This is your standard camping trip report (I will limit myself to no more than 2 social/environmental critiques). Mary and I spent a long weekend on Manitou Island, ten miles out in the brilliant waters of northern Lake Michigan. The short version: it was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been.
After over a year living in south-central Michigan without making the trip to the northern part of the state, we finally used my birthday as an excuse to head up there. The trip started with a relatively short drive from Lansing to Leland, near the tip of the Leelanau peninsula, roughly where the tip of the ring finger would be on the mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula. Leland is a touristy fishing village squeezed into a narrow strip of land a few hundred yards wide between Lake Michigan and a smaller body of water. I’m not sure how much of it, if any, is still operational other than as gift shops and quaint restaurants, but the gray, weather-beaten fishing shacks looked authentic enough. We boarded the good ship Mishe-Mokwa, a ferry that took us on the hour-long journey through choppy waters. Mary got a little queasy when we ventured to the upper deck of the lurching boat to get a better view of our approaching destination, North Manitou Island.
(Social commentary digression: On the boat, the discrepancy between the demographics of National Park visitors and the racial breakdown of the US population at large was clearly on display. The question is: How do you strike a good balance between these two things: 1- enticing people who don’t traditionally do any backcountry camping into parks while 2- avoiding developing some of the few places that still have a relatively small human footprint on the landscape? I have no idea, but maybe I will muse about it in a future post.)
You can read elsewhere about the history of North and South Manitou Islands. North Manitou was once home to a small community of homesteaders, and later some rich vacationers from Chicago kept summer cottages there. Now the buildings, orchards, and clearings they left behind are abandoned, and the land is managed by the National Park Service. It’s a big destination for backpackers because backcountry camping is allowed anywhere on the island. What’s more, it’s the perfect size–roughly circular and about 5 miles (8 km) in diameter. That’s small enough to explore from end to end in a couple days, but big enough for the ~100 backpackers on the island on a given summer weekend to spread out pretty darn thinly. And of course, the island abounds with natural beauty: dunes clad with thick beech-maple forests, dramatic windswept bluffs overlooking the lake, and beaches of many-hued smooth pebbles washed by bright bluish-green waves. The remoteness of the island means that we had our pick of isolated campsites in the midst of this splendor.
After we arrived and heard a safety briefing from the NPS ranger, Mary and I took off down the trail. We spent the next two days and nights circling the island, with numerous side detours to see abandoned barns, orchards, and the cemetery where the couple dozen hardy homesteaders are buried (including some who spent their childhood there and returned to their final resting place as recently as 2010). We were constantly serenaded by vireos, redstarts, black-throated green warblers, thrushes, and robins that breed on the island, and scolded by vast numbers of chipmunks. On the second night, we were treated to a show of three otters cavorting about 100 yards out in the waters of the lake! A gull and a tern were angrily harassing them, faking dive-bomb attacks and cawing harshly, but the playful otters did not seem to mind. Unwelcome additions to the fauna were mosquitoes and blackflies, but they were not too bad if you wore long sleeves except in a few marshier spots in the forest.
As for the quality of the camping, it couldn’t be beat. The first night we camped on a high, windy bluff in a grassy clearing overlooking the lake on the west side of the island, where the mid-July weather got downright chilly at night. The high temperature was about 70 F (21 C) each day, with sunny skies. The next night, we pitched our tent in the woods just back from a stunningly picturesque beach on the east side. Mary and I enjoyed a romantic time cooking such delicacies as Zatarain’s mixed with soy sausage and canned corn, carefully rationing a plastic water bottle filled with bourbon, and reading creepy Japanese short fiction from the early 1930s to each other.
The terrain was mostly flat and forested, so the backpacking was pretty easy. Every couple of miles, the woods opened up into large clearings with orchards and the occasional barn, which provided interesting variety. Lake Michigan is so big that the lake at the center of Manitou Island is itself a mile or so long and great for swimming. (Yo, dogg, we heard you liked lakes, so we put a lake in your lake.) Of course, I took a dip in the Big Lake–that’s the Ojibwe meaning of the word Michigan–as well. Wonderfully refreshing.
(Environmental commentary digression: The Great Lakes are a unique and fragile treasure. We Americans, entrusted with 20% of the world’s fresh water shared among five lakes, have really messed them up. One thing we definitely noticed on our trip was the beautiful clear water that for some reason had lots of filmy algae floating around in it. Apparently, zebra mussels, which were introduced from ships discharging ballast water taken on in Eastern Europe, have proliferated, filtered particulates out of the water, making it clearer. This in turn releases algae from light limitation and causes huge booms in their biomass, with all sorts of negative consequences.)
I’ll leave you with one final anecdote: On Day 3, which just so happened to be my 30th birthday, we made sure to show up extra early at the dock, not wanting to miss the ferry and be stranded for 24 hours with only a few extra rations of Zatarain’s to tide us over. There, just as we were preparing to head off the island, I started chatting with a Park Service employee who was glassing the beach with binoculars. After asking whether I had a life list, he pointed out four Piping Plover chicks that were foraging in a small puddle on the beach! One of the parents later made an appearance as well. The Piping Plover is an endangered shorebird that only nests on remote, secluded beaches, and North Manitou Island is its biggest stronghold in the Great Lakes region. What a way to end our sojourn on the island–a wonderful weekend in a beautiful place with an amazing wife!