Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Glen Haven, Michigan
“That wasn’t so bad,” James remarks as we draw within landfall of the South Manitou Island Lighthouse.
We’ve just paddled our loaded sea kayaks across eight miles of open water on Lake Michigan, crossing from the mainland beach of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to the twin South and North Manitou Islands.
We enjoyed spectacularly calm and clear conditions during the two-hour crossing, and a light chop ruffles the water now as we guide our boats around the point of land and into the protected east bay to land at the Park Service dock. After checking in with the ranger there, providing a rough itinerary and obtaining camping permits, we hit the water again and turn south to our first camp at Weather Station. There, we lug our gear up the steep dune to the level campsite and make ourselves at home with an early dinner.
My brother, James, and I had each visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore separately, and roamed the 400-foot-high sand dunes and combed the seemingly endless miles of gleaming white-sand beaches. And, each being sea-kayakers at heart, had gazed longingly across the open water to these distant islands. So, when suggestions for a summer paddling trip destination were floated, we readily agreed on the Manitou Islands.
The entire region of Sleeping Bear Dunes was carved and sculpted by successive glacial advances, with great ice sheets slowly rumbling down from Canada to create headlands and moraines, and wave- and wind-driven erosion further altering the landscape in between these ice ages.
But perhaps other, more mysterious forces have had a hand in the making of this place, too.
Long ago, according to native Ojibwe legend, a mother bear and her two young cubs fled a great forest fire in our home state of Wisconsin by leaping into Lake Michigan and swimming for safety. They swam for many days and nights, and finally came within sight of this far shore in Michigan. But the two cubs grew weary, and despite her encouragement, the mother bear watched helplessly as first one, then the other, of her beloved offspring succumbed to exhaustion and slipped beneath the waves, drowned.
Dismayed, the mother bear struggled ashore and lay down to watch for her beloved cubs. Alas, they never appeared, but as she watched and waited, two beautiful islands arose from the troubled waters. Heartbroken and exhausted, the old mother bear died where she lay. The same Great Manitou spirit who had made the islands also made a grand dune on that very spot to memorialize the faithful mother …
Perched on our high campsite ledge overlooking Lake Michigan, enjoying what would likely be the last cold beers for the next several days, we survey the lonely distant dune, now a hazy gold in the late afternoon sun, and can only ponder its true origins.
Weather Station campsite, South Manitou Island
Having made the crossing, we are both eager to explore this offshore world, so we set out on foot to hike some of the several miles of trails threading the island interior, and to learn some of its history.
As quickly as the glaciers receded northward 11,000 years ago, early native Americans followed into this new land to hunt game and forage for food. Later, their descendants settled on the mainland and on these islands, and traded with their distant neighbors, as evidenced by tools and jewelry made of Lake Superior copper.
The first Europeans to visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes area were members of French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette’s party in 1675. Other explorers followed, and by 1857, an inn, sawmill, and cord wood station were in operation at Glen Haven to supply fuel to the growing fleets of Great Lakes steamships.
Both North and South Manitou Islands were logged for lumber and fuel, and once the land was cleared, settlers raised crops here. The islands’ offshore location moderated their climate, the lake waters preventing great temperature swings, and this mild environment was well suited to productive fruit orchards.
We amble around the wooded trails and pathways, visiting old farm sites and cemeteries, and finally make our way back to the island headquarters at the old lifesaving station near the dock. As ship traffic increased in the 19th century, so too did shipwrecks, and the dangerous Manitou Passage which we paddled yesterday claimed many schooners. To meet this hazard, lifesaving stations were built on both North and South Manitou Islands, and at Glen Haven. In addition, a lighthouse was built on South Manitou Island in 1839, and was replaced twice over the years with successively taller ones.
The current tower, standing over 100 feet tall, was built in 1871 and still watches over the hazardous passage. Brilliant white, the South Manitou Island Lighthouse can be clearly seen from the mainland, and is a homing landmark for anyone making the crossing. With a park service ranger, we climb the 117 steps of the spiral staircase to the light chamber and observation deck, and take in spectacular views of the Manitou Passage and island.
But, we also came here to paddle, so we head back to camp and don our wetsuits. Launching from our beachside campsite, we cruise westward along the shore to seek a modern-day victim of these sometimes treacherous waters.
As we come around the southern tip of the island, we soon see the dark hulk stranded on the shoals, leaning precariously but still standing above the waterline, ominously silhouetted against the afternoon sun.
In late November of 1960, the Liberian freighter Francisco Morazan left Chicago, bound for Holland. This was well into the onset of the Great Lakes winter storm season, and the next day, as the ship approached the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, she was struck with gale-force wind and waves, and blinded by fog and snow. The Morazan ran aground just south of South Manitou Island, and after nearly a week aboard the wave- and ice-battered vessel, the crew abandoned ship and was rescued by Coast Guard ice-breaker. The ship’s owners never claimed her, and she still rests here in shallow water.
The lake breeze soon brings a stench most foul. I have generally come to anticipate this phenomenon after a few days of wilderness kayak-touring, emanating either from myself or my camp-mates, personal hygiene being as scarce as cold beer. But this is only our second day out. Besides, my brother is presently downwind from me.
It is apparent that the Morazan has not only the appearance of death, but also the odor. The derelict vessel is now inhabited only by hundreds of black cormorants, who care even less for personal hygiene than does your average kayak-tourer. I don’t know what color the Morazan was when it ran aground here, but the unfortunate ship is now whitewashed in cormorant feces …
Did I mention that the principle food source of cormorants is fish?
My jaunty bandanna soon becomes a makeshift face mask and we approach the wreck by kayak. She sits on a shoal, just a few hundred feet offshore, her bow section torn off and lying nearby. In the clear aquamarine waters, we see other sections of steel hull, decking, and other equipment strewn across the bottom. In these calm conditions, we are able to glide over her submerged decks and right into her engine room, where the water laps gently around her steam boiler.
The cormorants resent our intrusion, and they vent their displeasure from both ends. Despite our broad-brimmed hats, we give the ship a wider berth.
Since ships first began sailing Lake Michigan in 1679, they have used this narrow passage between the Manitou Islands and the mainland as a shortcut sheltered from westerly storms. But the numerous shoals and sand bars presented their own hazards, and numerous ships have met their demise here in these waters. The Morazan is only the latest.
We are glad for smooth sailing today as we bid the unfortunate freighter farewell and dawdle back to our camp in the fading afternoon light.
Weather Station campsite, South Manitou Island
The day dawns as clear and calm as the day before, so we break camp and paddle northeast, past the lighthouse and dock, and across the mouth of the small bay. From the far point, we strike out for the four-mile crossing to North Manitou Island.
As with most islands, the Manitous are somewhat isolated from the mainland, so they support flora and fauna communities uniquely evolved to live here. Like most upper Great Lakes shoreline regions, these islands are heavily forested with cedar and white pine. Violets, trillium, hepatica, and other flowers lend splashes of color to the forest greenery.
A variety of waterfowl either make their homes here or pass through on their annual migrations. Canada geese, mergansers, and loons can be seen thru much of the summer, as well as bald eagles, warblers and other songbirds, and woodcock. A few pair of the rare and endangered Piping Plover make their nests on North Manitou.
There are no bears on either island, but white-footed mice, chipmunks, and raccoons compel campers to hang their food in typical bear-bag fashion to prevent pilferage. It is believed that North Manitou’s inland beaver population arrived by swimming the eight miles from the mainland!
We make landfall at Donner Point and cruise around the long sandy finger of Dimmicks Point, now a nesting sanctuary for the Piping Plover and closed to visitors for most of the summer.
Four miles up the eastern shore, we begin seeing historic buildings and piers, evidence of the village, and we pull up near the public dock for lunch and to stroll around the grounds. Like South Manitou Island, the North island is served by a passenger ferry based in Leland, and there is a small ranger station in the Village, but services are few.
The human history of North Manitou Island is much the same as her sister, South Manitou Island, but the larger north island was home to a larger settlement, boasting nearly 300 residents by 1860. There was at one time a school, several sawmills, a lighthouse, and numerous homes, some of which are still standing.
Most of the island is considered a wilderness area, with only foot travel allowed. Aside from the eight designated campsites at the Village Campground, most of the island is open for backcountry camping, with some restrictions. We opt to continue up the beach a couple of miles to Vessel Point, where we pull ashore and make camp.
Vessel Point, North Manitou Island
After a simple breakfast and loading the kayaks, we cruise northwest around the north end of the island in calm, sunny conditions.
The topography of North Manitou Island is an exaggeration of the south island: narrow sand or cobble beaches backed by steep clay banks or sand dunes. But North Manitou Island rises over 400 feet above the lake, and much of the 20-mile shoreline is quite steep.
Towards late afternoon, when we start looking for a campsite on the western shore, we find one of the camping restrictions almost impossible for paddlers to comply with: Mother Nature has seen fit to locate the best wilderness campsites about 100-200 feet from the water’s edge, while the National Park Service has opted to enforce a 300-foot setback from the high-water mark, as well as from any trails.
Since most of the northern half of the island’s shoreline is comprised of 45-degree clay banks or sand dunes, to proceed 300 feet inshore means one also must climb 300 feet upward, carrying camping gear. If you adhere to this setback rule, as we did, there is precious little practical kayak-camping anywhere on the entire northern half of North Manitou Island.
Finally finding a shoreline with a lower rise, we decide to pitch our tent and sleeping hammock the proper distance back in the woods, and do our cooking down near the beach by the kayaks. This reduces the amount of gear we need to haul up the sand banks (and therefore our ecological impact on the delicate dunes), and offers a lake breeze to keep flies and mosquitoes down while we cook and eat. At nightfall, we pack our kitchen stuff away in the kayaks and retire to the upper campsite for the night.
As always, we tune in the weather radio for an evening update, so we know what to expect through the night and into tomorrow. ‘Scattered showers’ are predicted, and, having yet to experience a rainfall in my camping hammock, I look forward to seeing how it will fare.
With nightfall the winds arrive, the rain falls in buckets, and by midnight our dunetop campsite is being blasted by 45-mph westerly wind and rain howling in off the open lake. The hundred-foot-tall white pines supporting my hammock sway and creak, smaller trees nearby crack and fall in the dark, and James and I meet on the beach twice during the night to haul the kayaks higher above the pounding surf. But snug in my hammock, beneath the fly, my down sleeping bag and I stay high and dry.
Fredrickson Place, North Manitou Island
In the morning, the waters on the passage between the twin Manitou Islands are still roiled, so we enjoy a leisurely breakfast and hang around camp for most of the morning, finally packing the kayaks and launching into mild surf. We paddle southwest and easily gain South Manitou Island in an hour or so, gliding into the Bay and taking a campsite in the woods behind the gorgeous sandy beach here.
Besides being the first island in a long line stretching up to the Mackinac Straits, South Manitou also boasts this large natural harbor situated on the leeward shore. Though the Bay hosts only a couple of pleasure sailboats today, in the early 19th century it was not unusual to see dozens of lake schooners and steamers huddled here for protection while a Lake Michigan storm howled on the open lake.
The waters of Lake Michigan have been unusually warm during this entire trip—near 75F—and this shallow bay is even warmer. So we enjoy a refreshing swim in the aquamarine bathwater and gratefully wash off the usual neoprene funk.
We are nearing the end of our trip here, with only the eight-mile crossing remaining. But as I will learn tomorrow, the journey isn’t over until one is safely back on the dry mainland, and safety is not always assured …
Bay Campground, South Manitou Island
The morning dawns clear and the National Weather Service predicts diminishing winds, with scattered clouds. We break camp, pack the kayaks, and soon hit the water.
On the crossing over from the mainland a few days ago, we had the distinctive white tower of the South Manitou Island lighthouse to serve as a daymark during our passage, visible even from eight miles distant. But today, crossing back, there is no clear navigation marker aside from the great Sleeping Bear Dune herself, which we know is near our intended landing spot. So, while we have her in sight, we both take compass bearings as a fallback should we be overtaken with haze or fog during the two-hour crossing.
There is little to worry about today in the way of visibility, but as we cover the first mile or so, and leave the sheltering lee of South Manitou Island, we find ourselves exposed to the residual southwesterly waves of yesterday’s windstorm. Another mile out, the waves build to solid four- to five-footers, some breaking in noisy, white foaming masses.
The wave trains are sweeping directly up the Manitou Passage, and we take them nearly on the beam. Most waves we are able to simply ride up and over, while the occasional six-footer requires a slight deviation in course in order to push our bows up the wave faces for greater stability.
James and I remain close together, within shouting distance, but far enough apart to avoid collision. When my kayak and I drop to the bottom of a trough, I can glance over and see my brother cruising along five feet overhead; a moment later I am heaved to the crest of the same wave while he sinks in the next trough, five feet below.
We cruise along like this in silence, each concentrating on the task at hand and sparing no idle chatter, but only keeping a watch on our destination and on one another. We are nearing the main shipping lane now, so we keep our eyes open for approaching Great Lakes freighter traffic, and I recall a story about a local resident who took advantage of these treacherous waters.
One of the early lighthouses built on South Manitou Island suffered from a dim light, and ships approaching from the south often missed this crucial marker to the passage entrance, especially in fog or thick weather. An unscrupulous and resourceful citizen of nearby Empire positioned a large lantern high on the dunes south of Sleeping Bear in poor weather, and when ships mistook it for the South Manitou Island Light, they ran aground on the shore. When the crew abandoned ship, the scoundrel and his thugs quickly ransacked the scuttled craft of its cargo.
I am roused from my historical revery by the sound of churning water over my right shoulder, and before I can turn to look, a six-foot ‘sneaker’ wave strikes me head-high. James, cruising along on my port quarter, would later describe the breaking wave as literally ‘exploding’ on my decks.
Caught unawares and before I can react with a high brace, I am knocked over, my paddle torn from my grip in the foam, and I am forced to wet-exit. James pulls up alongside, his expression one of annoyed resolve, and assesses the situation.
Since skinny tow-headed lads jouncing around in the family canoe, shoving each other overboard, capsizing the boat and righting it again, laughing the whole while, we’ve always been comfortable in the water. Decades later, as middle-aged desk jockeys, we’d meet at a lake halfway between our homes to practice falling out of and getting back into our shiny new sea kayaks. Now it was time to put the proof to our practice.
“Let’s do a T-rescue,” I splutter, clinging to my overturned kayak and trying to sound more confident than I truly am. “Textbook.”
Admittedly, we’ve never practiced such rescues in five-foot whitecaps, and we both know many who say a T-rescue cannot be done in such conditions. But we have little choice today.
My kayak is naturally lying parallel to the waves, and James expertly maneuvers his boat to the bow of mine, facing into the relentless rollers. We soon have my boat drained, righted, and rafted alongside of his, and I scramble aboard and begin pumping the remaining water from the cockpit.
Altogether, my mishap has taken only a few minutes out of our day, but I am wet and rattled as I snap my skirt back on and we resume paddling. Though embarrassed to be rescued by my little brother (and not for the first time, over the years), I suppose there is no shame in survival …
The waves begin to subside and the rest of our crossing is uneventful and speedy. The low red Glen Haven Fish Cannery soon is in sight, and we ease into the protected bay behind the namesake Sleeping Bear Dune.
“That wasn’t so bad,” James smirks, and I know I’ll be buying the first round of pints.
Jeffrey Lee paddles and writes in the Upper Great Lakes region. For additional photos from this kayak trip, please visit the companion photo gallery >>
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