Expand the Strand?

Portrait by Jean Lannen

Water always wins. I’ve heard this time and time again from my husband, who’s a bit obsessed with that fact. But I’ve tried to fight water, starting in 2001 when we took ownership of our lakefront cottage in northern Michigan.

After leaving the title office, we went directly to our new slice of heaven and stood on its shore. I was already assessing how we could improve our beach. “Some of those cement-slab barriers things along the shore’s edge will have to go,” I told my husband. He was quiet and then started to murmur those words: “Water always …” “Yes, but we need a better-looking beach,” I told him. “We need to have more sand brought in to expand the beach.”

The first season of cottage fun came and went, sans a larger beach. We’d sit in lawn chairs along the water’s edge with tall tonics in hand and the pokey lakeside grass beneath our bare feet. Oh, how I longed for more soft sand!

The following summer, a new family moved in next door and before I knew it, crews were removing the stuff that had formed a barrier along their slice of shoreline. Workers dumped beautiful, fresh, soft sand to increase their beach area. Soon after, brightly colored sand toys were sprinkled atop the inviting plot of land. “See? They’re doing it. We should, too. Our boys would love it, and so would I!”

I eventually talked my husband into enhancing our shoreline while trying to preserve its natural beauty. We hired a company to help. None of it was cheap. Forget a new floor.

Meanwhile, a friendly longtime resident of the neighborhood moseyed down to watch the activity as the workers we’d hired did their magic. “You can’t fight water when the levels vary from year to year,” he said to me. Ugh, I thought. I ignored him.

“I put a seawall in years ago and I’m glad I did,” he continued. “It’s the only way to prevent water from destroying the shoreline. People learn that.” I just smiled and imagined my sons building sand forts and digging roadways for their army men, and their collection of toy trucks and cars.

The sand pros planned to deliver the goods sometime before our next getaway, and I couldn’t wait to get back to my Up North beach.

When we returned to the cottage on our next visit, lo and behold, a delightful sandy strand beckoned. There was even leftover sand the company had piled up back in the woods — in case we needed to freshen up the beach, I surmised.

Freshen up? More like replenish! On just about every visit afterward, we noted that our little beach was changing. Getting smaller. I’m talking a little here and there, but over time the water’s encroachment became more noticeable. I imagined the neighbor who had suggested a seawall watching as we raked a little more sand onto the beach every time we visited. It didn’t take me long to realize that it, too, would disappear over time. After all, water always wins.

Our beach challenge was nothing like what a St. Joseph couple, featured in this issue, had to contend with, although the premise is the same. They renovated a home on Lake Michigan and, two years into the overhaul, massive erosion hit the shoreline, peaking at near-record levels in 2019.

“The extent of the damage was shocking,” Connie Peet remembers. “Our neighbor two doors to the north lost his home, then his entire lot was simply swept away. It continued to erode through both of our immediate neighbors’ backyards and came right up our property line.”

The Peets had to take serious action. When they first purchased the home, the water was 75 feet from the base of their hill. Three years later, it was at the base of that hill and starting to disrupt its integrity. The couple planted more than 10,000 dune grass plants.

They also built a seawall, bringing in 600 tons of rock by barge to protect their stairs and decks. The couple invested almost as much in securing the shoreline as they did to buy the house.

Then I think of the Halletts, this issue’s design stars. They, too, had to acquiesce to the strength of water. In fact, the Halletts’ biggest building challenge wasn’t their home, but the soil and water around it.

“You dig a shovel into our backyard, you hit water,” Todd Hallett told me. “The team had to install 41 piers that extend 85 feet deep or until they meet a certain resistance; it’s like our house is on stilts. That whole process must be done efficiently because piers are very expensive.”

In recent summers, I’ve watched other friends and family members’ Lake Huron water levels edge up nearly to their cottage doors. I could only think of the years when the levels were so low, things started to look swampy.

Now, as a lakefront property owner, I compare water levels to the stock market. If it’s low, it’ll come back over time. If it’s high, it will eventually dip. But in the meantime, you have to deal with the state of affairs at hand.

Today, I look out to our Up North shoreline and see what I saw the day we bought the cottage: Water, a bit of sand, and our lawn — whose sloping edge is often affected by water, of course, because water always wins.

In spite of the ongoing potential for change, I’m glad I won the expand-the-beach-battle so many years ago because, for several fun-filled seasons, our young sons enjoyed barefoot bliss and lots of digging and building.

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