Indian Summer on South Manitou

Illustration by Gary W. Odmark
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(The following essay is excerpted from “The Long Arc of the Universe —Travels Beyond the Pale” by Kathleen Stocking, a new release from Stocking Press due out this Summer.)

South Manitou dockIf you want to know what the world was like 200 years ago, go to South Manitou Island some nice Indian Summer day. Take the ferry out of Leland on the northwest coast of lower Michigan, about 300 miles north of Chicago.

Be prepared to be transported back in time to a place with no air pollution, no sound pollution and no light pollution.

Fall colors on South Manitou arrive about two weeks later than the fall colors do on the mainland. This is due to the moderating effect of the surrounding waters of Lake Michigan which still retain the summer’s warmth.

Autumn arrives just a little later and lingers a little longer, helping to create the feeling that you’ve entered a time warp.

Once you’ve docked and walked a short distance away from the others who were on the boat with you, all you will hear is the sound of the wind and the waves. The air will be so clear and sweet you will instinctively breathe it in as an elixir.

If you stay the night, the only light will be from the moon and stars.

•••••

South Manitou is new, relatively speaking, 11,000 years more or less since the last glacial period, so new some days it seems you can smell the ice melting. A more pristine and beautiful place can scarcely exist anywhere in the world.

Archeological records show that South Manitou was a stopping-off place for Native Americans who used it mostly for seasonal fishing.

Starting in the 1600s, French Canadian voyageurs in 35-foot-long cargo canoes heaped with furs overlapped with and eventually were replaced by tall sailing ships in the 1700s loaded with lumber, which in turn overlapped with and were replaced by steamers in the 1800s full of immigrants which, in turn, were replaced in the 1900s by diesel ships hauling iron ore.

All these vessels could be seen at different times in the island’s history waiting out storms in the large South Manitou harbor.

“In the landlocked heart of our America,” Melville wrote in 1851 in Moby Dick, “those grand freshwater seas of ours have drowned full many a midnight ship with all her shrieking crew.”

Odmark wreckThe day before I went to South Manitou there was a ferocious storm. The ferry out of Leland, the Manitou Island Transit, stayed in the harbor. That night I was afraid my trip would be cancelled. But the next morning dawned bright and clear, and the lake was blue and calm.

Now on the boat, I’m sitting next to an elderly couple from Ohio.

“My husband’s family used to come to Crystal Lake after the [Second World] War,” the woman tells me, “when just the wives and children came during the week, you know, because it was cooler out of the city, and the men came up on weekends and brought all the groceries.”

She shakes her head.

The changes in her lifetime have come so fast, she seems to be saying, that it makes one’s head spin.

•••••

In the early years of shipping on Lake Michigan, South Manitou was the first stop after Mackinac Island for people on their way to Chicago.

“Beyond South Manitou there was no sure shelter, and [with steamers] the captain had to order aboard enough wood for the entire run to Chicago,” wrote George Hilton in Lake Michigan Passenger Steamers. “A captain had to rely on traditional predictive devices such as the color of sunsets, behavior of birds and the presence of rings around the moon to make his calculations whether he could safely run the two hundred and sixty miles.”

William Burton was the island’s first white resident, arriving in about 1835 to provide cordwood to the steamships. In its heyday, South Manitou had a fluctuating population estimated at 100-300, but when the steamers switched from wood to coal in the 1880s, the economy died. The National Park Service took over in 1970, and by that time almost everyone was gone. The island began quickly to revert to its prehistoric self.

•••••

Once off the ferry, the older people and the people with children stay for one of the tours, and the young backpackers and hikers melt away into the interior. In the tour’s hay wagon, I’m sitting next to a young family from Grand Rapids. The father served as a medic in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He says he wants to teach his children two things: to love being outside and to help others. He’s starting with baby steps, like the tour, but eventually will do more rigorous wilderness camping with his kids because he wants them to acquire solid outdoor coping skills.

Eventually he wants to take his family on church missions to Latin America and other places so his kids can learn not only the rewards of camping, but the rewards of extending a helping hand to their fellow humans, learning a different but maybe even more important coping skill.

•••••

South Manitou is relatively flat. There is some height at the south end of the island where we go to see the wreck of the Francisco Morazan, but it’s really dune and bluff, similar to what’s exactly opposite in the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I grew up above Sleeping Bear Bay, and through the telescope on our dining room table we watched the November storm in 1960 that caused the wreck of the Morazan. We were relieved to learn over the next few days that all survived.

South Manitou lighthouseI knew an old Indian man, Archie Miller from Peshawbestown, who took his kids to South Manitou one summer for a Swiss Family Robinson adventure. They lived on tinned chicken that washed ashore from the Morazan, “square chicken,” as Archie described it, and fresh fish from Florence Lake. They stayed in an abandoned farm house.

“We had everything,” Archie said, “Stove. Kitchen utensils.” At night the kids complained about spooks in the house so he told them they could sleep outside. “They came back in because of the mosquitoes,” he said. “Guess they preferred the spooks.”

Archie took them up into the dunes to see the Valley of the Giants. They slept there on a full moon night when the ancient trees made deep shadows. “I said, ‘Kids you gotta see this.’”

Archie had worked most of his life in the woods cutting trees. As a child he’d been taken from his parents and placed in the Catholic orphanage in Harbor Springs.

“They came around with a big buckboard,” he said. “Gathered up all these kids. I was only five. They beat us if we spoke our own language. I’ll never forget the sound at night of all of those little kids crying for their parents.”

He ran away multiple times, as did many of the children, trying to get back home. I remember him shaking his head and saying, “Amazing we survived.” Archie was a naturally joyful person who’d learned that without joy, you die. Joy was what he wanted his children to experience.

•••••

My father took us to South Manitou one week at the end of May in 1952 so we could see the ring-billed gulls hatching. I remember how cute the baby gulls were, and also, how smelly the nesting area was, because when the gulls didn’t hatch, the eggs rotted on the shore.

I also remember endless fields of wild strawberries. The strawberries were bigger than on the mainland, and much sweeter.

My father was logging off the island, so we went a few times. He showed us red-orange lilies in bloom in the dunes. Wild lilies bloom singly. These were scattered at some distance from each other through the sparse grass of the rose-gold dunes, like little flames. The intense beauty of those fire-red lilies blazing against a blue sky stays with me still.

A trip to South Manitou isn’t just another activity … it’s time travel. The number of people on the planet has expanded from one billion in 1800 to a projected nine billion by 2050, and maybe three times that by 2100.

Google, “global population” and “pollution” and “world resources” sometime if you want to give yourself a good fright.

You can take your kids to Disney World. The way things are going, Disney World looks like it’ll be there for a while. South Manitou, with its clean air and quiet nights, might become a distant memory in the very near future.

So go now, before it disappears.


Award-winning essayist Kathleen Stocking has two Michigan bestsellers, “Letters from the Leelanau” (1990, University of Michigan Press) and “Lake Country” (1994, University of Michigan Press). This is her third book.

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