Green flash or no, Michigan's dune country is cool and homey

Geologists say the Sleeping Bear dune that towers 300 feet above Lake Michigan's blue-green waters here is simply a few billion tons of sand ground fine by glaciers, tugged down by gravity and piled back up by wind and waves.

Chippewa legend says it is the great, grieving mother bear Mishe-Mokwa, and that the Manitou islands just offshore are her two cubs drowned as they swam the big lake to flee a forest fire in Wisconsin.

Today's Michiganders (yup, and Michigeese) pretty much side with the scientists. On the other hand, many of them wear the T- shirts of the Green Flash Society, whose members insist they have seen the rare green flash that shoots out from the sun at the instant it sets over the lake.

"That's what comes from these long winters," grumps Dick Owen, owner of Tiffany's Ice Cream, who nevertheless sells the T-shirts for $14.50 each.

There's pride in this cool vacation getaway that reminds one of Sanibel before the causeway, or the Florida Keys before the building boom.

It's a still-unspoiled place where residents leave their homes unlocked, where the biggest worry about the kids is swimmer's itch, where the peak temperature on an August day is a dry 83 degrees and the evenings bask in the 60s.

This is a place where deer bound across the road in front of your car and family dogs worry black squirrels up 30- foot birch trees. Where morning means the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls at Dan's Glen Arbor Farm Market and evening means eating Lake Michigan whitefish with the family at his brother Mike's Friendly Tavern in Empire.

The dune area is exactly halfway between equator and north pole; close enough to the midnight sun that summer days start an hour earlier than Miami's and end an hour later. At sundown, residents really do congregate on the cool, rocky shore at the end of Glen Arbor's Lake Street to watch the sun go down -- green flash or not -- into Lake Michigan.

And it still is rustic enough to have motels with names like the "Man-Hat-Inn" or the "We Kan Tuc U Inn" on Lake Leelanau.

But you come for the giant white dunes. Pick a cool, early morning, take something to drink and wear sturdy tennis shoes, sunscreen and a hat. The best dune climb starts just off M-109 between Glen Lake and Empire, at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitors Center. It's best to trudge slowly up the 45-degree sand slope; the faster you go, the more you slide back with each step, a nice allegory for life.

As you climb, look behind you for increasingly wide-angle views of beautiful Glen Lake. Twenty minutes of steady effort takes you to what from the bottom looked like the top. But when you look where Lake Michigan should be, you see only more dunes. It's actually a four-mile, four-hour trek to the lake, and the climb down to the water is even longer and steeper. Don't climb down to Lake Michigan unless you're sure you'll have the energy to climb back up, since the walk around the dune takes hours. Even energetic teen-agers sometimes have to be rescued there. If the mere thought of all this sand-hiking makes you cringe, you might want to try the auto route up the dunes. A few miles south on M-109 takes you to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a three-mile-long narrow road that's steep in places but smoothly paved. It leads to a series of wooden platforms with spectacular views down the dunes. From the dune tops, you can see for miles over rolling hills covered with 30-foot oak, birch and maple trees. Impressive forests, but nothing like the 100-foot- tall hardwoods that stood before the loggers came. Between 1885 and 1917 the area was pillaged by firms like the T. Wilce Company, which provided most of the hardwood floors for Chicago's fine homes of that era and created huge lumber-boom towns that were abandoned when the trees were gone.

The area's economy today is based mostly on tourism, providing some usual and not-so-usual ways to relax.

If you have the energy, you can take advantage of the U- pick cherry orchards, raspberry thickets or blueberry bogs that dot the area.

Miles of clear streams are popular for canoeing. Golf courses such as Glen Lake's Dunes Golf Club will even let you walk, pulling your own golf bag. The Glen Craft Marina and Resort on Glen Lake offers Sunfish for sailors, motorboats for those after perch or bluegill, and ski boats for those after exercise.

The dunes area is evolving gradually -- not too fast, its residents hope -- into a year-round vacation spot. October brings Michigan's fabled "color tours," when lines of big buses bring in down-staters to watch the area's maple forests turn first red, then gold. Winter brings skiing, with well-developed slopes at The Homestead, Hickory Hills and Sugar Loaf Resort.

Lodging: For fancy digs, the Homestead resort on Lake Michigan just outside Glen Arbor has fireplaces and balconies with great views out over the lake. For more modest lodging, try the Lakeshore Inn-Empire or the Glen Arbor Lakeshore Inn.