Pristine freshwater beaches, tall sand dunes, virgin timber forrests, and the decaying reminants of a once successful farming commuinty.

South Manitou Island, 16 miles off the north-west coast of Michigan, is a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.   In the mid 1800’s- mid 1900’s it was a frequently traveled spot along that waterway, being the only natural harbor between Chicago and Michigan.  In 1901 the U.S. Life-Saving Service (now known as the Coast Guard) built a station on the island to assist ships in distress, though with the advent of new technology, it was permanently closed in 1958.  Around that same time, with boat traffic greatly diminished, almost all of the islands inhabitants left for the mainland.

To get there nowadays, you take a ferry across Lake Michigan departing from Leland most mornings at 10am. The boat docks at 11:30 am and departs at 4 pm, allowing people to take day trips or depositing people for backpacking/camping trips.  On days of inclement weather, the boat will come to the dock, unload and reload, and head right back to the mainland.

We had the (fortunate? unfortunate?) experience of making this passage on a day of high winds, so the open air top deck was not available for seating and many of the passengers became seasick in the rocky waves.  It was thrilling- the boat heaving up, down, left and right, sometimes so high that the horizon line would dip below the bow.   As we approached the deep eastern bay of the island, the waters calmed down significantly and everyone was excited to get off the boat.

We hiked a mile or so through the forest to the Weather Station Campground along the south edge of the island, which has three big group sites and about 18 individual sites, some more separated from one another than others.  We decided on spot #16, nice and removed from other sites, and just off from the beach.  We set up our tent with the door facing the little path to the water.  The waves were constant, cooing up to the shore day and night.

As we walked along the south end of the island heading west and then north, we found a large old house with no indication of date- it was in really bad shape, though the porch facing the waterfront seems to have been recently repaired.  I could have sat there all day.  The photograph below is taken on that porch, and you can see the outline of the sleeping bear dunes on the mainland off in the distance.

Around the bend, we came upon the remnants of a shipwreck from 1960 just off the waterfront.  The Francisco Morazan was a Liberian freighter transporting grain, and on a particularly stormy night it got too close to another shipwreck under the surface of the water.  Forever moored in that very spot, it has become a perch for birds and a stunning image of decaying metal amidst the waves.

The next day we hiked north through the center of the island, past the inland lake Francis.  The schoolhouse from about 100 years ago is preserved in good condition, a relic of the days of one-room education for all grades.  Just north of that we came across the farmlands, situated in the center of the island.  Farmers here were self-sufficient, growing prize-winning rye, beans and peas and raising livestock.  Being so secluded from the mainland, their crops were not at risk of cross pollination and therefore highly regarded as certified seeds.  They made their livelihood by selling seeds and surplus grain to passing ships.   I found this excerpt in one of the farming families history:

Prior to and during the 1920’s, the island played an important role in plant genetics when George Conrad Hutzler and his son Louis introduced a new strain of rye and developed their internationally award-winning Rosen Rye.  Several years later the same Hutzlers introduced the Michelite Bean to the island.  Again, due to the island’s climate and isolation from the mainland, and their innovative farming techniques, the Hutzler’s produced beans that won ribbons in state and international seed competitions.

From there we continued north, past the cemetery and up to the Popple Campground on the northern beach.  It’s quite remote, and the forest trail leading there is beautiful.  It’s the only campground of the three on the island without a drinkable water source.  It’s also the furthest hike from the port, so it’s the least frequently used.  We saw some campers up there that had been at the Weather Station Campground the night before.  They had headed north to get away from the noisy kids that were near their site.

The north edge of the island is quiet and calm.  The black flies seemed to appreciate this fact and were mostly populated there, though it wasn’t too unbearable.  We went for a swim and had some lunch, noshing on crespone salami and piave cheese while we warmed up some stew on our little propane cooker.

Afterwards we headed back to camp.  The nearly 10 miles of hiking around put us in the mood for a nap, followed by a great campfire cooking experience involving a cornish hen on a big stick.  Once the sun set, we filed our thermos with hot chocolate and took a walk along the beach in the moonlight.

I didn’t realize that such a beautiful place existed so close to where I grew up.  Even though it’s taken me 32 years to find it, I’m glad I did and looking forward to visiting again, for a longer trip next time.

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