Survivor in Michigan: North Manitou Island

Survivor in Michigan: North Manitou Island

I am not what most people would consider outdoorsy. I can’t start a fire without a gallon of lighter fluid and have a great fondness for indoor plumbing. But, three years after my first ever camping trip, I recently found myself with 25 pounds of gear strapped to my back and aboard a ferry to North Manitou Island to spend four nights backpacking with my wife in the Northern Michigan wilderness.

North Manitou - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Chad Cramblet.

North Manitou Island, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is approximately eight miles long, four miles wide, and boasts 20 miles of lakeshore. The island, which sits six miles off the shore of the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Lake Michigan, was home to 300 residents in its heyday as a logging village. Now, it is primarily operated as wilderness and provides explorers and relaxers alike plenty of space to enjoy their respective activities in solitude. There are many miles of hiking trails — ranging from the well-maintained main trails to the historical trails which are more difficult to find and follow — which wind through North Manitou’s numerous landscapes, including sand dunes, forests, and fields.

Getting to the island is part of the adventure, requiring a nearly two-hour ferry ride (complete with a cash bar, at which I couldn’t help but buy a $6 can of Bell’s Two Hearted) originating in Leland and a National Park pass for admittance to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. After arriving on the island, checking in with the park ranger, and attending a short orientation, ferry-goers are free to put on their packs and hit the trail.

North Manitou - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Chad Cramblet.

Though there is a campground available, my wife and I, along with most of those on the island, decided to pitch camp in the backcountry, sleeping wherever we ended up. The first day, after a quick stop at Lake Manitou, we hiked to the northern tip of the island and set up camp in the woods not far from a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. This allowed us a beautiful view of the lake at sunset while eating dinner (rehydrated chili that we had cooked and dehydrated at home a few days before), as well as access to Lake Michigan which, after filtering, gave us plenty to drink.

We woke up early the second day and, after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee (Starbucks Via packs are a lifesaver), packed up camp and headed out for our longest day of hiking. Our eight-mile hike brought us down the west side of the island; there, we found a beautiful beach where we changed into our bathing suits, made lunch, and soaked up a little bit of sun before venturing off to set up camp a few miles in a meadow, again near a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.

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Day three began with the exploration of nearby sand dunes. We considered setting up camp early and setting out on a day trip without lugging our packs around, but decided to do our best to make our way around the perimeter of the island during our stay, so carried on for a couple of miles, leaving the sand dunes for the shade of the woods.

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While there are a number of historical sites around the island, both “ruins” and historical buildings, it is the latter which proved to be more interesting. The ruins are usually little more than a couple of bricks of a building that was once present (or, in the case of the “ruins” of a car, an old car trunk sitting in a field). However, the historical buildings are quite interesting, and include an old barn and a residence with a number of outbuildings. On day three, our primary historical spot was a cemetery in which many former residents of the island were buried. While many of the deceased had been there for many years, some were more recent additions, having passed away in the last decade. We ended up setting up camp about half a mile from the cemetery, not far from the beach on the southeast side of the island. While this was the most beautiful area we camped, it was also the most bug-infested, with the primary culprit being biting flies which swarmed to any exposed skin, regardless of how much bug spray we used!

The fourth day was cut short by weather as a strong rainstorm came through in the late morning hours. Luckily we were close to the main campground at that point, and were able to find a spot to set up camp before the rain fully hit. We ended up napping for about four hours, as apparently our bodies were more exhausted than we previously thought. After the weather cleared, we went on a short walk before settling in for the night.

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The final morning was bittersweet as we tore down our camp for the final time before heading back to the dock to catch the ferry. While there were certain things (pizza) that I missed about the mainland, there was something freeing about being able to wander the island at our own pace, setting up camp wherever we pleased, and often feeling like the only people on the island. It made me think about what Michigan must have been like a couple hundred years ago, untamed and filled with natural beauty. While, of course, things have changed since those days, oftentimes for the better, it gave me only a deeper appreciation for the beauty and splendor of our state. (Feel free to read that last sentence in your best Tim Allen voice).

While North Manitou Island certainly gives you the chance to take a step back from the busy lives we lead and enjoy nature without the constant pressure to check cell phones or be anywhere at a specific time, there is some planning that needs to be done to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable time. While I am by no means an expert, and would encourage you to do some research before you go, I did assemble a few tips that I found useful during my time on North Manitou.

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What to bring

There are of course a large number of things that you’ll need to survive your time on North Manitou, such as shelter, food, and clothes. However, there are a few things that may seem less obvious that were invaluable to our stay, though do keep in mind that everything will need to be able to be carried with you.

Water purification: The only drinkable water on the island can be found near the ferry dock, which means that you will need to find a way to get drinkable water. This can be done by boiling, iodine tablets, or bringing some type of water filtration device. (We used this little contraption.)

Compass: While you will be given a map of the island’s trails (though I would recommend paying $5 to buy a more detailed map when you check in for the ferry) it is easy to end up on a secondary or historical trail that you don’t realize you’re on. Being able to ensure you are going the direction you think you are can help make sure you don’t get lost.

Stove: The only place you are allowed to start fires on the island are in the fire pits in the campground. This means you will need to find a different way to cook or rehydrate your food. There are a number of styles and models of backpacking stoves, but this is what we used.

Shovel: In the backcountry, there are no toilets. Just make sure your holes are at least six inches deep to allow for proper decomposition.

Cell phone: While this might seem counterintuitive, a cell phone is useful as a timekeeper so as not to miss your return ferry, a camera to capture about 150 photos of various beaches and trees, and also in case of an emergency (there is a ranger station on the island, but if you are five miles away and need emergency medical care, a cell phone is your best bet).

What to do

Beach: With 20 miles of shoreline, spending time at the beach either relaxing or swimming is a common activity. While the water was more calm and easily accessible on the east side of the island, we preferred the west side of the island for its sandier beaches and found there to be less biting flies there as well.

Hike: With many, many miles of trails throughout the island, hiking is a must-do on North Manitou. The trails range from well-maintained primary trails to “historical trails” that are more challenging to find and follow. The main and secondary trails wind through the island’s numerous terrains, as well as pass a number of historical buildings, and even an old apple and cherry orchard.

Camp: Obviously, at the end of the day you will need a place to crash. If you would rather have the same home base each night and head out for day trips, the main campground might be a good choice for you. There is a tent pad, communal fire rings, and a toilet nearby. However, if you would rather play it by ear, you can set up camp anywhere on the island as long as you abide by the rules (You can’t camp within 300 feet of anybody else, the water, or any of the historical buildings. You must also be at least 100 feet from the main trails). We found the best camping to be off of the secondary trails on the west side of the island, though also heard good things about camping near Lake Manitou.

-Chad Cramblet, Contributing Writer