In search of the sandiest place in the park

Sandiest beach - Neil Howk

October 29, 2023

You might say that sand is an important part of the Apostle Islands and one of the reasons why people come to visit them. The islands have a foundation of sandstone that is nearly a billion years old. Island shorelines feature a variety of spectacular sandy beaches. The Devils Island Sandstone produces the area’s signature sea caves. Julian Bay beach on Stockton Island is known for the “singing sand” that squeaks when you walk on it. A 2004 visitor survey revealed that walking on the beach was the second most popular activity for park visitors, second only to sightseeing. Sixty-six percent of visitors said they walked on a beach during their time in the park.

Sand River panorama - Neil Howk

Mouth of the Sand River – click photos to enlarge

Of all the incredible sandy shorelines in the park, I think I may have found the sandiest of all. I recently stood on the sand beach next to the mouth of the Sand River watching water flow into Sand Bay just a few miles south of Sand Island. It does not get any sandier than that! Nearby, I found a spot out of the breeze to eat a snack while enjoying the past peak, but still beautiful, fall colors surrounding the bay. Halfway through my sandwich, I happened to glance up and see a bald eagle flying overhead. This reminded me of another visit I made to this spot more than 13 years ago.

A bald eagle flying overhead - Neil Howk
Sophie taking a water sample in the Sand River - Neil Howk

Sophie taking water sample – June 2010

Sophie and eagle's nest in June 2010 - Neil Howk

Sophie and nest – June 2010

Eagle's nest in June 2010 - Neil Howk

Eagle’s nest – June 2010

In June 2010 I accompanied my daughter Sophie to the mouth of the Sand River to help her with a high school science project. She was collecting and analyzing water samples from areas near active bald eagle nests. The project was intended to see if there was any correlation between the quality of the water and the presence of chemical contaminants in the eaglets. We came here because for several years eagles had used a nest in a stand of pine trees just east of the river mouth. When I saw this eagle fly by, I remembered the nest and started looking for it. I quickly realized that there was no nest to find because the pine tree was no longer standing.

Downed pine tree - Neil Howk

The Sand Bay beach was much wider when I walked it with Sophie than it is now. Lake levels in 2010 were below average. The lake is now slightly above its long-term average. A series of wet years led to record high lake levels in 2019. High lake levels lead to increased shoreline erosion. A series of powerful windstorms since 2016 also knocked down thousands of trees on the Bayfield Peninsula and in the islands. This combination of wind and waves at some point proved to be too much for the small stand of pine trees that housed the bald eagle nest I remembered. To get to the mouth of the Sand River today, I climbed over the fallen trunks of several large pine trees, one of which probably had been the nest tree.

The beach also provided evidence of more recent storms. Layers of black sand formed a lag deposit coating parts of the beach. Beach sand contains a variety of components. Minerals like quartz and feldspar are light and easily transported.

The dark, pepper-like specks in beach sand are magnetite, a heavier mineral primarily composed of iron oxide. Storm waves transport lots of sand, but as the waves weaken, heavier minerals in the sand settle out of the waves first forming the black deposit that covers the surface of the beach.

Black sand on the beach - Neil Howk
Migrating geese fly over the trees - Neil Howk

Migrating geese fly over the trees

Snow buntings on the beach - Neil Howk

Snow buntings on the beach

I saw a few other birds during my walk on the beach representative of seasonal changes. A large flock of migrating geese flew over the Sand River Slough heading toward the open lake.

A flock of smaller birds on the beach also heralded the inevitable approach of winter. Flashes of white dancing in the crisp air near the ground could easily have been mistaken as a flurry of snowflakes.

Instead, they were the patches of white on the wings and tails of a small flock of snow buntings. These medium-sized songbirds, a little larger than a sparrow, spend summers in the northern tundra, but winter in open fields and along shores of lakes and oceans. They are one of the last fall migrants to pass through the Apostles.

Just as the movement of sand grains through an hourglass mark the passage of time, so does the beach at Sand Bay mark the changing seasons and the passage of years. I wonder how much the “sandiest place in the Apostles” will change before I get a chance to return.

Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Friends of the Apostle Islands Board Member Neil Howk

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