Leelanau News and Events

Sleeping Bear Readies To Awaken

By Ross Boissoneau | March 22, 2023

With longer days and melting snow, summer is just around the corner, which means another year of massive activity at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Superintendent Scott Tucker says the park is finalizing some improvements and hiring to ready for another busy year.

Last year, the park welcomed 1,501,117 visitors, down only slightly from the record numbers of the two years prior.

Tucker notes that signs are pointing toward a very good year, if not a record-breaking one as when people were looking to escape the COVID lockdowns. “All the campground sites go on sale six months prior, and the sites are booked up,” he notes. Given that and the fact the park is still trading on its 2011 selection by viewers of "Good Morning America" as the most beautiful place in America, Tucker believes Sleeping Bear will welcome a similar number of visitors as in 2022.

One caveat: He says that to a degree the numbers always depend on what Mother Nature throws at us. “We look forward to another successful year, (but) it is weather dependent.” Currently, he says, “The park is in spectacular shape."

Tucker says staffers will work on several key projects this year. They include Platte Point Beach and Good Harbor Beach, the North Bar Lake parking lot, and the Pyramid Point parking lot expansion, where they will work to address water and erosion concerns.

Another is work on the South Manitou Lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which will begin again on May 1. He’s confident it will be completed by July 1, with visitors welcome to the keeper’s quarters for the Fourth of July weekend.

As long as the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t return, many of the Lakeshore’s popular programs will return this year, though dates have yet to be announced. That includes ranger-led hikes, star party night sky viewings, Anishinaabe historical guided hikes, and the shipwreck rescue re-enactments “Heroes of the Storm.” They demonstrate how U.S. Lifesaving employees would use the Lyle gun mini-cannon to launch projectiles into the waters to rescue sailors whose ships were foundering.

Each year the park looks to fill hundreds of positions, from maintenance workers to rangers and more. With the current need for employees in virtually every sector of the economy, Tucker feels he’s been fairly successful so far, though he is still trying to fill nearly a dozen slots. “We’ve got a lot of returnees. We need a couple custodians, a couple biotechs for the plant crews, fee collectors, and general rangers for island operations,” he says.

Some need specialized training, such as the biotechs, who work on mitigating invasive species, and similar areas.

A new development began the first of this month, as the National Lakeshore moved to cashless payments at most of its locations for fees and permits. Nine  self-pay locations are available throughout the park for visitors who don't have a debit/credit card.  Tucker says the move helps to save money (regulations require two employees wherever cash is used) and is more secure. The use of cash also adds to accounting needs and requires trips to a bank. “The administrative burden of cash is more than most realize.” Most credit cards and digital forms of payment are accepted, including Union Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay.  

The National Lakeshore isn’t the only Sleeping Bear looking to welcome visitors this year. Work continues at Sleeping Bear Inn, the historic building in Glen Haven. Maggie Kato, with her husband Jeff, founded the Balancing Environment And Rehabilitation (BEAR) in 2018 to restore and reopen the property.

Unfortunately, it won’t be ready to open this summer, but Maggie is still hopeful it will open sometime in 2023. “She survived the winter and stood tall,” she says of the building, which was originally completed in 1866 and served as a frontier hotel and boarding house, before gradually becoming a tourist hotel.

Closed since 1973, BEAR is overseeing a renovation to bring the property up to date. Kato says issues around labor, supplies and learning techniques new and old for repair and renovation have pushed that date back. “We did some early 1900s restoration in Habitat,” she says, referencing her and her husband’s previous positions with Genesee County Habitat for Humanity. “What we found (here) dated back to 1866. We had to marry old technology and current codes.”

That included learning old techniques such as glazing windows, and restoring the stone foundation and hand-hewn beams that had rotted. In addition, licensing and operating as a hotel meant that numerous upgrades were necessary to meet code, such as fire suppression, adding insulation (“There wasn’t any,” Kato says with a laugh), and updated electric and plumbing. “It’s not a historical renovation. It’s an adaptive reuse,” she says.

“We thought we’d be further along,” Kato admits. That said, beginning in May the website will allow bookings for next year. And never say never on this year: “There’s still hope, it just won’t be this summer. We’d love to say we’ll be open sometime in 2023. We just don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

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