March-April 2000 - Columns
It's Only Natural - Barbara Theisen
Playing in Nature's Sandbox
I slid twenty feet down the sand dune and turned around just in time to see my husband Tom and our daughters Kate and Kenna airborne at the top of the dune. They hung suspended for a fraction of a second against the stark blue sky. Then with arms flailing and feet stretched forward they landed in the sugary soft sand.
"A new Theisen world record," declared Kate as arms and legs erupted out of the warm sand. It was about their hundredth time flying off the top of the dune only to have gravity pull them back to the confines of Earth, but I didn't think they would ever be able to wipe those silly grins off their faces - especially the one on Tom's face as he said, "let's do it one more time."
I've discovered that whether they're classified as oblique, fore, transverse or parabola (depending upon their unique formation), sand dunes rise to the challenge of creating a great family playground. These parks are perfect for hiking and climbing or, as my kids soon discovered, simply jumping for joy. This is family fun you can really dig your toes into. And our family never tired of playing around in nature's biggest sandbox.
But as with all of Mother Nature's playgrounds, there are also worlds of discoveries to be made - even at a park made up of nothing but billions of grains of sand.
Sand dunes and the lands that surround them provide a rather harsh, though fragile, environment for plants and animals. Yet we found that on early morning walks we might encounter the tracks of various nighttime inhabitants. Rabbits, raccoons, opossums, foxes, and lizards all come out in the cool of the night, leaving their tracks along the dunes. But unless you head out early, the ever-present breeze will soon cover up all traces of these nighttime creatures.
Up at the crack of dawn, we ambled up and down the dunes, with heads peering close to the sand. "Here, I found something," says Kenna. We all take a close look at the funny marks left in the sand. For us, this is like a big treasure hunt - searching, finding, puzzling over the clues left for us in the sand and then hopefully at last - the joy of solving the mystery and identifying the animal who left these tracks. "I'm sure this is a fox's track," announces Kate at last. With a buzz of excitement we all agree. This is our first time finding fox tracks on the sand dune.
The early afternoon finds us enjoying one of several park programs. Today we find out about the geology of the park and hear the answers to a variety of intriguing questions. We find out, for example, that here at Jockey's Ridge shifting maritime winds blow billions of grains of sand in different directions forming ever-changing dunes. But the dunes never blow away because in the summer, the winds generally blow from the southwest and in the winter, the winds usually blow out of the northeast. The sand is simply being blown back and forth.
The end of the day is also a special time on the sand dunes as we sit in the soft, warm sand to watch the sunset. As the last of the sun's rays slip down behind the dune, we discover a real treasure in the sand, a fulgurite. A fulgurite is a glass tube formed when lightning strikes the sand. We pass it around, admiring its smoothness and wondering how lightening and sand can combine to make such an unusual object. I tell the girls that fulgurites are named for the Roman goddess Fulgera and I mentally make a note to find out more about Fulgera when we return home. As with all of our excursions, we'll come home with a long list of questions. Hopefully we'll find some answers at the library and on the Internet, which in turn will probably spark an interest in a return visit to the sand dunes.
Fortunately, there are "sand" parks sprinkled throughout the U.S. These are places where billions of grains of sand, moving at the rate of 100 miles every million years or so, have blown together - seemingly just so we can enjoy their soft warmth beneath our feet. Jockey's Ridge State Park in North Carolina is home to the highest sand dunes on the east coast and just next door to the Wright Brother's National Monument. Those flying brothers knew where to find good breeze and today it's a popular spot for hang gliding and kite flying.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area offers 40 miles of sand dunes reaching up to a mile inland from the ocean, where waves hit the shore 10,000 times a day, bringing in fresh sand as part of an endless recycling of the dunes. Death Valley National Park in California is home to the Eureka Dunes, which rise nearly 700 feet high in a spectacular desert setting. There are even sand dunes far from any ocean. In the Midwest you'll find Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Ludington State Park, both on the shores of Lake Michigan. Ludington State Park boasts the world's largest freshwater sand dunes. The granddaddy of all sand parks, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, is located in Colorado. With sand dunes reaching heights of 700 feet and higher, they're the tallest dunes in North America.
As we reach the bottom of the dunes, we turn around and look back up. The tops of the dunes are dancing in the breeze with thousands of grains of sand moving gently over the landscape. Mother Nature is busy sculpting. A sand dune, like our homeschooling, is always a work in progress.
© 2000, Barbara Theisen
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