By MIKE NORTON
Quick! What’s the most popular attraction in the Traverse City area?
The volunteers here at the Traverse City Visitor Center know, and so does anyone who’s ever come here as a visitor, even once. It’s the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, that magnificent symphony of water, sky and sand located just a half-hour to the west of us. And even though it’s not within the city limits, or anywhere near them, we all think of it as “our park.”
I think that’s what the National Park Service is getting at with their new “Find Your Park” campaign. As a way of celebrating their 100th birthday in 2016, the Park Service has mounted a nationwide public awareness and education effort to get us all thinking about the places we think of as “our park.” Over the next year, we’ll see lots of reminders of this massive campaign – it’s nationwide, after all, with celebrity spokesmen and corporate partners and so on – but the idea behind it is a solid one.
“Find Your Park invites the public to see that a national park can be more than a place – it can be a feeling, a state of mind, or a sense of American pride,” wrote Sleeping Bear’s Gary Vanderziel. “Beyond vast landscapes, the campaign highlights historical, urban, and cultural parks, as well as the National Park Service programs that protect, preserve and share nature, culture, and history in communities nationwide.”
The truth is, “your park” doesn’t have to be a national park. It might be a state park, a nature preserve or a town commons or other open space. It can be as small as a woodlot in your neighborhood or a playground down the street – some place of beauty and serenity where you can recharge your energies and restore your sense of being human. Some of us do that through solitude and contemplation, while others prefer large amounts of sociability, noise and fun. But the end goal seems to be the same.
When I first moved to Traverse City 37 years ago, the National Lakeshore was in its infancy; there was still a great deal of anger and resentment among some local residents about the way the government had acquired many of the farms and homes that are now part of the park. Knowing the love those people had for the land, it was difficult not to sympathize with them. But any time I would hike to the top of Pyramid Point or stand at the water’s edge at Aral, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of gratitude that this place now belonged to all of us.
Over the years, my family has camped, hiked and explored National Parks across the country, from Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to Zion in Utah, from Olympic in Washington to San Juan in Puerto Rico. Even so, Sleeping Bear is something very special. It’s “my park.” It’s where I go when I really want to get away – and it doesn’t bother me to share it with other people who want to do the same thing.
Has it been a while since you’ve been out to “our park?” Well, you’re in luck. Next week (April 18-26) is National Park Week, so the Park Service is waiving entrance fees at Sleeping Bear this coming weekend and putting on several free special events:
- On Saturday night from 9 to 11, park rangers and members of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society will be holding a Star Party at Platte River Point to introduce visitors to the spring night sky. (Dress for the weather and bring a flashlight.)
- All week long visitors can join in a Find Your Park Scavenger Hunt (instructions can be downloaded here or picked up at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire) and share their experiences on social media using #findyourpark. There’ll also be special daily Find Your Park posts at 4 p.m. each day on the National Lakeshore’s Facebook and Twitter sites.
- On Saturday, April 25, the Lakeshore is holding a special Junior Ranger Day at the D. H. Day Log Cabin where youngsters can earn their official Junior Ranger Day badge with such activities as designing their own arrowheads, painting on the beach, and learning basic knot-tying techniques. There’ll be two sessions, once from 10-11:30 am and another from 1-2:30 pm, each followed by an official swearing-in ceremony for the new junior rangers.
Yes, it’s early in the season. But rangers say they’re hoping to have many sections of the Sleeping Bear Dunes park swept and cleared and ready for business by the start of national Parks Week. So take advantage of the opportunity to get out and visit “our park.” (Check their website for updates.)
(And don’t worry if you can’t make it; this is just the first of many “Find Your Park” events and opportunities that will be made available to the public between now and the end of 2016. Visit findyourpark.com to learn more about the campaign and how it’s unfolding across the country.)