Travel: Islands of the Great Lakes

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Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, which separates northern Lake Huron from the Georgian Bay, is the largest freshwater island in the world. Its size — all 1,068 square miles — allows more than 100 lakes to call Manitoulin home. Some of these lakes contain islands of their own, on which small ponds can be found, resulting in a sort of insular mise en abyme.

It’s a repeating image easy to get lost in, much like Manitoulin’s natural splendor. But almost any traveler armed with an adventurous spirit (“Manitoulin” means “spirit island” in the Ojibwe language) and a little guidance will find something of interest among the quaint villages where Native American culture flourishes. There are fishing lodges, bed-and-breakfast accommodations, and lakeside resorts that dot Manitoulin’s shores. Its wilderness offers a look at unusual flora and fauna. If getting lost is the goal, one need only look up after nightfall. An awe-inspiring, star-flooded sky serves as a simple reminder of just how small our ponds really are.

ACTIVITIES:

Fishing, hunting, cycling, hiking, bird-watching, golfing, antiquing, arts and crafts, museums, stargazing, boating, horseback riding, camping, swimming, and sightseeing.

GETTING THERE:

From May to October, take the Chi-Cheemaun car ferry from Tobermory, Ontario, to South Baymouth, Manitoulin Island. (See chicheemaun.com for sailing times.) The drive to Tobermory from Detroit is approximately six hours when border-crossing in Sarnia via the Bluewater Bridge. A passport or enhanced driver’s license is required.

WHERE TO STAY:

Manitoulin offers a wide range of accommodations, from rustic campsites and cabin rentals, to high-end Swiss-style chalets and plenty of variety in between. For details: manitoulintourism.com.

HIGHLIGHTS:

Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve — “Wiky,” for short — hosts a traditional Native American powwow in June and a three-day cultural festival in August, but is worth a visit anytime.

Stop and swim beneath the 35-foot Bridal Veil Falls, near the town of Kagawong. If a sandy beach sounds more attractive, Providence Bay, also known for its salmon-fishing, is the spot.

Visit the town of Little Current for sailing lessons and to see the last remaining swinging bridge in North America. From there, head west about 11 miles to the Cup & Saucer Hiking Trails for a variety of trails and one of the best views of the island.

Gordon’s Park Eco Resort, less than 15 minutes from the ferry docks in South Baymouth, is an all-in-one island experience. Overnight visitors can choose between camping, tipi tenting, cabin rental, or a stay in the park’s bed-and- breakfast. Guests can take advantage of bike tours, educational hiking trails, stargazing and sky tours, fossil hunting, archery, bird-watching tours, scavenger hunts, and many more family-friendly activities.

A turtle on a rock takes a breather on Manitoulin.

The 35-foot Bridal Veil Falls

If you’re in the area of Gordon’s Park, stop at the nearby Garden’s Gate Restaurant for homegrown and locally sourced fare, winning desserts, and a selection of Niagara wines and small-batch microbrews.

In Gore Bay, the 1880-era former Queen’s Hotel is now the Queen’s Inn Bed and Breakfast, immaculately restored and resplendent in antique furnishings. A seat on the open-air veranda offers views of the harbor and nearby bluffs. On summer Fridays, Gore Bay Farmers’ Market visitors can find real maple syrup, heirloom tomatoes, jams and preserves, and a variety of crafts.

The Taste of Manitoulin Festival (June 8-17), now in its second year, offers culinary and cultural events across the island.

TRIVIA:

  • An archeological site was discovered on the island in 1952. Featuring artifacts thought to be between 9,500 and 30,000 years old, the spot, Sheguiandah, is a National Historic Site of Canada.
  • During the Beaver Wars of the 17th century, the Iroquois forced the Native Anishinaabe from the island. Manitoulin was largely uninhabited until the natives began returning after the War of 1812. The British government opened the island for settlement 50 years later through the MacDougall Treaty, which the Wikwemikong chief did not agree to. Thus, Wiky remains the only officially recognized Unceded Indian Reserve in Canada.
Curious fox kits take in the scene.

A glorious Weagamow Lake sunset.

  • Danny Dodge, son of John Dodge and heir to the Dodge Motor Co. fortune, married Annie Lorraine MacDonald, a telephone operator from Manitoulin, where Dodge owned a lodge. The young couple were married just 13 days before Dodge drowned in the waters of the North Channel after a bizarre dynamite accident at the lodge. The coroner ruled it an accident, but the incident is still shrouded in mystery. MacDonald’s $1.25-million inheritance from her husband’s estate and the Dodge family’s bewilderment over the class-crossing marriage only stoked suspicions.

Other Lake Huron Islands:

Drummond Island

(136 square miles) Golf courses, off-road ATV/ORV exploration trails, kayaking, birding, hiking, biking, and 17 shipwrecks to explore.

Details: drummondislandchamber.com.

Mackinac Island

(3.8 square miles) The most popular Great Lakes island for tourism, renowned for its fudge, fort, and the Grand Hotel, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. (In honor, overnight guests in 2012 receive free admission to the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum).

Details: mackinacisland.org.

Bois Blanc Island

(34 square miles) Pronounced “Bob-Lo,” not to be confused with the isle in the Detroit River bearing the same name. Offers summer lakeshore cottages and a quiet environment.

Details: bois-blanc.com.

Les Cheneaux Islands

(36 small islands) Known mostly for wooden boating (home to the nation’s first Chris Craft dealer), birding, fishing, and summer-cottage rentals.

Details: lescheneaux.org.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF FLICKR: OUR MANITOULIN!


The largest island in Lake Michigan, Beaver Island offers many of the same activities that can be found across the Great Lakes: sandy beaches, hiking-friendly forests, and cerulean waters for all manner of vessels to navigate. But what sets “America’s Emerald Isle,” as it’s called, thanks to a large Irish population, apart from the other islets is an intriguing history as the former home of a Mormon monarchy and America’s only kingdom.

After the death of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, James J. Strang founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), claiming to be Smith’s sole successor. Most Mormons were Brigham Young devotees, but many followed Strang to Beaver Island, where, in 1848, they founded the town of St. James. Here, Strang declared himself king of the Strangites, and often tussled with other islanders before two disgruntled followers shot him in the back as he boarded a Navy ship in 1856. After his death, mobs from Mackinac Island drove the thousands of remaining Strangites off the island. They were soon replaced by Irish immigrants who, for a period, turned Beaver Island into the largest supplier of freshwater fish in the United States.

Over time, fish populations fell off, and the fishing industry on Beaver Island followed. Things began to turn around in the late ’70s, when tourism on the island picked up.

A sunset floods the sky over Beaver Island. // PHOTOGRAPH BY NANCY SWEARINGEN

ACTIVITIES:

History, biking, golfing, boating, hunting, fishing, swimming, camping, and hiking.

GETTING THERE:

The Beaver Island Boat Co. provides car and passenger ferries from Charlevoix. Details: bibco.com.
There are also private boat and airplane charters available: beaverisland.org/transportation.

WHERE TO STAY:

Lodges, motels, bed-and-breakfast accommodations, and cottages are available for rent.
Details: beaverisland.org.

HIGHLIGHTS:

The Old Mormon Print Shop Museum, built in 1850, is the last surviving structure built by the Strangites. A newspaper Strang founded was published here, and the building now serves as a general museum for the Beaver Island Historical Society.

Another historic structure, the Protar Home, once belonged to Feodor Protar, a disciple of Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who lived on Beaver Island from 1893 until his death in 1925. Protar, who became a medicine man for the island, was highly regarded among the locals. His modest log cabin is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Beaver Head Light Station on the south end of the island.

There’s another lighthouse on the north end. Fishermen at twilight.

The island has two lighthouses: The Beaver Head Light Station at the south end of the island and the St. James Harbor Light at the north end. Both merit a visit.

An old fishing shanty is now the Marine Museum, which pays tribute to the island’s former fishing glory.

Other Lake Michigan Islands:

Washington Island, Wis.

Beaches, dunes, nature trails, and a number of museums at the tip of popular Door County region provide opportunities for biking, birding, boating, fishing, and camping.

Details: washingtonisland.com.

North and South Manitou Islands

(22.3 and 8.3 square miles, respectively) Part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Visitors can climb the dunes, visit a preserved 1900-era village, and tour the South Manitou Island Lighthouse.

Details: nps.gov/slbe.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF BEAVER ISLAND CHAMBER OF COMMERCE.


 

A 1914 travel brochure calls the Great Lakes’ second-largest island, Isle Royale, “The Playground of the Middle West.” Back then, the “Summertime ‘Bermuda’ Paradise in the Beautiful Superior Sea” was home to a number of summer resorts, where hay-fever sufferers sought relief.

Today, Isle Royale is one of the most secluded and least visited of the United States’ National Parks. According to Islands: Great Lakes Stories, by former Free Press travel writer Gerry Volgenau, fewer than 20,000 visitors come during Isle Royale’s four-month-long season — about the same number Yellowstone receives on a single summer day. That, of course, is part of the island’s appeal, and likely a main reason that Isle Royale also holds the National Park Service’s highest visitor return-visit rate.

While humans have maintained a relationship with the island for thousands of years, dating back to some of the earliest Native American copper-mining efforts, no people call the island home. Rather, Isle Royale is the territory of two relative newcomers: the moose that swam over from Canada in the beginning of the last century, and the gray wolves that followed shortly thereafter by crossing frozen Lake Superior during the extremely cold winter of 1948-49, though fewer than 10 of the latter are reported to be left on the island.

There are no roads on Isle Royale or on any of the nearby islands that together make up Isle Royale National Park. In fact, there are only two ways to see this secluded outpost: by foot or water vessel. Make no mistake, Isle Royale is a wilderness preserve first and a travel destination second. Human visitors are expected to mostly fend for themselves, and leave no trace behind.

A picture-postcard scene of Isle Royale.

ACTIVITIES:

Hiking, fishing, boating, kayaking, camping, scuba diving, wildlife and nature observation.

GETTING THERE:

Most visitors to Isle Royale take one of the four ferries that leave from Houghton, Copper Harbor, and Grand Portage, Minn. Info: nps.gov/isro. A seaplane is also available from Houghton through the Royale Air Service (royaleairservice.com).

WHERE TO STAY:

Camping is the most convenient and most common lodging option on the island. A number of organized campsites scattered across the island provide outhouses, screened-in shelters, and designated campfire pits.

The Rock Harbor Lodge, on the northeast corner of the island, is the last remaining Isle Royale resort. Sixty rooms and 20 cottages are available, as well as a water taxi, fishing charters, sightseeing tours, and the island’s only dining options. More: isleroyaleresort.com.

Canoeing off Isle Royale.

Scuba divers explore a shipwreck.

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

For the most part, Isle Royale’s main appeal is its expansive and untouched wilderness and wildlife. Because the park is closed to
people two-thirds of the year, the animals act as if they own the place; moose sightings are not uncommon, and foxes have been known to
walk alongside hikers. Beware, though, as foxes are also known for committing most acts of larceny on the island.

Four lighthouses are on Isle Royale: Rock Harbor Lighthouse, the Rock of Ages Light, Passage Island Lighthouse, and Isle Royale Lighthouse. With the exception of the Rock Harbor, all are on nearby islands and require a boat to visit.

On clear nights, Isle Royale offers majestic views of the Northern Lights.

Abandoned copper mines can be found near McCargoe Cove and Windigo. Ancient mines, some estimated to be more than 4,000 years old, also abound on the island.

Near Rock Harbor, at the end of the Greenstone Ridge Trail, is Lookout Louise, which offers a view of the island’s many bays and surrounding islands. Nearby, the century-old Edisen Fishery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is still operational and open to the public.

A bull moose takes a dip. Moose crossed over from Canada in the early 20th century.

A wild hare is among copious wildlife on the island.

Advanced scuba divers have the chance to explore a number of shipwrecks, including the America and Glenlyon, beneath the surrounding waters.

Beachcombers can often find Isle Royale greenstones (chlorastrolite), a semi-precious gemstone and Michigan’s official state gem.

TIPS:

Visitors are required to pay a daily $4 user fee, which can be paid ahead of time online (nps.gov) or at the Houghton, Rock Harbor, or Windigo Visitor Centers upon arrival to the island.

There are two small supply stores, one at Snug Harbor and one at Windigo. Both are useful for forgotten necessities, but
are not to be relied on for essential camping needs. Pack plenty of food, water, and bug-repellant (the mosquito and blackfly season peaks in midsummer).

Other Lake Superior Islands:

Grand Island

(49 square miles) This rustic isle is known for sandy beaches, hiking, biking, kayaking, 300-foot sandstone cliffs, fishing, and camping.

Details: grandislandmi.com.

Apostle Islands, Wis.

(21 islands) Home to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where visitors can camp, kayak, fish, scuba-dive, sail, and gather wild berries.

Details: nps.gov/apis.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK.


The Lake Erie islands are perhaps best known for Put-in-Bay, a “Key West of the North,” on South Bass Island, where Jimmy Buffett blasts from speakers all summer long and the conga lines march into the morning. But there’s more to South Bass and the surrounding islands than Hawaiian shirts and margaritas in drinking vessels shaped like didgeridoos, particularly for birdwatchers who don’t count Parrotheads among rare avian sightings.

The islands of western Lake Erie (Kelleys, South, Middle, North Bass, and Pelee) act as a bird bridge across the lake. As a result, this is one of the best spots to observe spring songbird migration. The nearby shores of northern Ohio even host “The Biggest Week in American Birding” May 4-13.

A signpost showing distances from Put-in-Bay, on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island.

A sailboat off Kelleys Island.

In this, the bicentennial year of the War of 1812, visitors should note that South Bass Island was the location of Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval squadron, which fought off the British in the Battle of Lake Erie and allowed the Americans to recover Detroit.

Winemaking used to be a major industry here, with nearly half of South Bass Island covered in grapevines, but tourism is the main draw now. The Lake Erie Shores and Islands, as the region is often called, attracts more than 10 million visits annually, which translates to a wide range of activities for everyone from single 20-somethings to families with young children. If all else fails, Cedar Point Amusement Park is just on the other side of Sandusky Bay.

ACTIVITIES:

Boating, dancing, fishing, wine tasting, swimming, bird-watching, golfing, hiking, biking, camping, historical and geological attractions, shopping, and amusement parks.

GETTING THERE:

Miller Boat Line (millerferry.com) offers car and passenger ferries that depart from the tip of Catawba Island (actually a peninsula, not an island) to Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass Island. The drive to the dock from Detroit takes about two hours.

Jet Express (jet-express.com) offers passenger-only ferry service from Port Clinton to Put-In-Bay and Kelleys Island.

The Pelee Island Transportation Co. offers car and passenger ferries that leave from Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario. Information: peleeisland.com.

The boardwalk.

Bikes parked on Kelleys Island.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Lake Erie Shores and Islands offer a wide range of accommodations, from campsites and motels to indoor-waterpark resorts and everything in between. For details: shoresandislands.com.

HIGHLIGHTS:

You can see Detroit from the top of the 352-foot-tall Perry Peace Memorial on South Bass Island. The monument, among America’s tallest, was built in the early 20th century to honor Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a hero of the War of 1812.

Inland on South Bass, visitors can taste wine at Heineman’s Winery before viewing the world’s largest geode at Crystal Cave, owned and operated by the winery. If the foot-long crystals lining the walls of the cave pique underground curiosity, nearby Perry’s Cave boasts a lake 52 feet below ground.

Kelleys Island offers a much slower pace than Put-in-Bay, and remains much as it was 50 years ago. Visitors spend their days hiking the North Shore Loop, watching for birds along the boardwalk, and marveling at the massive Glacial Grooves on the north side of the island, or making a day trip to Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes.

Palm trees on Put-in-Bay, sometimes called the “Key West of the North.”

A ferry on its way to Put-in-Bay.

TIPS:

Golf carts, bicycles, and mopeds are the main forms of transportation on South Bass. Rentals are available at most docks.

Other Lake Erie Islands:

Pelee Island, Ontario

For a quieter experience that features western Lake Erie’s unique natural charm without the party atmosphere, Canada’s Pelee Island is a nearby alternative. Long known as an escape for American tourists, including some high-profile titans of industry who belonged to the Pelee Club in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 9-by-3 mile island is easily navigated by bike.

Details: pelee.org.


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