Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, October 4

Gapers Block

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While on our recent roadtrip to the great state of Michigan, we acquired a little self-published book describing the different types of rocks one might find on the beaches of Lake Superior with hand-drawn examples of each type of rock, including chert, jasper, thomasite and quartz. We bought it at a bookstore near the edge of Lake Michigan, so we assumed that, other than Petoskey Stones, there would be a lot of the same types of rocks to be gathered on the shore of another Great Lake, particularly in areas where there are more rocks than people. A fact that popped out at me from this book, and rocked our world, is that most rocks are a billion years old. A billion. An almost-7-year-old holding something a billion years old in his hand while surrounded by an inland sea of other billion-year-old items makes his brain expand in directions unknown.

We are fortunate to be able to spend a good part of each summer near Sleeping Bear Dunes in Leelenau County, Mich., one of the most beautiful places I know, and which is not far from Chicago. Theoretically it takes about five hours to get there, but somehow it seems to take us at least eight, what with all of the backseat shenanigans that ensue with three kids, a dog and 1,000 pounds of junk shoehorned into a van. Once you get there, however, all the hassle of leaving the city is immediately worth it. If you drive off almost any of the roads up there and head onto a seasonal road you are bound to run into either Lake Michigan, a giant series of sand dunes or a forest-covered hill with a trail leading to a perfect clearing overlooking all of the above, with smaller turquoise blue lakes in the foreground to ice the cake. This year's trip provided a lesser amount of cherry ice cream than in years past, but far more long range, big-picture thinking, and discussion about geology, time, water, rock and forest.

We have a favorite dune climb. The kids call it the secret dune because it is close to the the very non-secretive Sleeping Bear Dune climb, which is a wall of sand you can't miss, but that you have to pay to climb. We like to explore, and climbing anything is a big bonus, but don't like the paying part much, so a few years ago the kids and I were driving around, listening to an episode of the Magic Tree House, and I decided to take a seasonal road that we'd never been on (instead of impaling my eardrums with a stick to end the torture of hearing Mary Pope Osborne say one more high-pitched word about Jack, Annie or the damn tree house). It ended at a dead end with a path leading into the woods — just the sort of thing we dig most. We parked and headed into the wood, down the path. You know how in musicals people will be talking and walking and all of a sudden they are Singing and Dancing out of the blue? Well, this path is like that; you are walking along, and it's forest, trees, path and boom! Sand Dune! There, right in the perfectly normal forest path, is a sand dune leading straight up. There's no resisting that kind of bizarre natural phenomenon. As it turns out, once you climb it, you're in a whole new world. The top of that part of the climb gets you to a plateau and another trail leading to the mammoth dunes and, basically, the back side of Sleeping Bear. From the top of those you can see for miles over Lake Michigan and across a seemingly endless desert of dunes. You can see the Manitou Islands, beautiful Glen Lake and Pyramid Point, which collapsed a few years ago. The edge of the cliff cracked off one night and fell into the lake. I wonder if it made a big loud noise, or if it all just slid into the lake without waking any of the summer people. There must have been a lot of excitement in the underwater community. The lake is so vast, though, that it was probably like throwing a stone into a pond, a splash, some ripples, maybe a startled frog, and then just water again, not telling anyone what's going on underneath. The point was no longer a point, more like your garden variety cliff, and it wasn't doing much talking either, just standing around at the edge of the world.

It seems like we are living on Earth in a long period after all the exciting stuff happened, like the Grand Canyon forming because of some water eroding the land. Or Hawaii showing up. Or the glaciers barging all over the place leaving the Great Lakes and a whole bunch of billion-year-old rocks in their wake. Or the earthquake that happened in the Upper Peninsula creating the 60-foot drop in the Tahamequon riverbed that made a giant waterfall and a series of smaller ones a few miles further down. It's hard for all of us, especially kids, to imagine that the dune rising out of a forest was once a sea itself, or maybe just a little pile of sand, despite what we read in library books, or in informational brochures and trailside signs. We are living in times of change — big change from the looks of recent weather-related hijinks. But less apparent than giant hurricanes, tsunamis and melting polar caps are the incremental changes that are starting to pile up, like the tiny zebra mussels wreaking havoc on the Great Lake fish population. Similarly, the beech trees are dying in the Upper Peninsula. They are rapidly being infected with something aptly names "beech bark disease." A little sap-feeding insect called the beech scale is spreading from tree to tree, killing them from the inside out. We hiked a so-called "Old Growth" trail and found instead a trail of destruction, trees cut down willy nilly. My daughter imagined an evil tree-hating villain with buzz saws for arms gleefully dancing down the path cutting a swath through what was once a shady forest. In five years 90 percent of the beech trees in the upper peninsula will succumb to the blight, and the forest is 60 percent beech. That's going to be a big change.

Contemplating these kinds of changes in our landscape can lead in a couple of directions. My daughter, upon hearing that all the beeches were going to bite the dust in the next few years took her usual approach, despair over change, sadness for the poor trees, and for all the creatures living in the forest that would have to adapt to the changes, perhaps even die out themselves. It's hard to think about these things and not take them to heart. Or, if you are a more rational and logical sort, you might head in another direction, minus the dramatics. What if the death of 60 percent of the forest allows for new species to gain strength and flourish? Of course, more sunlight hitting the forest floor is going to make changes, and who knows what that forest will be in 100 years or 1,000 years. Suppose we were magically able to vacation at the Grand Canyon before it was a canyon. We're standing on a plain next to a stream, and loving the stream, marveling at it, perhaps wading. Maybe there is a friendly family of Pachyderms frolicking as well. Could we imagine it would someday be a grand canyon, and that the Pachyderm family and all of its descendants would have taken note of the gradually strengthening river and packed up their giant belongings and hightailed it out of there? No, all we know is what we see now, and enjoy now. Spending time in nature with kids is bound to bring on the deep thoughts, and the big picture is something that kids spend a surprising amount of time seeing, given the time to do so. Some places just encourage it more than others, especially if you can hold a billion-year-old rock in your hand, or wade in a riverbed, climb a dune, witness the passing of a species, or merely take in a grand view.


We are fortunate to have a Great Lake in our front yard and an unending amount of shoreline to explore in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. For a closer dune experiance, the Indiana Dunes State Park is reopened, with a revamped campground. You can take the South Shore line right to the Dune Park stop, and hike in to the campground and dunes.

I don't really hate Mary Pope Osbourne, or the Magic Tree House series of books. To give credit where credit is due, young kids love the Magic Tree House, and reading them is a great way to learn about different periods of history. I'll warn you, though: if you choose to listen to them on tape, you might need an Advil.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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