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Always Moving
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Lake Michigan’s Mysterious “Walking Dunes”

By James Donahue

When I once worked as a South Haven bureau reporter for the old News Palladium, a daily newspaper in Benton Harbor, Michigan I became familiar with the massive and sometimes moving sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The dunes are so large, and cover such large areas, that state and national parks in Michigan and Indiana have been established to highlight these amazing sites for tourists.

The parks stretch from Sleeping Bear Dunes at the far northern edge of the Southern Michigan "mitten and including the coastlines of North and South Manitou Islands all the way south to Indiana Dunes National Park at the far southern end of the lake.

Two of the parks are known for their "walking" dunes. That is, the great piles of sand, measuring sometimes over 200 feet in height, are constantly moving. Sometimes they have been known to move several feet a year in one direction or another. 

Near Saugatuck, Michigan, near the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, it is said that the walking dunes literally buried the early lumber village of Singapore. When I worked in that area I had the privilege of interviewing an elderly man who remembered living in Singapore. He not only had the story to tell, but he produced photographs of the town which included piles of lumber and ships loading the lumber at the dock.

While some of the homes and business places were successfully moved before the dunes buried Singapore, many of the buildings are said to still be there, a strange ghost town left buried under large piles of shifting sand. It was an eerie feeling to stand atop of those dunes and think of the town buried beneith my feet.

The Indiana Dunes National Park is known for Mount Baldy, a massive 43-acre sand dune that also walks. This strange dune is known to move from between five to 15 feet in a single year. Not only does it move, but it recently began producing unexplained sink holes. One of them swallowed six-year-old Nathan Woessner, who was visiting the park with his parents in July, 2013.
Nathan was a very lucky child. When the dune suddenly opened up and he fell into its clutches, nearby campers heard his screams and help was quick to arrive on the scene. It took rescuers 11 hours, and they had to use some heavy digging equipment, but they succeeded in pulling the boy out of the dune alive. That was a miracle since he was completely buried in the sand.

Since that incident, other sudden sinkholes have appeared on Mount Baldy. The area has been cordoned off with warning signs. Officials are planting marram grass in the hope that it will stave off erosion, stop the dune's restless behavior, and perhaps bring an end to the strange appearances of sinkholes.

In the meantime, researcers for the Environmental Protection Agency, Indiana Geological Survey, National Park Service and Indiana University have been using ground penetrating radar and other devices in an effort to find out why the dune is creating sinkholes and threatening any human or animal that dares walk its surface. To date they say they are completely stumped.

The Indiana Dunes park is the largest of four established dunes parks that are open to the public. It consists of 2,182 acres of not only the dunes, but primitive and historical landscape. Eighteen hundred acres are wooded and contain diversified flora and fauna.

Just over the Michigan-Indiana state line, in southern Berrien County, is Warren Dunes State Park. Here yet another rugged dune formation called Tower Hill stands 260 feet high. Other large dunes are named Mt. Fuller, Pikes Peak and Mt. Edwards. The park offers 1,952 acres of recreational property filled with hiking trails, three miles of shoreline and spectacular views.

The Saugatuck Dunes Park is 1,120 acres in size, and located farther north in Allegan County.