GLEN HAVEN, Mich. (AP) — A gentle breeze ripples Lake Michigan’s deep blue
surface as a gull circles lazily overhead. The sun is bright, the
temperature is a comfy 70 degrees and the view of the water and the distant
Manitou Islands is spectacular. The beach is wide and sandy — and almost
Only a couple dozen people are in sight along a half-mile stretch of
lakefront in the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in
Michigan’s northwestern Lower Peninsula. This is shortly before the July 4
weekend, when tourist season kicks into high gear. About 30 miles away in
Traverse City, downtown sidewalks are crowded and the National Cherry
Festival, one of the year’s biggest draws, is about to begin. Yet beachgoers
here in Glen Haven have no trouble staking out a spot all their own.
Partly because of this splendid isolation just a short drive from a busy
resort town, Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman —
nicknamed “Dr. Beach” — has awarded Sleeping Bear Dunes the top ranking in
his initial survey of Great Lakes beaches.
For the past 21 years, Leatherman has released widely followed listings of
the nation’s top 10 beaches, based on extensive criteria that range from
sand texture to water quality to facilities. But his list has always limited
to ocean beaches. After getting thousands of e-mails over the years from
their indignant devotees, Leatherman relented.
“They really are a hidden gem,” he said. “People have almost no knowledge of
Well, some do. Tourism is big business along the Great Lakes’ thousands of
waterfront miles. But they’re so vast that anyone wanting privacy amid their
natural beauty can find it.
Leatherman, director of the university’s Laboratory for Coastal Research,
has visited the Great Lakes a number of times, including a circle tour of
Lake Michigan about seven years ago, but readily acknowledges having much to
learn. So he limited his ranking of its beaches to five and says it’s based
on a more subjective evaluation than his ocean beach listings. He asked
coastal communities to fill out a survey and provide a sample of local sand.
About 30 locations were nominated.
After Sleeping Bear Dunes, the top Great Lakes beach spots were: Lake Erie’s
Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania, No. 2; Lake Superior’s Sand Point
Beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, No. 3; Lake Huron’s
Bayfield Main Beach in Ontario, Canada, No. 4; and Lake Michigan’s Oak
Street Beach in Chicago, No. 5.
Leatherman also tossed in a couple of honorable mentions: Lake Michigan’s
North Beach in Racine, Wis.; and Lake Michigan’s Grand Haven State Park on
Lake Michigan (not to be confused with Glen Haven at Sleeping Bear Dunes).
Most of the 50-plus questions on Leatherman’s survey deal with three primary
topics: water quality, sand quality and safety. Cleanliness is a must. Any
place that’s frequently declared off-limits to swimmers because of E. coli
contamination is quickly booted. Beaches also lose points for heavy presence
of algae, dirty bathrooms, excessive development and nearby storm water or
sewage overflow pipes.
Water pollution is a longstanding concern in the Great Lakes. A report by
the National Resources Defense Council this week found that 15 percent of
the lakes’ beach water samples exceeded public health standards last year,
compared to 8 percent nationwide. Great Lakes beaches had a combined 3,766
days of closings and advisories in 2010.
Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental
Quality who had urged Leatherman to begin rating the Great Lakes beaches,
says the numbers partly reflect how extensively the Great Lakes states
monitor water for pollution. “We’re identifying problems and correcting
them,” Briggs said.
Leatherman also grilled local officials about rip currents, which can fool
newcomers who underestimate the lakes’ size and strength. Stirred by strong
offshore winds, rip currents were responsible for 25 drownings in the region
last year, he said.
On the other hand, he noted, people need not worry about sharks or jellyfish
in the Great Lakes.
During his Lake Michigan tour, he was delighted with the Sleeping Bear
lakeshore’s towering dunes and hiking trails as well as its beaches, with
their mixture of fine and grainy sand and rocks that kept his children busy
looking for Petoskey stones — fossilized coral pebbles with distinctive
patterns formed hundreds of millions of years ago. “A very impressive
place,” he said.
Loyal fans would agree.
“We try to come every year,” Carrie Doornbos of Grant, Mich., said while
relaxing in a lounge chair on the Glen Haven beach this week as her husband
strolled along the shore, their daughters sunbathed and their son pushed a
toy dump truck through the sand. “The water and the sand are so clean, and
it’s never too crowded.”
Presque Isle Park is nestled on a 7-mile-long spit of land that juts into
Lake Erie with 11 primary swimming areas. Sand Point in Michigan’s Upper
Peninsula, with shallow water protected from waves by offshore islands, was
warm enough by chilly Lake Superior standards to provide Leatherman with a
refreshing swim. He raved over the Pictured Rocks lakeshore’s 200-foot-high
sandstone cliffs and pristine water.
“Lake Superior is simply enormous. You couldn’t get a feel for how big it
was,” he said.
Bayfield Beach’s Blue Flag ranking, attesting to its environmental quality
and services, worked in its favor. Leatherman praised the Oak Street Beach’s
fine sand, views of Chicago architecture and the city’s 26-mile-long stretch
of lakefront suitable for cyclists, joggers and parents strolling babies.