The allure of the islands

What is it about islands that make them so intriguing? I have a deep fascination with islands. However, my fascination is not with the stereotypical tropical island of the south Pacific, you know the one I’m talking about. It’s the one with surf swept palm tree-lined beaches that are always sunny and warm, yeah that one – Gilligan’s Isle. My islands lie in a different place, an unforgiving place within the foreboding icy waters of the Great Lakes.


Looking on a map, my islands are a mere speck of green in the midst of a vast blue inland sea; some are nothing more than a long forgotten tree-shrouded hummocks, and others have miles and miles of uninhabited shoreline. To me these islands are somehow set apart from all other places on earth, unique, lonely, and even mysterious. The deep blue-green water of the Great Lakes around them placidly defines them in a way that no plot of mainland can be defined. And because it’s an endeavor to get to them — whether it’s taking a ferry or a private boat, once you’ve reached their shores, you know you’re someplace very special.

My fascination with the islands of the Great Lakes began quite a few years ago. Like so many other people in and around Michigan I had been to Mackinaw Island and was intrigued by the islands beauty and history, but was totally dismayed by the touristy commercialization of the island. I still go to Mackinaw, but today Mackinaw in my mind, is viewed not with intrigue, but rather as an incomprehensible spectacle.  The challenge today on Mackinaw is to find a place away from the commotion of the touristy twaddle where one can reflect on the true beauty and history of the island. That challenge in itself has been the focus of my last several visits to that island. I’ve yet to succeed!

Some years ago while camping with my oldest daughter in the Upper Peninsula we decided, “spur of the moment” on a trip out to Drummond Island.  We camped for several days and explored the island, and the thing that intrigued me most about Drummond Island was not the populated Drummond Island itself, but rather the hundreds of tiny uninhabited islands that dot its shoreline.  I still remember sitting on the rocky shore of Drummond looking out to these small tree covered rock outcroppings wondering what treasures of the soul lie waiting to be discovered there.  I vowed to go back to Drummond with a canoe to paddle out to some of these closer islands for no other reason than to indulge my curiosity.  To date I haven’t been back. It’s simply a personal hang-up of mine, but I’m sickened by the touristy nature that the island has taken on. Although it’s nowhere near the extreme that is found on Mackinaw Island, I fear that Drummond is a very different place than the one I visited so many years ago with my daughter. Upon glancing at the Chamber of Commerce website today, I find the first item of attraction listed there is a 27-hole golf course. Sincere apologies to all my golfer friends, but I personally find no greater waste of wild lands then that of a golf course. And the thought of this being the first item listed on the Chamber website is like spraying Raid on my travel-bug. Perhaps someday I shall return, but I’m now in no hurry.  

A few winters ago I ran across and interesting booklet put out by the National Park Service called (Coming through with Rye). It was a historical perspective of the activities on South Manitou Island. Just flipping through the booklet and beginning to develop a sense of the history of the island along with the fact that all 5000 plus acres of the island are now a National Park open to hiking and backpacking, I knew that this was a place that I needed to go.

You can read “Coming through with Rye” free here:

We often speak of Pioneer Spirit when referencing those that explored and settled the our nations west,   but after having visited these Islands and reading some of the history that took place upon them, I don’t think that the term “Pioneer Spirit” can even begin to describe the fortitude that must have been required to live on these islands in the early 1800’s. The Great Lakes are a testy lot who can offer placid serenity one moment, and in the blink of an eye be whipped in to a frothy violent frenzy that won’t hesitate to send even the stoutest craft to her icy depths.  The 50 some shipwrecks surrounding the Manitou’s alone are a testament to this fact.

When you first step foot on these islands it is only then that you come to realize just how different they are. It’s an alien landscape like nothing you find on the mainland. These are stand alone ecosystems, perhaps not to the degree of the Galapagos Islands, yet unique from the mainland. There are thick primeval forests of pine, cedar and hemlock surrounding dense stands of beech, maple and oak.  Even the most casual observer will notice the great variety of bird species; the uncommon insects will catch the eye. Wildflowers can be found most everywhere and the variety is amazingly endless. South Manitou lacks any population of white-tailed deer, and for this reason alone the forest understory appears alien to most people familiar with the forested landscapes of Michigan that have been forever altered by the browsing of the whitetail.

As a hiker and backpacker some of the islands of the Great Lakes offer a unique experience of exploration and discovery. They offer not only a wilderness experience, they often provide a historical perspective that has been isolated and preserved for hundreds of years that is tempered with a nature study environment that is unrivaled on the mainland.

North and South Manitou Islands both are a hiker and backpackers dream. South Manitou offers easy hiking on well maintained trails. The casual day hiker can, on most days during the summer months spend the day on the island returning home on the ferry that same afternoon weather permitting.  A visible shipwreck from 1960, a walk through some of the largest white cedars in the country, and ruins of a bygone era are just a few of the things that the day visitor can find.  The things you won’t find are tourist trap shops selling trinkets and bobbles, nor will you find a vendor peddling overpriced food. As a matter of fact you won’t find anyone selling anything on North or South Manitou. South Manitou offers the backpacker the option of 3 campgrounds located on different areas of the island all with scenic views of Lake Michigan.

North Manitou is the true wilderness experience with zero amenities, but with a vast expanse of trails leading to historical homesteads as well as a world-class inland lake. If solitude is your thing and you revel in the knowledge of being cut off from the rest of the world than North Manitou will answer your calling for solitude.

If you’re up for a uniquely challenging experience, I’ll include a few words of advice about visiting these islands:

 First off, make sure that you have no medical conditions that may cause you problems during your visit. Your only source of rescue from these islands is the United States Coast Guard. Communications via cell phone is sketchy at best on these islands; on North Manitou I found a large portion of the inland parts of the island where you have no signal at all. Calling for help could be a very serious undertaking in the case of a medical emergency. On my last visit to South Manitou alone there were two helicopter rescues that took place during the week for medical emergencies.

Secondly are the consideration of food and water. Weather conditions can change at the drop of a hat on the Great Lakes, and conditions can remain bad for days and weeks at a time preventing your scheduled pickup date and time. Whatever you happen to plan for food, make sure that you have an extra few days’ supply, should you find yourself stranded. A water purification system is a must in my opinion, I’ve found myself helping out some people on South Manitou without one, but even for the casual day hiker on South Manitou I would still recommend a filtration system. There are several water sources marked on the Park service maps. Do not rely on any of these systems to be working! These are solar-powered systems and are notoriously unreliable. You can find yourself miles out on a hot summer day without water.

Lastly, use great caution when visiting these Islands because it’s very easy to get addicted to the natural beauty, and the peaceful tranquility.  I’ve read some great books over the past year that have given me much insight to the islands and their history, but again these books have only fueled my desire to return to the islands.

 Take the time to delve into any of these prior to a visit and it will only enhance your enjoyment of these islands.

Exploring E. Lake Michigan Islands – North Manitou – South Manitou – High – Garden by R.H. Ruchhoft

North Manitou Island – Between Sunrise and Sunset by Rita Hadra Rusco

The Manitou Passage Story by Gene Warner


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