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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A big Midwestern sandpile turned into an otherworldly escape by pounding surf and forests.

Little-Known Fact: Glen Haven and the Manitou Islands once supplied fuel for wood-burning ships that sailed the Great Lakes in the mid- and late 1800s.

It was easy to follow the tracks in the moist, rippled sand. The trail entered the rolling dunes from a grove of jack pines, skirted a brush-choked swale, and ended at the pounding surf of Lake Michigan a half-mile away. From my place behind a clump of beach grass, I watched as seven white tail deer took turns drinking in the fading dusk of early spring.

This was the first evening of my three-day backpack through Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I had expected to see deer in the forests and cedar swamps that surround the dunes, but was surprised to find an abundance of well-worn paths leading through the hills of blowing sand.

Under cover of dusk, the animals melted into an eerie “ghost forest” of bleached cottonwood skeletons half-smothered by the unstable dunes. It was also time for me to leave. Tucked away in the woods, at the edge of one of America’s biggest sandpiles, was my camp for the night.

My trip had begun that morning. I left from Good Harbor Bay, at the eastern end of the national lakeshore, and covered about 10 miles to a campsite near Sleeping Bear Point. During the next two days I planned to hike another 20 miles along Lake Michigan to reach Platte River Point at the other end of the park. Except for some small parcels of private property, the entire stretch is managed by the National Park Service.

The mainland section of the national lakeshore comprises approximately two-thirds of the park’s 71,134 acres. The Manitou Islands comprise the remaining area.

The lakeshore’s name is handed down from a Chippewa Indian legend. As the story goes, long ago, in the land that is today Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. They swam and swam, but soon the cubs tired and lagged far behind. Mother bear finally reached the opposite shore and climbed to the top of a bluff to watch and wait for her offspring. But the cubs drowned. Today “Sleeping Bear,” a solitary dune, marks the spot where the mother bear waited. Her hapless cubs are said to be the Manitou Islands. Today scientists chalk the geology of the area up to the not-nearly-as-poetic forces of ice, wind, and water.

The national lakeshore consists of much more than plateaus of sand, however. There are verdant beech-maple forests, clear lakes, miles of white beach and clear streams.

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