Solo hiking: A pristine corner of Lake Michigan
It’s my great pleasure to share with you this story by Loreen Niewenhuis. Her fiction has appeared in many journals including The Antioch Review, Red Wheelbarrow and The Bellevue Literary Review. Her collection of short stories, Scar Tissue, was a finalist in the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her novella, Atlanta, will be published this summer. Her book A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach chronicles her hike around Lake Michigan. Loreen holds an MSc and an MFA and lives in Michigan with her family. You can read more about her on her blog Lake Trek and on her Facebook page.
In 2009, I hiked all the way around Lake Michigan, a journey of 1000 miles. There are many beautiful stretches of lakeshore on this amazing Great Lake. If I could only recommend one portion, I’d choose Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The legend of the sleeping bear was told by the Chippewa Indians to explain a massive dune and the two islands near the coast of the “pinky” region of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The gigantic, wooded dune was said to be a mother bear that had fallen asleep while waiting for her cubs to swim back to shore after they had all escaped a raging forest fire by plunging into the cool lake water. The cubs never made it back and they became the North and South Manitou Islands.
While it’s a sad story, this stretch of shoreline evokes emotions far removed from sorrow. The largest fresh water dunes on the planet are in this park, some of them soaring over 450 feet. They are awe-inspiring. There are perched dunes here, too, formed by the lofting of on top of moraines left by the glaciers that formed the Great Lakes.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
This National Lakeshore preserves about 35 miles of pristine shoreline along with the two islands. There are over 70,000 diverse acres in this park. The wilderness is studded with camping areas, museums, lighthouses, an interactive driving loop, and a dune climb. A ferry from the quaint town of Leland will take you to the islands where you can also hike and camp and climb.
After hiking the shoreline north from the Point Bestie Lighthouse I pressed on to a trail that took me inland to the Platte River Campground. The trail climbed over high, rolling dunes with patchy areas of low scrub grasses and shrubs. In one area of open sand on the dune face, there was a ghost forest. These are the sun-bleached remains of trees entombed by the living dune, then revealed again when the winds shifted, migrating the sand away from the dead trees. Some of the ghost trees had been so exposed that they toppled over and their spiky stumps, which once reached down into the sand for water, now clawed at the air. Deeper in the woods, I startled several deer and they high hurdled their way through the forest, flashing their white tails at me.
No light pollution here
In the middle of the night, I got out of my sleeping bag and wriggled out into the cold night air. My breath formed fleeting fog in the cold, crisp night. I noticed that I could see fairly well even in the dense darkness and I looked up. The night sky was alight with stars, the Milky Way a cloud of light, more distinct and enormous than I had ever seen. The wondrous night sky elated me. I spread my arms and rotated in a slow circle attempting to take in the cosmos while owls hooted the latest owl news and coyote howled in the distance.
Not a camper?
The area has plenty to offer the solo traveler who prefers to stay in cushier digs. The quaint towns of Frankfort, Empire, Glen Arbor, Leland, and Suttons Bay offer shopping, entertainment and dining along with a variety of hotels and B&Bs. The larger Traverse City has some of the best dining options in the nation with many establishments doing magical things with local ingredients (Mario Batali, the chef, has a summer home here). Traverse City is also known as the Cherry Capital of the nation and they have a Cherry Festival every July.
Love to WINE while on traveling?
This area is at the same latitude as some of the best wine-producing regions on the planet (the Bordeaux in France and Italy’s Piedmont region). Vineyards and wineries abound in the area north of the National Lakeshore on the Leelanau Peninsula. Most have tasting rooms, and at the one at Black Star Farms, you can even watch their local cheese artisans at work.
Something for everyone
Amazing natural beauty combines with wilderness, fine dining, fun shopping and local wine. Oh, and let’s not forget gorgeous Lake Michigan with its cool, clear waters.