Beach Alert! Areas of Lake Michigan shoreline unwalkable on rough water days

Photo: Leland township supervisor Susan Och took this photo last week of people trying to climb up the dune at the end of Reynolds Road in Leland.

By Linda Alice Dewey

Sun contributor

Pack away those dreams of walking miles from bay to bay along the shores of Lake Michigan this summer—unless you want to get wet, that is. 

The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the public’s right to walk the Great Lakes shoreline in February when it declined to hear an Indiana case filed by riparian landowners who live along the south shore of Lake Michigan.

But with the “Ordinary High Water Mark” (OHWM) on Sleeping Bear Bay currently under water and cliffs marking the Natural High Water Mark, the question of where one can walk the beach becomes more than a question of trespassing. Now the issue is safety.

That has prompted staff at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to discourage the public from running down popular water-facing dunes like the overlook the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

Finding the right boundary line

In our July 2015 article, “Walking the Lake Michigan Beach—a public right, or trespassing?” the Glen Arbor Sun reported the legalities of beach-walking—what’s public, what’s private, and whether one can walk the Great Lakes beaches at all in Michigan. We explained that the water belongs to the public because of something called the Public Trust Doctrine. Therefore, it’s always legal if your feet are in the water. But what if the water is too rough or cold to walk in it? Where can you walk on dry land and not trespass?

We reported that laws and court decisions have more or less established that the area between the Ordinary High-Water Mark—581.5 feet in elevation above sea level—and the shoreline belongs to the public. Simultaneously, riparian landowners (people who own homes on beachfront property) also own the land to the shoreline. That overlap of ownership means landowners can erect docks and decks to enjoy their beaches. Meanwhile, the public is allowed to walk the beach but not stop at all in front of a riparian’s house. That privilege belongs to the riparian.

However, for beach walkers, the OHWM is not the one to look for. The University of Michigan’s Dr. Richard Norton, who specializes in Great Lakes coastal environment, said, “The second mark, which we refer to as the ‘Natural OHWM,’ is the mark that the (Michigan State Supreme) Court established … for the purpose of determining how far landward members of the public can walk along Great Lakes beaches. The Court essentially defined that mark as the line along the shore where there is evidence that lake water has been present in the past. That would certainly include both the wet and the dry sandy portions of a natural beach (i.e., one that hasn’t been armored with seawalls and break walls), since those sandy beaches are sandy and not vegetated, because they have been under water in the recent past.”

“It may be a bit further landward, too” he said, “since beach grasses re-establish themselves quickly along beaches that have been under water in the past but that accrete for stretches of time when the lakes are low. But that particular point wasn’t discussed much by the (State Supreme) Court in its decision, and it hasn’t been litigated since.”

“It’s also not clear where people can walk along a stretch of beach that has been armored, where the sandy beach is now under water but would have been present in a natural condition more landward if not for the armoring. That is, do people have a right to walk where the beach would have been but for the artificial armoring of the shore? That question hasn’t been litigated either.”

By the way, Michigan’s beach-walking laws do not match those of other states. The laws are different for walking inland lake shorelines, as well. 

Changing conditions

Here’s the thing. Right now, the water is so high that the OHWM on Sleeping Bear Bay is in the water. The natural high water mark is 4 inches from the highest level ever recorded (since 1918) for Lakes Michigan-Huron, which are considered one body of water because they are joined at the straits.

So now the question is this: with the water so high, if the day is windy and the water rough, where can you walk and keep your feet dry?

The issue is serious—and potentially dangerous. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich said that Lakeshore staff recently had a meeting to figure out how to help climbers stuck on the dune below the overlook at Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. They used to help those not in need of immediate life support walk back down to the shoreline and then south to North Bar Lake (sometimes with the help of their ATV, if needed). “No more!” Ulrich said. “That route is impossible now. You cannot walk to North Bar Lake.” The only alternative is calling a boat out of Leland, which will take an additional 30-60 minutes to arrive.

“That’s why, this year, we’re going to try to let people know this is a really bad choice … to descend that slope, because our rescue is so limited.”

The problem exists up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. One beach at the Indiana Dunes National Park is temporarily closed because wave action has created a cliff-enclosed beach. Walkers are also warned not to walk out on piers when waves break over them for fear they will be washed away. On May 20, ABC Channel 57 in Indiana reported that last year was the deadliest ever for Lake Michigan with 42 deaths.

The bottom line 

Leland township supervisor Susan Och is concerned about people walking in the water under wavy conditions at places like the foot of the Reynolds Road access. “I worry about the safety of beach walking,” she said. “The strip near the water is narrow and the cliff to get back up is often very high. People need to be paying attention to changing conditions and watching out for rising waves that may strand them or pound them against the cliff.” 

Ulrich agrees. “The high water poses a risk to beach walkers who decided to venture through the water or attempt to clamber through downed trees as a result of the shoreline conditions,” he said. “In fact, we had a rescue on South Manitou Island over the weekend for people who got stuck on the beach that way.

“If the waves are big on Lake Michigan, and you’re a beach walker, it’s probably not a good idea to go out on the water to get around a cliff,” unless you’re a surfer, Ulrich continued. “Don’t plan on long walks on the beach, because you will come to a place where there’s no beach, and the only way is to go in the water, or clamber through a downed tree.”

What about taking the high road and walking the cliffs above the shore? “Cliffs caving in can happen,” Ulrich said, though not often.

Then there are situations where a dune has formed, and you come to a blockage, and you decide to climb the dune to get around it. 

“If you come to a place where you say, ‘Well, I’ll climb,’ there are new risks: you could tumble, cause erosion, and are more likely collapse a cliff,” said Ulrich. That’s true for days with big waves or cold water. “If it’s a nice day, and you’re wearing a swim suit, you can always swim around it.”

The bottom line, on windy days is to turn around. Ulrich said, “Just take the shorter walk.”