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The lowlands around these two serene inland lakes in the Platte Plains are a great place to show kids signs of beaver. Look for lodges new and old and the pencil-point ends of chewed trees.
Take a right on Trail’s End Road 5.5 miles south of Empire. Stay on it until you come to the trailhead for the 3.5-mile Bass Lake loop. If the entire hike is too long for little ones, skip up the trail a bit and come back.
For almost a century after it was built in 1894, the Monte Carlo House blended innocuously into a row of summer cottages built by wealthy Chicago resorters on North Manitou Island. Then, about 10 years ago, Thomas A. Heinz, Frank Lloyd Wright scholar and author, came across an advertisement in an early edition of the magazine Inland Architect. The ad was occasionally cited in architectural literature, but never, evidently, thoroughly studied. The first half of the ad was a solicitation for a contractor to build a home in Chicago for one George Blossom. The second half of the ad was looking for a builder for Blossom’s cottage on North Manitou Island. The solicitor? The young architect who had designed both structures, Frank Lloyd Wright. Although Heinz says the cottage “shows signs of intelligence,” he says the Monte Carlo House demonstrates little of the genius mind that would emerge as full-blown Wright. The cottage could, however, garner one Wright superlative: the architect’s most hard-to-reach project. “The trip over was like a toboggan ride,” says Heinz, who listed Monte Carlo in his most recent book, Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide (Northwestern University Press, 2005).
Hop the Manitou Island Transit for North Manitou. The ferry heads to the wilderness island daily during the summer—but no round trips, so camping is a must. Cottage Row is a short walk south from the ferry dock. With Lake Michigan at your back, it’s the first cottage on your right.
My home in Glen Arbor is set between two sandy behemoths: Sleeping Bear Point and Pyramid Point. Twice in my lifetime they’ve reshaped themselves. In March of 1971, 20 acres of Sleeping Bear Point kamikazed into Lake Michigan. Trees, shrubs, grass, rocks, thousands of tons of sand and, almost, a vacant cottage (it was left hanging off the edge) slammed into the water below. In June 1998 roughly the same scenario played out at Pyramid Point (though no house was involved). Both events occurred during the night—no witnesses, no fatalities—leaving one to ponder a new version of the old metaphysical question about a tree falling in the forest. If an entire piece of geography falls off a lonely point with no one to hear it, what in the blazes must it sound like? On clear summer days, it is all but impossible to believe the points could wreak such destruction. From their summits, the world is rendered to a soul-nourishing triad of sky, water and sand. But to stop at the edge of their sandy cliffs would be to miss their womb-shaped cores—long, deep, blond-sand bowls edged in ruffles of dune grass and cartwheel-inducing sandy sides. The bowl at Sleeping Bear Point (we call it the Glen Haven bowl for its proximity to that village) is relatively narrow and more human in scale than the canyonlike Pyramid Point bowl, with its stop-you-in-your-tracks blue vistas that spread out from the rim—but the Pyramid Point bowl is also harder to get to. For 15 years my husband and I have brought families up to these sand bowls for games of tag and capture the football. The first children to play are now in their mid- to late 20’s—spread out across the world from Chicago to China. I like to think of some random piece of sand in, say, Beijing, eliciting memories of the freedom of summer evenings spent running and hiding across those bowls.
Glen Haven Bowl: From the Sleeping Bear Coast Guard Station in Glen Haven, follow the dirt road until it dead ends at a parking area and trailhead. Take the trail up the hill then peel off to the right. The bowl is over the next rise. Pyramid Point Bowl: Hike to the Pyramid Point lookout from the trailhead on Port Oneida Road, then follow the sandy ridge eastward above the water through vines and dune grass. Note: Watch for poison ivy on both hikes.
This diminutive hand-hewn log schoolhouse sits alone in the trees with its back to M-22 on the edge of Narada Lake, five miles north of Glen Arbor. A community of Bohemian immigrants, who called their settlement North Unity, built it in 1855. When everything but the schoolhouse in North Unity burned several years later, the families dispersed, leaving the schoolhouse to be used by the families on the east side of Port Oneida. To peek through the wavy, paned windows into the schoolroom, with its bare spot on the whitewashed walls where the blackboard once hung, is to time travel. Pause a moment on the stoop to consider a story my friend Laura Basch told me in the 1990’s, when she was 83—the tale seems to match the independent spirit of the old building. Laura and her brother, Howard, both attended the school. One very cold winter day (“It was so cold the snow was cracked,” Laura told me) in the early 1920’s, they bundled in their warmest woolens and set off for the schoolhouse. By the time the brother and sister made it down the long, icy hill from their home, they couldn’t feel their fingers inside their woolen mittens, and their cheeks had gone from rosy to white. They pushed open the schoolhouse door to find the inside was as cold as the outside. The teacher, whose job it was to start the fire in the woodstove, was late for school. Laura sent Howard, who was younger, home and waited for the teacher so that she could confront her—in an age when children, and especially girls, weren’t to question. When the teacher finally came Laura announced her decision to return home. The teacher ordered her into the schoolhouse. Laura stood her ground. “Well, we’ll see about that,” the teacher called as Laura grabbed her books and stalked out of the schoolyard. Just as she’d hoped, her parents understood that as surely as the children need to eat, they need a warm schoolhouse, so Howard and Laura spent a cozy day with their mother. The teacher wasn’t asked back the next year, and North Unity’s next teacher put a pot of homemade vegetable soup on the school’s big woodstove every morning. The soup would make the cold windowpanes sweat, Laura remembered, and fill the room with the scent of cooking carrots and onions.
Northbound on M-22 five miles from Glen Arbor, the schoolhouse is on your left.
I’ve spent many a Father’s Day watching my kids reel in bluegill, perch and sunfish from a canoe on this non-motorized lake. When the little ones get the boat to rocking, I look at the sandy bottom just feet below the canoe and stop worrying. Then I look up and have to remind myself we’re not paddling in a painting: tree-ringed shore mirrorred in the water and the ridge to Pyramid Point rising in the west. Bliss.
Take C-669 (Bohemian Road) to Lake Michigan Drive, turn left and go almost two miles to Elliot Road—a two-track that ends at Shell Lake in about a mile.
The peaceful, long-abandoned farmsteads of the National Lakeshore’s Port Oneida historic district lie mostly along Port Oneida and Basch roads, a few miles north of Glen Arbor. But they spill onto M-22 where you’ll see the pert Olsen farmhouse with its sunburst motif over the front entrance, and the stately Klett farm across the road. In the 1970’s, many of the families who had farmed this valley for a hundred years sold their property to the National Park Service. The buildings were boarded up and left to weather into the landscape—creating an almost perfect time capsule of a 19th-century farming community. I came to know the stories and secrets of this pastoral landscape largely through Lucille and Jack Barratt, one of a handful of Port Oneida couples who chose not to sell to the National Park Service. Jack’s great grandparents, Carsten and Elizabeth Burfiend, were the valley’s first settlers—German immigrants who built a log cabin on the beach. Once, according to family lore, a storm flooded the cabin, and Elizabeth waded out into the surf to retrieve the baby’s cradle. In another story, Elizabeth and her children hid under the bed from pillaging Lake Michigan pirates. Of all the things I love about Port Oneida, I would single out spirit holes and the Werner family cemetery, also called the German cemetery, as hidden favorites. Spirit holes are small, diamond-shaped cutouts in the gables of two of the valley’s older barns—a German folk motif that is rooted, it’s thought, in an ancient pagan belief that spirits need a place to exit. The German cemetery is set in the woods on the valley’s west-facing bluff, overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. The Werners, relatives of the Burfiends, were the second family to arrive in the valley. Many of the headstones, overgrown with periwinkle and shadowed by an ancient beech tree, are inscribed in German: Margaret Werner gest 1899; Johann Werner get 1865, gest 1899. It says a lot about what these people valued, I think, that they would bury their loved ones amid such beauty.
A spirit hole: The Schmidt barn, built in 1885 at the corner of Port Oneida and Miller Roads, is the easiest place to see spirit holes. Just look up at the gables.
German Cemetery: There is no marked trail to get to the cemetery, so it takes a sharp eye to find it. Drive to the end of Miller Road and park. The cemetery is almost due west from where you'll park, but the vegetation is too thick to walk in a straight line. Instead, follow the mowed park trail to the top of the ridge, then pick up the footpath that leads north along the ridge. You'll come to the cemetery in about 1/4 mile.
Take a video tour of the Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitors Center, Empire. 231-326-5134, nps.gov/slbe.
For information on historic structures: Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, headquartered in the Olsen farmhouse on M-22 in Port Oneida. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 231-334-6103, phsb.org.
The Manitou Island Transit, in Leland, services North and South Manitou Islands. For schedule and reservations, 231-256-9061, leelanau.com/manitou.
Bring the beauty of Northern Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to life with the Beautiful Sleeping Bear Dunes Book and DVD Package, produced by MyNorth Media. Click here to order yours today!