In Search of Wilderness Solitude

Recently the new Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness was officially designated but Jim DuFresne wonders in the latest MichiganTrailMaps.com Trail Talk blog; can a place that has been extensively logged and farmed, that is crisscrossed with new roads and old two-tracks, that was once the site of dune buggy rides … ever be a true wilderness again?

By Jim DuFresne

While researching the South Manitou Island map for MichiganTrailMaps.com, I was hiking a narrow two-track one afternoon when suddenly I heard a rumble behind me. The two-track is a legal Leelanau County road called Shefler Road. But on either side of it was the proposed Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The noise turned out to be a bright orange Kurbota tractor pulling a flatbed trailer loaded with 20 senior citizens from Grayling. From the hooting and hollering, you just knew this tractor ride to view a shipwrecked freighter was going to be the highlight of their day on South Manitou.

I jumped from the two-track to the edge of the wilderness, not for solitude or to seek serenity with nature, but for the safety from the oncoming tractor tour. In an explosion of dust, they sped past me, leaving me with the knowledge that in 40 minutes I’d see them again.

Recently the 32,500-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness, including a good chunk of South Manitou Island, was officially dedicated in a ceremony that included both U.S. senators from Michigan, a congressman and officials from the National Park Service. The event took place at an overlook along  Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and followed legislation this spring that designates nearly half of the 71,199-acre National Lakeshore as wilderness.

The famous sand dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The famous sand dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

At the dedication I was left wondering the same question I was pondering while standing on the side of Shefler Road watching a trailer full of senior citizens zip past me.  Can a place that has been extensively logged and farmed, that is crisscrossed with new roads and old two-tracks, that was once the site of dune buggy rides … ever be a true wilderness again?

Or in this day and age has the term “wilderness” been so watered down that any place without a McDonald’s on one corner and a Motel 6 on the other qualifies for such status?

Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness was part of the master plan when the national lakeshore was created in 1973 and a much debated topic since the National Park Service included it 13 years ago in the proposed update of the park’s general management plan.  This is especially true for the locals who formed Citizens For The Access To The Lakeshore (CAL).

CAL was all for “the preservation of the Lakeshore’s natural, cultural and historical features” that a wilderness destination would give the park as long as they could still drive to their favorite beaches and stretches of shoreline.  They lobbied their congressman, Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, their U.S. senators, particularly Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, and NPS officials.

Tractor tours in a wilderness on South Manitou Island.

Tractor tours in a wilderness on South Manitou Island.

This rare bipartisan effort between Democratics and Republicans and the National Park Service and the public resulted in the first wilderness protection bill to be passed by Washington, D.C. since 2009. And on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, a chunk of Sleeping Bear Dunes became the country’s newest wilderness.

But is it, really?

Sleeping Bear Dunes is basically a park wedged between M-22 and the Gold Coast that is Lake Michigan. On the mainland the furthest you can escape from roads or paved paths is only 1.3 miles and most of the time you’re much closer, usually less than a mile, the reason it’s so hard to escape the summer crowds.

The new designation will ban roads, highways, boat launches and other structures in the new wilderness  while visitors will continue to be able to hunt, fish and hike. But backcountry camping, a staple in other wilderness areas, will be restricted to designated areas on the mainland as well as South Manitou Island.  The park is too small, its visitation too overwhelming, to have people pitching a tent just anywhere.

What we really ended up with at Sleeping Bear Dunes is what one NPS official called “access-friendly wilderness” that still offers “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” You can still get off the beaten path in this wilderness, you can find a place where there is nobody around or no sign they have been but during much of the year you’re going to have to search for it.

Sen. Carl Levin speaking at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness dedication.

Sen. Carl Levin speaking at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness dedication.

It won’t be Pierce Stocking Drive or the Dune Climb, or the beaches around D.H. Day Campground or those county roads on South Manitou Island, not in a place that drew a record 1.5 million visitors in 2012 after being named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by “Good Morning America.”

To find a wilderness experience at Sleeping Bear Dunes you’re going to have to work hard by looking for it on the backside of North Manitou Island during the fall or maybe kayaking around South Manitou or leaving the trail at Sleeping Bear Point and just wandering through the open dunes.

Then maybe for an afternoon you’ll find your wilderness solitude. Or maybe not.

Sen. Levin, who has championed the new designation for Sleeping Bear Dunes right from the beginning, said that wilderness is not always a place but often a state of mind. To protect small pristine areas from any future development by slapping a wilderness label on them are places people need to know still exists.

Even if they never plan to leave the pavement.

“Wilderness is part of who we are, it’s always been part of the American spirit,” Sen. Levin said. “In our history there has always been a fascination with places that lie beyond the end of the road.”

To know that not every place will be developed and paved, even if you never see it, is in itself wilderness solitude.

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This entry was posted in Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Jim DuFresne's Trail Talk Blog, Michigan, North Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness, South Manitou Island and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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