How to Beach at Lake Michigan

I’d like to take a minute to consider the subject of going to the beach for the day.  These are the high holy days of summer, with the 4th of July looming ahead of us. Grand Haven State Park was at capacity today.  If you’re going to come west (to Lake Michigan), here’s how to do it right.

A BEACH TOWEL DOESN’T CUT IT. Want to know how the local do it? We bring an old or inexpensive sheet to the beach.  We use towels for drying off, we use the sheet as our beach blanket.  Anchor it with your flip flops. A sheet is easier to fold up and throw in a beach bag. It consumes less space, is lighter, is easier to shake off the sand, and spreads easily over the beach sand.  It’s also a breeze to toss it in the washing machine.

USE BEACH ETIQUETTE.  Be mindful of your feet. If you are not a regular to the beach then you may not know just how inconsiderate you are when people are blanket to blanket.  Feet that are not thoughtful of other people accidentally kick sand in their face, on their sun-screened skin.

UNDERSTAND BEACH SAFETY.  Those big waves are really fun, but sometimes they can be really dangerous. Sometimes the water doesn’t look dangerous at all, but it is secretly VERY dangerous. I live 1/2 mile from the beach. The thing we dread the most is a helicopter overhead. It means one of two things.  Either aero-med is flying someone experiencing a life-threatening emergency to the city from our small town hospital, or a coast guard helicopter is flying overhead which means there is a water emergency—usually a drowning at the beach.

Some years are very deadly. Err on the side of caution. In the state park system in Michigan, we have a flag system. Green for go, yellow for caution, and a red flag means do not get in that water no matter how tempting. Read the flag. It’s not a suggestion.

From the time our children are young, we teach them to respect the water. Rarely is it someone local who ends up dying in the water. More likely it is an out of towner coming out on a hot day to enjoy the water. They don’t know how to read the waves, or how to look and feel for rip tides. They overestimate their swimming skills or take unnecessary risks.  Sometimes, they don’t pay attention to the posted flags. Sometimes, things just happen.

Contrary to what you might think, rip tides do not give you the sensation of drowning. Rip tides pull you out deeper into the lake or ocean. They invoke panic.  If you find yourself in the unlikely situation of being pulled against your will out deep into the water—do NOT panic, but swim sideways <————>  and not perpendicular to the water.  This will get you out of the riptide. Swim in the WHITE water.  The water that appears calm is the water being taken back out to the lake. Learn how to identify a riptide here.

When I first get into the water, I also feel for it at my ankles.  I couldn’t find any credible evidence for it on the Internet, but I was taught to feel the pull in shallow water at my ankles. As you stand in the water about 6-10 inches deep, with experience you learn what is a safe pull and a dangerous pull. If the pull was strong like it might be difficult to stand up, the likelihood of being pulled under or out in the lake is greater. I will keep looking for an article that proves it.

FOOD AND TRASH. See those seagulls? They are scavenger animals. They are waiting for you to feed them.  They want you to leave your leftover snacks on the beach.  Your snacks are easy pickings for them. Your leftover food is not part of their ordinary diet. It’s not healthy for them, and not good for us when you leave your trash behind. Someone has to pick that up. Every time someone leaves a cigarette butt, chip bag, anything—it makes our beach look terrible.  Every last piece of trash has to be picked up by someone. We only get one chance for our beach to make a good first impression on you. Help us keep it clean. Littering is ugly, disgusting, full of germs and not good for the environment.

I was taught to always leave the area looking better than after we used it.  The same is true for the beach. Leave it better than you found it. A footnote: watch out for broken glass and other sharp objects partially or fully hidden in the sand.  Anything can wash up on the beach! Be prepared!

BE FRIENDLY. Don’t want to stand out as an out of towner? Would you like to blend in?  As people pass you when you take a walk on the pier or the beach, nod your head in acknowledgment. A simple “Hi” is also acceptable.  Not being social or looking the other way when people pass by you is like wearing a sign that says, “I’m from Chicago.”  (Sorry folks from Chicago. We love ya.)

RESPECT THE PACE. You’re on vacation. Be social. Mingle. Have a good time. (Yes, some people need to be told!)  Things are slower here on the beach. Service may be slower at the restaurant.  People linger longer, they take their time when doing things. We’re not stressed from being stuck in traffic, and moving at a frantic pace. We live here for a reason—it’s relaxing. In Michigan, in particular, there is a whole work hard play hard mentality.  When we work, we give our absolute best but when the weekend comes, you can bet we blow off steam.  That means, beaching, boating, hiking, swimming, just about anything that includes the outdoors.  Slow down, breathe and be patient.

TRY SOMETHING NEW… If you have a son or daughter who likes to skate board, then skim boarding at the beach may appeal to them.  Like to canoe? Try kayaking instead. Another great option is paddle boarding.  Paddle boarding on Lake Michigan happens year round.  Going to the beach doesn’t necessarily mean to bake in the sun and do nothing. For active people, it’s an opportunity to try and do many things.

BRING THE TOYS. Volleyball, Frisbee, soccer ball, beach ball, inflatables (an old school inflatable tire is still awesome), a kite is too (not old school, get something cool, or you’ll  look like an amateur).  For little ones, sand buckets, sand molds and believe it or not old kitchen utensils such as old muffin cups and such make great beach tools (as do plastic silverware if they are old enough to manage it safely.)  Sand castles are about digging, molding, and carving.  It’s nature’s perfect playground. Sand and water.

EXPECT SAND IN SOME FUNKY PLACES.  Sand is normal at the beach. The first thing I taught my kids when we moved here was to expect sand everywhere; on the floor, in their shoes, in their sheets—everywhere.  If this isn’t a regular thing for you, it’s going to drive you crazy. Hint to the out of towner, hose your kids down before they come inside.  Wash the feet outside. Leave the shoes outside.  Take the kids directly to the shower and have them take off their suits in the shower and make sure they get the sand out of all those awkward places—yes—THERE.

Rinse or wash the suit every time. This isn’t the swimming pool, this is a natural lake full of natural things like algae, bacteria, and fish.  It will smell if you just hang it up and let it dry.  As locals, we have indoor shoes and outdoor shoes. We often keep beach shoes in the garage or in a mud room.  We don’t mix the two (except flip flops).  Try not to let the sand get to you in some OCD way. We consider it a horrible thing when we can no longer feel the sand in our shoes. It’s a sure sign of summer fading away and that’s always so, so sad.

Enjoy your down time. Happy Beaching. I hope you get to enjoy one of our stunning Lake Michigan Beaches soon.

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