A gentle breeze ripples Lake Michigan's deep blue surface as a gull circles lazily overhead. The sun is bright, the temperature is a comfy 70 degrees and the view of the water and the distant Manitou Islands is spectacular. The beach is wide and sandy — and almost deserted.
Only a couple dozen people are in sight along a half-mile stretch of lakefront in the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan's northwestern Lower Peninsula. This is shortly before the July 4 weekend, when tourist season kicks into high gear. About 30 miles away in Traverse City, downtown sidewalks are crowded and the National Cherry Festival, one of the year's biggest draws, is about to begin. Yet beachgoers here in Glen Haven have no trouble staking out a spot all their own.
Partly because of this splendid isolation just a short drive from a busy resort town, Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman — nicknamed "Dr. Beach" — has awarded Sleeping Bear Dunes the top ranking in his initial survey of Great Lakes beaches.
For the past 21 years, Leatherman has released widely followed listings of the nation's top 10 beaches, based on extensive criteria that range from sand texture to water quality to facilities. But his list has always limited to ocean beaches. After getting thousands of e-mails over the years from their indignant devotees, Leatherman relented.
"The really are a hidden gem," he said. "People have almost no knowledge of them."
Well, some do. Tourism is big business along the Great Lakes' thousands of waterfront miles. But they're so vast that anyone wanting privacy amid their natural beauty can find it.
Leatherman, director of the university's Laboratory for Coastal Research, has visited the Great Lakes a number of times, including a circle tour of Lake Michigan about seven years ago, but readily acknowledges having much to learn. So he limited his ranking of its beaches to five and says it's based on a more subjective evaluation than his ocean beach listings. He asked coastal communities to fill out a survey and provide a sample of local sand. About 30 locations were nominated.
After Sleeping Bear Dunes, the top Great Lakes beach spots were: Lake Erie's Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania, No. 2; Lake Superior's Sand Point Beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, No. 3; Lake Huron's Bayfield Main Beach in Ontario, Canada, No. 4; and Lake Michigan's Oak Street Beach in Chicago, No. 5.
Leatherman also tossed in a couple of honorable mentions: Lake Michigan's North Beach in Racine, Wis.; and Lake Michigan's Grand Haven State Park on Lake Michigan (not to be confused with Glen Haven at Sleeping Bear Dunes).
Most of the 50-plus questions on Leatherman's survey deal with three primary topics: water quality, sand quality and safety. Cleanliness is a must. Any place that's frequently declared off-limits to swimmers because of E. coli contamination is quickly booted. Beaches also lose points for heavy presence of algae, dirty bathrooms, excessive development and nearby storm water or sewage overflow pipes.
Water pollution is a longstanding concern in the Great Lakes. A report by the National Resources Defense Council this week found that 15 percent of the lakes' beach water samples exceeded public health standards last year, compared to 8 percent nationwide. Great Lakes beaches had a combined 3,766 days of closings and advisories in 2010.
Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality who had urged Leatherman to begin rating the Great Lakes beaches, says the numbers partly reflect how extensively the Great Lakes states monitor water for pollution. "We're identifying problems and correcting them," Briggs said.
Leatherman also grilled local officials about rip currents, which can fool newcomers who underestimate the lakes' size and strength. Stirred by strong offshore winds, rip currents were responsible for 25 drownings in the region last year, he said.
On the other hand, he noted, people need not worry about sharks or jellyfish in the Great Lakes.
During his Lake Michigan tour, he was delighted with the Sleeping Bear lakeshore's towering dunes and hiking trails as well as its beaches, with their mixture of fine and grainy sand and rocks that kept his children busy looking for Petoskey stones — fossilized coral pebbles with distinctive patterns formed hundreds of millions of years ago. "A very impressive place," he said.
Loyal fans would agree.
"We try to come every year," Carrie Doornbos of Grant, Mich., said while relaxing in a lounge chair on the Glen Haven beach this week as her husband strolled along the shore, their daughters sunbathed and their son pushed a toy dump truck through the sand. "The water and the sand are so clean, and it's never too crowded."
Presque Isle Park is nestled on a 7-mile-long spit of land that juts into Lake Erie with 11 primary swimming areas. Sand Point in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, with shallow water protected from waves by offshore islands, was warm enough by chilly Lake Superior standards to provide Leatherman with a refreshing swim. He raved over the Pictured Rocks lakeshore's 200-foot-high sandstone cliffs and pristine water.
"Lake Superior is simply enormous. You couldn't get a feel for how big it was," he said.
Bayfield Beach's Blue Flag ranking, attesting to its environmental quality and services, worked in its favor. Leatherman praised the Oak Street Beach's fine sand, views of Chicago architecture and the city's 26-mile-long stretch of lakefront suitable for cyclists, joggers and parents strolling babies.
So, can the Great Lakes region look forward to annual rankings from Dr. Beach?
"I'm not sure. It's a lot of work," he said. "I'll see what the response is. I hope to do it again next year at least. I've still got a lot of sand samples."