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Sundown at Sleeping Bear Sept 25 09

Along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, from near Gary, Indiana, all the way north to Wilderness State Park west of the Mackinac Bridge, stretches a far-reaching ribbon of white, windblown dunes. Piled high by the prevailing westerlies blowing off the big lake, these great sand mountains are a hallmark of Michigan’s west coast.

Warren Dunes, Hoffmaster Silver Lake Nordhouse Dunes…such places are magnets for sight seers, hikers, and naturalists who love the austere beauty of the dunescape. But it is at Sleeping Bear that the dunes of Michigan attain their full grandeur.

Rising abruptly from the lake in mighty, 500-foot bluffs, the singing sands of Sleeping Bear penetrate far inland. Come here to have your breath taken away by a thousand different views. Desert-like sand flats rising into grass-tufted hills and tree-lined ridges. Vast curves of steep, barefaced shoreline arching for miles into the distance. Inland lakes and woods and farms and communities spread out far below to the north and east.

Many years ago, according to Indian legend, a tremendous forest fire engulfed Wisconsin. Among the forest animals fleeing for their lives were a mother bear and her two cubs. Forced by the flames to the shores of Lake Michigan, the threesome took to the waters for safety and began the long swim to the opposite shore. The mother bear made it all the way across, and, dragging herself up wearily onto the shore, waited for her little brood. But the cubs never arrived. Exhausted, they had drowned just miles from the Michigan shore.

Day after day, month after month, the mother bear waited devotedly for her children. Finally, touched by her faithfulness, the Great Spirit raised up two great islands of sand over the bodies of her cubs, and covered the mother bear with sand as she slept. There, at the top of a tall dune on the shoreline, beneath a tree-covered knoll, the mother bear sleeps yet today. As for the cubs, those are North and South Manitou Islands.

Sleeping Bear is the crowning glory of the Leelanau peninsula, a region abundantly blessed with natural beauty. Last weekend I played a jazz gig up there, and rather than make the long drive home that same night, I decided to take the opportunity to enjoy a weekend getaway with Lisa. We had no certain destination, no plan other than to follow our noses. The Leelanau is an excellent place to follow one’s nose.

After making our way through Suttons Bay and Northport to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, we headed back south along the lakeshore drive toward Sleeping Bear. Early autumn colors were licking across the forested hillsides, and goldenrods were burnishing the fields. We stopped to hike the shore of a northern lake, and to stroll the boardwalk at Fishtown, pausing to watch a trio of river otters frolic in the the channel.

At last we found our way to Sleeping Bear. At a lookout on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, perched at the edge of a great sand slide, we took in the magnificent sweep of the dunes wrapping around us to the north, south, and east. Four-hundred-fifty feet below us, the broad blue face of Lake Michigan presented a changing complexion only visible from a higher vantage point. In the failing light of evening, the bulk of the shoreline receded into the haze of distance. To our north, the Manitou Islands marked where the bear cubs reposed beneath the waters.

We watched as the westering sun descended, illuminating the waters like gold on mercury. Then, with the air turning chill and our stomachs demanding attention, we headed back to the car and began the long journey home





Written by Dave.