The Mystery of Why This Dangerous Sand Dune Swallowed a Boy

When a boy suddenly disappeared into a sand dune, a scientist embarked on a quest to find out where he went

(Bryce Gehrls)
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Jeff Lee, a physical geographer at Texas Tech University who co-edits Aeo­lian Research, the field’s pre-eminent journal, told me that “dunes just don’t do that. They don’t swallow people, except in Lawrence of Arabia.” In the movie, a Bedouin boy drowns in Sinai quicksand—a scene ridiculed by scientists because dunes, both desert and coastal, are almost always too high above the water table for quicksand to form.

Mount Baldy began to take shape 4,500 years ago, when the water level in Lake Michigan dropped about 20 feet, exposing vast fields of sand to the will of the wind. Before last year’s incident, the dune had intrigued scientists not because it defied any principles of windblown sand, but because it followed them all too enthusiastically. Most dunes on the Indiana lakeshore are forested. But Baldy is a “blowout”: a victim of some ancient force—a violent storm, a dramatic change in wind direction—that scalped the dune of the plants and trees whose roots once held it in place. And like an animal freed from its cage, Baldy began to roam. 

Combining painstaking physical measurements with an analysis of aerial photographs, Zoran Kilibarda, a colleague of Argyilan’s at IU Northwest, discovered that the dune had rolled nearly 440 feet inland between 1938 and 2007. It had buried trails and a staircase, and stands of black oak, 60- to 80-feet tall, that had long stood between Baldy’s bottom edge and the parking lot. In March 2007, as the first of Kilibarda’s figures came in, stunned park officials called Baldy’s pace “alarming,” warning that it could bury its own parking lot within seven years. They banned the public from its steep inland side, or slipface; footfalls were thought to be accelerating its advance. But Baldy refused to be tamed.

Argyilan wasn’t a Baldy expert, per se; for her dissertation at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she’d analyzed buried beach sand to chart water level shifts in the Great Lakes. But as a specialist in coastal geology at a nearby university, she, like Kilibarda, soon found herself under Baldy’s spell.

With park service funding in 2011, she began a multifaceted study of changes in the dune’s overall shape. The results confirmed what many people could see with their own eyes. “It’s flattening, it’s pancaking in the middle,” she told me. The sand fueling Baldy’s migration was coming not from the beach, where erosion left little to spare anyway, but from the middle of its lakeward slope, the side still open to the public.

But none of these revelations prepared Argyilan for that long summer day. The idea of a void opening in a dune was so beyond the ken of geologists that in the days and weeks afterward one question in particular haunted her: In a place with so many tourists, rangers and scientists, why did no one notice holes before now? When she asked Todd Thompson, an expert on the Indiana lakeshore who’d been a grad school mentor, he paraphrased a quote from the French philosopher Henri Bergson: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

***

Nathan Woessner, a cherubic 6-year-old from the cornfields of northwestern Illinois, had been looking forward to the trip all summer. Normally for vacation, the family stayed close to home, venturing across the nearby Iowa line to a Best Western with a nice swimming pool and a Medieval castle theme. Nathan’s father, Greg, sold tractor tires for a living, and his mother, Faith, quit her nursing job to focus on their four kids.

Neither had heard of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore until some church friends suggested a weekend camping trip there. So after breakfast on July 12, 2013, Nathan and his three siblings piled into a Chevy Tahoe that Greg had borrowed from his parents and drove east for nearly three hours to a campsite near the dunes.

Among the siblings, Nathan, the third-born, was “the lover” of the family, says his mother. More than the others, he liked to cuddle, and to help his teacher in the morning by taking chairs off tables and passing out papers. Though shy around new people, he was adventurous outdoors, an ace frog hunter who liked casting for catfish in the river behind his house.

At the beach in front of Baldy that July afternoon, Nathan and his best friend, Colin, a son of their church friends, splashed in the waves for a couple of hours before deciding they were ready for something new. Someone suggested a race up the lakefront side of the dune, and off they went. Greg and Keith, Colin’s dad, were in the lead, halfway up the dune, when they heard Colin cry out.

“Nathan fell,” Colin said. (According to park investigators, Colin, the only witness to the moment of Nathan’s disappearance, later reported that Nathan saw an open hole and lowered himself in to see where it went.) When the fathers turned around, there was no sign of Nathan—just a round, 12-inch-diameter hole in the sand. Keith, tall and beanpole thin, lay across the sand and reached into the hole.

“I’m scared,” came the boy’s voice from somewhere in the darkness.

“We’ll get you out,” his father said.

The men dug furiously, confident they’d soon feel Nathan’s hand or head. But within minutes, sand was sloughing into the hole from every direction.

Over the next three and a half hours, rescuers with flexible probes, shovels and heavy machinery would excavate a pit a dozen feet deep and at least 50 feet across. At about eight feet down, they began noticing odd features in the sand: pipe-like cylinders, eight inches in diameter and a foot or two long, of what looked like old bark. Brad Kreighbaum, 36, a third-generation firefighter, soon came across a six-inch diameter hole that shot deep into the sand: “You could shine a flashlight and see 20 feet down.” Almost as soon as the holes were uncovered, sand rushed in to fill them. “Just like an hourglass.”

When he scooped Nathan’s body out of the sand at 8:05 p.m., Kreighbaum noticed other patterns, in the cavity cocooning the boy. Its inside wall was sandy and soft, but bore the imprint of bark, almost like a fossil. It was as if the boy had wound up at the bottom of a hollowed-out tree trunk, except not a bit of tree was there.

***

Most people buried in sand suffocate within ten minutes. But Nathan walked out of the hospital two weeks later—the sand mostly removed from his lungs, the scrapes on his head mostly healed. Local officials called it “The Miracle on Mount Baldy.” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence came to Michigan City to meet the boy and award a plaque to 140 people who participated in his rescue. Doctors said he must have had an air pocket, or that he’d been saved by some version of the mammalian diving reflex, a slowdown of the vital organs in cold water that conserves oxygen.

Nathan recalls nothing of his ordeal. His parents, deeply religious Christians, believe that divine grace is the only reason for their son’s survival and full recovery. “There are a lot of things science can’t explain,” Faith told me, cradling a mug of coffee in the living room of the family’s rustic home, in Sterling, Illinois. “I have God, and that’s enough for me. I don’t need a how and a why for why those holes are there.”

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