Noah Hicks walks away with his free lunch June 22 at the Carver Community Center in Kokomo. The Keep Kids Fed Act, passed June 25, allows for grab-and-go summer lunches and ups the reimbursement rate for meals served during the school year. However, it does not extend universal free school meals for all students. The end of this waiver has advocates concerned for student hunger. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune
Noah Hicks walks away with his free lunch June 22 at the Carver Community Center in Kokomo. The Keep Kids Fed Act, passed June 25, allows for grab-and-go summer lunches and ups the reimbursement rate for meals served during the school year. However, it does not extend universal free school meals for all students. The end of this waiver has advocates concerned for student hunger. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune
With gas at $5 a gallon and inflation pushing up prices for just about everything else, it’s likely that many cost-conscious consumers are going to look for getaways a bit closer to home this summer. h Beyond the offerings of Chicago, Indianapolis and other nearby cities and attractions, the Michiana area offers residents a host of things to see and do. But little can match the appeal of the beaches and dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan this time of year.

And as if Mother Nature knew there could be greater demand for a sandy spot by the lake this year, she’s given us back a good amount of the beachfront that has been disappearing the past several years as a result of rising waters and erosion.

On a recent Friday, visitors at Silver Beach in St. Joseph were making use of the additional space — for sun bathing, swimming, castle building and beach volleyball — that’s opened up since lake levels started going down from the record highs of a couple of years ago.

“It’s a tad bit better than it was,” said Charmaine Geary, who lives within walking distance of the beach. “But they need to do some beach nourishment to help replace what was lost,” she said of the process whereby sand is brought in from other areas.

That effort should get underway in mid-July since the Army Corps of Engineers approved harbor dredging projects this spring at St. Joseph, South Haven, Holland and Grand Haven.

In St. Joseph, an estimated 18,000 cubic yards — the equivalent of about 1,500 one-ton dump trucks— will be dredged from the outer harbor and then pumped to the shoreline to the south, according to the Army Corps.

Angie Youngstedt, who also lives near Silver Beach, agreed with Geary’s assessment. Even though the shoreline looks normal to casual visitors, the beaches still aren’t where they were only four or so years ago.

Just two years ago, lake water was up on the stone revetments that were built along the shoreline to protect against erosion. Today, there might be a small bit of sand between the water and the stone structures, thanks to the receding water.

But Youngstedt remembers when the beaches were considerably bigger. “We used to be able to walk between Silver Beach and Lions Park Beach,” she said of the smaller city beach just south of Berrien County’s Silver Beach.

Not your imagination

On June 10, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that Lake Michigan was at 580 feet or 26 inches below the same time in 2020 when the lake was setting monthly records for height and erosion was causing widespread damage along the coast.

Stairways leading down to the beaches, decks, docks, walkways, dunes, roads and homes sustained significant damage or were lost completely because of the high water and storms that gave erosion a greater reach than ever before. Residents spent millions of dollars on protective rock barriers in an attempt to block the destructive forces of the lake.

Even with the high water, some have blamed the Army Corps for the heavy amount of erosion along the shoreline. They say the harbors built by the Corps have blocked the natural movement of sand in the lake and some are suing the federal agency for damages.

Though the lake is still 9 inches above its long-term average for June, officials from some of the largest parks along the southern end of Lake Michigan say the beaches are indeed bigger than they were only a couple of years ago.

“The area where people put beach chairs has grown,” Jill Adams, director of the Berrien County Parks Department, said of Silver Beach. “We’ve gotten our beach back, so there will be more room for people to spread out.”

Besides gaining more space, Adams said, the department also is looking forward to a break from the extra maintenance and repairs that were necessary because of the high water and erosion.

And except for portions of a walk near the pavilion, all of the repairs have now been completed, Adams said, adding that the beach attracted an estimated 728,000 visitors in 2021.

“Things are going to look more normal,” she said. It’s the same story at other popular spots along the coast, such as Warren Dunes State Park near Bridgman or Indiana Dunes National Park another 36 miles down the Lake Michigan coast.

“We’re not quite back to where we were four or five years ago,” said Pat Whalen, district manager for the Parks and Recreation Division of the Michigan DNR. “But we’re about three-fourths of the way there.”

Though Warren Dunes got through the high-water period relatively unscathed, some other state beaches lost stairways, ramps and trees — among other things — because of the high water and erosion, Whalen said.

Portions of Indiana Dunes National Park weren’t so lucky, dealing with damage to stairways and other structures at some of its beaches, said Bruce Rowe, public information officer for the park. But all of the work is complete, and the beaches were given a boost by an Army Corp replenishment program in 2020, he added.

“The last couple of years, we had the narrowest beaches in our memory,” Rowe said. “Though I don’t think we’re back to normal, I believe the beaches are probably 25 to 30 percent wider than they were two years ago.”

Always popular

That’s important with more people looking for things to do closer to home.

But beaches proved to be popular destinations even when they were considerably smaller a couple of years ago.

“We’re attracting about three million visitors a year,” Rowe said. “That up from about 1.7 million before the name change and COVID.”

In 2019, the name of Indiana Dunes was changed from National Lakeshore to Park, giving it a higher profile in the park system, Rowe said. And a year later, people started looking for more camping, hiking, boating and outdoor activities as a way to enjoy themselves during the pandemic.

It also doesn’t hurt that the National Park is closer to Chicago as well as the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park. It’s the most popular park in the state system and draws well over 1 million visitors a year.

Besides the large beaches, there are plenty of smaller ones along the coast with varying levels of amenities and popularity. Most of those also are reporting improved beach space this year.

Officials just urge visitors to be safe during their visits. Because of its proximity to major population centers as well as its riptides, Lake Michigan typically claims the most lives.

So far in 2022, there have been 35 possible drownings in the Great Lakes, and 18 of those have occurred in Lake Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which advocates for safety measures in the lakes.

Experts suggest that visitors should check conditions before planning a day in the water, pay attention to warning flags, swim with a friend, and consider wearing a life vest or swimming at beaches with life guards.

A good day at the beach can quickly go wrong.

“People need to understand it can be more powerful than it seems,” Adams said.
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