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‘Stomp on it!’ Driving Silver Lake sand dunes

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jul 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-18 07:00:51-04

SILVER LAKE, Mich. -- Bill Loomis has been playing on Silver Lake's dunes since he was a kid. Now that he's retired, playing on the dunes is his job.

Bill has spent the last five years leading dune tours for Parrot's Landing, whose business is you-drive dune tours, vehicle rentals and watercraft rentals. For years, he drove a UPS truck; now he drives 4x4 Jeep Wranglers and a speed machine called a Razor.

And that's just at work. Bill spends his off time screaming around the dunes on his own Razor, one that doesn't have a speed governor like the rentals.

Vehicles rented at Parrot's Landing can be taken onto the ORV (off road vehicle) area of Silver Lake State Park. Considering efforts the Department of Natural Resources to preserve Michigan's dunes, the Silver Lake situation is unusual. Anyone can pay to play with their four-wheel drive vehicles or their motorcycles in a one-square-mile area that includes high dunes and flats that lead right down to a beach on Lake Michigan. The only speed limits that apply are on the approach road to the dune and in areas near the beach.

Other traffic rules apply, but there aren't many: no going outside the ORV zone; directional zones restrict all traffic from turning around and driving north, which avoids the possibility of someone climbing a dune from one direction and encountering another vehicle head-on.

Bill is mindful to repeat the rules several times on his organized dune tours. Several Jeeps follow him around the dunes while he talks to each vehicle via two-way radio. It's a bit like a Disney ride, without the instructions to keep your hands and arms inside the vehicles at all times, though that's a good idea.

Loomis knows these dunes well. "I've been playing on the dunes my whole life, I just love it up here," he says. "I didn't live here full time, but I was up here every weekend, every vacation." He knows how to drive the dunes, whether it's climbing the big hills ('Stomp on it!" is his default advice), or how to stay out of trouble.

On the tour, Bill tells stories of how, as a kid, he would play in homes that had been abandoned as the dunes consumed them. Several houses are said to be buried in the eastern edge of the dunes as they migrate inland.

After 90 minutes tooling around the sand on red Wranglers with under-inflated tires, it was time to switch to something sportier: a Polaris Razor, a two-seater that must be specially equipped to be street legal. This is not.

And it moves.

"It's more fun," says Bill. "It's faster, it's got way better suspension, and there's less rules than the Jeeps."

For instance, you don't want to jump a dune in a Jeep: too vulnerable to suspension damage. Loomis' lead Wrangler, he admits to the tour, probably has front-end damage, and that's why he's driving it. A damaged vehicle would not be rented out. The Razor is designed for the dunes, hence a far more flexible and durable suspension.

That means you can go faster just about anywhere.

And that's what we did. Bill hit 65 mph when he was driving. (Don't bother to wear a hat with Bill at the wheel.)

With free-wheeling nature of traffic on the dunes, there is concern for safety. The Razor is equipped with harnesses for driver and passenger, unlike the customary cross-chest safety belt. And Parrot's Landing requires you wear goggles.

Final impressions: The variety of vehicles on the dunes is surprising. We saw everything from dirt bikes to 4x4 SUVs to dune buggies to full size Ford F-150 Raptors. And ... riding Silver Lake's dunes brings out the 10-year-old boy in anyone. Including the women.

Punch it.