In Search of the Northern Summer (2011): Out Toward the Islands

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Even now, there’s a quiet place — a place nearly secret. Here, there’s no sound of tires on pavement, no sirens blaring, no electronic hum, no television with talking heads… only the sound of water splashing on rocks and sand, the sound of wind rushing through trees. There’s a faint whisper as the same wind swirls and dances down overgrown roads whose names have been forgotten by all but the ghosts who still travel them. Hidden between groves of cedar and birch, there are lakes whose waters are seldom disturbed by human contact. Like mirrors, their waters reflect a sky of blue dotted with puffy white clouds rather than condo highrises. Once cultivated and harvested, there are fertile meadows that now lie fallow and still, holding memories of harvests and prosperity. Separated from the mainland by miles of open and sometimes treacherous water, these are the islands of the Great Lakes.

I first read of these islands in Kathleen Stocking’s “Letters from the Leelanau”. I was immediately drawn in by the very idea of such an isolated and secret place. I read and reread parts of her book that evoked those romanticized feelings of solitude. Gradually I became aware that, inevitably, James and I would have to trek across the water to explore the Manitous.

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While Jean Nicolet was the first white man on record to traverse the waters of Lake Michigan in the year 1634, he was by far not the first to stumble upon this great inland sea with its string of islands. Actually, like most of those European explorers, he was often guilty of not seeing the forest for all the trees! In this instance, he was searching for a passage to the Pacific Ocean and — once he’d cupped some of its waters into his hands and tasted no salt — he determined Lake Michigan to be quite a massive disappointment and more or less moved on.

Prior to his arrival, however, the area had long been settled by many tribes of Potawatomi and Ojibwe peoples. In contrast to Nicolet, they knew everything about these waters and this land and had little interest in the ocean nor did they care that it was over 2000 miles away.

The natives told their children an ancient story of this massive sea. The story began with a great forest fire in what is now called Wisconsin. A mother bear and her cubs were struggling to escape the great fire and were soon left with no choice but to swim across the sea to safety. The mother swam hard and fast, but her cubs — being young and carefree — played and splashed in the water and soon became tired. As mother bear reached the shores of Michigan, she turned to face the west, and saw that her cubs had drowned. So, as the story goes, the mother bear, in mourning, lay down on the shores to wait forever for her two cubs to join her.

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According to the legend, mother bear formed the massive sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan while her two cubs formed the North and South Manitou Islands. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which preserves many miles of coastline for future generations to enjoy, gets its name from this very legend. In some sources, it’s said that the natives never settled the Manitous out of reverence or even superstition, but archaeologists have found at least some evidence on North Manitou island of brief native settlement. It’s likely that the Ojibwe found more abundant natural resources on the mainland and abandoned the isolation of the islands.

IMG_3920On the morning of our grand exploration trip, James and I enjoyed a nice, full breakfast with Nicole before having her drop us off at the docks. Nicole was then off to do some exploring of her own — a different sort of exploration involving various yarn shops (Nicole’s an avid knitter), several shots of espresso at different haute coffeehouses she’d mapped out ahead of time, and even a wee bit of idle beach time.

On our ferry boat to South Manitou, we were joined by many other passengers — most of whom were heading for campsites on other sides of the island. As we embarked on the hour-and-a-half ride, James and I set about finalizing our exploration plans. Though visiting South Manitou takes up nearly a full day’s time, you’re only on the island for 4 1/2 hours unless you plan to camp overnight. It’s a thought that makes you a little wide-eyed when you imagine missing the ferry to the mainland: facing wilderness and an “impromptu” night of camping. Nooo thank you! Since being late was not an option, we wanted to be sure our excursion was well-planned!

It was a tough decision to make, but we decided to take a path along the southern interior and coastline of the island. This allowed us to get views of the forest, Lake Florence, the wreck of the Francisco Morazan, and (my most anticipated point of interest) the famed Valley of the Giants — the oldest known stand of Northern White Cedars in North America and possibly the world.

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Once we stepped off the ferry and made our way to the trail, we were almost immediately overtaken by the dense forest. It was hard to imagine that the island had at one time been largely deforested — truly a testament to nature taking control when mankind steps back! At times, it was obvious that we were walking on what used to be well-traveled roads. We were walking down what used to be Shefler Road, according to some maps you find of the island. I tried to imagine what this path must have looked like when the island was at its most populated in 1889. There was a very obvious line of beech trees running along a lengthy stretch of our trail. It looked as though they may have been planted there and manicured at some point in the distant past — possibly to outline a homestead long gone.

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The path meandered along underneath a constant canopy of trees. We stopped to gawk at a few strange wildflower specimens here and there, but more or less kept moving so that we could stay on schedule. By this time, too, I might mention that the mosquitoes had dialed in our coordinates and were in nearly constant pursuit of us. When we did finally stop at Lake Florence to have a look, they ambushed us (in spite of our insect repellent) and made a feast of any exposed skin they could find. We got back on the trail almost immediately!

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By and by, we came to the fork in the trail that would take us to the wreck of the Francisco Morazan. Probably one of the only shipwrecks you can view without diving gear, the ship ran aground in the fall of 1960 when it was blown off course by a snowstorm. Since it wrecked in the shallow waters, it remains visible to this day, albeit broken up by the forces of the lake.

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These days, the ship serves as a tourist draw and as a home to seafaring birds like the Double-Crested Cormorant. Standing atop the bluff and looking at the wreck, we felt as though we were on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. Interestingly enough, though there had been a lot of fellow passengers on the ferry, the only time we encountered anyone on our hike was at the site of the wreck — not so surprising since it is one of the most famous sights on the island.

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Back on the main trail, we continued our trek west. Gradually, the forest became extremely hilly and the trail became steep and challenging. We found ourselves having to scramble over giant fallen trees! Though there weren’t any signs to tell us we’d arrived, we’d most certainly stumbled into the Valley of the Giants.

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With no guideposts to point it out, I’m not sure if we ever found the famous, 500-year old cedar that’s a highlight of the forest. At any rate, we definitely saw trees that dwarfed any cedars in my memory! We enjoyed exploring the undulating trail as it IMG_3953wended its way through an ancient forest of green and grey.

At the deepest part of the trail, we finally stopped again and had a small snack. We were totally surrounded by an emerald cloak of quiet — even the mosquitoes seemed to have temporarily lost sight of us! As I stood there, munching, I tried to take in the fact that we weren’t just standing in any forest, we were standing in a forest on an island! It filled my inner hermit to capacity with glee, but I’m still not sure I completely grasped the full isolation since I knew we were bound for the outgoing ferry.

To head back, we decided to simply turn around rather than take the shoreline trail which would’ve certainly meant roasting in the southern exposure of the island for the entire way back to the dock! Fortunately, we made it back to the village in time to tour the South Manitou Lighthouse. The tour is guided, but still affords dramatic views of the coast and most of the island.

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Though both Manitou Islands are now uninhabited and part of the National Park system, they were settled by Europeans around the mid 1850s. Prior to that, the islands were mapped but were mainly used as fueling stations between port cities for steamers that traversed the Great Lakes. In time, as more and more of the virgin forests were stripped away for timber and fuel for ships, a growing number of setters on South Manitou began farming.

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The unique climate and the natural isolation of the island combined to create stellar farming conditions. The island was renowned for prize-winning crops of peas, beans, and rye. Though their crops were usually quite productive, many of the farms operated as self-sustaining rather than profit-gaining since transporting their crops from the island was too difficult.

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I was disappointed that we did not have time to visit the old farms that are still in place on the island. Hikers can visit these old homesteads and behold rugged, sturdy buildings that have stood the test of time and even see old farming implements. There’s also an old schoolhouse and a cemetery. We didn’t have time to see any of those things, though, since we were not staying overnight.

Four and a half hours passed rather quickly, it seemed. We were back on the ferry and headed to Leland in no time. It had been a fun day of exploring and hiking. Oddly, I felt as though I came away from the experience having miraculously preserved that overly-romanticized notion of isolation and peace — a notion it’d be easy to lose in the wild and unforgiving environment the settlers of South Manitou faced when they arrived. Maybe someday James and I will spend a night out on the island and see if we still feel the same!

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Maybe, in a way, it’s a good thing that our expedition to the island did not alter my perception of isolation and solitude. As we hopped into the car greeted by a fully-caffeinated, relaxed Nicole and drove away, I felt as though something from the island had followed me back. I hope it’s something that will continue to haunt my memory — any time I long for quiet on an average day. Maybe I’ll remember the sound of an ancient, cedar forest, and remember we stood there with hardly a soul around for miles, adrift on an island in a great inland sea. It’s not too often you can say you’ve been there.

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~ by Jason on August 2, 2011.

2 Responses to “In Search of the Northern Summer (2011): Out Toward the Islands”

  1. Great get away …I enjoyed the story… adventure… pics…
    Love mom

    • We’re going to have to get you to come hiking with us sometime. You’d enjoy it (‘cept for the skeeters). 😛

      Love you too!

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