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#24 – Climb a Sand Dune

8 July 2007

On 7/7/07 I was one of the few people not getting married that day… Instead I was lucky enough to be invited to the cottage of a family friend, a cottage that is literally adjacent to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore! Growing up in Michigan I’ve been to Sleeping Bear several times over the years yet I could never get used to such amazing landscapes. In my opinion Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of the most spectacular parks in the entire country!

Amanda and I drove the three hours north with my cousin and navigator Ana, who’s been going to this cottage all her life. Sadly my brothers couldn’t make it, but my parents were there along with some aunts, uncles, and cousins. First off I sampled several pieces of raisin spice cake along with countless other snacks that everyone had brought along. Yum!

Then there was some beach frisbee, then floating in Lake Michigan on inner tubes, then hiking down the beach to a small lake, then more floating over the sandbar, then some beach hillbilly golf. Yep, we spent a lot of time on that beach! Amanda has the sunburns to prove it, too.

Being so close to Sleeping Bear, all day I was eying this giant sand bluff with plans to climb it. Legend has it that some years ago my cousin Gabe set the family ascent record at 7.5 minutes while Ana holds the female title at 10 minutes. Both were teenage-fast avid cyclists, but could I keep up?

The bluff rises 450 vertical feet above Lake Michigan; marking our path using Google Earth shows the slant distance to be about 800 feet. As we approached this sand mountain my dad, a civil engineer, explained to me that typical sand has an angle of repose of about 45 degrees. Yeah, that looked about right:

Wow, this wasn’t going to be easy! The ants crawling up the hill formed in to humans as we got close enough to see the action, and crawl was the word of the day – I noticed that everybody who was going up was doing so on all fours!

Off we go! I was able to walk upright for the first two minutes before so much lactic acid built up in my quads that the muscles refused to respond to my commands. I was forced to rest a few seconds before I resumed the ascent, this time using all four limbs like everyone else. The terrain was atrocious! The sand was filled with rocks from pebbles up to softball size and my toes took a beating. Each step I took, my foot slid halfway back down the hill! Progress was frustrating to say the least. While my feet mashed through the sand and rocks my fingers were like pitchforks jabbing into the hillside until they became so tired that I had to walk on my knuckles just like a chimpanzee.

After 14 minutes I finally made it to the top! In retrospect I probably could’ve made it in 12 had I not burned out my quads by walking upright in the beginning. I can see why my cyclist cousins were so fast – you really need strong thighs! My lungs were fine but my quad muscles were operating above their lactate threshold the entire climb. Ana arrived to the summit in 15:45, then her sister Adrienne in 16:30. The three of us sat down (“collapsed” might be a better word!) to recover and take in the incredible view of Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon in front of us.

Finally we had company – Uncle Andy arrived at 25 minutes followed by his young daughter and her friend who impressed everyone with a 26-minute climb. My dad made it to the top in 31 minutes – not bad for a guy pushing 60 years old! He rides his bike a lot and that really helped him – he said that his lungs were the limiting factor, not his legs. Andy’s young son arrived at 35 minutes, toting his snowboard all the way! Last but not least, Aunts Therese and Kathy dragged themselves up in 36 minutes. Everyone made it!

Most folks on the hill had driven to the overlook at the summit and decided to hike down, then were forced to suffer the ascent just to get back to their car! Either that or walk a 7-mile detour. Luckily for us we wanted to do the climb, then got to enjoy the easy descent. Young Issac tried his snowboard but found it to be much easier on snow than sand. However, Ana and Adrienne had a fun technique of skiing down the hill that worked pretty well:

I opted for a straight run, but it was more like a high-stepping march, lifting my knees as fast as I could to keep my feet from dragging behind my body – I had no desire to taste the sand! Unfortunately Uncle Andy performed one somersault on the way down, but he said it wasn’t bad because his sunglasses didn’t fall off. 🙂

After maintaining an effort that was close to what my 5K pace feels like for 14 minutes just to reach the top, I ran down that same hill in just one minute! What a blast that was. It really did feel kinda like downhill skiing, but unless you’re as fit as sky-runner Matt Carpenter you only get one hard-earned “lift ticket” to the top!

My feet were very sore during the walk back to the cottage, but being able to splash them through the cool surf of Lake Michigan helped soothe the pain. Best of all, back at the cottage it was time to eat! Now that was a meal well earned. I can’t wait to go back someday and conquer the Sleeping Bear bluff again!

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3 comments

  1. OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! THAT WOULD REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, HURT.


  2. Great article Andrew and historically accruate…except for the ‘one’ somersault part.

    Signed Uncle Andy


  3. Unfortunately I didn’t get to witness your acrobatics – it must have been impressive. Thanks for leaving a comment!



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