for an entire week. I watched trees bend in seventy mile-per-hour winds. I hadn’t been inside another person’s house in months, but when our power went out I ran inside my best friend Mandy’s to put our quickly thawing chicken into her freezer. It was around seven a.m. and she was loading the dishwasher in her pajamas as her son played nearby. I breezed by, trying not to breathe in too much air as I thanked her profusely.
Later that day in Grand Rapids—our power still out—Raúl and I found a place to charge our cell phones on the balcony of our favorite café and saw the rows of empty booths inside, where we used to spend our mornings. Floods had broken a dam in Midland, Michigan and news footage captured an entire roof floating down the river. On Facebook, I instantly regretted posting an article: “Michigan’s climate: Models project 30% increase in rain and snow, plus rising temps.” But where was our jetty? What stabilized us, informed our shape and reaction? I was angry at the lack of wisdom, at how little we noticed, or how we noticed but took no action.
For our next post-lockdown trip to Lake Huron, in the late summer of ’20, we stayed at a family friend’s beach cottage a quarter mile down from my mother’s house. Every morning, Gabe laid on the back of an inflated tortoise and I pulled him to my mother’s, wading waist-deep into the lake to steer him around the jetties. He stuck his little fingers in the water and made up songs. It was so early, the beach was abandoned, and the water was ice cold. I told Gabe to look down and watch for minnows.
And just like that, the relaxing, mindless beach walk of my youth was over. Pulling Gabe in the water was now much easier than walking the beach, which had become treacherous. Erosion pulled the sand and softness away: we now needed to climb stone-filled metal nets and concrete to progress, as if on an absurd obstacle course.
Shredded coconut, bran and chalk had the highest angle of repose at forty-five degrees…At this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding.
A part of me was glad that the ease of the straight-shot path was gone. It was a sign that we needed to wake up. But I also wanted Gabe to walk barefoot beside meandering lines of driftwood left behind after storms, those garlands of pale sticks tangled in seaweed. Or to uncover an orange rock with a misshapen white heart in the center that would glow in a glass jar of water once we went inside.
We reached a rusty jetty that sat in front of my parents’ patio, disintegrating and mixing with heaps of sand. “Your sister walked across that jetty to get married, and now look at it,” my Mom said later that day. My sister got married in 2012, at the height of the beach wedding trend, when beaches became the new church. I was one of six bridesmaids who walked barefoot across the beach in pale teal chiffon dresses. We stood in a row and held the requisite serious expression on our faces as the service progressed. The angle of the sun sent sweat down my face and a sudden gust of wind upset another bridesmaid’s skirt. Then some random people walked down on the beach and started an obnoxious conversation. Everyone laughed awkwardly.
My sister and her husband looked so in love on that day, but unfortunately their marriage didn’t make it. Today, inflated floaties wrap Gabe’s little biceps and sharks reach toward his face, razor sharp teeth skimming his flushed cheeks. He poses for five or six photos until I get that one I haven’t been able to stop looking at weeks after we’ve left the shore: the pandemic rages on, the Arctic records its hottest temperature ever, and in this photograph, Gabe is ready to burst. The joy in his eyes is how the sun sometimes finds the lake in the early morning, blinding in its insistence. ■
Natalie Tomlin‘s writing has appeared in Dunes Review, The Hopper, Midwestern Gothic, Split Rock Review and elsewhere; her nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her family.
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