I collected this piece from my roommate who grew up in Michigan. She told me this story while we were in our apartment. She said she knows it because it’s something everyone from her area of Michigan knows about. Every year she would vacation to the dunes with her family and her parents would tell her the story and park rangers would tell the story as well.
“There’s this folklore in Michigan that most Michiganders, that’s what we’re called, know. Especially those from Northern Michigan because it has to do with the sleeping bear dunes, that’s what they’re called, up by Traverse City, it’s like, Northern…if you hold your hand out it’s the pinky part of it, it’s right on the coast of Lake Michigan. Anyway, there’s these really large sand dunes there and you can climb them and everything. And there’s a story and a bunch of children’s books written that it had to do with…these bears, these giant bears, back…it was probably Native Americans who came up with the story, because that whole area is very Native American-esque. These bears lived in the upper pensinsula so you’d have to cross Lake Michigan to get there and there was this giant wildfire that sparked, I’m sure there were stories of how the wildfire sparked but I don’t really remember that. And…this fire started and there was this momma bear and she had two babies and they were like, black bears, I don’t know, and they were running away from it, running away from it, and they hit the shore, Lake Michigan, so they jump into the water and they just kept swimming, and somehow the momma… I guess the babies couldn’t swim very well and so they didn’t really make it all the way across…. It’s kind of sad. And then the momma bear did though, so she got all the way to the other side, to the main part of Michigan, where the sand dunes are. And she was hoping that maybe they would catch up behind her, they were just a little slow…so she laid down on the shore and waited for them. She just laid there waiting for them to catch and she never moved, so I guess she died, technically, laying there, and the sand covered her and it just kept building up and building up and that’s what created the dunes and there are these two islands right off the coast of the sand dunes, I forgot what they’re called, maybe they’re big bear and little bear, I don’t know, and it’s the legend that those are the two baby bears who didn’t quite make it…It’s actually really sad.”
It seems that this folklore has gone through a few different evolutions. Based on the informant’s memory of the legend, it likely came from the Native Americans in the area, but then became part of the lake folklore, for park rangers to tell vacationing Michiganders. Now there are lots of children’s books written about it, but my informant felt that the children’s books were created after the legend was passed between different people, and not the other way around.