A Walk on the Beach


Billy King is an optimist. And that's a wonderful quality to have, and for lucky folks to be around. But would you want an optimist reading a trail map? Well, only if you want an adventure!

Billy, Emily and I were on the west coast of Michigan, looking to take a hike. The night before someone we met at our campsite told us about two possibilities for hiking: Van Buren State Park for the beach and dunes, and Pilgrim Haven Nature Preserve for woodland trails. Billy was a little ho-hum about a "boring walk on the beach", but we thought we would go first to Van Buren State Park first to see the lake, and then visit Pilgrim Haven for the real hiking trails.

When we got down to the beach, Billy checked the GPS on his phone and announced that we could actually walk to Pilgrim Haven along the beach, and it would only take thirty-seven minutes! I admit that I looked at the phone and saw a number of little red dots that seemed to connect our present location with a spot designated as Pilgrim Haven, but in retrospect, I don't recall those dots going along the beach! 

You know how sometimes you look up a destination - say the Mackinac Bridge - and Google Maps tells you how long it takes to get there, by car or bicycle or walking. So it might take four days by walking, but no one is actually going to walk to the Mackinac Bridge from downstate! So is that useful information? No matter, there it is, but it makes me wonder if that was really useful information that it would take 37 minutes to walk to Pilgrim Haven. 

(side note: I did just check Google Maps for the Mackinac Bridge and it takes 3 days and 20 hours on foot - I wasn't too far off in the previous paragraph, which I was just making up for the sake of an example. However, Google Maps adds this disclaimer right before the directions: Use caution - walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions.)

I don't think Billy checked the small print! Off we went. 

It was a bit of a blustery day at Lake Michigan. The wind was blowing up some nice whitecaps as the waves rolled in. Between the sound of the wind and the waves, it was too loud for much conversation, but the sun was shining, the big sky was a perfect example of, well, sky-blue, and we were happy to set off for the promising destination of Pilgrim Haven!

The beach was also chock full of stones of all shapes and sizes, but there was a veritable bonanza of skipping stones that we don't find too readily at the farm. Billy and Emily got busy learning how to skip those flat, oval specimens into the waves; it made for some exciting extra acrobatics as the stones jumped over the cresting waves. It wasn't always fun to walk on all those stones, but there was still plenty of smooth beach sand available for walking and we continued on.

Now there is a major erosion problem at many of the sand dunes. Actually, as we headed toward the lake access back at the state park, a sign reminded us: Do not dig into a vertical sand dune as it can collapse without warning.  I mulled that over a bit, wondering how puny humans with sand shovels could collapse a giant sand dune. It sounded like a bit of hyperbole, but we didn't plan to test that theory.

However, the examples we did see of the erosion problem were the regular and numerous large trees that had once been standing in the grass and wooded areas at the top of the dunes. As the sand continued to slip away, huge trees uprooted and slid down the dunes, landing like a pile of giant "pick-up sticks" on the beach. And pick-up sticks with massive roots attached, adding to the general challenge of traversing this obstruction. Yes, our "walk on the beach" now had the added challenge of clambering either under, around or over these piles of branches, trunks, roots and often driftwood or lumber that had either floated in or fallen down. And we seemed to have left the more populated area where we first walked to the beach from the State Park entrance. There was really no one else in sight.

Well, there was usually a way around these piles - sometimes just a quick duck under some of the taller logs. Sometimes it necessitated going up on the dune a bit to get around the root ball. That was kind of fun and funny, as walking on a dune feels (and looks) slightly drunken - each step sinks in several inches and seems to move you twice as far backwards as you are trying to go forward.

One time the pile was especially daunting, with a maybe five foot high pile of logs, wood and branches, along with several openings in the pile where, it seemed to me, a foot could easily slip and an ankle could easily be sprained. Billy and Emily, with exemplary balance on logs and boards, made it easily across. I paused. But Billy looked around, found a flat board, and slid it into the pile so that it was stable and could reach me. Hmmm - okay - all those years of yoga had to count for something! It really didn't take that many steps, and, as soon as I could get close enough, Billy took my hand, but there was a moment when it was just me, the board, and my balance separating me from a possible nasty fall. I tried not to think about that.

We walked on. Billy checked his phone again and declared we were a third of a way there. That was a little disappointing as it seemed we were well past the 37 minute time limit! Apparently, with all the climbing and clambering we had to do, things were taking a little longer. But it was still a beautiful day and the stones were so plentiful and pretty, Billy and Emily started making cairns with the stones as well as skipping them. We at least were making some progress and having a good time, for the most part, doing it.

I had heard about the controversy of private owners of lakefront property being unreceptive to beach walkers. Environmental groups countered their claims with the assertion that the beaches on the Great Lakes should belong to everyone. I don't think this has been resolved, except by nature who is taking some of that private property and sliding it down toward the water. We saw one very long set of stairs that had at one time led from the top of the dune-cliff to the beach. It was now in sections, succumbing to the slide of sand and gravity. 

And as we looked ahead, we saw perhaps our first encounter with "Private Property". There was a promontory ahead that we really couldn't see around. But there was a constructed cement wall keeping the lake at bay, behind it seemed to be a patio with some chairs and stairs leading up to an area at the top of the dune that perhaps had mown grass. Here was some civilization, and it was in our way!

We consulted. There were no signs saying Private Property, or Keep Out! There was a series of criss-crossed cables between the cement retaining wall and another wall apparently retaining the sand. But there were no signs. But there were those cables that blocked our path. Were they put there purposely to restrict access, or, as Billy eventually pointed out, placed there only to support the retaining walls? Of course! What common sense! We scooched under the cables, climbed up on the cement wall, walked single file along and around the promontory and found on the other side...more beach!

We walked on. More cairns. More skipping. More sun, wind, waves, log jams, more time. Billy, check the map, are we getting close? Billy, the optimist, checked. Oh we're so close! We only have to get to the The Blue Cottage and just beyond that is the Pilgrim Haven. And we were pretty sure we could see The Blue Cottage in the distance. Or something that could be a cottage. And for some reason I convinced myself that The Blue Cottage was a small, welcoming general store where we could rest and get treats. With renewed energy we set off along the last stretch of beach until....

We reached another small promontory. But this one was much more threatening. Hundreds of large slabs of concrete were piled up at the tip of the land, while the waves crashed against this formidable barrier. Slabs of concrete were also fashioned in an ersatz manner up the cliff to the top, where fences and signs were placed. Definitely signs. Signs that said Private Property and Keep Off the Rocks. And keeping on the rocks was the only way to get around, what we were sure was, this last barrier to our destination - the Haven, the Cottage, the calm and shaded woodland trails. Remember we had been in bright sun accompanied by roaring waves for well over two hours. Shade and quiet sounded good. But first...

This was very different from our short walk on a cement ledge. This would require sure-footedness on uneven, wet concrete slabs that really didn't want any feet on them. Emily and I sat down on a nearby log crosspiece. Billy reconnoitered to see if there was a way around. He came back to report no way around except across those slabs. I said No and I really didn't want him to try. He said let me just look again.

It is not fun to see your son disappear around a point while precariously perched on crooked cement slabs, hanging on to roots and branches above, with waves crashing just below and sometimes on those slabs. But disappear he did. I didn't take a photo, superstitiously not wanting to have a photo of "the last time Billy King was seen". It seemed like forever but maybe it was only two or three minutes (still too long!) when he reappeared, climbed down off the rocks and came back to where were perched, reporting that he really couldn't in good conscience lead us across those rocks. But he had gotten far enough to peek over a metal break wall and see the happy folks at Pilgrim Haven - hanging out on the beach, picnicking, kids playing in the sand. And here we glumly sat, perhaps 25 feet away, but separated by an impassable barrier.  So close, yet...!

Billy started thinking. He looked up the dune that had been our companion throughout the entire walk. Water to our left, wall of sand to our right. But at the top of the dune you could see trees ( that hadn't slid yet) and vegetation. Perhaps there was a way to get to the Haven from above? Okay, Billy pronounced we start angle-walking up the dune to the top! And off he went with a big smile on his face.

Have you ever walked on a sand dune, especially a sand dune where no human feet had ever trod? It couldn't really be called walking. It's a combination of slogging, slipping and sliding to eventually move a short way forward. But Billy was sure of this new approach and he reached a small bushy outgrowth, perhaps 25 feet up, turned around and beckoned us on. Now Emily is very light and very strong; she practically floated up the sand to Billy's perch. My ascent was not so graceful. My legs were very tired from all the other climbing and this was just more than they could do. I got close to the outgrowth but had to stop and rest. Then Emily had an idea to at least get me up to that bush. She told Billy to hold the bush and she would hold his other hand and reach out to me with her free hand. I was touched by her effort, and although slightly humiliated for needing this human chain, I grabbed her hand and together we all got me up to the bushy perch.

And there I sat. I wasn't sure if I could climb any farther and was ready to be put out on the ice floe. I told Billy to go on without me and I would walk back on the beach, but he said no, we aren't going to split up. He decided to get a sense of how much farther we had to climb and headed up in the drunkenly diagonal style of dune ascent. Emily skipped after him. I sat, taking in the scenery, reminding myself that it's a very rare experience to view the expanse of Lake Michigan, the waves still rolling in, the sky still very blue, while perched 25 feet up a sand dune. I ran the sand over and over in my fingers to tactilely remind myself that, although I had no idea what lay ahead, this was a very special moment. I also reminded myself that I have to start working out! :-)

I looked up. Billy and Emily were sitting on the dune, maybe 20 feet diagonally above me. Billy motioned for me to take out my phone and he called, with the New Plan. He and Emily would angle-walk up the dune a bit farther, until they could find a friendlier spot to achieve full ascent. I would walk back along the beach, the whole time staying within sight of each other. Together, but just with a fifty-foot sand dune between us. Sounds like a plan!

So down I slid, trying not to think about the sign at the beginning of our journey, informing us of dunes that can "collapse without warning". Well, I made it down without an accompanying sand dune, and headed back along the beach, feeling slightly defeated but reminding myself that I had already come a long way and done some things I didn't think I could do (or maybe shouldn't do!). I looked up and there were Billy and Emily, bushwacking along the edge of the cliff - they waved. I kept walking. This time I had to clamber around those tree piles without Billy or Emily's steadying hands. I found a way. 

I had agreed to carry Emily's pack when we parted ways - which was surprisingly heavy and she had already hauled it the whole way down the beach to our stopping point. So I turned around and there was Emily walking toward me. It was a welcome sight, as I was feeling a bit uncertain and lonely, but determined to keep on trekking! Emily felt bad for me to carry that pack so came down to the beach - don't ask me how she got down - probably floated lightly on a passing breeze! So there we both were on the beach, scanning the cliff for Billy.

And there he was - motioning for us to come back several yards to where he was above us. He had something long and thin that he was either wrestling with or throwing around. A snake? An aggressive vine? As we walked back I really thought to myself that Billy had found a spot atop the dune that he deemed "much easier" to walk up and I was steeling myself for yet another try.

But wait - it's a rope! Billy was throwing it over and over until it reached almost to the beach - it had already been secured to a tree above. We laughed and and clapped - wondering how we missed that before and thinking how kind of the State Park to provide a rustic way to climb up the dunes! We were wrong on both counts. We "missed" the rope before because it was coiled at the top and was only found because Billy was up there pushing his way through the undergrowth until he came across this clearing with the rope. And it was definitely not put there by the State Park, and very likely would have been removed, if it wasn't "Private Property"!

Hand over hand, up the rope we went - so much easier when you have something stable to hold as you navigate the "shifting sands" beneath you! At the top we came to a wooded path, and didn't realize we weren't on State land until we reached the sign that said something to the effect "Dune Hideaway - these trails for our guests only". As Billy said, the adventure wasn't over! 

We stopped and conferred. A quick walk forward showed that the trail ended in someone's backyard. Through the trees we could see more backyards, beach towels, grills. We were in civilization but we weren't feeling civilized. We wanted to get to the Pilgrim's Haven and we weren't going back down on that beach! As we considered our options among the trees and bushes, we spotted a road. The only way to get to the road was through someone's Dune Hideaway yard. At that point I decided that if stopped, I would use my age to appeal to their sympathy - maybe even get the offer of a ride.

We walked single-file along the edge of a yard without incident. We actually didn't see a soul in this nifty little dune neighborhood. What we did see tucked away on one of the drives was The Blue Cottage. Not a welcoming general store at all, but someone's Airbnb available for rental that made it onto Google maps. Oh well, it gave us the persistence to keep going forward and in so doing, have a number of adventures filled with challenge, fun, laughter, and improvisation. As Emily said, the theme for the day was "Expect the Unexpected" or "Unexpect the Expected"!

Either way it was a memorable day and we did make it to Pilgrim's Haven, although the woodland trails seemed so tame after what we had all been through that we spent just a short time walking, had a nice picnic, and headed home. It made me think about that saying when something is "a walk on the beach" and it's supposed to be easy. I think that refers to a different beach than the one we just traversed, but I'm thankful for the shared experience and the adventure that our optimistic trail guide provided.  I was able to walk the next day - just not on the beach!


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