As Michigan’s second-largest inland lake, its 41 miles of sandy shoreline have hosted countless bonfires, sing-a-longs, midnight swims, and family gatherings. And most summer weekends, its giant southside sandbar draws thousands of boaters, families, and partiers. The sandbar scene is like nothing else, continuing to generate controversy, memories, debate, and wild times.
On hot July weekends, Dave Berghoff anchors his pontoon on the sandbar early, ready to sling burgers to hundreds of knee-deep revelers.
“If I’ve got all my ducks in a row, I try to get on the water between eight and nine,” the Burger Barge owner says.
He stays late — 12 hours or more, until he runs out of food or a gap opens in the rows of boats that surround the sandbar party throughout the day.
For people like Berghoff, who serve the partygoers, or the police, who try to keep them in line, the Torch Lake sandbar means a lot of work.
For young people and families, the sandbar is a fun place to spend hot summer days. For many who own lakefront homes near the sandbar, the party is an irritation or worse.
CARIBBEAN BLUE WATER
The party doesn’t rage like it once did. A 2007 Northern Express story highlighted drunkenness, fights, and topless women.
Today, while the party isn’t sedate, there is less underage drinking, fewer fights, and those who are rowdy enough to come to the attention of the police wind up in a mobile jail parked in a fire station parking lot.
Twenty-five-year-old Christopher Hutchens has been coming to the sandbar since he was a kid from his family’s Elk Lake cottage and he said he’s never seen a woman bare her breasts at the sandbar.
For the Columbus, Mo. resident, the sandbar is just a fun place to spend weekends with friends. Hutchens is so enamored he started a Facebook fan page which has garnered nearly 1,400 likes in a year.
Hutchens said there is no doubt the sandbar has become a destination for young people who want to party, but he believes it’s still a safe place for children.
Given what the sandbar offers — Caribbean blue water, soft sand, a stunning drop-off — he sees the popularity as inevitable.
“It’s just awesome to swim and hang out with friends,” he said. “I think [the popularity is] a good thing, but it’s kind of a curse too, because there is limited land and space available.”
‘WHY WE’RE HERE’
Rowdy behavior began to drop off in 2009, when the sheriffs of Antrim and Kalkaska counties agreed to disregard the county line that dissects the sandbar.
Sheriffs Daniel Bean and David Israel cross-deputized officers to work the sand bar. Scores of state troopers and Department of Natural Resources officers joined the patrol.
Recent events demonstrate how much the police are needed.
Last summer a man was paralyzed in a dive from his boat at the drop off, where the water can be deep at one end of a speedboat and shallow at the other, Antrim County Undersheriff Dean Pratt said.
With thousands of people gathered around, it’s a challenge for emergency workers to reach people who are in trouble. Folks came to this man’s aid almost right away, but he succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.
Drownings in recent years also demonstrate the danger when alcohol, water and sun mix.
“We’ve had some drownings there, just off of the tip of the sandbar, a couple of years in a row,” Israel said. “That’s why we’re there. We’re not trying to stop anybody’s good time. We’re trying to protect them from themselves.”
LOTS OF MIPs
The patrols are planned to keep the sandbar safe and to minimize the disruption to lakefront property owners, Israel said. They’ve focused on underage drinking and they’ve targeted drunk drivers.
“It was never our intent to stop people from enjoying themselves,” Israel said. “We’re definitely not there to run anybody out.”
Pratt agrees the sandbar is far less rowdy in recent years.
He said police begin to plan in March and they are out on the lake throughout the season.
New approaches have led to new problems, though. For instance, Pratt said they discovered sending officers on foot patrol onto the sandbar was a great way to catch minors in possession of alcohol.
It also caused young people to stick beerbottles into the sand, posing a danger for people later on.
“Each year we kept developing and developing, and now we’ve seen a reduction in MIPs, we’ve seen a reduction in assaults,” he said. “I don’t think the crowd has shrunk at all. I think there’s still a need for us to be there.”
‘IT’S THE WALK-ONS’
A property owners association that formed in the 1990s to stop a large marina development at the north end of the lake nowadays focuses much of its time on the sandbar at the south end.
Greg Payne, president of the Torch Lake Protection Alliance, said his house looks directly onto the sandbar.
TLPA raises money to pay for extra police patrols and additional porta-potties. Payne said the group isn’t against the sandbar gathering; they want to make sure it’s peaceful and civilized.
“We’ve taken the position that it’s going to be there anyway, so we’re really trying to help the situation,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to represent ourselves as an organization that wants to shut this down.”
Payne believes most problems come from people who park and walk into the lake. “The boat traffic generally isn’t the issue. It’s the walk-ons,” Payne said. “The walkers are really what brings the most problems. … The people in the boats, they stay on their boats for the most part and observe the masses.”
‘NOBODY LIKES IT’
Payne has lived on Torch Lake full-time for five years and seasonally long before that.
The sandbar became an attraction for young drinkers around 20 years ago, Payne said. Before that, the place attracted families in boats.
Payne agrees the rowdiness seemed to peak seven or eight years ago.
“I’m encouraged as long as this commitment to public safety is maintained,” Payne said.
TLPA considers its mission to keep pressure on police and government to maintain strict patrols.
“I will tell you, nobody who lives on the south end of the lake likes it. If you’re a homeowner, you don’t like it,” Payne said.
SPEEDWAY ON THE WATER
Paul Fabiano owns a convenience store that bears his name and serves the sandbar throughout summer, even delivering pizzas out to boaters.
“Ninety-five percent of our customers arrive here by boat,” Fabiano said. “We’re like a Speedway gas station on the water.”
He said normal weekends bring several hundred boats to the sandbar; the Fourth of July brings thousands.
Fabiano is from Lansing originally and didn’t know about the sandbar before he moved to Northern Michigan.
“I never even heard of the sandbar,” he said. “It was my wife – she’s originally from Charlevoix.”
Fabiano believes the sandbar has only gotten more popular every year, with more traffic meaning the family-run business pretty much takes up the family’s summer.
“We went out [to the sandbar] yesterday and that will probably be the only time we’ll go out until September,” he said. “Once July Fourth gets here, we never leave.”
Berghoff took over the Burger Barge when the young couple that started it were expecting a child and they decided a floating restaurant was too much for them.
Berghoff said the couple, who were friends of his daughter, planned the business well.
“They looked out at the sandbar and they said, ‘There’s all these people and they don’t have anything to eat,” Berghoff said. “They did tons of research and found out what they had to go through to open the business.”
When Berghoff took over the Burger Barge in 2007, the menu included burgers, chicken sandwiches and hot dogs served from a 16-foot pontoon boat.
He expanded the menu to include brats, veggie burgers and fish, which he serves from a 28-foot pontoon.
Berghoff is glad the police have made inroads stanching the bad behavior.
He believes he provides a service that helps calm things down.
“The way I looked at it when I got there was, you know what? We provide food where people are drinking. We provide nonalcoholic drinks where people are getting dried out and they need to keep liquid in their bodies,” he said. “We try to keep these people from only having alcohol.”