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Popular sand dune along Lake Michigan remains closed as study continues into mysterious holes

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SOUTH BEND, Indiana — A popular sand dune at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan will remain closed this summer as scientists study what caused a boy to nearly be buried alive in 2013, a park spokesman said Friday.

A team of scientists have been studying Mount Baldy, which is more than 120 feet tall, to determine what caused a hole that trapped Nathan Woessner under 11 feet of sand for more than three hours on July 12, 2013. The Illinois boy, who was 6 at the time, was hospitalized for about two weeks, but recovered.

"At this point our plans are that it is definitely closed for the summer season," park spokesman Bruce Rowe said, but noted that the rest of the sprawling remains open.

Scientists have found a total of eight holes and are now working to find their cause. They are scheduled to present their findings in August to the National Park Service, where officials will review the findings and decide what to do next, Rowe said.

Scientists will use their collected data to determine the extent and nature of the problem, then will try to determine whether "visitors can safely get on the dune, or if there is no way to mitigate it potentially," he said. "We just don't know until we see the science."

The Mount Baldy dune — located about midway between South Bend and Chicago — covers about 100 acres of the 15,000-acre Indian Dunes National Lakeshore, which includes other dunes, wetlands, prairies, forests and hiking trails. Rowe said the park got calls last year from people asking if the entire lakeshore was closed.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2014 file photo, a researcher uses large equipment to study Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's Mount Baldy in Michigan City, Ind. The popular sand dune at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan will remain closed this summer as scientists study what caused a boy to nearly be buried alive in 2013, a park spokesman said Friday May, 22, 2015.  (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Robert Franklin, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2014 file photo, a researcher uses large equipment to study Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's Mount Baldy in Michigan City, Ind. The popular sand dune at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan will remain closed this summer as scientists study what caused a boy to nearly be buried alive in 2013, a park spokesman said Friday May, 22, 2015. (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Robert Franklin, File)

The park had an attendance of 1.55 million last year, down 128,323 from a year earlier and well below the record 2.15 million set in 2010. Last year's attendance was the lowest attendance figure since 1.48 million people visited the park in 1997, but Rowe said park officials believe a cooler summer was more likely the primary reason for the decrease.

"So much of our attendance is tied to how hot it is and how many people come out to the beach," he said.

Visitors to Mount Baldy in recent years have comprised fewer than 10 percent of the park's visitors. In 2012, the last time Mount Baldy was open the entire summer, 179,901 people visited the dune, Rowe said.

The Park Service isn't worried about other dunes being dangerous because Mount Baldy was the only rapidly moving dune that people were allowed to walk on, Rowe said. Mount Baldy also has been "deflating," meaning it has been getting rapidly shorter, especially in the areas where the holes were found, he said.

"So it appears Mount Baldy is the exception," he said.

Rowe said the Park Service plans to announce next week that it will offer small group tours led by a ranger of Mount Baldy to talk about the study, although the area where the holes were found will remain closed.

"It will be carefully controlled and guided access to Mount Baldy," he said.

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