Traverse City, Michigan – In spite of its name, Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore isn’t a place where you’re likely to encounter bears in the wild. They’re around – especially at the southern end of the park around the Platte River – but they’re normally shy creatures who tend to stay away from people.
On the other hand, Sleeping Bear is a wonderful place to spot lots of other animals, from white-tail deer and porcupines to bald eagles and coyotes. In fact, coming face to face with wildlife is one of the thrills of visiting this unspoiled wilderness on the Lake Michigan coast.
“Whether it’s the slap of a beaver tail on a quiet afternoon, watching otters play on the riverbank, or catching sight of an eagle overhead, there’s a lot of chances to encounter wildlife here,” says National Park Service wildlife biologist Sue Jennings.
Because of its rich interplay of natural habitat of vast dunes, lakes, streams, hardwood forests and cedar swamps, Sleeping Bear is home to many kinds of animals and birds -- including a number of species that are threatened or endangered. It’s not at all uncommon to come face to face with them while driving, hiking or paddling through the park, or to be serenaded by frogs and coyotes at night. You may even catch a sight of the elusive cougar, a creature whose presence in this part of the country is still being hotly debated.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes take their name from a charming Native American legend about a mother bear and her two cubs who perished while swimming across the lake to escape a forest fire. Bears are not unknown in the park, but they’re rare and solitary animals who aren’t often seen. Much more common are forest creatures like deer, fox, porcupines, squirrels, bats, and raccoons, while the rivers and inland lakes are home to otter, beaver, muskrat and mink.
In all, 50 species of mammals can be found here. Most are small and numerous – like the eastern chipmunk, nicknamed the “timber tiger” because of its voracious appetite and fearlessness in stealing food from campsites and picnic tables. A much rarer predator that haunts the park’s more remote areas is the bobcat, a small wild cat whose effective camouflage make it hard to see.
Cougars, all but wiped out in Michigan early in the 20th century, may now be making a comeback. And although the presence of the big cats at Sleeping Bear has still not been officially recognized, people report seeing them every year – and park rangers now post warning signs to let hikers know what to do if they encounter one on the trail.
Bird life is also plentiful at the park. So far 240 species of birds have been identified here, and birders flock to Sleeping Bear each year in hopes of catching sight of another rare specimen. The waters attract large numbers of loons, ducks, cormorants, herons and kingfishers, as well as rare trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes during migration season. The woodlands are home to warblers, thrushes, hawks and owls, while the open meadows provide welcome habitat for bald eagles and threatened sandpipers, bobolinks and grasshopper sparrows.
Two species in particular have found a special refuge at Sleeping Bear. The Prairie Warbler, one of Michigan’s most threatened birds, nests in the juniper scrublands just inshore from the park’s Lake Michigan beaches, while the beach itself is home to the Piping Plover – a charming little shorebird whose existence is threatened by coastal development. Each year, park rangers rope off sections of beach so the plucky little plovers can lay their eggs in the sand without fear that they’ll be stepped on by unwary sunbathers.
The plant life of the dunes is every bit as fascinating as the animals that live here, since the vegetation at Sleeping Bear is specially adapted to survive in the sandy dunes and beaches with their constant wind and blowing sand, their hot, dry summers and freezing winters. There are succulents like sea rocket, tough leathery shrubs like bearberry (a relative of the western Manzanita), and pitcher’s thistle, a rare deep-rooted thistle with silvery leaves and flowers. The dunes are also home to several “ghost forests” – eerie groves of trees that were buried long ago by blowing sand and uncovered years later by the same incessant winds.
In spite of the near-desert conditions, vegetation at Sleeping Bear is unusually lush because of the nearby waters of Lake Michigan, which keeps the air cooler in summer, warmer in winter, and moister throughout the year. The two Manitou Islands, in particular, are filled with unusually large plants, like the Grove of the Giants, a forest of massive 100-foot white cedars on South Manitou.
But it’s one thing to hear about all the diverse plants and animals that survive and thrive in the unique terrain of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and another thing entirely to experience it first-hand. Coming around a bend in the trail to see a mother deer standing in the forest with her fawns, or gazing down the 400-foot face of the dunes as a school of enormous lake trout glides through the blue water like a fleet of small submarines, is a truly unforgettable experience.
For more information about the wildlife of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, visit the website.To learn about lodging, dining and entertainment choices in Traverse City, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or at the Traverse City website.