Our National Parks celebrate their centennial this year. In honor of these stunning natural Northern Michigan attractions, three writers share thoughts on these cherished realms. Here, Kathleen Stocking recollects favorite memories of walks down Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (Scroll to the bottom for 10 ways to love Sleeping Bear Dunes!)
This year also marks the centennial of the US Coast Guard. In celebration of the coinciding centennials, the Traverse City Coast Guard flew the MyNorth Media video crew over the Sleeping Bear Dunes via helicopter to share these stunning views with you.
A Walk in the Dunes –
by Kathleen Stocking
To understand and love the dunes, you have to love strange beauty. Not normal beauty, not popular beauty, not the kind where everyone agrees with you, but the reverse.
The dunes do not support life. Nothing grows there, or very little; the sand blows and smothers the things that do grow. In the Sleeping Bear Dunes you can’t get water unless you want to drill at least 500 feet down, or haul it from the lake.
In the heights above North Bar Lake there was a family of homesteaders, according to Ray Welch, who came from a neighboring pioneer family, who did haul their water from the lake 300 feet below to the top of the bluff. They didn’t last long.
When I was growing up, my friend Susy Schmidt and I rode our horses up through Reverend Treat’s farm south of Empire, and then out onto the bluffs. We didn’t do this more than twice. It was slow going. The sand sucked at the horses’ feet. We were afraid one of them was going to break a leg. We’d get off and walk them, and then the sand would suck at our feet, too.
How does one learn to love something strange? The usual ways: proximity, dailiness, difficulties. The dunes are an acquired taste, a learned love, a developed aesthetic. One learns to understand the ways of something and, over time, that engenders a relationship.
Anyone who has ever climbed to the top of the dunes from that place on M-109 where everyone always goes, where when you get to the top you can sense, and then see, Lake Michigan in the west, well, you want to go there. But the distances in the dunes are deceptive, it’s farther to the lake than it looks, the sun is intense, and if you don’t bring water, you’ll wish you had.
Most of the people who’ve grown up around the dunes have walked to the lake across the top, but I’ve never met anyone who’s done this more than a few times. It’s hard to walk in soft sand. If you’re like me, you walk to have that rhythm of walking, so you can daydream and let your mind unravel. But you don’t get that rhythm in the dunes. You get good views, and that’s sometimes worth it, but it’s not a walk you choose to take very often; the rhythm is wrong.
Photo by Heather Highman
When we were little in the 1950s, my mother used to take us and our cousins—eight kids—to the dune climb at the end of the day. “Show me how many times you can run up and down!” she would incite us. “I’ll bet you can’t do it 20 times! Oh, you can, can you? Well, you show me, and keep track on this piece of paper.” She had official-looking slips of paper and tiny pencils on which we could tally our prodigious achievements. “Maybe you will prove me wrong!!! I can’t believe you have enough energy to run up and down 20 times!!! My goodness, how could you ever do it?”
She had a stack of magazines—Newsweek, Saturday Review, Life, Harper’s, The Atlantic and she would sit in the station wagon, the kind with wood panels on the side, and read, only being interrupted from time to time to feign total delight and surprise and wonderment every time we chalked up another run up the dunes. Then she’d let us all swim in Glen Lake. Some of us would already be asleep as we pulled into the driveway. We were soon in bed, and she could look forward to another blessed hour or two of peace before she also retired for the night.
The dunes aren’t what they seem. When I was running the scenic drive in the dunes for my father, we routinely had people who tried to drive on the dunes, and we’d have to haul them out with the tractor. We had signs everywhere, “Don’t drive on the dunes,” but people said they hadn’t seen the signs and they probably hadn’t. A lot of people can’t be bothered with signs.
Photo by Erik Olsen
Back in the mid-1970s a lady called from Esquire magazine in New York and said she wanted to come do a fashion shoot in the dunes and asked if I could I give her permission to use our roads. When they arrived she took one look at the dunes and asked if she could hire me as a scout. I had no idea what that might entail but quickly said that my standard fee was five hundred dollars.
I felt like a bandit until I learned that the previous manager had received ten times that amount.
My sister Ann and I once went on a winter picnic out on Sleeping Bear Point. We chose a spot at the very tip, so close to South Manitou, it felt like we could swim to the island. It was a nice day and a nice walk from our house. A few years later the whole point fell into the water. The currents in the Manitou Passage, like the dunes themselves, are strange.
You think you know everything about something. How much could there be to know about a big pile of sand? Then you realize you don’t know anything at all. It teaches you humility. It teaches you not to make assumptions. I like it when that happens. It makes me feel young.
From my mother’s house above Sleeping Bear Bay, we can see the northern expanse of the dunes for about six months of the year. From November to April when the leaves are off, we can contemplate that languid golden-pink length of sand, looking so soft and inviting, especially when the sun rises and when it sets. The dunes have an abstract and inscrutable beauty; when the light changes, it changes everything.
To see the dunes is to see and viscerally connect with primal forces: earth, air, fire, water. To see the dunes is to be challenged to imagine the ions of one’s substance in constant relationship to everything else. To see the dunes is to find the ground of one’s being, the ground of one’s believing that there is something greater than one’s self. Every grain of sand was once part of a rock. The wind and water shift over and over again, and evolve new formations, just as we do, and so we never tire of contemplating the shifting patterns, the changing light, of allowing ourselves to be rocked back to our primal beginnings, and renewed.
Photo by Erik Olsen
10 Ways to Love Sleeping Bear Dunes
Here’s the A-list: Ten marvelous ways to enjoy Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We’ll start with three promontories and go from there.
2. Pyramid Point hike: Another 400-foot-high perch and 3/4-mile trail. From here, the Manitou islands rise to the west, Fox Islands to the north, and the mainland shore unfurls to the northern horizon. Northeast of Glen Arbor.
4. South Manitou Island: A marvelous day-trip that wraps in a beautiful ferry ride. Wander
the island trails. Walk to the shipwreck that pokes out of the water. Definitely go up in the lighthouse. Ferry: Manitou Transit Ferry, Leland.
9. Glen Haven: Wander the restored historic village, circa 1920. Boat museum in the old cannery, a general store and historical Coast Guard lifesaving station.
This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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