A Weekend at Sleeping Bear Dunes

The college girls came bouncing past us in their bikinis. Itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, and polka-dotted. I was propped up against one of the only trees large enough to create any appreciable shade. I didn’t have the energy to ogle the polka-dots. I sighed and dragged myself to my feet; we still had more than a mile between us and the lake. My wife was already standing, trying to distract our two-year-old son and three-year-old daughter from eating sand; or, more accurately, to get them to swallow the sand that was already in their mouths before adding more. You know, manners. We loaded the two kids into their packs, slung them up onto our backs, and continued on.

We were closing in on the halfway point of the Dune Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The park sits at the top, left-hand corner of Michigan (where the fingernail of your ring finger would be if you use the mitten analogy). It is part of the US National Park Service. It’s called a National Lakeshore, as opposed to a National Park, yes, because it sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, but also because it has a hunting season. There is a deer overpopulation problem in the area and every fall a short amount of time is allotted for the deer hunters to fix it. Hunting has always been prohibited in national parks, but as the park system grew it found itself incorporating properties where it would have been difficult (or undesirable, as in the case of Sleeping Bear Dunes) to prohibit hunting. Rather than change the existing prohibitions, Congress came up with different monikers for places that are, in all other respects, National Parks. National Lakeshore, National Seashore, or National Preserve; it’s just a National Park where you can hunt.

Sleeping Bear Dunes consists of a 35-mile long strip along the coast on the mainland as well as the two Manitou Islands. The two islands are wilderness areas. That’s actually a designation doled out by the U.S. congress. A wilderness area is someplace without any human “improvements”. An improvement can be just about anything: a dirt road, a house, a bridge. There is some flexibility in the designation: anything that is no longer used can get an exemption (North Manitou has a few dilapidated homesteads scattered about), and anything that is still in use can get carved out of the designation (the shape of North Manitou’s wilderness looks like someone took a bite out of a North Manitou sandwich; that’s where the dock is).

When considering a wilderness destination, it’s important to keep in mind just what the designation means. The ecological argument for maintaining wilderness areas is that some animal and plant life simply can’t scale down below a certain size of uninterrupted habitat (one example that gets more press than most is the Florida panther). What you should not infer is that wilderness implies natural beauty, only more ruggedly so. As often as not, to the casual visitor wilderness simply means more undergrowth obscuring the view. If there is a view. Usually there isn’t. Most people searching out the majesty of the natural world would be best served by sticking to well-maintained hiking trails that lead to scenic overlooks.

In planning this trip I had thought long and hard about taking the ferry to the islands and camping in the wilderness area there. Enticingly, because the camping area is only a quarter-mile from the dock, we wouldn’t have had to have done a whole lot of work to get the wilderness credit for this trip. But we couldn’t get the schedule to work. This was just going to be a long weekend, not a full-blown vacation. We would be doing enough driving as it was, and the extra time and planning needed to travel on the ferry was too much. The old saw “it’s not the destination that counts, but the journey” does not apply if you are traveling with young children. So we recalibrated our standards and decided to use the drive-in car camping sites like most rational people would have done in the first place.

I did not make any campground reservations. In my younger days this was my preferred style. I figured that concrete plans, reservations being a perfect example, would inhibit my ability to improvise. Life should be played like a jazz solo, right? Making reservations was just putting a quarter in a player piano. Plus, I was lazy and unorganized, which dovetailed nicely with the whole jazz thing. The arrival of two children changed that. My muse quickly changed from Jack Kerouac to a Soviet central planner who would have made Brezhnev proud. But despite my metamorphosis, we were arriving on a Thursday morning and there would be plenty of available camping sites; the politburo would have to get over it.

Had I lived in the Soviet Union, I would be writing this after lights out in a Siberian labor camp. There were no available sites. I should be more specific: there were no available drive-in sites. There were still plenty of backcountry sites. After several back and forths with my wife, each one starting with my avowal, “I just can’t believe there’s nothing open”, as if the repetition of the phrase could somehow dilute my responsibility for our predicament, we decided to take one of the backcountry sites.

For the reader who doesn’t camp, the difference between car camping and backcountry camping is roughly equivalent to the difference between eating at a restaurant and growing your own crops. A drive-in site will have close access to drinking water, a toilet, perhaps a shower, and often there will be electricity. If things get really bad, your car is right there; you can just drive away. A backcountry site will not have drinking water; there will be no toilets (there might be a hole in the ground, or you can dig your own); you certainly won’t have electricity, unless there’s lightning.

Steeling ourselves for the endeavor, we headed for the ranger station to check in. Wistful, and envious, we drove past the Campground Full sign.

I walked up to the ranger behind the counter. It was embarrassing. I’ve seen people at national parks before who looked like we did: people who arrived announcing that they were going backpacking, but who had packed like they were going on a cruise over-staffed with stevedores. “They told me at the visitor center that all of the drive-in sites are full, so we’ll take your closest available backcountry site.”

“Well,” the ranger answered, “someone just had to leave unexpectedly due to a medical emergency, so there is an available drive-in site if you’d like it.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Interesting. Let me ask my wife.” I was halfway through explaining the development to my wife when she got the gist of it, shoved past me, and told the ranger we’d take the site.

I’ve just spent several paragraphs describing the crater that the no-vacancy meteor put into our plans. You’d think I’d be overjoyed that a different meteor then cratered someone else’s plans, the rubble from which miraculously refilled our crater. Yes, I was happy that we were not going to suffer through a vacation we were completely unprepared for. Still, once we were offered the drive-in site I realized how much I was secretly looking forward to a backcountry adventure. I sulked, a little. In the end, my sense of missed opportunity didn’t stand a chance against my sense of relief. 15 minutes after we pulled into our new campsite, our tent was up and I’d already filled the pot with water to make pasta for lunch. As I sipped my beer, waiting for the water to boil, I calculated that had that site not fallen into our lap, I’d still be at the car loading the packs and putting bug spray on the kids while my wife contacted divorce lawyers.

We were staying at the Platte River campground, near the southern end of the park. We had a lovely, split-level site; fire pit and picnic table below, tent pad up top. There were no views from the campsite, but a trail ran right behind our site to Lake Michigan, less than a mile away. It was a flat, wide path with a spur near the lake where you could hike over a small dune if you wanted to spice it up a little. Most people don’t consider camping “comfortable”, but compared to what we had just avoided, we were snuggled in the lap of luxury.

As you might guess, the big thing to see at Sleeping Bear Dunes are the dunes. The name of the park comes from an old Chippewa Indian legend that starts with a mother bear and her two cubs fleeing a forest fire in Wisconsin by swimming across Lake Michigan. The mother makes it to shore but the two cubs drown. So the grieving mother lies down to wait for her cubs to return. She falls asleep and is buried by the sand. I know this because my wife bought the children’s picture book that narrates the story. I read it to my daughter a few days after we got home. Each time I turned a page I kept looking for the plot twist that would turn things around for the bears, but no, it just got worse and worse. There was no warning on the cover telling me that after reading the book to my daughter I would need an hour to explain to her the circle of life and how sometimes bad things happen and, ok, see, it’s ok to cry, that’s ok, here, let me give you a hug.

The next morning we drove to the Dune Trail. The trail itself is less than two miles each way to Lake Michigan. There are two reasons why that number is deceptive. First, the parking lot is enormous. Presumably, you will walk across the parking lot to the restroom first, then to the start of the trail, then back to the car because you forgot something, and then finally return to the start of the trail. You have just added a mile. There will be another variation of this at the end of your hike, so the total distance is now closer to six miles. The second reason is that hiking on sand is an order of magnitude more difficult than hiking on solid ground. Everyone has walked on sand at some point and knows it’s a slog compared to strolling along the boardwalk. But it doesn’t make a deep impression because the typical journey through sand isn’t very far; just across the beach to the water or the snack bar. It’s over so fast that the experience doesn’t seem important enough to commit to long-term memory. A day on the Dune Trail will fix that.

We pulled into the parking lot and found ourselves staring at a hill of sand covered with ants. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the scale. The parking lot was a long way away from the hill, the hill was a actually a mountain, and those were people it was covered with. Looking at a map, the density of towns and cities near Sleeping Bear had led me to think the only people we’d come across there were other National Park junkies willing to drive a few extra hours for some heaps of sand. The parking lot full of RVs, school busses, minivans, rusted pick-ups, and luxury sedans served as proof that Sleeping Bear casts a wider net than I had given it credit for.

The colossal sand pile we had to climb to get to the beginning of the Dune Trail is called Dune Climb. It’s 280 feet high and goes up at roughly a 20 percent grade. It is crawling with youngsters trudging to the top, and then running down at full speed; the descent is periodically interrupted with a launch outwards, followed by a small sand mushroom cloud.

Like every single National Park in the country, the crowds dissipate exponentially as the distance from the parking lot increases. At the top of Dune Climb, the trail towards the lake starts to empty out. Further along the trail the population continues to decline as people begin to realize that what they thought they had committed to is somewhat different than what they are experiencing. Our fellow travelers in the bikinis didn’t make it, alas. After a bit we passed them again going in the opposite direction. They were headed back to the parking lot, apparently unsatisfied with this version of a sun and sand vacation.

Almost two hours later we made it to the lake. The handful of people who also completed the trail were all clustered around the 200 feet of shoreline where the trail ended. There were miles and miles of empty beach in both directions, but no one had the desire to put forth any more effort to get that extra solitude.

We spent close to two hours at the water. My kids can amuse themselves until the sun burns out by throwing stones into the water. I can last about two minutes. While they set about filling up the lake with stones, I started exploring the shoreline. After a short amount of time away from the crowd and looking around, I began to feel a strong sense of doubt as to whether I was really in northern Michigan. The hills of sand with the scattered scrub trees and grasses did not feel at all like the north woods I was used to. Perhaps I was still experiencing the effects of the long hike, but the sense of being out of place left me a little unbalanced.

The scene – the desolate waves of sand framed by the blue sky and the blue lake – was striking. But it was too big for my camera. All of my pictures came out looking like a dull combination of sand, water, and sky. I couldn’t capture the expanse and the grandeur of the place. Since our trip, I’ve seen other pictures of the dunes by photographers more accomplished than I am (admittedly, a low standard). Perhaps it’s a case of sour grapes, but I feel like all of the pictures suffer from that same limitation; to understand it you have to see everything all at once, something a camera can’t do.

We saddled up the kids and mentally braced ourselves for the return trip. The sun had heated up the sand on the trail so much that if we had waited another ten or fifteen minutes we might have been walking back on glass. I made it about ten steps before I had to put my shoes back on, quickly. Thinking back to the bikini girls, I wondered if there were many people who made it barefoot all the way to the beach in the morning, only to to be trapped until late afternoon when it was cool enough to walk on the trail again.

My wife and I figured out that going uphill in the sand was a lot easier when following exactly in our partner’s footsteps; using that slightly packed ledge created by someone else’s foot made a huge difference in the energy needed to take a step. According to NASA, this is because the first hiker compresses the sand just enough so that the tiny amount of moisture below the surface becomes dense enough to create surface tension, thus holding the sand in place for an important split second when the next foot arrives. Our new physics discovery got us back to the parking lot much faster than the trip out.

We drove back to our campground and another easy dinner that would have been out of the question at a backcountry campsite. We put the kids to bed at 7:30, like we usually do. In northern Michigan it doesn’t get dark in August until after 9p, so they couldn’t fall asleep. Instead, from inside our far-from-soundproof tent they regaled our section of the campground with the repetition of the word “butt” followed by a chorus of giggles for 90 minutes.

The next morning we packed up. Our last stop was the gift shop to get a refrigerator magnet. In 2011 the ABC morning show, Good Morning, America, voted Sleeping Bear Dunes the Most Beautiful Place in America. Every single tchotchke in the gift shop, and now our refrigerator, commemorates this honor. I’m not going to argue for or against the merit of Sleeping Bear winning the contest, but it was clear that I was not the only person who found it difficult to capture the beauty of the dunes in a photograph. Almost all of the mementos in the gift shop have a picture of some place in the park, the park’s name, and “The Most Beautiful Place in America” printed below. This includes my new refrigerator magnet. Consequently, it creates a situation where my refrigerator is telling me that the most beautiful place in America is Sleeping Bear Dunes, and then trying to prove it with a picture of a pile of sand and some scrub trees.


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