Inspired by a sled, a unique project on Lake Michigan's bluffs will provide beach access

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MEQUON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- "The whole idea is instead of fighting nature, to work with it."

It took the innovative design of Andrzej Sitarski of About Nature, LLC to get the people that visit Virmond County Park in Mequon something they've wanted since the land was donated in 1944, a way to get down the 100-foot high bluff to the beach and into Lake Michigan.

"We've known for a long time that that was going to be quite challenging because of the unstable nature of the bluff." said Ozaukee County Planning and Parks director Andrew Struck. "So, we started to see what it would take to do that."

Struck and his department needed to find a safe way for the public to get down the bluff, but also not damage the bluff, and also not lose whatever structure they decided to build there. It proved to be quite a problem.

"Regular staircase, like the ones we have at Lion's Den [Gorge in Grafton], they're drilled holes sometimes placed in concrete or other types of footing." Struck said. "The posts on the bluff itself are actually into the bluff. That wouldn't work here at Virmond because the bluff is constantly moving."

Erosion is a constant problem all along the Lake Michigan shoreline and the record lake levels in recent years only speed up the process.

"And so what happens is, when you have a structure like that, a traditional one," said Struck. "Any little bit of shifting in the ground, no matter how deep those posts are, kind of shifts the whole staircase."

A conventional staircase, like anything else on an eroding bluff, could get uneven. It could break. It could fall into the lake.

"If you can imagine, building a house from matches. Anything you move under it, the whole thing collapse." said Sitarski, the designer and general manager of the project.

Sitarski came up with the solution.

"The best probably idea to give anyone its almost like pulling sled up the hill." he said. "Where you have two strings on each side of it and you have control of it. Regardless, if there is anybody on it, or not. It works the same."

The staircase sits on sleds. It's not drive into the ground. All the support comes from that 'kid pulling the rope on the sled,' in this case, heavy-duty steel cables anchored on underground posts deep in the park.

"The whole idea is that the entire slope is divided up into a number of sections where each section is one round of stairs and one platform." expained Sitarski. "They are all individually controlled by the ropes, the steel ropes and attached together with patent-pending devices which are allowing them to shift and move as the surface of the bluff does."

When erosion occurs, and it will, the staircase should more-or-less transform with the bluff.

The build is tough work. It's being done in phases which started back in 2019. One reason, it can only really be done in winter when the ground is hard and frozen.

"The summer is not the best idea for several factors." Sitarski said. "First of all, the ground is much softer. Mostly, muddy. So, the ground is very slippery. Also, different factors. Like, poison ivy and poison oak. And wasps like I experienced personally. I was chased by wasps across the parking lot."

The funding has also come in phases. First, from grants from Wisconsin Coastal Management and the Wisconsin DNR. Ozaukee County is paying for some of it. The rest of the approximately $300K price tag is coming from private donations. They're still fundraising.

Struck says they're hoping the project will be a model for bluff access around the Great Lakes.

"I've been talking to a lot of people on Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, that are very, very interested in this project along with the state coastal management group." Struck said. "We hope that this could be replicated."

For the people of Ozaukee County and beyond who use this park, that nearly 80-year wait to get on the beach will end this summer when the staircase and some other amenities are finished.

"The views that you get on the staircase from the bluff are fantastic. On a clear day, like today, you can almost see to Milwaukee and on down to Port Washington. Just this unique view of being on the bluff is worth it as well."

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