Beaver Archipelago, Pt. 5: "Ancient Minis Gitigaan"

May 2013.

RETURN to part 4

We stood around the fog signal house on Squaw Island and chitchatted for a few more minutes before taking the beach trek back to our landing (MAP). On the way, Jon spotted a few morel mushrooms growing on the beach! I swear the damned things show up in the weirdest places and at the weirdest times. We picked them and pondered adding them to lunch.

Once aboard the Liberty again, he informed me what this afternoon's plan would entail. We would motor to Garden Island (MAP), where he and Fred planned to make lunch, since it was now about 1pm and they had not had the chance to make their breakfast yet. I could either begin my hike immediately upon landing at Garden, or I could join them for eats. Based on the yumminess of the venison leftovers they had shared, I found it quite hard to pass up. Besides, I was already getting a little tired of trail mix, and I still had two or three days of that diet to go. After lunch Jon and Fred would then depart back home for Beaver Island again.

Jon also asked me where I planned to camp for the night, and I said the northern shore of the island somewhere. I assumed he was going to drop me at Indian Harbor (MAP), near the center of the island by the burial grounds where more of the trails intersect, but he actually intended to land at Northcutt Bay in the southeast end of the island. I therefore had to adjust my hiking plans somewhat.

The reason Minis Gitigaan, or "Garden" Island got its name is because according to myth (and some erstwhile archaeological evidence), the ancient ancestors of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa/Ottawa) people raised crops on the island. Though not much real archaeology has been done here in recent times, evidence gathered in the 20th century on other islands nearby has been used to determine that the earliest habitation by prehistoric aboriginals on Minis Gitigaan occurred around 3,000 years ago, during the Late Archaic Period. These great ancestors also used Minis Gitigaan as a burial ground, a practice that has continued uninterrupted to the present day. It has been estimated that at least 3,500 graves exist on the island, though only a few are still marked with spirit houses. So Minis Gitigaan is not only sacred as a place of ancestral habitation, it is also seen as a deeply sacred place where the spirits reside--because the ancient ancestors are still there, literally in the ground of the island.

Members of the tribes who occupied Michigan during the 1800s came here when they were driven to the corners of the mainland by pressure from increasing numbers of white settlers. Seeking areas where they could maintain their culture undisturbed, they came to the Beaver Archipelago. When the white man pushed further out onto Beaver Island, many of the natives then left Beaver in favor of the outer islands such as sacred Minis Gitigaan. Ruchhoft writes that by 1847 most of the 200 or so purebred Beaver Island Anishinaabe people who lived in the archipelago had migrated to Minis Gitigaan. As a result, the government worked a new treaty with them in 1855, withdrawing Garden and High Islands from public sale, but not necessarily setting them up as "Indian Reservations."

So in effect these outer islands became among the last holdouts of the true undiluted Anishinaabeg culture, yet they were still required to pay property taxes to the state of Michigan. Allegedly that last part was not clearly explained to them, and as a result many properties were later seized for nonpayment of taxes. Not all of the tribesmen stayed year-round on the island but many did. Whites called the Garden Island inhabitants "Cornshokers," referring to the fact that they cultivated fields of corn and squash in the island's interior, though many also fished. Eventually the Anishinaabeg who lived there moved away for many of the same reasons as the white settlers left the archipelago during the 1900s. The last permanent year-round resident of Minis Gitigaan was old Pete Monatou, who died there in 1947 in his cabin, which has since fallen to ruin.

Due to negotiating the extensive reefs in which Minis Gitigaan is ensconced, it took us about another ten miles of navigation before we could lay anchor in the shelter of Northcutt Bay. This bay is all sandy bottom, so setting the Liberty's anchor was no difficult task.

This was also our easiest landing so far, though we had to bring the extra weight of our food and cooking supplies. Fred got out the chainsaw and cut up some firewood while Jon got the food going, and I replenished my water supplies from the lake using my filter. While they were working I also took some time to wander the immediate area a bit to get my bearings.

I noticed there were a lot of fallen trees on the trail, making the going extremely slow and difficult.

While I was making my way back to the landing area I pushed through a tight grove of spruces to avoid another fallen tree across the trail, when suddenly I had my glasses whipped off my face and felt the hard, unforgiving stab of a thick piece of pointy wood going into my eye socket as I ducked past a spruce bough. It was over before I even knew what happened, and suffice it to say when I recoiled and stood up I was almost sure that that was the end of me ever being able to see out of my right eyeball again. I half expected to see it go flying off into the brush right behind my glasses, which were now conveniently dangling from the offending bough in front of me.

Stunned shitless, I checked myself and was amazed to find that I was completely fine and intact, not bleeding, and with not even an errant piece of loose bark left behind in my ocular cavity. This was some kind of miracle…I felt that sharp stick go right into my head and under my eye, by at least an inch…how the hell was I not blind right now? I stood there blinking, putting my glasses carefully back on and making sure one more time that I was still fully functional. Clearly it was time to make my offering to Gitchii Manitou before I did anything else.

I went back to camp and rooted around in my pack until I found the tobacco I had brought, and left it in a hollow tree stump in reciprocity for my staying on the spirits' island. Once I reached the actual cemetery, I planned to make a second offering, just to be safe.

When I got back the food was ready. We had potatoes and a mix of beans, sausage patties, and a couple kinds of wild mushrooms including the morels Jon had found on Squaw Island, and some leeks he had found near the shore here.

It was good as hell…we sat around the fire circle belching for some time after that before I finally gave in to the fact that I had to hit the trail. I bid my hosts farewell as they loaded up the landing boat again, and I began walking. It was now about 4pm, a much later start than I had planned on. My thought now with this diminished schedule was to spend the remainder of today exploring everything in this smaller southeastern half of the island first, which was originally what I had planned to do last. Tomorrow and the next morning would be for exploring as much of the northern and western areas as I could. Today was Tuesday; Captain Bonadeo would be back at 10am on Thursday morning in this same spot to reconnoiter with me.

I guess this wasn't too bad of a switch-up; right now I could knock out the trip to the very southeast tip of the island where old Pete Monatou's farm and cabin lay in ruins, then I could make my way back to Indian Bay where the two DNR cabins stood, and hopefully camp there. It sure would be nice to have actual shelter and a bed to sleep on again. Hey, take it when you can get it, right?

I started up the trail from Northcutt Bay to the first intersection, which was the fork left to the Post Office Trail, and the second one to the right would be Pete Monatou's Trail. As I hiked northerly through the dense cedar and spruce thickets I could tell that a lot of trees were down here, probably due to the same ice storm that Captain Bonadeo had talked about earlier. That was back in December, and on Beaver Island it had taken about a week to clear the trees from the roads afterward he said. Again, we were probably the first people on Garden Island since the fall, so there was a strong chance that I would be climbing over a lot of fallen trees on the trail. As it would turn out, I had no idea what was in store for me.

Once I began to get more inland, the forest changed to mature oak and beech trees. In fact this is probably the closest I would ever come to experiencing the "Oak Openings" of the pioneer days that James Fenimore Cooper wrote of, and which gave Oakland County its name. The forest was wide open between the tall strong oaks, with little undergrowth to obscure my sight. Garden Island has a small deer herd unlike High Island, so that is also a contributing factor. The trail bed began to get faint once I made it to the junction with Pete Monatou's Trail. In fact there was hardly a trail "bed" at all; it didn't look like anyone really ever went this way. Not that the trail from Northcutt was spectacularly well-defined, but still. There was actually a trail marker with a "YOU ARE HERE" map on it here, as well at the last junction with the Post Office Trail. Child's play. They had been placed and signed with the admonishment, "Boy Scout Troop 76--Please Respect This Island." As it would turn out however, these beacons would not aid me much beyond this point, as the scouts only maintained the southern half of the island to speak of.

Without hesitation I made my right turn to Pete Monatou's and almost immediately lost the trail. I had to walk backwards to recognize it again. The openness of the woods, and the faintness of the trail to his farmstead made this less like following a trail and more like following an "avenue" or thoroughfare through the trees. Fairly easy once you get the hang of it…basically bushwhacking without the bushes. It got a little trickier once the path began to get grown up with saplings in the middle of it. I could have sworn that Captain Bonadeo had said this island by far gets the most foot traffic, but I wasn't seeing it.

As I began to hook southeasterly I came back within range of the shore, and again dove into the much denser coastal evergreens that serve as a buffer zone from the lake. Here is where the going slowed way down and I began to realize just how many trees were down on the trail. I began to sweat and pant as I climbed over tree after tree, sometimes a dozen in a row. I began to consider leaving my heavy 50lb pack behind and going on ahead with just water. As the sun began to arc downward in the sky, this is exactly what I ended up doing. I was exhausting myself with this constant struggle; going on unencumbered would be imperative to having a chance to make camp before dark. My plan was now to camp at the DNR cabins on Garden Island Harbor tonight and explore the northern half of the island tomorrow--essentially an inversion of my original plans.

Making much better progress without my pack, I now just hoped that no furry little bastards would be in my food supplies when I returned. I took a bag of trail mix and a pear with me in my jacket pockets just in case. Soon I heard the sound of surf and popped out momentarily to scan my surroundings. I was now on Sturgeon Bay, just north of Pete Monatou's farm. From here the trail dove back south into the swampy cedars to the jagged peninsula where the old Ottawa had made his home.

Pete Monatou was a farmer, a fisherman, and a lumberman, availing himself over time of all the means of sustenance that were available on Minis Gitigaan, "earning a hand-to-mouth living" for most of his life. He raised his family here around the turn of the century, but they all eventually moved away as they grew older. Pete however stayed on in his old age, until he finally passed on to the spirit world in 1947, leaving Minis Gitigaan completely devoid of mortal men. He died in his cabin, which too eventually succumbed to the ravages of nature and time. Ruchhoft wrote that "the fallen log walls are still visible on the southern edge of his homestead clearing…. Although with time, the clearing and the cabin will disappear his name will survive. For…the bay nearest his home is named for him."

Out in the distance above the blue I could see the green silhouette of the completely desolate Hog Island (MAP). Of the entire archipelago, Captain Bonadeo had told me that it was the least-traveled of all the islands, and that it had never been inhabited.

I came to what seemed like a cul-de-sac in the trail and assumed this to be where I would find old Pete Monatou's cabin? There was a recent-ish hunting stand up in a tree, but no other signs. I eventually discerned this was not in fact a cul-de-sac, but the trail continued through what was now a completely grown-over thoroughfare. I thought about saying screw it, but hell, I had come this far, what's another couple hundred yards of bushwacking through snaring and snapping wands? I came across an old fruit tree, obviously part of what had once been a farm, and knew I was on the right track.

There were a few more in the nearby clearings--I was definitely on the farm of Pete Monatou. But where had his cabin been? My maps only denoted general areas, no pinpoint locations, so I went on intuition. Where would I put my cabin if I lived here?

I pushed through more dark cedar sanctuaries to the shining shoreline of Monatou Bay.

What a beautiful, remote area. Dude had his own trail, his own peninsula, his own bay, and eventually the whole island, once everyone else left or died off.

Across the wide swaths of scrub-grown gravel beaches I saw some unnamed island:


A view more to the southeast, perhaps showing Pismire Island:


After about half an hour I finally gave up on finding the remnants of Pete Monatou's place, and decided to leave a pinch of tobacco as an offering for his spirit. I mean I'm still completely agnostic and everything, but I still find it fitting.

Not wasting any more time I headed back north to where I had left my backpack on the trail and continued to shoot westward to the main trail again. I decided that the Post Office Trail would be the best bet to find the DNR cabins, so that's the way I went. Plus, I could see the ruins of the combination post office & general store of the ghost town of Success. Yes, the town was named "Success."

Success was founded around 1912 on Garden Island Harbor, a shantytown serving as workers' housing for the various cursory lumber operations that occurred on the island over the years. It was in the area marked as "The Triangle" on the map.

I know you're going to be shocked to hear this, but Success wasn't too successful, and its post office remained registered for only one year. The lumber operations at the Northcutt Sawmill probably represented Success's heyday, if it could be said to have had one. That was also how Northcutt Bay earned its name; the owner of the company was one Mr. Northcutt, a tall Texan who had come north to capitalize on Michigan's lumber boom, opening his mill in 1912. It was the largest lumber operation in Garden Island's history but it did not last long, and nothing remains of it today. It stood right where Captain Bonadeo had landed us.

According to Ruchhoft, the post office / general store (which is probably the only extant structure of Success) could still be easily found just off the trail in the 1980s, though it was a bit lonesome for its roof.

I traveled through some gorgeous deep silent woods dark with the shadows of great and towering giants. The trail here was actually much better maintained, with a couple of the fallen spruces already cut and moved aside from the trail, though clearly a lot of work still was left to be done. The problem was obviously isolated to the coastal areas, due to the fact that those trees bear the full force of the winds, but just as much due to the fact that the evergreen trees that grow there are not as strong as the oaks growing inland, and thus less able to bear the increased weight of their boughs when loaded up with glaze ice. According to Captain Bonadeo, that was what took the greatest toll--the ice, not the wind.

I knew I was within a hundred yards of the Harbor Trail once I came upon the shape of the squat post office's ruin on my right. I was amazed to find it seemingly just as intact as Ruchhoft had described it two decades ago. I guess that's another testament to the durability of old-growth wood.

In fact, there were still shakes attached to a couple of its sides:

A couple pieces of debris were found nearby...

…including, mysteriously, a light switch, light fixture, and switch leg conduit running between the two, perfectly suspended from a tree:

Had I screwed in a lightbulb, would it have turned on?

The front door:

It was shaping up into a fine evening, crisp and clear, and not too chilly. I soon popped a left on the Harbor Trail and after crawling through another skein of downed spruces, I saw a small clearing begin to open up ahead. I had reached the DNR site.

I always find this sort of thing creepy…busting out of a serious wilderness and suddenly finding some unassuming form of civilization.

Was someone going to be here? The buildings were much better-maintained than the cabins on High Island, so it almost seemed like I was intruding in someone's yard.

I couldn't see or hear anyone, but a hammock swung from a pair of nearby cedars, and the grass almost seemed mowed.

"Hello...?" I called out.

I knocked on the first door I came to. The door was tied loosely shut with a piece of string and the plank above it faintly read "Garden Island Lodge."

No answer, so I looked through the window.

Weathered x-mas lights and garland hung limply around the door and from the rafters in a decidedly un-festive manner. A deer head also stared from the wall over the kitchen table, apparently no more thrilled about the x-mas lights draped around his neck than I was.

I had read that one of these cabins had originally been built as a homestead by Native Americans, and was later added onto by the lumber company, finally added onto one more time by a group of researchers studying coyotes on the island to increase bunk space.

A small footpath invited me down to the shores of the harbor through a grove of cedars, where I looked out over the calm waters to see Little Island and the sun beginning to set just behind it.

I had correctly calculated the amount of time it would take me to get here, which was a good sign. I set my pack down on the hammock and began to explore my surroundings a little more thoroughly.

There was also a decent collection of driftwood on the beach by a fire circle, so I could enjoy a nice little fire tonight while watching the sun set and nibbling dinner without using up any of their split firewood stores.

I decided not to bother exploring the tarpapered cabin, since it was getting close to dark. Maybe I would explore it tomorrow morning. I did poke my head in briefly to check it out though, just to make sure there were no skeletons in there leftover from winter still huddled up next to the potbelly stove, or anything like that. The interior of the log cabin was just fine for me, and it was the oldest structure in the complex. Most of it was a storage shed for equipment--nothing interesting though.

Again, I decided why not sleep in the cabin? Like I said, you have to take it when you can get it. Getting my gear somewhat set up in there I went back outside to watch the rest of the sunset, just as the magic hour was casting its rays of orange through the warren of gnarled cedar trunks.

Getting my fire started, I knocked back a couple swigs of the ole campin' hooch while gnawing on my giant loaf of exploring bread. The crescent moon blazed silver overhead as twilight came to a silent, placid Lake Michigan amongst the distant haunting calls of loons.

So far so good for this trip…I was feeling very very relaxed. For me to enjoy the pleasures of a campfire when out on my own on these hiking trips I take to super-remote spots is unheard of. In fact I'm pretty sure this is the first time I have really done so, because usually I am in a place where fires are expressly forbidden by law, which is why I felt it was so novel that I had to take a picture. So far no one had said anything to me about what I can and can't do on these islands, and usually that is one of the things that comes up first, so I guess it's kosher, even though I think all of these islands are a national or state "wildlife refuge."

I stayed up well after dark, gazing into the glowing embers of the warm fire, thinking the usual thoughts that men think when they are the only living human being on a particular land mass. Literally though--I was the only member of my species on this entire huge island…except for 3,500 dead Indians buried under the soil. As the night wore on the temperature plunged to almost freezing; I was plenty warm in the snug little log cabin however, yet another rare luxury for me.

CLICK for part 6

Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou, High and Garden Islands of the Lake Michigan Archipelago, by R.H. Ruchhoft

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