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The Dunes in Winter by Jerry Dennis As a child I sometimes tried to imagine how the world would look if every step taken by every person who had ever lived was printed immutably in ink. City sidewalks would be black as typewriter ribbons, and the countryside would be braided with aimless, tangled trails. But somewhere -- in the hardwoods behind our house, in the tiny forgotten valleys beyond the dunes -- I was sure there would be a few small patches of earth free of prints. I would search for those places, claim them for my own, and become the first person in the history of the earth to stand in them.

Thirty miles from my home is a tourist lookout at Sleeping Bear Dunes where you can stand on a platform and see wooded hills to the east and an impressive view of Lake Michigan to the west. During the summer it's a popular place to go for picnics and day hikes, for throwing Frisbees, letting the dogs run, taking photographs on the bluff with the blue lake in the background. In winter it's seldom visited. After the first snows, access road to the area is blocked off and becomes an informal ski trail. It's not a trail of interest to serious skiers, since it is not groomed and tends to become sinuous and rutted with the converging lines of many tracks. On the windswept stretches the snow remains so thin that ski poles often slip against the road's asphalt.

At the end of the road, past the padlocked restrooms and the stacks of chained picnic tables, are several miles of dunes extending in a blunt point into Lake Michigan. Winds ravage the dunes during the winter and keep all but the most determined visitors away. The snow there is mixed too thoroughly with sand to be skied, the two substances blended together by the wind and thrown into elegant, variegated drifts. To travel in the dunes you must shoulder your skis and trudge through the sand and snow, finding protection from the wind only in a few scattered clumps of aspens, where the trees are stunted and bent awkwardly to the south. Other people may have been here, but their trails have been erased by the scrubbing of wind and sand. It's a place that reminds you of your impermanence.

Here you have no difficulty finding solitude. Even most mammals and birds have abandoned the dunes, migrating to the protected alder swamps and spruce and hemlock stands in the lowlands. Tracks of white-tailed deer are sometimes visible in the narrow gullies, where the buds of young aspen attract them, but the trails are always solitary and meandering, perhaps made by experienced bucks that sought refuge during hunting season and found no reason to leave.

I've thought often of those bucks. When I was 15 and 16, my first deer seasons, I hunted with my father and uncles in the woods adjacent to the dunes. The first day of the first year stands out clearly. I remember stepping from the car into thick, fertile darkness so complete it masked even sound, striding beside my father, feeling the nose-aching cold, the satisfying heft of the 30-30. We walked until we reached a large stump far inside the woods. The northern Michigan woods are dotted with such stumps -- ancient, bleached pine, rotted from the center out, remnants of magnificent forests that were clear-cut 80 years ago.

My father poured two cups of coffee from the Thermos. We sipped quietly in the darkness, without talking, then he guided me to one side of the stump and showed me where to sit. He took a position beside me. Other days I would be on my own, but now, this first morning, we would stay together.

Even then, more than 20 years ago, the rural corners of our state were vanishing. Subdivisions sliced the land into lucrative pieces of pie, new roads and cul-de-sacs appeared, woodlands where just a few years earlier my father had hunted were now marked off by surveyor's stakes. Every season there was more competition for hunting space. Lines of automobiles, each filled with red-coated hunters, had been entering our county for days. My father said we would have to hunt far from the road if we expected to hunt alone.

So we had parked on a two-track logging trail five miles off the highway, and walked another mile into the woods to this stump at the edge of a field. We seemed to have found a place as remote as northern Ontario, a place that was wild and unbounded. We were sure to be the only hunters for miles around. When dawn came I expected to see enormous, thick-antlered bucks grazing without concern where the meadow blended into the woods.

What I saw instead were hunters. In that first gray light, with darkness disintegrating around us, the blaze orange of hunters' jackets stood out like bonfires. One hunter, a few hundred yards away, glassed the field with binoculars. Another, closer, appeared to be asleep at the base of a small maple. Yet another, dressed in a one-piece suit and wearing earmuffs, waved to us.

My father stood in disgust. He waited until he had caught the eye of each man, not risking a careless movement that could be misinterpreted by an over-eager hunter, then with me at his heels led the way back to the car.

The remainder of that season, and the next, we hunted with permission on private land in Day Forest, adjacent to the dunes. The Forest, dense with second-growth oak and maple, was relatively uncrowded. One morning I sat at the base of an oak and watched two young does pick their way through the underbrush, walking with the dainty concern of small girls in dancing shoes. Unaware of my presence, they passed so close I could have touched them with my rifle. Another time, pausing to look over one of the juniper-spotted meadows at the foot of the dunes, I saw a buck trotting a quarter-mile away, carrying its bulk of antlers in what can only be described as a regal manner. One noon, while we drove from Day Forest to my Uncle Bob Schmidt's house for lunch, we pulled off the road just as a ten-point buck dashed across Bob's driveway in front of us into the woods. We laughed that we would see such a whitetail, the largest of the season, in such a place. Then we were quiet, thinking of where that buck was going. My uncle's house was literally in the shadow of the dunes, situated at the base of its easternmost bluff, and the deer had been running directly for the dunes.

We knew there were men who hunted up there. They were loners, skilled at tracking and stalking, and they knew how to keep their mouths shut. If they found trophy deer they never admitted it, but we heard rumors and speculated that large, experienced bucks would abandon the heavily hunted lowlands and take refuge in wooded swales scattered across the dunes. I had visited some of those swales in the summer and found them dark and cool, shaded by poplar and carpeted with sedgegrass and wildflowers. Some were fed by tiny springs, with water that seeped into the sand almost as soon as it emerged from the ground.

Yet we never entered the dunes during hunting season. Everyone talked about going there, but there were problems of access, and the difficulties of hunting open land where you would be visible for hundreds of yards in every direction. I understood, too, that my father and my uncles chose to honor the place as a sanctuary. I felt no such obligation, but was too young to hunt on my own that year, and in later years would be distracted by other places and other game. Always, in the back of my mind, I thought of the dunes as a place to find trophy whitetails, a place I would hunt another time. Now I too think of it as a sanctuary.

Near the crest of the dunes fresh deer tracks lead toward a swale, visible only as a cluster of treetops above the sand, and I imagine the deer bedded there, near water and browse, protected from the wind. The dunes and Day Forest are under the jurisdiction of a national park now, and will never be hauled away or subdivided. In exchange, the area has been bounded by boardwalks, parking lots, and information pavilions. Hunting is allowed, on a limited basis, but it has recently come under attack and has inspired a bitter exchange of letters to the editor of our local newspaper.

Snow squalls rush across the open lake. They come from the north, as far away as I can see, and pass beyond sight to the south. The squalls seem in migration, like flocks of white birds so tightly patterned no individuals can be seen, the flocks swarming after each other in mysterious clans, enormous as clouds, riding the wind toward grace and warm weather. As they pass, square-mile patches of the lake are obliterated, the whitecaps dissolving slowly in whiteness. Lake freighters, if they sailed this time of year, could never emerge from those squalls unchanged.

Occasionally the bruised clouds separate and shafts of sunlight descend at angles to the water, spotlighting the waves. My mother grew up near the base of the dunes in the resort town of Glen Arbor, and knows the lake well. In the quiet days of her youth it was her primary source of entertainment. Even in summer, when resorters from Chicago and Detroit filled the cottages and hotels and gathered at the public beaches, she had the lake mostly to herself. When I was very young and we visited Glen Arbor to walk the shore, she told me the sudden, angled shafts of light over the lake were known as Jacob's ladder and it was possible to climb them to heaven if you knew how. I remember being entranced, but dubious.

From the top of the bluff I can see the uneven fringe of pack-ice along the shore 450 feet below. The ice covers the narrow beach like an undulating, trackless road. Even from this height streaks of sand are visible on the snow. I can see too where waves have formed grotesque sculptures, crevasses, and occasional ice-bridges. Blow-spouts appear where surging waves have carved passages through the ice, their spurting water constructing volcano-like cones as tall as a man. The water near shore is suspended with slushy ice the consistency of margaritas, causing the waves to become muted and sluggish. They swell toward the ice, rise slowly against its face, and recede. After a moment, always longer than expected, the cones erupt with geysers, like the exhalations of whales. I remember that some days, if it has been very cold, you can find fallen drops frozen into odd-shaped pearlies and cats-eyes of ice.

When my brother and I were old enough to explore the Glen Arbor beaches alone, while my parents visited relatives, we were allowed to go there only after promising to avoid the spout-holes and their tunnels. The adults worried that we would slip or be flushed into the lake, where five minutes immersion would be fatal. We promised to be careful.

At first we followed the shore, over ice that extended far up the beach like buckled pavement and threatened, some years, to topple the life-guard's tower and invade the netless tennis courts. Snow, dusted over the ice, was untracked as far as we could see, possible evidence that our parents were right about the hazards of the place. We walked cautiously at first, afraid the ice would collapse. When our confidence grew we ran, as best we could on the slippery ice, sliding down the slopes, twirling in clumsy, heavily-dressed ballet.

We were drawn inevitably to the tunnels and approached them obliquely, as if we had no intention of going near them. They varied in size. Some were too small to enter, others the width of culverts, a few large enough to stand inside. All were worn smooth as blown glass by the scouring water. If the sun shone, the interior glowed with a blue crystal light and you could see, suspended in the ice many feet away, spiraling strings of bubbles and grains of quartz. We hacked at the blue ice with pocketknives; in our hands the chips lost their color, became transparent, and we put them in our mouths to suck like candy. Squatting in the tunnels, watching the downhill slant to the queer blue light of the lake, we felt as daring as arctic explorers, as accomplished as mountain climbers.

On the dunes now I am content to accept quieter satisfactions. I've learned to find pleasure in small things, in unpredictable moments, in the discovery of forgotten places. It's my good fortune to be surrounded by an abundance of such places. The lake, the dunes, the shoreline far below the bluff -- I had forgotten them all. Sitting in the ice-spangled sand, in the wind, witnessing Jacob's ladder and the erasure of snow squalls, I become optimistic again. It's possible to believe there is space enough for everyone.

Continue with Winter Favorites


From A Place on the Water: An Angler's Reflections on Home, by Jerry Dennis. Copyright 1993. Used with permission of the author and St. Martin's Press

Copyright 2001 Manitou Publishing Co. & Jerry Dennis • All Rights Reserved.

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