Every child in Michigan knows this story. The legend of the Sleeping Bear is an Ojibway tale explaining the creation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the two Manitou Islands (North and South) just off the Lake Michigan coast. A storybook based on the legend was declared Michigan’s “official children’s book” in 1998. Since Sleeping Bear Dunes was recently voted “the most beautiful place in America,” and since I was just there, I’ll tell you the legend, then I’ll take you there.
Once there was a mother bear who lived on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. She had two cubs whom she loved with the ferocity of any mother, bear or human. But a famine came to this land, normally so fertile and abundant. The cubs were hungry. (Another version tells of a forest fire–take your pick.)
Crazed with despair and/or hunger, the mother decided to swim across the lake. She plunged into the lake, her cubs behind her.
Now, if you’ve never seen Lake Michigan, this huge freshwater sea is about 100 miles across where this bear entered the lake. Those who know this lake treat it with respect. It’s not the largest of the Great Lakes, nor is it the most ferocious, but twenty-foot waves can take down large boats in a storm–and they have plenty of times.
The mother bear swam with a strength born of desperation, urging her cubs on, mile after mile, hour after hour. The winds and weather were favorable–the wind always blows west across the lake. But, even as land appeared on the far eastern horizon, the cubs, exhausted, began to lag behind.
Despite the mother’s calls and encouragement, one cub disappeared silently beneath the waves. The mother, frantic now, tried to support her last cub across the remaining stretch of blue water. But the cub, utterly spent, also slipped beneath the water.
Bereft and exhausted, the mother bear finally heaved her heavy body onto the far shore of Lake Michigan. She climbed the dunes and lay down at the top to rest, facing the lake that had claimed her cubs.
She lays there still…waiting.
While she slept, two green islands rose in the lake, created by the Great Spirit in memory of such courage and love. Thus, North and South Manitou Islands were created, perpetually watched over by Sleeping Bear Dunes on the shore a few miles away. A more beautiful, peaceful place would be hard to find.