Leland, MICH. (Approximately)
The visit to South Manitou Island isn't what you normally think of as the "Island Experience," unless you are a Michigander to your core. Boarding a boat at "Fishtown"? Naturally. Catching views of shipwrecks and lighthouses? Of course. Slathering on bug spray like it's sunscreen? You better. This is what island life is above the 45th Parallel.
Surrounded by the often dangerous waters of the Manitou Passage, South Manitou Island is one of the legendary "sleeping bears" of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Visitors can go for a day or stay overnight, but the only way to get to the island is by private boat or passenger ferry operated by Manitou Island Transit in Leland, Michigan.
Within the first moments of recounting my trip, I offer my first piece of advice: buy your ferry tickets in advance. We thought that we would easily secure four spots on the boat by arriving early. But, no. Instead, we reserved tickets for later in the week and strolled around downtown Leland before driving an hour south, back to our vacation rental.
In those two days waiting for our scheduled trip, our anticipation grew... as did our provisions supply (minus one key item). So after we finally took our seats on the ferry, we spent the next hour and a half snacking, looking at the gorgeous Michigan shoreline, and trying to guess what that pyramid structure ahead of us was. Thanks to the onboard narration, we confirmed it was a decommissioned lighthouse built on the shallow North Manitou Shoal.
At last, we docked. As we disembarked, we noticed the historic buildings that surrounded us. These were a reminder of the booming lumber-industry legacy of the island, which almost completely faded by the 1950s. Little did we know in those first few moments on the island that one of those buildings would soon be our only true protection from impending doom.
Here comes my second piece of advice. Bug spray. Bring it. Use it. Bathe in it. And this is coming from a woman who has one decade-old can of the stuff in her camping gear. I'm used to seeing one, maybe two or three mosquitos in my field of vision. But I do not exaggerate when I say that South Manitou Island is home to dense, beach ball-sized clouds of mosquitos. And when those "clouds" obscure the image you see of the five-year-old who is walking in front of you, it is most certainly time to regret not packing the recommended bug spray. It is time to find shelter in the small museum a little further into the island. And before venturing outdoors to meet for the wagon tour of the island, it is time to make friends with better-prepared strangers.
After trying hard not to empty a borrowed can of bug spray, our family joined a small group of tourists on the island wagon tour. We wanted to cover as much ground as we could during our four-hour visit, but had two pairs of short legs to accommodate. This was our way to marvel at an over 500-year old cedar tree, see the inland lake, search for millipedes, and view a shipwreck site all while (almost) outrunning the mosquito swarms.
After our tour, we had another hour before the ferry would pick us up. It had just begun to drizzle, which brought the mosquito count down a bit, so we decided to tour the lighthouse before going back to the dock. We walked a short distance to shore and found the tour guide waiting eagerly to take people into the lighthouse. We climbed over one hundred stairs to get to the top, listening to a bit of history on the way. The view at the top of the lighthouse was beautiful, despite the rain. It was also short-lived. Lightening flashed close, still over the water and all five of us went down those 100+ stairs faster than we had come up.
From there, it was time to go back to the boat dock and wait for the ferry. The ride back to Leland was much quieter than the ride to the Island. It was a long, beautiful, doom-filled day.
I'll scratch your bites if you scratch mine,
Pete is the founder of Piggyback App. At the time of writing this description, he may or may not be on a horse.