Esch Road Beach, aka Otter Creek, aka Aral Beach

By MIKE NORTON Whew! I don't think anybody can credibly complain anymore that we're not getting summer weather here in Traverse City. It's HOT out there! Fortunately, even those of us who don't have air conditioning (and really, most of the time, who needs it?) are just minutes away from lots of fresh cool water to just waiting to cool off in. I spent so much time in Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan this past weekend that I may have developed permanent wrinkles. OK, it may also have something to do with the fact that I'm 59 this year. Really, how could this have happened? Saturday was a quiet day at Haserot Beach in Old Mission, but on Sunday we decided to take a little road trip out to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. In case you haven't heard by now, Sleeping Bear's beaches were just named the best in the Great Lakes by Florida International University's famed "Dr. Beach" -- Prof. Stephen Leatherman. We Lakers have been pestering the good doctor for more than a decade to pay some attention to our beloved sweetwater seas, and this year he released his first-ever review of our own "Third Coast." Well, heck, we weren't exactly surprised that Sleeping Bear would get picked. Those great beaches are one reason WE moved here, after all! And he correctly calls them "some of the most spectacular coastal dunes in the world." Since we knew the most popular beaches would be impossibly crowded, we headed down to the southern edge of the lakeshore to Esch Road Beach, also known as Otter Creek, and sometimes even by its proper name, Aral Beach. It's not an easy beach to find, but it's rewarding; the cool waters of Otter Creek flow into Lake Michigan here (children love to pay in the little stream as it winds its way over the sand) and the tall hills and bluffs to the north give way to the more modest coastal dunes of the Platte Plains. I don't know why, but something about the topography here makes it feel a little like a backdrop for South Pacific. For years, Otter Creek also had a reputation as the area's unofficial nude beach ( we used to refer to it as "Udder Creek") but the National Park Service now discourages that particular practice. The water was lovely and cool, all right, and there was enough surf to give us a nice change from swimming in the Bay. But Esch Road isn't quite the secret it used to be; it was pretty busy even by noon, and when several busloads of students from the Interlochen Arts Camp showed up - complete with their own portable swimming area and a contingent of lifeguards - the atmosphere got pretty festive. The strange thing, of course, is that this normally quiet spot was once a thriving town, and the obscure road that leads to the parking lot was once the main street of a bustling settlement with several boarding houses, stores, a post office and schoolhouse and a big sawmill at the mouth of the creek. The town of Aral, which flourished from 1880 to 1911, was also the scene of one of this area's few pioneer shoot-outs in 1899, when the manager of the sawmill, Charles Wright, ambushed and shot two sheriff's deputies who'd been sent to collect back taxes on several piles of lumber. Wright disappeared into the woods, but was captured by a 20-man posse sent to arrest him. Sentenced to life in prison, he was freed the next year by the state governor, who decided that the taxes he'd been ordered to pay were in fact, unreasonable. And that wasn't the end of Aral's colorful history, either; in 1908 it was resettled by members of the House of David, a communal, celibate religious group based in Benton Harbor whose male members were famous for their long beards and their crack baseball team. Unfortunately, they moved out when the lumber was all cut, and Aral was quickly overtaken by the forest. All you can see of it now are a few rectangular depressions in the brush that must have once been cellars. Not that anybody cares. It's one beautiful beach! And on the way home, we made sure to stop at Grocer's Daughter Chocolates in Empire for some of Mimi Wheeler's extraordinary designer chocolates. They were handing out samples of her lavender truffles - made with lavender from her garden matched with intense Ecuadoran dark chocolate. Yum!