Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Legend of Sleeping Bear

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
May 27, 2010

The Ojibwe or Chippewa are people of the forest and respect the fearsome animals who call the forest home, especially the black bear. On the eastern shore of Lake Michigan lies a series of sand dunes on a high bluff overlooking two islands. The Ojibwe believe the islands and the one dune peering towards the islands were created by the Great Spirit. And that brings us to our story, the legend of Sleeping Bear (as told by me).

A mother bear and her two cubs were walking along the western shore of Lake Michigan in what is now Wisconsin. The mother bear could see into the distance all around them the flames and smoke of an enormous forest fire coming their way. The fire and flames and smoke crept closer and closer to the bear and her cubs, and they had nowhere to flee. The mother bear gathered her two cubs and swam into the lake to escape the terrifying flames. The fire would not go away, and the family was forced to swim eastward hoping to soon find dry land and safety across the lake.

It was an exhausting swim in the cold, choppy water with no sight of land. The two cubs soon lagged behind their mother who kept her cubs in sight and offered them words of encouragement.  The mother soon saw land and shelter for her family, and when she reached shore, she climbed to the top of a bluff to watch her cubs and await their arrival. However, the cubs, exhausted and spent by the long swim, could no longer paddle. They sank into the depths of the lake and drowned.

The mother bear was despondent by the loss of her two cubs, but she would not leave her perch overlooking the resting places of her children. She hoped by some miracle that they would rise from the water and return to their mother. The Great Spirit was strongly affected by the mother’s determination and faith and raised two islands above the resting places of the cubs so the mother could see where they laid. Although the mother bear knew her cubs were gone and laid underneath the islands created by the Great Spirit, she still would not leave her children. The winds of the lake soon buried the mother bear under the sands of the dunes where she now sleeps, still waiting for the return of her children.

Sleeping Bear and her cubs are now protected by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The resting places of the cubs are North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island, and their mother rests at Sleeping Bear Point. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Sleeping Bear’s resting place was a tree-covered knoll at the northern end of the bluff and sand dunes and was said to resemble from the water a bear lying on its stomach looking out onto the lake. Time has changed Sleeping Bear Point. Wind erosion and landslides have reduced the size and height of the knoll and the trees are no longer as tall or lush as they once must have been.

South Manitou Island, North Manitou Island, and Sleeping Bear Point

I came upon this legend by chance. Today I was not paying attention to the map, and I was just meandering south on those roads that hugged the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. At an intersection I saw a sign pointing west to the town of Empire and another sign pointing me to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I read about this national park before and always wanted to visit it, and by visiting I would continue my travels on roads hugging the lakeshore.

The park encompasses a perched dune system with sand dunes lying atop a steep bluff. The dunes were first formed when the lake level was higher, and has the lake level receded, the bluff was exposed and soon became covered with sand also. Unlike the many sand dunes I have seen in the deserts, these sand dunes are in a lush mixed forest vegetation region. The park also includes excellent examples of maple-beech forest comprised mainly of American Beech and Sugar Maple trees.

My quick visit of Sleeping Bear Dunes included a scenic drive, a climb up a sand dune, and a hike to a viewpoint over the lake. The 7.4-mile loop Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive first takes you through an old maple-beech forest, and before you know it, the drive opens up to views of a sand dune environment. Before you know it again, you are on top of a sand dune and then take a short walk along boardwalks to Dune Overlook. The boardwalks are in place to protect the dunes and vegetation from erosion.

The first step of the Dune Climb
However, knowing that people like to climb on sand dunes, the National Park Service provides an area for climbing. It is simply called Dune Climb, and when I arrived, I saw over a hundred people on the sand. Three school buses were empty with its occupants enjoying a field trip to a place where they could be loud, where they could wallow in the sand, and where they could expend as much energy as they could muster. The Dune Climb has two large steps, the first hill getting you to about 130 feet high and the second hill getting you another 130 feet high and ending with view of a Lake Michigan.

My climb up the sand dune was going to be efficient and quick. Instead of mingling with all the children, I took a narrow trail bordered by grass straight up the first hill and then went sideways towards the launching pad for the second hill. But I had had enough of taking two steps up and one step backwards in the sand, and headed down the dune for a hike more of my liking.

The lake shore of Sleeping Bear Dunes as viewed from Empire Bluff
The Empire Bluff Trail is near the south end of the park, and upon my arrival at the parking lot, I did not find any other cars there. The hike is only 1.5 miles round-trip, and my hope was to have the trail and the overlook all to myself. My hike soon turn into a jog to get to the overlook as quickly as possible, and I was through the beech-maple forest in a few minutes. The overlook is a walkway on the top of the sand dune, and the first thing I noticed were all the caterpillars enjoying the nice weather like I was. The overlook gave me distant views of Sleeping Bear Point, North Manitou Island, and South Manitou Island, but it was time for me to bid farewell to Sleeping Bear and her cubs and get back on the road.

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