My Memories on the 50th Anniversary of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile photo courtesy of Glen Lake Community Library

By John Gannon

My first experience with Sleeping Bear Dunes was in the mid-1950s, when I was a teenager, accompanying my family on the Dunesmobile ride. I recall the ride in those convertible Oldsmobile 88s with the big, balloon tires so they didn’t get stuck in the soft sand. That sticks in my mind all these years later because a 1954 Oldsmobile 88 was the first car I ever owned, and I used primarily for my commute from home in Detroit to attend Wayne State University (WSU).

My senior year in 1964 at WSU included my first summer at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) east of Pellston on Douglas Lake. I took two courses: limnology (freshwater ecology) taught by the late Dr. George W. Saunders, which set my life-long career in motion as an aquatic biologist, and Energy Exchange in the Biosphere, a biophysics class taught by the late Dr. David M. Gates.

Gates grew up summering at UMBS, since his father taught the plant ecology class there for decades. As a child he tagged along on many of his dad’s class field trips. Later, his training in physics and his exposure to biology at UMBS influenced his life-long career direction in biophysics. So, Gates’ nostalgic class field trips in 1964 were at his dad‘s favorite places, including Sleeping Bear Dunes.

It is that field trip that fondly I remember most. We hiked across the dunes to the high slope overlooking Lake Michigan, collected biophysical data on the dunes and learned about the vegetation and their adaptations for surviving in such a harsh, wind-blown environment. 

We observed the hill atop the dune known as the “Sleeping Bear” of Native American legend.  At one time, trees and shrubs stabilized the shifting sands so that the dark-green prominence stood out from the vast expanse of brown sand and was visible miles away out in the lake. We observed that the hill (the “mother Sleeping Bear”) was badly eroded on the lake side, but trees and shrubs remained on the edges of the blow out.

That evening, we camped out on the dune. It was a perfect, star-lit summer night with no need for tents. Our sleeping bags were rolled out so we were all facing the lake, overlooking the legendary “bear cubs,” North and South Manitou islands. What a memorable night, watching the freighters steam silently by and sharing our knowledge with each other of the locations and names of the planets, stars, and constellations. The next day, among other activities, another student and I volunteered to run down the slope to the lake shore and measured the height of the dune with an eye level, one body length at a time on the way walking back up. 

Gates became the new director at UMBS in 1971. Established in 1909, UMBS was primarily an 8-week summer session for teaching and research. Gates had the vision to initiate a new, year-round research program, and I was hired in 1972. My wife, Susan, and I dropped my Ph.D. thesis off at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee library on our way north that year, and I was conducting inland lakes research and teaching the limnology class several weeks later. Susan led the children of faculty members on various environmental activities that year, including directing them in a play for the whole camp based on Dr. Suess’ book, The Lorax

Among other research activities, I received three contracts at UMBS from the National Park Service (NPS) in the 1970s shortly after the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established in October 1970. Two contracts were for baseline water quality surveys of the lower Platte River in Benzie County and Florence Lake on South Manitou Island.

The one on the Platte River became a bit controversial since we identified that the new Pacific salmon hatchery on the Platte was a significant source of phosphorus loading (long since corrected) to the river system.

The third contract was to conduct a red fox population estimate during winter on South Manitou where fox during the breeding season were killing hundreds of gull chicks in the big gull colony on, aptly named, Gull Point. The question was whether there were high numbers of fox or a few families showing their kits how to hunt. We concluded it was the latter. In fact, the population (5-7 individuals was our estimate) was probably suffering from generations of inbreeding and perhaps also insufficient food during the colder months (we observed evidence of fox eating dead alewives on the beach). We saw one red fox in mid-winter that was not much larger than a fox squirrel. 

Max Holden was the NPS project officer for the three contracts out of their Nebraska regional office. He did a site visit at UMBS on our progress one spring. After the daylong meeting, I went home that evening, and Max wanted to drive around the area sightseeing. I lived in a Mennonite farming community south of Pellston. That evening, our next-door neighbor was teaching me how to plow my garden with his one-horse plow. The next day, we had another meeting with Max. He said he was impressed with the pastoral farm scenery in the area. He even saw a guy working with a one-horse plow. It was me!  Max left his desk job and became the first park naturalist at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

In retrospect, I was fortunate to have experienced camping out on the dunes and running down and walking up the steep slope to and from the shoreline prior to the establishment of the National Lakeshore. If the Lakeshore had not been established in 1970, large numbers of people that did what I did back then would have trampled and degraded the sensitive habitats of the dunes area. Today, camping is wisely conducted in designated campgrounds and hiking and playing on the dunes is confined to designated hiking trails and the Dune Climb, thereby preserving for future generations one of the most picturesque and highly visited natural areas in the State of Michigan.

John Gannon is a limnologist and fisheries biologist. He received degrees in biology at Wayne State University, fisheries at the University of Michigan, and zoology (limnology) at the University of Wisconsin. He spent 12 years in academia and 29 years in federal government service, working on the Great Lakes his entire career. Now retired, his career evolved from research, to research program management, to the interface between research and policy. He held positions at the University of Michigan Biological Station, SUNY-Oswego, ihe U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center (and its predecessors), and the International Joint Commission.

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