Friends Old and New, Human and Bear

Having been a docent for six years at the well-run Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, I’m always a little leery of what I perceive to be “low rent” zoos that are not accredited. Always a little worried that I’ll encounter animals that may not have the best living conditions or diet. And I was a little afraid of this being the case when I put a bear ranch on our itinerary. On first glance when we arrived at Oswald’s Bear Ranch just outside of Newberry, I was not put at ease. The odd collection of buildings and the dirt parking lot and the pit toilets didn’t scream “professional” to me.

Then we walked into the gift shop, which you go through to get to the area where the cubs are, and I heard a vaguely familiar male voice say, “Hello, Erin.” I looked around and saw a pair of very blue eyes I recognized but was having trouble placing. Then it suddenly hit me.

The kid on the left with the sprayed-on gray hair and the prop wheelchair was the person talking to me in the gift shop of Oswald’s Bear Ranch. And he wasn’t just there, he was working there. Of course he was. Oswald is his last name. (BTW, yes, that’s me in the black leather miniskirt, red shoes, and long black wig. This was Witness for the Prosecution, the fall play my senior year of high school, where I was the double-crossing leading lady. If you’ve seen the movie version, my part was played by Marlene Dietrich. I was also in Arsenic and Old Lace, The Bald Soprano, Mr. Winkler’s Birthday Party, and Hello, Dolly! with this young man.)

But back to the bears…

The ranch was started by his grandfather, Dean Oswald, in 1997, a couple years before my friend and fellow actor Dustin graduated from high school. Apparently he moved up to the UP almost immediately and has been working in the family business for nearly twenty years. Oswald’s Bear Ranch, it turns out, is accredited by the Zoological Association of America and the bears there seem happy, well fed, and well adjusted. They have huge enclosures in natural surroundings. They are beloved by the staff. And they are there because they have been injured, abandoned, or abused. Apparently the Department of Natural Resources calls on Dean fairly regularly to take in young bears who were purchased (by idiots) as cubs but have (obviously) grown into animals that are difficult to handle and very definitely not pets.

The website states their mission is to “strive to advance the care of abused or abandoned bears through rescue efforts” adding that the bears at Oswald’s Bear Ranch are cared for through private funds and donations. With nearly 30 bears living there, including cubs, they can always use help. You can find a donation button on this page of their website.

Each enclosure is double fenced to keep bears and visitors at a safe distance from one another, which makes good photos hard to get. (There are lots on the ranch’s website.) But for an extra fee (we dropped more money here than most other UP attractions we visited) you can get photos taken with one of the cubs and even pet them while you’re at it. Which, of course, we had to do.

We also bought a bag of quartered apples from the cafe to toss over the fences and feed the adolescents and adults.

I would have liked to have a formal tour where we were told the personal stories behind some of the bears living there, but it was all basically self-serve. After chatting a bit more with my old school chum in the gift shop, my son and I had more UP delights to see and a ticking clock to catch a boat. We drove toward Grand Marais (Pro Tip: the road between Newberry and Grand Marais is “seasonal” — read: dirt — and very winding for about 12 long miles, so if you’re in a hurry, take another route) so Calvin could get a glimpse of the Grand Sable Dunes from Log Slide.

And then it was on to Munising to take our long-anticipated Pictured Rocks cruise…


Sunset on Grand Sable Dunes and Waiting for the Northern Lights

After we visited Log Slide on Friday, Alison and I returned to our campsite, had a bite to eat, and then returned to the other world waiting above us to watch the sunset.


Apparently, we were not the only ones with this idea. We were joined by about 63 million tiny flying bugs of the gnat variety, which frantically whizzed about in clouds all around us. You can spot some of them in the photo above.


And yet, it was still quiet and peaceful up there. I set off to photograph the dunes in the waning light while Alison plunked down with a book. You can see her in the above photo, way up near the top of the hill.


The sun slowly sank lower in the sky and lit up the dune grasses and sand in that perfect evening light that photographers so adore.


And a landscape that had seemed almost stark in the harsh midday sun took on a quality that made you feel that this earth is really a beautiful place indeed.

How often do we go to bed at night having not noticed this? It should strike us daily and yet we are so busy and so insulated from the earth outside and spend so little time with the real world that we miss it regularly.


Certainly that feeling is easy to come by in a singular landscape such as Grand Sable Dunes. But even your own yard or neighborhood or that corner of your kitchen where the light hits just so, you can see it. If you’re looking.


Now, I have never been a fan of August. It has always seemed a wasted month of horrid heat, humidity, and boredom. But I’ve recently begun rethinking my stance.


This past weekend it started to cast a spell over me. (More on this at a later date.)


Finally, finally, the sun sank below the horizon. My sister headed down the now dark trail, flashlight in hand, leaving me atop the highest point of the dunes, camera firmly affixed to my tripod, to wait for a very different sort of light. I had read on Tuesday that a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) had occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, essentially the sun had released a tremendous amount of energy that was careening through space toward us, the effects of which might be visible on this Friday night.

Still in the dark? I’m talking about the Northern Lights, which for the past few years of increased CME activity (which goes in 11 year cycles) have been spotted all over Michigan, but mostly on Lake Superior. And here I was at Lake Superior on the perfect night in the perfect spot to see them for the first time in my life and, if I was lucky, capture them in pixels so I could smugly share my good fortune with others.


As the cold wind whipped around me and my surroundings darkened, I actually prayed for the privilege to witness this incredible display of the power of our star and the kind hand of the One who put our planet in such a position that I could both see it and not be harmed by it.

But it was not to be. There may have been lights later that night while I was snoozing or watching a little mouse scurry overhead between the tent and the rain fly, but I was not permitted to see them. I eventually packed up my camera and flicked on my flashlight for the descent to Masse Homestead (made exponentially more difficult by the darkness and more nerve-wracking by the thought that should I encounter a black bear or wolf in the pitch black night, it would have a significant advantage over me despite my being armed).

I was (and am) profoundly disappointed. And yet, the sun continues to shine and produce storms that will cause the Northern Lights to appear at a later date. Someday I hope to see them. In the meantime, this disappointment reminds me that I am not owed beauty. Beauty happens, but it doesn’t happen for my sake. I am like one of those grains of sand on the dune, one of billions of people in the world. My great comfort is that God knows every speck of sand, every one of us, and that He heard my prayer for light that night…and for whatever reason His answer was “Not just yet.”

The View from Log Slide

Log Slide is a destination spot on the east end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with quick and easy access from a parking lot. In a previous era it was used for (you guessed it) sliding logs that were cut from the forests above into Lake Superior below so they could begin their watery journey to sawmills in parts south. Nowadays, the only thing sliding down this patch of sand is tourists (some unwillingly, I imagine).


There are a couple signs warning that though it can take less than a minute to reach the bottom 500 feet (300 vertical) below, it can take more than an hour to climb back up.


The day we spent time at Log Slide I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic as we had just traversed a LOT of sand on top of the dunes and the balls of my feet were developing blisters. So instead of making the descent, Alison and I crept around on a few more-or-less-sorta stable areas just to the west of the actual slide.


You can get a great view of the five miles of sand that make up Grand Sable Dunes from this vantage point.


And you can see Au Sable Point Light Station from there as well, which is where we were headed the next day.


But before we get to the lighthouse, there is the little matter of sunset on the dunes and waiting for the Northern Lights. Stay tuned…


Surprised by Sand

This past weekend, my sister Alison and I took our second hiking trip together. We planned a shorter hike than last year and parked such that we could hike a short distance (under two miles) to our campsites, pitch our tents, then do day hikes unencumbered by packs. I must say it was an excellent strategy.

So on Friday afternoon we quickly found ourselves setting up our tent at Masse Homestead backcountry campsite on the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The hike to the site was eerily silent. We heard no birds or humming insects, encountered no other hikers, and spoke little as we walked a narrow path through a largely open, mostly deciduous woodland.

To Masse Homestead

Masse Homestead is a smaller site, with only three campsites allowed. There was some mold growing in the food box, so we opted for the food pole to keep our rations away from bears. The soil was sandy, making the tent setup smooth and bathroom breaks easy (apart from the mosquitoes). And in just a matter of minutes, we were ready to check out our surroundings.

Masse Homestead

The old bearded ranger (“I’ve lived in Grand Marais all my life but I’m slowly moving west. I’ve gotten about two and a half miles so far.”) told us about a very steep, sandy trail that led up to the dunes. It was easy to spot (harder to climb) so we grabbed cameras and water bottles and headed up.

Trail up to dunes

Near the top, one gets the very queer feeling that you are going through C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe to Narnia.


And, in fact, I think what awaited us took our collective breath away just like Narnia did for Lucy.


The last time I could see this much landscape all around me, I was in a plane.


There we stood, upon the very highest point of the Grand Sable Dunes, and all around us was wilderness.


The only sound was of the crickets and cicadas.


At that moment, we felt as though we must be the only two people on earth.


We hiked over the dunes, up and down, for a long time before we even approached the edge, losing site of the big hill we first stood on and the opening in the trees that would lead us back down to our tent.


But how could we not be drawn by this landscape to abandon the trail and set off to blaze our own?


We stopped (quite sensibly) at this line of wet sand that ran across the top of the slope. Had we taken very many more steps forward, we might have found ourselves sliding down 300 or so feet into Lake Superior.


Instead, we rested our feet a bit and took in the incredibly blue lake and the cool breeze.

Erin on the Dunes

Besides some tracks in the sand (coyote, deer, crow, and one set of bare human feet) and one pile of scat (bear) there was little evidence of life up there beyond dune grasses, scrubby junipers, poplars, and wild roses.


We would discover later that night that the dunes are a favored spot for huge clouds of gnats (or some related tiny flying insect) but that is a post for another day.


Grand Sable Dunes, here we come…

Today I head north for the Second Annual Sisters’ Hiking Trip. Last year we hiked some of the more rugged trail of the western end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This year we’re tackling the eastern end where we will find Grand Sable Dunes and the Au Sable Point Lighthouse. We’re purposely skipping Twelve-Mile Beach, which I hear feels more like twenty miles since the trail is all sand.

Depending on where we decide to park this time around, would could end up doing a fair amount of hiking with packs on, or slack off and set up camp first, then hike around with almost nothing in our packs beyond water bottles and cameras. I guess we shall see how masochistic adventurous we feel when the time comes.

As I packed up the new tent (which my son and I slept in in the back yard Tuesday night) and bought my rations and tested out my new water purifier, I couldn’t help but wonder…

Will we see any early color changes that far north? (My drive to Grand Rapids is already colored by bright orange and red sumac and a few blushing maple trees.)

Will we rise early enough in the morning to catch the sunrise?

Will we be so fortunate as to experience the Northern Lights before they calm down and move north for the next decade? (Apparently there was a huge solar flare Tuesday and the effects could be seen on Friday. Crossing my fingers!)

Will we see more wildlife than squirrels and insects this time around?

Will the promising weather forecast pan out?


But beyond the questions is the certainty that there will be beauty to behold.