The legend of Sleeping Bear

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.

the dunes

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.

early picture of the sleeping bear atop the dune. It looks different today

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.

North and South Manitou Islands in the far distance

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.


3 Responses to The legend of Sleeping Bear

  1. Kathy Rees 1 September, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    We have adopted to incredible little girls from China, Jazzy 6 and Jiayi 3. We are camping at Turtle Creek near the Sleeping Bear Dunes. I read this story off this blog before we encounterede the Dunes today! Later after the girls experience I will have them tell me what they would like to say to you on your blog about their expereinces! We purposely did not show the girls pictures of the Dunes nor told them what to expect! We told them about the legend only so they can form their own thoughts when they see the Dunes. Neither girls have ever seen them before not even in pictures. Don’t you just love all the wonders children encounter for the very first time! Sometimes we can spoil these first encounters by actually sharing too much. We wet their thirst only with the story on your blog so they could create their own learning as they are amazed by what they are seeing for the very first time! Thank you so much for your blog! It was an amazing tool for us to use with the girls before and after we experience the Sleeping Bear Dunes as a family!

    • Kate Convissor 1 September, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      Wow, Kathy! You made my day. I don’t know how you found my site amid the millions of Google options, but I’m glad you did. Please let me know what your girls say. Maybe I’ll include them in a footnote on my next blog.

      So glad you’re enjoying the lake. What a beautiful time of year to be there. I’m on Cape Breton Island right now also enjoying sun and blue water.

      Again, thanks for sharing.

  2. Erik 20 October, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    I’ve been to both islands, North this summer. Some tough camping there!

    Thanks for sharing. Brings back memories of the first time I heard that story.