North Manitou Island, Pt. 1

Written July, 2009.

Back in 2004 I had gone hiking for a few hours on South Manitou Island in Lake Michigan, but later I learned that on North Manitou Island there were the bleaching remnants of a former settlement from the 19th century, though the north isle was considered “more rugged” and only for “serious backpackers;” it was designated a “wilderness area” as opposed to being a fully-maintained National Park like the south isle. Although this sounded enticing, I would later find out that it wasn't quite as “Mountain Dew X-Treme” as the National Park Service made it sound, and these warnings were mostly to scare off the average naive, out-of-shape tourists.

Image from Bing Maps
My plan was to head up to the port of Leland on a Tuesday, charter a boat to the island Wednesday morning, and return to the mainland on Friday. In between time I would try to cover as much of the island on foot as possible. There were a few other lingering questions from my random studies about places in the northwestern Mitten that I wanted answers to, and I would investigate these along the way, such as the ruins of an old mill in Newaygo.

I was reminded of North Manitou’s former settlements by a photo on the HABS/HAER site, and did a little reading into it. Then I came across a map showing their approximate location:

Image from
This however is the one that was doled out to me by a park ranger upon arrival at the island:

Image from
Little did I know at the time, a book had been published about the history of these islands, entitled, Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou, High and Garden Islands of the Lake Michigan Archipelago, by Robert H. Ruchhoft. I acquired this book years later, and I use it throughout this four-part series to fill in the history of the island.

The short version is that in the 1800s-1900s the island was logged, then settled by a small handful of farmers. When shipping on the lakes increased, a lighthouse was built at Dimmick’s Point to guide ships through the dangerous Manitou Passage, though only ruins remain of it now. After these activities faded away, a handful of rich businessmen from Chicago built summer cottages and hunting lodges here after the turn of the 20th century. One was supposedly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (but I bet you already knew I was gonna say that). With the Great Depression, even these activities too faded away and the island has sat dormant since. The National Park Service made North and South Manitous Islands part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Historic Lakeshore, and it remains without permanent residents. The islands are also home to several endangered species of flora and fauna.

The Anishinaabe people have their own legend about the islands and the Sleeping Bear Dunes; story goes that a mother bear and her cubs were fleeing a forest fire in Wisconsin and swam to Michigan. Mishe Mokwa (“mother bear”) made it across, but her twin cubs played in the water instead of swimming hard to make it across. They drowned in the lake, and formed the two Manitou islands. The mother bear waits forever for her cubs to reach the shore, and took the form of the massive 400-foot dune on the shore of the mainland. It is probably worth noting that the Anishinaabe word manitou (and its variations) means “spirit,” or “ghost.”

Ruchhoft says that there were no Native Americans living on the Manitous when Europeans arrived in Michigan, but evidence of early habitation in the Late Archaic Period was found on North Manitou in the form of a copper awl, an aboriginal tool, that was dated to 3000BC. At that time "Lake Nipissing" covered much of what is now known as the Great Lakes, when water levels were much higher than they are today. As a result, only the highest points of many of these islands would have protruded above the waterline, if at all, and it is arguable that if evidence of ancient habitation is to be found, that’s where one will find it.

Day 1
My general plan was to head up the western side of the Mitten with a stop at the old lumber town of Newaygo, because I had once heard the ruins of some kind of mill lay in ruins there, dating to 1837. Newaygo sits on the wide Muskegon River, and its history even goes back to the fur-trapping days of French dominion; it was eventually named after an Ojibwa chief who signed the Treaty of Saginaw in 1812. However its main claim to what little historical fame it has was as one of the fabled sawdust towns of the north, when lumber barons got rich by felling the ancient forests of Michigan pine, and jammed the rivers with their logs.

I arrived in Newaygo just before sunset. A quick drive-around gave no clues to any ruins, and I knew I’d have to walk upriver some. There was a county park down at the riverbank, and I thought this a good spot to start from. I got out and immediately saw a huge old rail trestle:

This trestle, according to the HAER, was built in 1875 by the Grand Rapids, Newaygo, & Lake Shore RR. On the opposite bank I was surprised to see what looked to be…ruins!

There was also a mini-waterfall from some kind of penstock or drain pipe. I even checked out another hydro station on the near side of the river:

This used to be a spillway, but has been filled in and made part of the park. Here’s a view inside one of the chambers (with what looks to be some sort of invisible super-spider):

Even though twilight was rapidly fading, I started hiking toward the big bridge so I could reach the other side.

It was dark by the time I made it…fireflies lit my way as I trudged through the overgrowth.

I tried my best to get pictures of what I could…it was hard to tell how much was here, and when I realized that even my long exposures were completely futile, I gave up and fired a few flashes, resolving to try again during daylight hours on my return trip. But holy mackerel did this place seem cool—I could even hear waterfalls running all through it.

I continued northward, setting my sights on Traverse City as a place of rest for the night and hopefully purchasing my food provisions for the backpacking portion of the trip, as it was the only city big enough in this corner of the state to have a 24-hour Meijer’s. I had pretty much given up on being able to procure some sort of real MREs, and since I do not carry a camp stove, buying overpriced dehydrated backpacker’s meals was moot as well (as if I wanted to pay $12 for a pouch of dehydrated f@#$ing lentils). I feared that I would be stuck packing a loaf of sandwich bread for my sustenance while in the wilds. I would also be able to do a quick checkup on Traverse City Asylum in the morning before heading up into the Leelanau Peninsula.

Arriving in Traverse City at 1am, I found the Meijer's and got a loaf of locally made sourdough bread the size of a hubcap, three tomatoes, and some hard salami went into my basket. For some reason this has become my backpacking-food trifecta. I decided however to round it off in the morning with a stop at a roadside farmer’s stand, and a jerky store (which would not be hard to locate). This was cherry season, and I was in the cherry-growing capital of possibly the whole world, so requisitioning some dried cherries would be hard not to do. All these items together were significantly less than what I would've spent on the designer dehydrated crap at REI or whatever. And there was no cooking involved. It's not like I was going to be out in the bush for a month.

Day 2
I awoke at dawn, fiddled around at the asylum for a bit, and then tore up into the orchard country of the Leelanau Peninsula, skirting the edge of the Grand Traverse Bay before taking a momentary side trip to check out something near the tiny village of Suttons Bay.

For a long time I'd wondered whether the Manseau Grist Mill was something worth checking out, which I had read about in a book about Michigan ghost towns, and had also detected in an old article in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. It was built in 1859 and—as of 2006—still stood, according to the article. All I had to go on for location was that it was on the Belanger Creek, north of Suttons Bay.

But it turned out to be easy to find, being less than a foot from the roadside, but it did not seem abandoned.

This place shut down in 1934 for predictable economic reasons, even though it was almost completely “automatic,” needing only one man to replace worn mill parts and make sure the grain fed in properly. Today it seems to be part of the neighbor’s property (it is abutted by a house), and approaching it is actually more difficult than it looks. It is fenced, and of course protected by steep slopes and the creek. The bay is just beyond:

Judging by that viaduct the creek passes under, it looks like there used to be a railroad line there, perhaps the Traverse City, Leelanau, & Manistique Railroad.

It began to rain and I saddled up again to procure the last of my food supplies for the island. A roadside cherry stand obliged me almost immediately, and I continued to Leland with plenty of time to spare.

Leland is a pretty little hamlet of very few people but many beautiful houses, and looks out on Lake Michigan. It is popular with tourists too. There is still a fishing industry here, and in fact a remnant of its old fishing past has been preserved in what is called "Fishtown":

These I believe are for drying fish nets:

These shanties are original remnants of Leland’s old “Fishtown” district. Through their midst runs the mouth of the Carp River, flowing down from a series of dams to the lake. It was in one of these shacks that I had to charter my boat to North Manitou Island.

After doing so I meandered about the docks, and stocked up on some homemade beef jerky and also got a sandwich to eat on the way to the island. Amongst the shantytown were several smokehouses as well (giving off their intoxicatingly smoky, fishy smell). Though I had not tried the northern Michigan delicacy of smoked fish yet, I would come to fall in love with it in later years.

A state historic plaque explained that many of these fishery buildings still served their original function despite being 100 years old, and mentioned that Leland also had involvement in the iron smelting business in its past...I wonder if there were the ruins of a furnace somewhere nearby?

I had just enough time to hop aboard our 30-foot vessel and embark for the island, which lay an hour away. Also aboard besides the three crewmen were 15 boy scouts and scout leaders heading to the island. I munched on my sandwich as we motored out of the harbor.

Once on the open water however, it became evident that the calm appearance from shore belied the actual conditions on the lake. Our craft was being tossed like a cork, and I soon began to be gripped by a fear that the sandwich had been a mistake. I was just waiting for somebody to get seasick…maybe even me. We all basically had to sit in our spots or risk being flung across the cabin. At one point the door of the mini-fridge flew open sending pop cans and water bottles rolling all across the deck, which we comically struggled to round up and return to the cooler without losing them again or falling on our face. One of the mates then tied the door shut with a rope.

My trip to South Manitou Island several years ago—even though it was on a larger vessel—was nothing like this…it had been very tolerable both ways. I should‘ve kept my camera on my person, because as a result of the tossing seas I could not get to my gear in the forward cargo hold, and so I don't have any photos of the trip out. I hoped the return voyage would yield safer conditions for picture taking.

At two points I noticed the captain did tack maneuvers (someone asked why, and he replied that due to the strong currents in the Manitou Passage we’d never make the island otherwise)…I guess the Manitou Passage is pretty hairy, even for this brute of a boat. There are 50 known and 100 unknown shipwrecks in the area of the Leelanau and the Manitous, going back centuries, earning it a reputation as a ship graveyard.

The Manitous first show up on a crude map drawn in 1673 by Louis Joliet, probably because their leeward sides provided excellent shelter for ships weathering severe storms. It was Robert Cavalier Sieur de la Salle who wrote the first account that specifically talks about the Manitous, when he sailed the Griffon on the Great Lakes in 1679. Accordingly, LaSalle was also the first to note the treacherousness of the Manitou Passage….

The first white men known to spend any significant time on North Manitou were fishermen and fur trappers in the 1820s who were there on a temporary basis only. It has been speculated that French fur trappers may have spent time there as early as the 17th century, but it is not recorded. There is no mineral wealth to be had on the Manitou Islands; the only draw would be to trap, fish, and log. And all those activities had been done to death by the dawn of the 20th century, leaving little behind except pretty beaches.

Our boat was pitching and yawing so bad that the view out the portholes alternated between straight up at the grey sky, and straight down at the black water before dizzily switching again, and waves were coming in over the railing on the open fantail. I originally was going to go sit out there, but f#$% that now! The Boy Scouts back there were hanging on for dear life. We were running parallel the troughs for most of this, which is what made it so unbearable. The vessel's Detroit Diesel roared deafeningly and vibrated the deck beneath our feet, but I eventually drifted off to some form of sleep. I could vaguely see the dark silhouette of North Manitou Island ahead through a rain-beaded porthole, but it never seemed to get any nearer.

CLICK for part two

Sources cited in this series:
Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou, High and Garden Islands of the Lake Michigan Archipelago, by Robert H. Ruchhoft
Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia, by Larry & Patricia Wright
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, 1976
Geological Survey of Michigan Lower Peninsula 1900-1903, Vol. III Pt. III, Marl and its Application to the Manufacture of Portland Cement, by David J. Hale, et al

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