Once south of the Mackinac Bridge we exited Interstate-75 and rode west to the small town of Cross Village. The northern terminus of Mi-119, otherwise known as the Tunnel of Trees, is here. Deriving its name from the canopy of trees overhanging the asphalt, the tunnel effect had yet to be established by mid-May. Narrow and winding, it sits atop a ridge with expansive views of Lake Michigan to the west and elaborate summer homes to the east. A million flowering white trilliums brighten the forest floor as we proceed south towards Petoskey and Traverse City. Fruit orchards bearing pink blooms and vineyards with neat rows of grapevines contrast the glistening blues of Grand Traverse Bay. Arriving in Leland, we check into the Falling Waters Lodge a hundred meters from the Lake Michigan shore. Rooms boarder the Leland River and overlook the shops of this historic fishing village. Riverside multi-tier walkways connect rooms and a wooden bridge over the spillway leads to town. After dinner we loaded up the backpacks and got everything set for the ferry boat to North Manitou Island tomorrow morning.
North Manitou Island lies 11 miles from Leland and is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline park system. Shaped like an upside-down teardrop, the island is 7 ¾ miles long and 4 ¼ miles wide. With the exception of 27 acres immediately surrounding the east pier, the island is designated wilderness. Dispersed camping is the norm here though there is a designated campground too. The highest point on the island is in the northwest corner, rising 420 feet above Lake Michigan. The east is generally flat and sandy, the center is heavily forested with tall hills and the west features high blowout dunes.
Settlers first exploited the island in the 1850s with logging operations, soon followed by mining and farmsteads. Most gave up by 1920 to seek an easier life on the mainland. By then an entrepreneur from Chicago built several structures to be used as vacation homes and getaways for wealthy travelers. Many of those buildings survive today though none are occupied. They exist for historical purposes only. A private business operating from Leland, Manitou Island Transit, is the primary mode of transportation to the island.
Up early for breakfast Friday morning, we’re reunited with our friends Cold and Rain. Hey, I like Cold and I like Rain but usually in moderation. And these guys had already worn out their welcome. Wrapping ourselves in rain gear, we walked a short distance for breakfast then grabbed a few supplies (dehydrated soups) from a corner grocery. A stones-throw from the lodge, I walked across the wooden bridge spanning the river and dropped my dry bag loaded with non-essentials (helmet, cycle jacket, etc.) at the transit shack then prepared to park the Tiger. The transit parking lot is a grass field about 500 meters from the pier. The rain made this area unsuitable for cycles so I ended up parking at a public beach lot next to the lodge. Back at the room, I hoisted my backpack for a final stroll to embark for the island.
Back at the pier the rain had stopped, a thick overcast looming over the glass-smooth harbor. Milo and I hopped aboard the ferry with a quick scan showing no sign of Mick or Crevan: they decided to stay behind so our group of 4 has dropped to 2. Tossing our packs on a pile at the rear of the passenger area, we take a seat and untie for the 1 hour 10 minute crossing. The boat is packed… many of the passengers are volunteers for the park service and they’re partaking in training programs on South Manitou Island. So only half of the people on board would be disembarking at our destination. A few miles from shore, fog and mist drop visibility to near-zero. I walk up to the bridge and the captain grants a photo of their equipment: GPS and radar are keeping this ship safe in otherwise unnerving conditions. After an hour the engines fall to idle but there’s still no land in sight. Then, barely 100 feet from the pier, gray shadows materialize. Once docked, a human chain snakes from boat to pier with backpacks passed from person to person like a bucket brigade. Once your pack is in hand, you set it behind you and continue to pass gear until all cargo is offloaded.
Walking to shore, a glimpse down reveals crystal clear water shimmering over colorful stones and sand. Once on land, a crowd gathers for a quick island orientation and briefing on Leave No Trace principles. A nearby water faucet and vault toilets are the only conveniences available on the island. There are no stores for provisions and the only designated campground is 700 meters north: it offers camping pads and a central fire ring and nothing more. Basically if you forgot something back home, you’re out of luck. We fill our water bottles then head south where we mistakenly enter the woods by following a Wilderness Trail sign. Wilderness trails are secondary paths that are cleared after the main trails. This early in the season, the path is blocked with numerous fallen trees. Climbing over, under or around the branches, their leaves laden with moisture, it was slow going. After a mile, the main trail merged with ours and proceeded west. Deadfalls gone, our pace increased. Damp tawny leaves covered the wide path with small yellow, white and purple flowers pushing themselves through the thick mat. Hiking is easy here but the slopes have eroded rock strewn ruts hidden under leaves – need to be careful to not twist an ankle. On uphills my couch potato stamina shows and I stop frequently to catch my breath. After about five miles, my right gluteus maximus starts to ache with each step. Now I know how Neil Peart’s drums feel. A mile further and we enter a clearing with low bushes and short dormant grass, perfect for camp. After we pitched our tents we backtracked up the trail and made our way down a path to tall sandy dunes. Despite being on an island, our route today made water resupply surprisingly difficult.
Today is clear and bright – and warm! After breaking camp we continue clockwise around the northern portion of the island. The warmth has drawn out chipmunks and garter snakes, frequently darting from low foliage and brush. At the Pole Bridge near Lake Manitou, a sandhill crane is soaring overhead calling out to us below, “Hey, move along… I’d like to land.” We obliged and once we reached the island’s northeast corner, the forest gave way to loamy sand and views of Lake Michigan. After a 7 mile hike, we arrived at the Village Campground. Several paths lead off the main trail with 3 or 4 camping pads down each. Once our tents were set, we walked to the pier area to reload on water. What a view! The sky was clear and the Michigan mainland was a sight to behold across the 11 mile expanse of blue waves. Back at the campsite, we gathered fallen wood for a fire and I picked some dandelion leaves for my soup. After dinner, a few cocktails were enjoyed around a crackling campfire.