Magazine article National Parks

Gift of the Glaciers

Magazine article National Parks

Gift of the Glaciers

Article excerpt

Michigans Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers visitors beaches, bluffs, clear waters, and 10,000-year-old hills of sand.

The crooked letters on the hand-painted sign stand a foot high, broadcasting a surprising message to everyone driving past the produce stall filled with ripe cherries. Instead of advertising pie or pints of fruit, they advise, "Live the Life You've Imagined." It's a sentiment off a coffee cup, but in this unexpected setting, it doesn't strike me as trite. Instead, it reminds me that I'm visiting a place that haunts my own imagination-the northern shores of the Great Lakes.

I'm driving toward Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan. I spent a season as a camp counselor in the woods nearby one distant summer, and ever since, I've dreamed about cackling loons, lighthouse beams winking over the water, and white bark peeling off birch trees-the sights and sounds that capture the spirit of the wild north for me. Thirty years ago, I only had time to drive through this park. This time around, I want to savor it. I pass cars with green canoes strapped to their roofs, reminding me of the fur traders and Native Americans who once paddled the lakes. In fact, it was the Anishinaabek Indians who gave the dunes their name.

According to their legend, a blazing forest fire on the shores of Lake Michigan once forced a mother bear and her two cubs into the water. When the mother bear reached the opposite shore, she looked back to discover that her cubs had drowned just before reaching land. The grieving mother was transformed into a giant sand dune, and her two cubs became the twin Manitou Islands.

Geologists tell a different story, one that's dominated by another towering figure: the glacier. More than 10,000 years ago, an ice sheet a mile thick made its way down a series of ancient river valleys, gouging out the Great Lakes. Then the bulldozer of ice melted away, leaving pulverized rock behind in the forms of hills and bluffs on the lakeshore. Winds blowing across Lake Michigan lifted the finest particles of rock to the top of these bluffs, creating perched sand dunes. Today, dunes like these are found in only a handful of places on the planet.

I arrive in mid-July, the height of vacation season, looking for two things I fear might be elusive at this time of year: some peace and quiet, and a Petoskey stone. The stones are fossils that can be found only in northern Michigan, the remains of a massive coral reef. The skeletons of sixsided coral polyps that lived 350 million years ago leave ghostly white lines on the smooth gray rocks. It's legal to collect Petoskey stones on most beaches in the state. Even though the fossils inside the park are protected, I still wanted the thrill of winning my own scavenger hunt.

Arriving late in the day, I begin my quest for quiet at the short Pyramid Point Trail. When I pull in around dinnertime, the trail- head is nearly empty, which seems like a good omen. The trail begins in a meadow of wildflowers but soon climbs through a maple and birch forest that reminds me of those mainstays of northern souvenir shops, maple syrup and birch bark canoes. I break through the trees to find myself on top of a dune that drops nearly straight down to the water below. I'm 400 feet above Lake Michigan on a sandy grandstand. The sun sparkles off a lake that stretches to the horizon, looking vast as an ocean, and a tiny Great Lakes freighter threads its way between the shore and the Manitou Islands, hazy green in the distance. This treacherous stretch of water, known as the Manitou Passage, has snared dozens of ships over the years. (The Maritime Museum in Glen Haven Historic Village, a few miles south of my lookout, holds daily demonstrations showing how locals once rescued the victims of Lake Michigan shipwrecks.)

I hadn't planned to linger for long, but with my toes burrowed into warm sand, I listen to the measured slap of waves hitting the beach below, punctuated by the bass notes of a foghorn. …

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