Said the Mountain, I will change so slowly that no one will notice and people will feel secure.

Said the Sand Dune, I will change with the Wind so that all will see and be filled with surprise.

Edna A. Elfont, Sand Dunes of the Great Lakes, Sleeping Bear Press, ISBN# 1-886947-16-3, published June 1997.

My parents now live in a small (population 1,812) town north of this park; I've been to the park many times, and let me say, its a amazing place. Yet its founding in 1970 was mired in controversy that continues today.

The park, located almost exactly half way between the North Pole and the Equator, consists of over 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares), including a 64 mile (100 km) section of Lake Michigan's eastern coastline, and North and South Manitou Islands. The park is so named because shape of exposed sand dunes on the islands and clearly resembles a pair of bear cubs, sleeping. The highlights of the park include:

  • Dune Climb. Play in a huge, natural sandbox! Sand the color of honey rises about 500 ft. (150 meters) on a 45 degree slope. Winds off the lake will soon (100 years or so?) cause this migrating dune to bury the nearby town -- and you can help! Climb barefoot up the slipface of this dune. As your feet overheat in the midday sun, dig down just a foot or so where its refreshingly cool. From the top, see if you can spin your legs fast enough to stay upright as you run down. Fun for the whole family!
    (Hey, its the Midwest, we're corny like that.)
  • Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive . Pierce Stocking was an independent lumberman, self-taught naturalist, and entrepreneur. He owned what was later to become the core of the national park. In 1967, after 7 years of his own funds and labor, he finished this drive and opened his land to the public. Its now part of the National Park. The 12 point, self-guided tour is fully wheelchair accessible. The climax is the Lake Michigan Overlook, more on that below.
  • Island Camping. Take a day trip on the ferry and get a guided tour from the Park Rangers on the island, or better still, hook up with The Leelanau Conservancy's (http://www.theconservancy.com/) staff naturalist. Island includes rare, old growth white cedars known to be over 500 years old. There's an historic lighthouse, and another great dune climb.
  • The Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve contains over 50 known shipwreck sites, dating from 1835 to 1960. Beats traveling over 1000 miles to scuba in the ocean, and besides, who needs all that salt?

Lake Michigan is one of the Great Lakes, the largest contiguous fresh water accumulations in the world. The narrow passage of water in between the park lakeshore and nearby islands includes the main north-south passage for all shipping between the city of Chicago, some 200 miles (350 km) south, and the rest of the world. Pierce Stocking drive climaxes in a platform perched atop a naturally occurring 460 ft. (140 meter) sand dune at the waters edge, overlooking the passage. A truly remarkable sight is one of our Great Lakes freighters, such as the M/V Scott B. Tomlinson (Inland Seas Corp), at a of length 1007 feet (306 meters), making the transit of this narrow passage. Or you may prefer the sight of dozens of brightly colored sailboats racing through the passage each mid-summer, in the Chicago to Mackinac Race.

The Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore is one of the best examples in the world of migrating sand dunes not in a desert. It draws tourists and scientists from everywhere on the globe. The dunes afford a stunning view of the shoreline and inland lakes that tell the geological story that makes this region unique, and the current park includes much of the land that makes up these views, ensuring that the view remains near-pristine.

The Controversy

The controversy surrounding the federalization of this park started when, in the wave of optimism about the US Federal Government in the 1960s, well-meaning legislators, bureaucrats and "angels" from the industrial centers of Detroit and Chicago proposed that the nascent Park Service would take over various existing parks, and incorporate surrounding "unused" private land, farms, and houses. The initial meeting to discuss the proposal with local residents (some 2000 attended) was so poorly handled, only the Park Service Director and his colleagues, four souls in total, failed to stand up against the project! Ten years later both sides had learned a lot about what was needed, and hammered out a compromised with boundaries not too different from the original Parks Service proposal.

The community has generally accepted the park as a valuable asset, but problems continue. For example, as part of the compromise, over 1000 private homes were condemned and made part of the park; owners were encouraged to use their compensation to lease their homes back from the park for a fixed period, in part because the Parks Department at the time didn't have enough funds to dismantle the houses and return the land to wilderness. In 1998 these leases ended, with the Parks Department still unable to offer more than "demolition by neglect". Asked one former homeowner, "What does it mean when the common good takes precedence over individual existence? Can the two not exist side by side?"

For More Information

  • The official homepage of the park is http://www.nps.gov/slbe/index.htm
  • There is an outstanding oral and written history of the Park, with figures and images. http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/slbe/index.htm
  • The Sailing: http://www.chicagomackinac.com/
  • The Ships: http://www.boatnerd.com/
  • Visit the area: http://www.leelanau.com/
  • New Geological Theories http://www.freep.com/news/mich/ddunes28_20011128.htm

The Legend of Sleeping Bear

Long ago, in the land that is today Wisconsin, Mother Bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The cubs swam strongly but the distance and the water proved too much for them. They fell further and further behind and ultimately slipped beneath the waves. When Mother Bear reached the Michigan shore, she climbed to the top of a bluff and peered back across the water, searching vainly for her cubs. The Great Spirit saw her and took pity on her plight. He raised North and South Manitou Islands to mark the place where her cubs vanished and laid a slumber upon Mother Bear.

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