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My Lake has Singing Sands

It's called singing sand. The sand along Lake Michigan squeaks when you walk on it, given the right temperature and humidity. Singing sand. Rrrt, rrt, so.

While walking along the singing sand beaches of Lake Michigan, as the cool waters dance around our bare feet, I tell my five year old son that the lake is ours, so we have to take care of it. Ours not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense of father to son, brother to brother.

I know it isn't precisely true; That it's our lake. Details, details. I tell my son lots of crazy things. For example I also tell him that the 1998 Ford Escort is the best automobile ever made, EVER.

But the spirit of my lake statement is true. The "and so we have to take care of the lake" part. It's my clumsy way of instilling a sense personal responsibility for "our" lake.

Personal responsibility, and hopefully some wonder.

Over night the waves and wind make the Lake Michigan beach appear as a blank slate. By morning, footprints have been erased and stepped wind-blown patterns in the sand meander down the beach. Dune grasses are surrounded by perfect circles where the wind has pressed them down and spun the blades.

Crisp brown sand pipers scurry along the lakeside and leave a long trail of frantic tiny footprints in the wet sand. If you follow their general direction they nervously escape on foot as fast as their clipping little legs will carry them until you get too close and they fly a whole five feet away and continue to run. Maybe they're too cool to fly unless pressed? Who knows. They're sand pipers.

Gray and white sea gulls whine above and dive for minnows, floating bits, and alewives. They stay all year. Circling the shoreline for food through summer heat and winter ice, moving occasionally inland as storms roll in, warning us earthbound mammals of the change in weather.

Gnarled hemlock trees cling to the edges of the dunes, their roots exposed. Their branches lean leeward from being blown and sand blasted constantly from one direction year after year.

As a boy, I saw the Lake for what it wasn't. It wasn't like the beaches I saw on TV or the movies. No palm trees. No tide pools filled with hermit crabs and star fish. No coral reefs and neon colored fish. No whales breaching in the distance. No assortment of sea shells scattered along the beach from strange creatures below.

It's easy to take your backyard for granted.

They're just the Great Lakes. In Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska it's just the loess hills. It's just the Ohio River paddlefish. It's just swamp. Just desert. Just scrub oak. Every region, it seems, hides a fragile, unique, and largely unheard of and under studied ecological wonder, easily overlooked and plowed under or exploited before we're fully aware of how irreplaceable it is. Often these habitats are ignored and used and pushed to the edge until the stress fractures are glaring or they're gone forever, with the species they housed.

The American eel in Lake Ontario lives and matures in fresh water, then leaves the fresh water to spawn in warm salt waters further south. It once made up over 40% of the fish biomass in Lake Ontario. They're used commercially in nearly every part of their life cycle and command a high price for their oil, eggs, and meat worldwide. Now they're facing serious decline.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission issued a statement of concern in 2002 about what it regarded as a "serious" decline in the American eel population. In 2003, eel biologists from 18 countries meeting in Quebec issued a similar declaration. The Canadian government identifed the American eel as a species at risk in 2006

-- Eels Edging Toward Extinction

Lake Sturgeon are native to the Great Lakes shallows and live for 100 years, grow to 8 feet long and up to 800 pounds. When entering a spawning stream they leap or "porpoise" and crash back into the water with a mighty splash.

The lake sturgeon was once located throughout the Great Lakes system, but over harvest by European settlers, destruction of food sources, lampreys and dam construction on spawning rivers have all had an impact on their survival. They are currently listed as a state threatened species. Within the United States, Michigan and Wisconsin hold the last major populations of these fish.

-- DNR Lake Sturgeon

The purple liliput is a critically endangered mussel to the Great Lakes region last observed in 2006 and before that in 1977.

The Deepwater Pondsnail, native to North Western Michigan is Endangered and was last recorded in 1957.

Hundreds of species of plants and animals native to the Great Lakes are endangered due to habitat loss, carelessness, and the introduction of invasive species. The wolf, the flying squirrel, the cougar...

The lakes provide more than just water habitat. For millennia they have pushed sand and dunes up against the shoreline, creating a series of ridges and valleys, or "interdune" habitats...wooded gullies and hills where animals have adapted to live for thousands of years -- note the roar of the waves in the background.

The Great Lakes proved exceedingly useful for transportation, commercial fishing, and waste dumping for over a hundred years before serious conservation efforts began to take root. Just a few years ago Bush vetoed a bill meant to force ocean faring ships to clean their ballast water and kill any non-native species that might have hitched a ride from the Western Hemisphere before entering the great lakes...and why? Money, as usual. Because it would cost too much.

From the invasion of zebra and quagga mussels the lake is on the verge of complete ecological collapse as a result of the mussels displacing the nutrient rich, native diporea shrimp that used to be the main food source of native fish.

Once numbering 10,000 diporea per cubic yard, the diporea are now completely absent from most of the lakes and fish barely subsist on the nutrient poor zebra mussels.

I hope it's not too late, in 2009 the United States House approved $475,000,000 for Great Lakes restoration.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I am about this bill. I cannot express how amazing this is. Whatever criticisms one may have of the progressive nature of our president and congress, make those criticisms in light of one of the biggest investments in Great Lakes restoration in history. This is huge.

The cleanup money includes:

• $147 million to clean up highly toxic rivers and harbors that feed into the lakes.
• $60 million to prevent and remove invasive species.
• $98 million to refurbish areas near shores and to prevent "non-point" pollution, such as fertilizer and oil run-off.
• $105 million to restore and protect habitat and wildlife.
• $65 million to monitor progress of cleanup.

This fragile eco-system has given us so much: food, water, a way of life, recreation, a cooling dip on a hot day, a place to sit and feel respite and calm. It is embracing and giving. But it isn't endless. It just seems that way. It's never asked for anything, and we've taken for too long. I feel I belong to the lake, and the lake belongs to me. Not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense of father to son. Brother to brother.

Early Spring ice chunks on the lake shore, and the usual spring fog.

I often hear people who see Lake Michigan for the first time exclaim how it's much larger than they imagined. To give an idea of the size, the Lake Express cross lake car ferry, traveling at between 35 and 40 mph, takes about two and a half hours to make the 90 mile trip from Muskegon in Michigan to Milwaukee Wisconsin. Once you go out a couple miles, you can't see land in any direction.

Here's a close up of the singing sand along the West Michgian shoreline. Hundreds of miles of this stuff, piled high in dunes. This is what the lake bottom is made of, too.