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All About Oval Beach (and My Fun Summer Job)

Kathi writes about fossils and other earthly subjects, plus the natural fauna of Michigan, features in her community, poetry, and more.

Summer Days at Oval Beach

Summer Days at Oval Beach

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 lot 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. I included more about our job descriptions near the bottom of the page.

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 former 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 1980s, now lie two separate parking areas north of the old oval parking lot which facilitates 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 the natives 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, which flowed into Lake Michigan, was miraculously rerouted. The motive for such an ambitious undertaking was to set the winding 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, 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.

Windswept Dunes of Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area (Saved from Development) Lake Michigan Dunes

Windswept Dunes of Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area (Saved from Development) Lake Michigan Dunes

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.

Mount Baldhead

When you mention Oval Beach, Mount Baldhead 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 Baldhead, or Mount Baldy, overlooks Oval Beach. Sitting at its peak is a decommissioned radar tower left over from WWII. During the cold war era between 1956-68, it was constructed 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. After taking in the view, take a 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 Baldhead's sandy path 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, Michigan.

Coastal Dune Ecology

There are two main beach grasses that grow along the coastal regions near Oval Beach, in Saugatuck, Michigan (shown in my photos below). These grasses have played the most important role in building and sculpting the towering dunes situated on the eastern side of Lake Michigan bordering the western side of the state of Michigan (I always find that confusing). Anyway, they stabilize the moving sands pushed by prevailing westerly winds.

This process of stabilization builds and builds resulting in the great escalation we call, sand dunes. The first type of beach grass responsible for this is the American Beach Grass, often called Marram Grass. The second type is a taller variety called, Sand Reed Grass. Below, read the labels assisting the photos to learn the names of several dominant plant species that grow along Oval Beach and the surrounding inter-dunal environment.

Land Controversy

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 (update below).

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 threats of development in the past. The beautiful dune terrain highly visible and accessible to tourists patronizing, city owned, Oval Beach, is now saved from future human destruction. This exceptional property is 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 overgrown houses and commercialism. The beach is secluded from noisy streets and obscured views from buildings. That includes a very rare undeveloped river opening. 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 the northern river-channel coastal dune property and it is now available for sale for some 40 million dollars.

2016 Update Jeff and Peg Padnos of Holland, MI purchased the 300 acre property and development of homes and a marina have been underway. It saddens me to see how they have torn up these pristine coastal dunes and waterfront breaking up what was once a twenty mile stretch of undeveloped land. Even the property adjacent to Oval Beach on the south end have been developed since I first wrote this article. These home spoil the pristine view of our beloved Oval Beach.

This Is Our Future

Remaining Answers to Questions People Ask Us About Oval Beach

First, I must mention Oval Beach and the bordering shoreline have 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 of the 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 their dogs to the beach by taking advantage with no one there to enforce the rule.

Next, we 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. Is it safe to swim in Lake Michigan? See answer below.

High surf on Lake Michigan at Oval Beach, Saugatuck, Michigan

High surf on Lake Michigan at Oval Beach, Saugatuck, Michigan

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 flow with the current until it weakens enough so the swimmer can escape by swimming perpendicular to the current (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

Kids Clean Up at Oval Beach, Good Going Mom, Dad and Kids

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 buckets and picker-uppers in hand to maintain its beauty. 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.