Windows down, we took in the breathtaking views of Leelanau Peninsula. “It is just so beautiful,” we kept repeating to each other as our little family caravan headed toward Sleeping Bears Dunes. I sat shotgun. Nothing makes me much happier than to sit next to my dad as he drives his truck, even as a grown woman. Although, I am familiar with Northern Michigan, this trip was my first to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Once we arrived, my girls and I looked up in awe at the mountain of sand. Like all curious children, they asked lots of questions. How much sand is that? How did it get here? Is the beach nearby? Can we climb it? Why do they call it Sleeping Bear? Some of the questions I could answer but for the last, I needed to do some research.
Let me tell you the Ottawa and Chippewa tale of Sleeping Bear and why as a bereaved mother it means so much to me.
Mother Bear first noticed the faint smell of smoke that morning as she wandered about her home of skyward reaching trees, brambles, berries, and trickling streams. She paid it no heed. Her two cubs wrestled about in the underbrush, ear gnawing, rollie pollies that would jump to a battling bear stance at a moment’s notice.
Lumbering about that morning, it was as it always was, peaceful perfection.
After a lunch of fish and berries, two sleepy little bears and one big mama bear found themselves nestled in the warm sand along the lakeshore for a midday nap.
Maybe it was crackles or suffocating air that woke Mother Bear to the hissing flames. Lapping heat stung her fur as moisture-sapped air dried her mouth. Her lungs searched for oxygen with every breath. Through tear-filled eyes, she looked down upon her precious cubs.
The inferno feasted greedily upon their pine forest, leaving only one way of escape—the lake.
After waking the little two, mother bear, dove into the cold waters of the crystal-clear lake where she and they had played daily. Baby cubs, ever trusting in a mother bear’s love followed behind, swimming toward the distant shore.
As waves rolled over waterlogged fur, Mother Bear looked over her shoulder to see two cubs treading not far behind. In geese-like formation, the family of three battled wind, waves, and smoke for hours.
Afternoon was turning to evening as the brown figures became visible from the flameless shore on the other side of Lake Michigan. The big orange globe became one with the pine forest inferno as Mother Bear finally collapsed on the shore. The land shook beneath her like that of a small earthquake. Raising her head just a little, she looked out to see her cubs, still swimming, drawing nearer to the beach where she lay in exhaustion.
Two instincts warred within Mother Bear.
Her eyelids longed to succumb to sleep, yet every bit of motherly love demanded she stay awake until her little cubs’ paws reached the sand. She looked out over the water.
B-L–I—N—-K . . .
Smoking trees on the distant shore.
Where are my cubs?
Where are my babies?
For days only the silence called back to mama bear.
The silence was all she could hear.
Grief-stricken, Mother Bear would not leave the beach to hunt or forage. She watched and waited in the heat for what would not come. Faint and on the brink of death, that dear mama bear, heard the Great Spirit’s voice on the wind. Before her dreary eyes arose two islands in the lake where her cubs had drowned. The Great Spirit had created the islands from the cubs.
She called to the islands, to her cubs.
In the roar every creature could hear her heart, “Forever my cubs, I will love you forever.”
The Great Spirit kissed Mother Bear goodnight and laying her there eternally, buried her in the dune. Mother Bear and her cubs will forever be remembered in the story of sleeping bear dunes.
To this day you can go and see them, the dune and two islands across the way. To this day Mother Bear’s love is remembered. Legends are made of the everyday brave like her.
Dear bereaved mother, is Mother Bear not us all?
We wait not on the beach but in daily life. We live as if we hold a secret that no one else knows. Others may see the island, but we see the memory and meaning it holds. Our cubs reside just beyond the breakers, just out of reach from the shore. To us, their presence is as tangible as the sand beneath bare feet. We do not sleep like Mother Bear does but like her, we hold our cubs in our hearts with the fiercest of loves, the love of a mother bear.
The Legend of Sleeping Bear is an ancient story handed down by the storytellers of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes. The site of the story is now Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore located on Leelanau Peninsula off Lake Michigan.
Originally published on NationalShare.org