One of the revelations of this pilgrimage is how often we are shown that our assumptions about a place are largely uninformed. Aside from knowing that we wanted to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan, our impression was that Michigan’s offerings were going to be modest.
Then we landed in Traverse City. As noted in the last blog, the campground (Keith J. Charters State Park) was busy and full up. We soon discovered during our three-day visit this was completely predictable based on what the area offers. First, there is stunning beauty of the location. Traverse City (or TC as the locals call it) sits right at the lip of Grand Traverse Bay, a spectacular body of water that was carved out of the whole cloth that is Lake Michigan. For people who live here, this is what they refer to in Michigan as “the beach” and many of our neighbors spent their days across Highway 31 on the sandy shores of the Bay.
The campground also sits along one of the many bike paths that proliferate in this part of the country. From the back gate of the campground, we could ride into the city itself or out along the trail with views of the Bay, to a bike shop, or to the nearest Dairy Queen, no bad choices!
What brought us here was Sleeping Bear Dunes and it surpassed our imaginings. We stopped at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center for the orientation slide show about this national lakeshore. Anishinaabek natives lived here on the coast of the lake about 3,000 years ago. It is their legend that tells the story of a mother bear and her two cubs who were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. They swam and swam but soon the cubs tired and began to lag behind their mother. She finally reached the opposite shore and climbed to the top of a bluff to look for her cubs. But they had drowned. The legend continues to say that today, the solitary dune named Sleeping Bear marks the spot where she waited. The two Manitou Islands that sit off shore in the midst of the lake are her drowned cubs.
At the Visitor’s Center, we learned about the scenic 7.5 mile Pierce Stocking Road. It has turnouts at key spots along the way, providing a comprehensive overview of the remarkably diverse landscape: lush hardwood forests of maple and beech; pine stands; and the sand dunes.
This is a landscape most recently shaped by the ice age, when continental glaciers spread southward from Canada, repeatedly burying this area under sheets of ice imbedded with rock and grinding away, like a sculptor’s chisel, on the land. These massive glaciers enlarged river valleys, cared out wide, deep basins that later filled to become the Great Lakes. The deposits created moraines – piles of sand and rock debris – that made up the hilly terrain. We learned that Lake Michigan and the many smaller lakes rose and fell many times before reaching present levels. The shoreline gradually smoothed out and sandbars appeared across the bay creating smaller inland lakes.
The glaciers left behind the raw materials for building the dunes: a sandy bare coast on the windward side of the Lake where prevailing westerly winds blow and build up dunes on the low-lying shores of the Lake creating dunes that soar nearly 500 feet above the lake. The dunes continue to migrate and shift and as they do, they have left behind ghost forests and occasionally, caused the relocation of human settlements. On the east side of the dunes, farms continue to dot the landscape.
From the campground one evening at sunset, we drove up the 15-mile peninsula that juts into Grand Traverse Bay. This narrow piece of land has been gently mounded in the middle by the forces of nature and is lushly green. Today, its rich soil nurtures cherry orchards, vineyards, and at least one hops farm. At the end of the peninsula sits a lighthouse, one of many that helped ships navigate the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan, the clearly dominant force of nature that influences all life here on the northern shores of the lower part of Michigan.
From TC, we wandered north up and over the Mackinac Straights where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron bump into one another. On the clearest of mornings, we looked north and east and saw Ontario, Canada. We were now back on the Upper Peninsula (or UP as they call it). A couple of years ago we took a road trip here and went the northern route right along Lake Superior so this time, we chose the southern route and followed Lake Michigan.
We discovered Route 2 in the UP, a good road in great condition with lovely views of the lake. It even offers a stretch where beach lovers can park their cars/RVs and sit for a while on the shore. The last time we saw this was in southern California along the Pacific Ocean. We have come to understand that some deeply routed human longing is getting addressed by these pullouts of rest along water. The road goes through the Hiawatha National Forest and a couple of campgrounds through mostly flat, hardwood and pine stands of trees where tall grasses crowd up close to the highway fringed this time of year with Queen Anne’s Lace and Golden Glow and tansy.
We were delighted to learn that the state of Michigan has done a great job with what they call “Roadside Parks”, rest areas that have really clean pit toilets, wide parking areas and beautifully treed and green areas to picnic, walk, or just catch a nap in your Airstream after eating lunch!
We camped at two state parks on two consecutive nights as we worked our way north and west across the UP. First, Indian Lake State Park (on the lake of the same name) in Manistique and then Lake Gogebic State Park in the northwest tip of the UP and just thirty miles from the border with Wisconsin.
We crossed into the most northern tip of Wisconsin along Route 2 and got a brief glimpse of the fourth of the five great lakes we have seen this past week, Lake Superior, at Ashland on Chequamegon Bay. On the outskirts of town we noticed the turnoff to Route 13 heading to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, another of our “wish list” places which will need to wait for another time since we had Minnesota in our sites for tonight.
After crossing into Minnesota we headed west along Route 2, passed the sign for Hibbing, Bob Dylan’s birthplace, and on through to the town of Ball Club. Here, we crossed the very modest Mississippi River. At this point, the river has turned south after leaving its source at Lake Itasca, flowing north and east briefly and then gaining momentum for its long journey to New Orleans. Crossing the Big River always opens our hearts because we know we are no longer in “the east” and are heading right into the great open spaces of the west.
Even in the north woods of Minnesota, we already feel different!
This week Liz and Peter left Michigan, crossed Wisconsin, and entered Minnesota in their Airstream as they continue their westward travel to Jasper and Banff. Next state to visit will be North Dakota. Come on along.