The ancient beaches of west Michigan, as found on the North Country Trail.

November 17, 2021

The ancient beaches of west Michigan, as found on the North Country Trail.

By Joan Young, MCP Contributing Writer.

In many places along the North Country Trail in Mason, Lake, Manistee and Newaygo counties, you may notice that you are walking near the edge of an asymmetrical hill. To the west, the sandy slope gently descends into the distance, the low point lost in the foliage. However, to the east, there is a steep drop, sometimes almost as steep as you can imagine sand could naturally come to rest. More often than not, you’ll see some sort of wetland at the bottom of the steep side. What’s going on here? You’ll find this combination of slopes so often, you may come to the conclusion that it means something. You would be correct!

The post-glacial Great Lake Nipissing filled the area of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan, but was 50 feet higher. It drained eastward through the Georgian Bay. The land was lower (after the glacier retreated, the land rebounded). This means that most of Mason County was under water.  As the water receded, bare sand was left to the mercy of the winds. Then, as now, northwesterlies were predominant, and dunes began to pile up.

Now, these dunes are 30 miles inland, forested, and no longer shifting at the mercy of the wind. However, the topography of the area shows long bowed lines of hills generally running northeast-southwest. 

At the bottom of the steep side, snowmelt and rainfall accumulates. Water may seep from springs in the hillside. Freshwater wetlands form, harboring unique and beautiful plants. Leatherleaf is common and easily identifiable even in winter. Wild blue flag (a wild iris), and hyssop hedge nettle can be found. Sedges and water-loving ferns such as royal fern and cinnamon fern will grow in these areas.

This type of topography is typical of western Michigan. Good examples are easy to see on the North Country Trail between Free Soil Road and Tyndall Road, closer to Tyndall. However, anywhere you see this type of asymmetrical hill, take a moment and get your bearings. If the ridge is oriented as described above, you’ve just taken a vacation on an ancient beach.

Joan Young, who lives in Amber Township, is an avid hiker who has the honor of having been the first woman to hike the entire North Country Trail, a quest she completed in segments over a nine year period. On Dec. 1, 2021 she will set off on a one year journey of hiking the NCT continously. 

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This story is copyrighted © 2021, all rights reserved by Joan Young, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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