Chapter One "National Parks Are Where You Find Them:" The Origins of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The First Tourists
"Its lake front was very steep," recalled fur trader Gurdon S. Hubbard, "and it was with great difficulty and exertion that it could be ascended; the loose sand into which one sank several inches at each step, slid downward carrying one with it, so that progress was slow and tedious." Hubbard, at the head of an American Fur Company fur brigade, visited Sleeping Bear Dunes in the summer of 1823. Although he was charged with escorting down the lake shore the supplies required for the maintenance of a score of trading posts, the young fur trader could not resist the impulse to play tourist. After climbing the face of Sleeping Bear and enjoying the lake vistas afforded by the great perched dune, Hubbard and a companion started down the sandy slope to their boats. "I went down by quick jumps, but before reaching the bottom heard the shouts of the voyageurs, and though I could not look back, I knew full well the cause. When I had arrived at the bottom, I looked back and saw my companion struggling and rolling, while the sand flew in every direction. He landed close to my feet pale and frightened, but otherwise unharmed... .the men screamed with laughter."
Hubbard's companion, an unnamed gentleman sarcastically nicknamed "La Beaute'" by the voyageurs, was not a fur trader, but instead a mere traveler. As such he likely qualifies as the first tourist to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes. Like so many visitors since, he yielded to the impulse to both climb and descend the giant sand dune. And like so many others, he enjoyed the view, but perhaps regretted the effort.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of the most imposing natural landmarks on the shore of Lake Michigan. From the space shuttle Columbia, orbiting the earth some 250 miles above, the dunes stand out against the blue border of the lake. Yet, strange to say, Sleeping Bear failed to elicit a sense of wonder from most of the early travelers along the east shore of the lake. As early as 1688 the dunes appeared on French maps of the region, but neither the French explorers nor the pioneer Jesuit missionaries lavished much attention on Sleeping Bear. Even Hubbard's contemporaries, American explorers Henry Rowe Schoolcratt and David Bates Douglas, were more taken with the Indian legend behind the place name of the dunes than with the majesty of the massive sand bluffs. This is unusual for an area destined to become a national park. Yellowstone and Zion, the Shenandoah and the Great Smokies all were early esteemed for their visual grandeur. The Pictured Rocks and Isle Royale, two Michigan landscapes on Lake Superior destined to become national parks inspired effusive outpourings from the pens of Schoolcraft and early government explorers. Although the scale of Sleeping Bear Dunes makes it exceptional, its uniqueness is a matter of relative degree. Virtually the entire east coast of Lake Michigan, more than three hundred miles, is given over to a landscape of lake, dune, and forest. Indiana Dune, Warren Dune, Grand Mere Dune, Saugatuck Dune, and Nordhouse Dune form a magnificent string of silica strands which left travelers and explorers jaded to sand dunes by the time they reached Sleeping Bear. Appreciation for the landscape that would become the national lakeshore developed slowly, only as the Lake Michigan frontier was gradually bent and reshaped to fit the needs of the national economy were its scenic values appreciated as an asset as tangible as furs, lumber, or grain.