Much About Oval Beach; and My Fun Summer Job
Summertime, on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, I have the privilege of working as a "beach patroller" at Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan (USA) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. My colleagues and I get asked many questions from tourists and an important part of our jobs is to satisfy their curiosity. Below, are a few samples of interesting and commonly asked questions:
What exactly do you do here? . . . Why is it called Oval Beach? . . . Why can't we bring our dogs? . . . Is this a nude beach? . . . Are there nature trails? . . . Is this Lake Michigan? . . . Is this a state park? . . . Are there bathrooms? . . . Is it okay to swim? . . . How long has this been here?. . . How do you get to Mount Baldy?
We get some real winners sometimes, but you should also know we receive many nice compliments such as: "This is the most beautiful beach I've ever seen" . . . "Thank you for keeping the beach so clean"!
So, now that I've hopefully sparked your curiosity, I'll do my best to answer these questions in the paragraphs below . . . plus a few more! The photographs really tell the story of Oval Beach. Most were taken by myself, except for the historical ones which came from the archives of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society.
A Bit of Oval Beach History
The year 1936, in response to increased automobile traffic and tourism from Chicago, the State of Michigan funded a winding road to make the Saugatuck area beach accessible to the public. They also paved a parking lot in the shape of an oval; and that's simply where the name "Oval Beach" originated. Years later, half of the oval parking lot was washed out by high waters and erosion. The charming oval shape of the former parking facility remains only in the memories of former tourists and local patrons. Paved out in the 1980's, now lie two separate parking areas north of the old oval which facilitate over 400 slots. Decades in the making, a 40 foot sand dune made its presence between the forward parking lot and the overflow parking lot due to the strong and persistent westerly winds continually moving the golden sands.
Going back hundreds of years before Oval Beach was ever a tourist spot, it was home to the Ottawa and Pottawatomie Native Americans living off the land. Today's trails meandering along the peaks and valleys of the bordering dunes were first laid down by them decades before Europeans settled the area. The local Historical Society even has a map showing burial grounds where one of the parking lots now lie.
Dredging a New Rivermouth
In the first decade of the 1900s, the mouth of the Kalamazoo River emptying into Lake Michigan was miraculously rerouted. The motive for such an ambitious undertaking was to set the windy river on a straighter course in order to facilitate a smoother shipping lane. Saugatuck was once a port for transporting peaches, tourism and lumber; which, by the way, helped rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Today, patrons can venture on foot just short of a mile to the new river mouth channel heading out from Oval Beach. In route there lies The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area with rolling dunes covered with windswept beach grasses. Several trails lead up to the dunes for a breathtaking view of the lake and acres of precious pristine natural habitat.
After the new river mouth construction was completed, what happened to the natural river mouth and its lighthouse? Well, the river water was first filled in by human intervention and nature has taken its course since then rebuilding a new dune where the rolling river once emptied. The old dock pilings built along the former river mouth still remain and are still visible in the big lake at the border of Oval Beach. The former lighthouse sits behind the newly formed dune and has been renovated by the former light house keeper.
When you mention Oval Beach, Mount Baldy need not be overlooked. It's part of the largest assemblage of fresh water dunes in the world extending three hundred miles of eastern Lake Michigan coastline, sculpted 12,000 years ago by the receding glacial Ice Age. Since then, prevailing westerly winds and crashing waves have continued to push the sands further inland.
The big dune called Mount Baldy, or Mount Baldhead, overlooks Oval Beach. Its amazing stature almost seems as if its providing protection for all the sun loving patrons. Actually, in lots of ways, it does just that. Sitting at its peak is a decommissioned radar tower left over from WWII. During the cold war era between 1956-68, it was reconstructed onto the big dune to screen planes coming over the lake that could be threatening. Today, Mt. Baldy, with its curious looking metal structure, simply provides an irresistible tourist destination. From the town's side of it, there's a park with 282 stairs beginning at its base. Take the challenge and climb up to the top of the stairs to witness a breathtaking view. You'll see a marina on Lake Kalamazoo which leads your eye out to a panorama of the beach town, Saugatuck, and the encircling countryside. Then, walk through forest trails along the peak originally paved hundreds of years ago by Pottawatomie and Ottawa Native Americans. While trailing through the forested dune peaks, look to the west for the view of golden sandy beaches and beautiful Lake Michigan. Afterwards, dash down Mount Baldy to Oval Beach free of charge.
The big dune wasn't always covered with trees like it is today; hence "Mount Baldhead". The trees were planted on the bare sand hill to help stabilize it. The town's people had learned a hard lesson from it's original settlement of Singapore (1837-1880), an old lumber and ship-building town. Through clear cutting, Singapore suffered the ill fate of wind blown sand completely burying it. Several Singapore buildings and homes were moved downstream to what has grown into the quaint city of Saugatuck.
Coastal Dune Ecology
The dune ecology of Oval Beach and surrounding area is presented in an in-depth study by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. I have provided a link for you below if you desire to learn more about it. There's a quantity of good information accompanied by maps and photos. But I will tell you a little bit about the two main grasses which are shown in my photos. They have played an important role in building the sculptural dunes. Actually, they help stabilize the sand underneath them, thus, stabilizing and building up their escalation. The first one is American Beach Grass, often called Marram Grass. The other one is a taller variety called Sand Reed Grass. Read my photo labels to learn the names of a few of my favorite plants that grow on Oval Beach and neighboring environment.
Oval Beach is nestled within a two thousand acreage coastal region embodied by towering sand dunes covered with windswept grasses. The back dunes slope into valleys filled with inter-coastal wetlands, and farther beyond, woodland forests create a beautiful backdrop of greenery. At sunset, facing west over the horizon, tourists enjoy a spectacle of glittering ripples off the water and ever changing cloud formations decorated by golden orange hues. All has been preserved for future generations with one exception; the northern 250 acre parcel of the former Denison family property, now owned by oil magnate Aubrey McClendon.
When the pristine, privately owned Denison lake front acreage became available for sale in 2004, philanthropists, various individuals, government bodies and preservation organizations sought and fought to procure it in order to ensure a future continuation of the unbroken natural coastline. McClendon outbid those efforts in 2006. Fortunately, he later offered to sell the southern, 172 acre portion of the McClendon/Densison property . . . as well as some 100 more acres of an adjoining area called Tallmage Woods. The City of Saugatuck has recently come to own it thanks to the hard work and donations of many passionate citizens; many of which are part of well established preservation organizations who've gained valuable experienced fighting against development in the past. The beautiful dune terrain highly visible and accessible for tourists patronizing the beach is now saved from future human destruction. It's a very important landscape for the city to have acquired because it lies due south of the Kalamazoo River channel linking it to city owned Oval Beach. And it's vital to the entire community, not only for its ecology, but for its history, culture and economy.
People truly are drawn to Saugatuck and Oval Beach to get away from big houses and commercialism. The beach is secluded from noisy streets and obscured views from buildings. It's part of the few remaining pristine, undisturbed Lake Michigan dune coastlines which extends approximately twenty miles. That includes a very rare undeveloped river opening. There are only a few exceptions of developments. Yet, the struggle isn't over to preserve the coastline's character. McClendon wants to develop his remaining 250 acres north of the river channel. Much has been written and disputed about this subject in the community at large. Two sides have very opposing visions for its future.
2016 Update Aubrey McClendon past away this year, may he rest in peace. Unsettled court cases kept him from developing his norther river channel coastal dune property and it is now available for sale for some 40 million dollars.
Update The pristine property has been purchased by a Holland, Michigan based developer. More updates to come.
This Is Our Future
- Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance : About
An organization formed for the preservation of the Saugatuck dune coastline. Learn about the region, community, issues, recent developments and more.
Oval Beach Today
First, I'll start by telling you that Oval Beach and the bordering shoreline has received many prestigious accolades in recent years. Without a doubt, Oval Beach in Saugatuck is ranked one of Michigan's favorite vacation spots especially great for families with kids!
MTV Top 5 beaches in the country!
Conde Naste's Travel Magazine rated it in the top 25 shorelines worldwide!
National Geographic Traveler Magazine says it's one of two top fresh water beaches worldwide!
Chicago Tribune recommends it as one of the best places for Chicagoans to take a day trip away from the everyday grind!
Smarter Travel, a major national travel publication listed Oval Beach as one othe top ten idyllic end-of-summer beach vacations in the USA.
Pretty impressive! So to cover a few unanswered questions I listed in the intro; for one, Oval Beach is not a nude beach. Although, when the now renowned Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area was owned by the Denison family, a section of the property was indeed reserved for the free-spirited for a number of years; and therein lies the confusion. These days, families can walk from The Oval down to the inlet channel without fear of exposing young eyes.
The next question that comes up a lot addresses the dog issue. I love dogs, but think about it people . . . not everyone is a responsible pet owner! Dog waste left on beaches creates health hazards. People will try to cover it with sand and expect it to disappear, but the sand moves all the time by wind and foot traffic! Then there's the problem of dogs kicking sand at neighbors and barking during a crowded beach day. Everyone's there to relax and take in the joy and serenity the beach provides. After labor day and before memorial day people get away with bringing there dogs to the beach by taking advantage with no one there to enforce the rule.
We actually get ask if there are bathrooms. Yes there are; and with two changing rooms, plus outdoor showers and a concession stand to serve the hungry and thirsty.
The next question is a very important one. When is it safe to swim in Lake Michigan? See answer below.
Is it safe to swim in Lake Michigan? Of course, most of the time, but it's also important to know when to approach the water with much caution. Every year the lake takes a few lives especially during stormy conditions. We've been lucky here at Oval Beach, only a few close calls. People need to educate themselves about the hazards of the lake. The bigger the waves, the more powerful the rip currents. A recent non-profit organization has begun advocating the "Flip, Float and Follow" method,developed by Michigan State University. If swimmers feel themselves being pulled out by a current, they should flip over onto their backs, float instead of fight and follow the current until it weakens enough so the swimmer can escape by swimming perpendicular to the current; in other words, parallel to the shoreline. Fighting a current is like running on a treadmill and will quickly exhaust a swimmer.
Warning to parents: I've observed many parents sitting on the beach watching their kids when there are substantial waves. They may reason that as long as they're watching close, their child is safe. That's simply too risky. Parents need to be in the water with the kids when strong waves come in . . . and they don't have to be huge, a two foot wave can have a strong rip current.
Wedding on Oval Beach
My Fun Summer Job at the Oval
So, now that I've kept you on edge what my job is all about . . . just kidding. Here goes; me and my colleague's job title is "beach patroller". As beach patrollers, we walk and talk the beach. We're keeping an eye out for people who may need help of some kind or who simply have questions. We're also there to make sure people are following the safety rules, such as no dogs and alcohol. We have lots of boaters, jet skiers, paddle boaters and kayakers to keep watch from getting in the swim area. We regularly sweep the beach with bucket and picker-upper in hand to keep it clean and beautiful. In the busy parking lots, we help keep traffic flowing and make sure people drive responsibly. We carry radios to communicate with one other and with the front gate. We're trained in CPR and First Aid. We're not life guards. There haven't been any for several years now. We're actually more accessible to patrons than life guards who sit on high stands. We're on the beach at the patron's level. Most of all, we have fun with our visitors and with each other. But truly best of all, we're surrounded by a stunningly beautiful work environment that one could ever ask for. It's usually an easy going, laid back kind of pace. I love my job there and always miss it when fall sneaks around the corner.
Fossils Found on Oval Beach
I was snapping a few photos at Oval the last week of November, 2012, and noticed more rocks exposed than usual near the shoreline. It may have to do with the low water levels we've been experiencing due to a long summer dry-spell coupled with strong winds exposing their cover. Nevertheless, I came across some awesome fossils; way more than usual. Being the fossillady and all, I can't resist sharing them with you. Oh yeah, in case you're wondering how these salt water samples ended up in our fresh water lake, you can visit another photo essay I've written on the subject by clicking on the link.
Kids Picking Up at Oval Beach
I leave you with several beautiful sunsets . . .
Questions & Answers
Is Oval Beach a nude beach?
There was a time when a northern border of it was nude, but it was shut down over ten years ago.
Has a Blushing Star coral fossil been unearthed in Michigan?
Not likely. The Michigan corals unearthed are from a much earlier time period which was wiped out during one of the mass extinctions, can't remember which one right off hand. The blushing Star Coral is a current species.
© 2012 Kathi