A half-century after Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established in Northern Michigan’s Leelanau and Benzie counties, peace reigns in the most beautiful place in America.
Featured in the October 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
The summer I was 5, in 1963, my dad took my brother and me on a hike across the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Somewhere out on that hump of tawny sand and prickly dune grass, I told my dad that I could feel the big mother bear breathing under my feet.
My grandparents lived in Glen Arbor, down the road from the dunes, so I was versed in the Native American legend (well commercialized by tourist shops in the area) of the bear and her cubs. As the story goes, the mother bear and her two cubs were fleeing a fire in Wisconsin and swam across Lake Michigan. Just offshore of the Leelanau Peninsula, the cubs sank, to rise again as North and South Manitou Islands. Their grieving, exhausted momma made it to the mainland, where she still sleeps, having morphed into the celebrated dune, waiting for the Great Manitou to bring her cubs back to life. I still believed in Santa and the Easter Bunny, so why not this momma bear?
In retrospect, it’s hard not to see that moment as metaphoric: The Sleeping Bear was, indeed, waking up—at least in a political sense. In 1961, Michigan’s Senator Philip Hart had introduced to Congress the first of several versions of a bill to create a new national park encompassing the magnificent coastal dunes that line the shoreline of Benzie and Leelanau counties in northwest Michigan. On October 21, 1970, 50 years ago this month, and nine years after Senator Hart’s first bill, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was officially created.
The on-paper description of this park (a lakeshore is a specific designation for what is actually a national park) reads as 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline that stretch north of the town of Frankfort to just south of Leland, punctuated by the towns of Glen Arbor and Empire and by perch-dune bluffs that rise 400 feet or more above the water, 26 inland lakes, the Manitou Islands, two rivers, ancient glacial kettles and moraines, pastoral farmland and beech, maple and white pine forests.
But anyone who has ever been here knows words can’t do this park justice. The beauty of Sleeping Bear, a landscape carved out by glaciers eons ago and shaped by wind and waves ever since, is ephemeral. The crystalline waters of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake (the largest of the inland lakes) are prisms for the sun, reflecting its light back in swaths of blue and green that vary day-to-day, minute-to-minute, in shades from cobalt to aqua, turquoise to sea foam.
That shifting light makes the Manitou Islands feel huge and close one hour—only to steal them away in mist the next. Hiking the trails up to Pyramid and Sleeping Bear points can make you feel almost godlike, hovering as you are over this sweep of shoreline, blue sea and those mighty Manitous. Sleeping Bear’s isn’t the fearsome beauty of western parks like Yosemite or Glacier, nor is it the magnificently sculpted landforms of the southwestern parks. Its sandy beaches remind of Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Atlantic, except that nothing will bite you in Lake Michigan. Sleeping Bear’s beauty is inspirational but gentle, nurturing, maternal—like that mother bear …
Of course, the entity called Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the intersection of this natural beauty with a federal bureaucracy. And from the park’s inception, it has been both a case study in the role of public lands versus private ownership, as well as the more recent debates over preserving natural spaces and opening them for public use. At the ripe old age of 50, the park has weathered these storms, coming light-years in this balance.
But that was not always the case. When the men who did the first government reconnaissance for the park back in 1958 saw the dunes for the first time, they were smitten with what they believed was not just a national treasure but also a national secret. The trouble was, the area was no secret to year-round residents and summer homeowners, mostly from Chicago and Detroit, who were already deeply attached to their dunes and lakes. All but several thousand acres (the two small state parks, D.H. Day and Platte River) of what was to become the park, in fact, were privately held.
When, beginning in the 1960s, the federal government burst into the once-quiet communities ready to buy (or condemn and buy, if need be) the land that would make up the new park, landowners seethed with anger. They organized and fought the new park with vengeance, from their town halls, from meetings in the local school gymnasiums and with hundreds upon hundreds of pleading letters to their congressmen.
My own family was split on the issue and more than one argument in my grandparents’ Glen Arbor living room ended with flushed faces and a troubled silence. My parents, young Ann Arbor liberals, sided with then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and his aggressive approach to federal land preservation. (Under Udall’s tenure, four national parks and eight national seashores and lakeshores, including Sleeping Bear, were established.) My grandparents, like virtually all of their neighbors, feared their beautiful, quiet town would be overrun with tourists. But the most troubling issue was the government’s condemnation of private property. As far as they were concerned, that was Communism with a capital C.
Summer of 1968
Photo courtesy of Lissa Edwards
This photo was taken at North Bar Lake where my parents had property that they were later forced to sell to the park. My mother and I are in the yellow suits.
My parents and grandparents ended up being forced to sell several undeveloped lots on North Bar Lake, that they had hoped to build family cottages on, to the government. But their loss paled in comparison to what other families suffered—suffering that was made worse by land acquisition personnel that, by all accounts, bullied and even lied in order to make their land quotas and budgets. Imagine the heartbreak of Louis and Marion Warnes, for instance, who had devoted their adult lives to building the Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile Rides and then were forced to close up shop and sell their dune acreage to the park. Or, of the Grosvenor family, who had generations invested in the ferry service to the Manitou Islands—as much a way of life as a business. The family’s docks on the Manitou Islands were condemned, and worse yet, evaluated as vacant rather than higher-valued commercial property. The Grosvenors hired attorneys to fight to have their properties reevaluated. In the end, the government gave them a higher purchase price: “Just enough to pay the attorneys,” Mike Grosvenor says. The Grosvenor family had no choice but to relinquish their independence and transform their business into a National Park Concession to ferry park visitors to the islands.
Those same land acquisition officers also condemned Kathy and Tom Stocklen’s canoe livery on the Platte River. But the couple fought tenaciously for years and eventually won the right to keep their business—as long they never changed the nature of it. “We were working 105 hours a week at the livery and then working on our case—we put in 5,000 hours in two years. It was a sad, sad time. Everyone was treated differently, and they pitted neighbor against neighbor,” Kathy says. The Stocklens have since sold Riverside Canoes, but it remains the only privately held business within the park.
Needless to say, for the park’s first personnel, it was a lonely job—though it had its moments. Pete LaValley, who was hired in March of 1972, recalls freezing in the late winter weather while painting the boarded-up Coast Guard Station in Glen Haven (now the park’s Maritime Museum). The payoff was being the first park personnel to be assigned to South Manitou Island. Often, he had the 8-square-mile island all to himself.
But dealing with the fallout of the land acquisition was tough. “I understood people’s angst,” he says. “But at times, it came out in very, very harsh ways. We just put our noses to the grindstone and kept going … [we said to ourselves] we’re looking 40 years down the road; that’s where we’re headed.”
Balancing the Wild
Sleeping Bear Dunes Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich started his job during Christmas of 2002—just after the park had celebrated its 32nd birthday. Ulrich was thrilled that he’d landed a position at Sleeping Bear. “People don’t understand how spectacular this is,” he says, adding that when he tours friends who work at heavy-hitter parks in the West around Sleeping Bear, they are always blown away by its beauty.
But when Ulrich arrived, the park had a big problem: Its preparation of an updated General Management Plan (GMP)—the document guiding each national park—had just been halted due to public outcry. The outcry was over a section in the GMP that included areas marked wilderness that called for closing roads to some popular Lake Michigan beaches and demolishing many of the park’s 360 historical structures. Citizen activists rose up, and the Interior Department halted the plan.
Superintendent Dusty Shultz and Ulrich restarted the GMP process, determined to listen to the public and come up with a suitable plan. The first years were contentious, recalls Jeannette Feeheley, who presided over a group called Citizens for Access to the Lakeshore. Over the course of the next few years, however, Ulrich gave more than a hundred presentations to some 3,000 people—and listened to their comments.
By the end of the process, both parties had grown to respect each other—and more importantly, they had a GMP they all agreed on. The resulting wilderness bill was ultimately passed with bipartisan support by Congress in 2014—and congressional testimony from Feeheley herself. Beyond reshaping the wilderness to maintain road access to beaches, while still ensuring outstanding opportunities for hunting, hiking, paddling, mushrooming and other quiet recreation, the new GMP also protects all of the park’s 360 farms and buildings.
The Most Beautiful Place in America
On a June day in 2011, I sat at a table at Blu, a restaurant on Sleeping Bear Bay in Glen Arbor, opposite a young producer, Sabrina Parise, from “Good Morning America.” She’d flown in from New York City to shoot footage of Sleeping Bear because the park had just won the network’s “Most Beautiful Place in America,” contest.
The folks in her Big Apple office, she told me, were surprised by the fact that Sleeping Bear had come out the winner of the nomination list that included internationally famous places including Point Reyes, California; Lanikai Beach, Hawaii; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Aspen, Colorado; Sedona, Arizona and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The fact was, Parise told me, only one person at the GMA office had even heard of Sleeping Bear, and that person was a college intern who had once worked a summer job in Glen Arbor.
When the folks from the GMA office called Sleeping Bear’s visitor center for help in, well, trying to figure out basically where this park was, how to get there and where to stay, Ulrich referred them to this magazine—as we have been extensively celebrating and protecting Sleeping Bear since Deb Wyatt Fellows founded Traverse Magazine in 1981. Since I live bull’s-eye in the middle of Glen Arbor, I got the tour guide job. It was all very exciting—except that, on that first day of Parise’s visit, Sleeping Bear was acting more like a petulant cub than the beautiful beloved momma bear: A gray haze had settled over the dunes and the bay, casting a gloomy, nondescript mood.
By the next morning, the haze had lifted and Parise got a visual lesson in why Sleeping Bear won her network’s award.
The award elicited conflicting emotions for those of us who live in the area. On one hand, it was a powerful affirmation of just how special Sleeping Bear is. On the other, of course, the publicity was sure to translate into crowds. Indeed, the GMA award boosted the park’s visitor numbers from 1.2 million to 1.5 million annually. “Some people think that the numbers doubled after the award,” Ulrich says. “They didn’t. But it did put the park in the national consciousness. It used to be mostly known in the upper Midwest, now it is known across the nation.”
Of course, the majority of those 300,000 extra visitors, as is the case with the rest of the 1.2 million, mostly show up in July and August, crowding the small downtowns and rural highways.
When Scott Tucker, the park’s present superintendent, arrived in 2016, solving local issues created by that congestion was high on his agenda. One means to that end is the Sleeping Bear Gateways Council, made up of representatives from the National Park Service, local governments, businesses, chambers of commerce and individuals. (Ironically, the Gateways Council, renamed in 2018, began its life in the 1970s as the Citizens Council of the Sleeping Bear Dune Area that fought so vehemently against the park.)
Partnering with the local communities has certainly helped calm old frustrations about the park. But more than anything, the simple fact that this precious landscape remains, preserved in perpetuity, is what has mellowed opinions about it most of all. “I believe we all appreciate the fact that this area didn’t become over-developed,” says Mike Grosvenor. “I don’t know as I’d have wanted to trust all of the development to a bunch of investors. Left to its own, the Manitou Islands would have been destroyed, unquestionably. There were already people subdividing South Manitou.”
Even Kathy Stocklen has praise for the park. “It was never about the park in general,” she says of her struggle to keep her business. “It is a lovely asset to our fragile, rural area.”
As Superintendent Tucker sees it, with most old wounds healed now, his main job is to stay the beautiful course. “My goal is that when Sleeping Bear celebrates its 100th anniversary, the park will look exactly the same then as it does today,” he says.
And that’s something no one in Sleeping Bear is arguing over.
Elizabeth Edwards is the managing editor at Traverse Magazine. [email protected] // Taylor Brown graduated in May 2019 from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City. He’s now a civilian merchant marine officer licensed to work aboard commercial ships on the Great Lakes and oceans. Follow his adventures on Instagram at @tayderbrown.