Sandsucker holes still present hazard after almost 70 years
When Steven Schrauben, 16, of Fowler drowned in Houghton Lake while swimming off Long Point July 4, his loss became the latest in a long line of drownings spanning back to the 1940s. Schrauben drowned when he entered a 12-foot deep sandsucker hole which was surrounded by water four feet deep.
Sandsucker holes were created in many of the shallow areas of Houghton Lake beginning in the mid 1940s. The holes were made by sandsucker machines, which mined sand from the lake bottom and pumped it into marshes and shallow areas along the shoreline. The filled in areas became building sites for many of the lakefront homes that were later constructed around the lake.
Lifelong Prudenville resident Bud Detmer, 83, said he was 16 years old and a junior at Houghton Lake High School when the sand mining began on the lake in summer of 1946. He said the practice continued until 1949.
According to Prudenville resident Bob Zavitz, 75, who grew up at Houghton Lake and witnessed the process, the sandsucker machine consisted of a large pump mounted on a barge, which pumped water and sand onto shore via a long pipe held up by tripods.
He said that the area which is now the Department of Natural Resources’ South Shore “Fisherman’s Paradise” boat launch was a marsh that he used to navigate a small boat through to hunt frogs.
Zavitz said he was 10 or 11 years old when the sandsucker machine set up and began pumping sand and water from the lake “all the way up to where the bank is,” which today is located next to the southern fence of the boat launch property. As the water ran off and the sand piled up to the desired level, sections of pipe were removed, until the filled area reached the point where the operator of the machine thought the shoreline should be. Zavitz said that along with sand and water, the pipes would spew out “balls of night crawlers, which he said he would collect and then sell to a local bait shop for $1 per gallon jar.
Detmer said the sandsucker machines also brought up “bushels of white snail shells” which he collected, then used for ice fishing by throwing them down his fishing hole to allow fish to be seen against the otherwise dark bottom of the lake.
Detmer said he also remembered having a choice of summer jobs in 1947 of either cutting brush for the construction of Iroquois Drive, which was being constructed by developer Earl Johnson on land which had been filled in by sandsuckers, or “cutting birch in the Deadstream Swamp” for the state, which was in the process of building what was then known as “New 27.” He said he chose the job with Johnson.
Linda Sergeant, 65, of Houghton Lake, said she remembers the method of creating lakefront real estate from the 1950’s. She said when her father, Dale Sergeant, who was the owner of Sergeant and Sons Sand and Gravel, would make deliveries to Houghton Lake, “he wouldn’t let us (children) get out of the truck to swim in the lake because he knew there were sandsucker holes nearby.”
She said developer Monty Ellsworth was among those who mined sand to fill properties along the lake’s Northeast Shore. “We were forbidden to swim near the North Shore,” said Sergeant.
The sandsucker machines carved out deep holes in the lake bottom, some of which were over 20 feet deep. They had steep edges and were located in relatively shallow areas frequented by swimmers. Over the years, many drownings have occurred when unsuspecting swimmers suddenly encountered the deep water of a sandsucker hole.
A story on the front page of the Houghton Lake Resorter dated July 11, 1947 reported the drowning of Ralph Nelson Drudge in a sandsucker hole off the lake’s South Shore on July 4 of that year:
“Ralph Nelson Drudge, 20, of Genesseeville Mich., lost his life by drowning last Friday, when he waded into a deep hole, caused evidently by the removal of sand by a sandsucker.” The story went on to say “This is the second drowning in two years caused directly by the removal of sand to fill adjoining properties. Last year a young girl drowned off North Shore, when she and two companions waded from a three-foot depth into a similarly deep hole. Agitation is being aroused to put a stop to commercial interests removing sand from the lake for filling purposes, especially from the supposedly safe beaches.”
“It seemed like there used to be at least one drowning every year (involving a sandsucker hole),” said Roscommon County Sheriff Randy Stevenson on Tuesday, “but in the last 20 years or so, there were none until this summer.” Stevenson said some of the sandsucker holes remain 12 to 14 feet deep to this day.
Hydrologist Anthony Kendall of Michigan State University, said that a combination of wind, wave action and depth figure into how quickly (or slowly) the lake itself will fill a sand sucker hole in. He said that sandsucker holes located in shallow water generally take longer to fill. “If the water is too shallow, you don’t get good sand movement,” said Kendall, “it depends on local conditions.”
Penny Ancel, 80, of DeWitt is a former Houghton Lake resident who helped coordinate an effort to fill the holes in 1974, when she was working in the state government. Local officials at the time rejected the effort, which would have required a special assessment district to be formed to pay for the work. Ancel said that at that time, the death toll of people who drowned in the lake due to sandsucker holes “was in the teens,” and that there must have been over 20 such drownings by now.
Ancel said that over the years, efforts have been made to mark the locations of sandsucker holes. The Houghton Lake Lions Club used to place buoys at as many of the holes as they could find.
Lions Club member and retired Resorter Publisher Tom Hamp said that the effort continued for about 25 years, but a combination of factors including some of the holes filling in, an aging membership, lack of boats to complete the annual chore and the cost of maintaining the buoys, led the club to abandon the program.
Jack McCauley, 73, who resides on Houghton Lake’s Northeast Shore, said that he is in the process of putting together information to inform residents and visitors of the existence and exact locations of the many sandsucker holes which remain around the lake. He said he plans to attend the steering committee meeting on the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly’s (MRWA) Upper Muskegon Watershed Project which will be held at Roscommon Township Hall on Aug. 13, beginning at 7 p.m.
He said he also plans to meet with Phil Bendily of the Roscommon County IT/ Mapping Department to see if they can assist in developing a current map including locations of sand sucker holes in Houghton Lake. A map currently produced by Lakemaster (www.lakemap.com) identifies 43 sand sucker holes and trenches in the near shore areas around the lake.
Kendall, who is working on a current study of Higgins Lake and the Cut River which involves MSU, the University of Michigan, the MRWA, the DNR and Huron Pines, said he is interested in the problem at Houghton Lake and may be able to help develop some detailed information on the location and depth of the sand sucker holes which remain in the lake. He said the MRWA may help disseminate the information to area visitors and residents.
In an interview with the Resorter after the Schrauben drowning on July 4, Sheriff Stevenson said that anyone venturing into the lake in areas not designated as swimming areas should be extra cautious and seek information about where they intend to swim from residents.
Undersheriff Ed Stern, who oversees the Sheriff Office Dive Team, said no one should ever swim alone, and life jackets or other U.S. Coast Guard approved flotation devices should be used by those who do not have strong swimming skills. “People need to respect the water, no matter what the depth,” said Stern, who added that “an adult should accompany young children any time they are in the water.”
Stern noted that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children under 15, and that on average, more than 800 children die every year due to accidental drowning.