Sunday, July 10, 2011

Blog Post: Dr. Beach?s Top 5 Great Lakes Beaches

For 21 years, Stephen P. Leatherman (aka “Dr. Beach”) has helped kick off summer by releasing his annual list of Top 10 U.S. Beaches. This year, by popular demand, he is releasing a new kind of list: his recommendations for Top 5 Great Lakes beaches.

Why the Great Lakes, you ask? Given that they are bound by the Canadian province of Ontario and the U.S. states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, wouldn’t it be nicer to just go to sunny Florida?

Great Lakes beaches may beckon for several reasons. Beachgoers won’t have to deal with sharks or jellyfish. Freshwater may be more refreshing than saltwater. For some folks, the lakes’ proximity to home might help them slash their gasoline bills. And the Great Lakes are also home to some spectacular scenery, including Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. Leatherman called these beautiful sweeps of sand “some of the most spectacular coastal dunes in the world.”

Furthermore, if Bing Travel readers are any indication, the Great Lakes are fabulous. Praise for these northern sands poured in after we published Top 10 U.S. Beaches. A reader named Mike posted this comment: “The Great Lakes have some of the finest beaches in the world. Where I live on Lake Michigan, we have sugar sand beaches for hundreds of miles, coastal sand dunes and crystal fresh waters.” A reader named Rob posted this comment: “The west Michigan shoreline of Lake Michigan has some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, along with crystal clear fresh water. Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore needs to be on everyone’s bucket list.”

Leatherman weighed about 60 factors to assess overall beach quality and devise his final Top 5 list. Coastal communities were asked to complete a survey and submit sand samples. The survey was developed with the assistance of Shannon Briggs, PhD with the Water Resources Division, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; and Erin Dreelin, Associate Director of the Center for Water Sciences at Michigan State University.

“I make an overall evaluation of the Great Lakes beaches with clean water and beach safety being the primary determinants, followed by environmental quality and management,” Leatherman said. One of the factors, for example, is whether the public is alerted if the beach becomes unsafe, unsanitary or unhealthy. Any beach that has had a couple of closures for health reasons would automatically be eliminated from the Top 5.

How does Leatherman’s assessment compare with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s report on dirty beaches that was released on July 29? Results from the latter study revealed that the most frequently contaminated beach water samples were those taken from the Great Lakes. But the two reports are like comparing apples and oranges. The NRDC’s report, funded by the EPA, was designed to look at beaches that are more likely to have contamination problems, therefore skewing the results toward dirty beaches. Leatherman’s assessment, meanwhile, looked at beaches across the board.

Swimmers should note that the freshwater Great Lakes do have a dangerous element in common with marine beaches. “Surprisingly, rip currents do occur in the Great Lakes, and 25 people drowned last summer, which was particularly high,” Leatherman said. “Strong onshore winds kick up the waves and stir the water, making detection of these dangerous currents difficult to impossible.” To that end, Leatherman has developed a new water tracer (dye ball) to make the currents visible. Watch a video to see the dye ball in action and learn how to escape a rip current.

What is your favorite Great Lakes beach? Post a comment below.

Robin Dalmas is a travel writer, editor and producer for Bing Travel.


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