Michigan: Step Back in Time on South Manitou

They say silence is golden. Here, it is sheer poetry. It is so quiet you can trace the hum of insects as they dance across the sky. Listen to the creak and groan of trees as they commune with the wind. Count each of the waves as they lap the shore.

Our up with the birds journey began ominously enough in a driving thunderstorm. The headlights of my father’s car did little to cut a path through the fog and rain. Between nodding off, though I tried not to, I glimpsed the yellow lane lines rushing at us through the furious back and forth of the windshield wipers. Through the blinding flashes of lightning, the silhouetted pine trees lining the highway.

The closer we got to Traverse City; the pines thinned out, replaced by the more open architecture of the cherry trees so plentiful in this region.  Though I couldn’t see the telltale red of their fruit through the curtains of rain, I knew they were there.

We were bound for Leland, a small fishing village on the Leelanau Peninsula, which happens to jut into Lake Michigan like a hitchhiker’s thumb. We planned to catch a ferry out to South Manitou. I was surprised when I presented the idea to my father that he’d never heard of it. Curious, wayward daughters are good for something after all.

North and South Manitou Islands, Lake Michigan
North and South Manitou Islands, Lake Michigan

By the time we reached the Fishtown dock the ferry hailed from, the storm had blown itself out over the lake. The sky had lightened considerably and the damp air smelled of pine, wet sand and fish. We stocked up with water and snacks since the island had no concessions and boarded the ferry. The water appeared surprisingly calm despite the recent storm, promising a fairly smooth journey.

South Manitou is one of two islands that form the Manitou Passage located off the coast of Michigan’s northwestern shore. For over 100 years, this spot was a necessary port for schooners and steamers making their way through the Great Lakes. The ships arrived drawn by the promise of timber to fuel their boilers or were driven by dangerous storms, seeking safe harbor.

Long abandoned, the island’s shore is sandy and lined with creeping juniper and grasses. The dilapidating remains of the village stand not far away and the surrounding shoals are littered with the skeletal remains of several shipwrecks.

Whether by mercurial weather patterns or by the shifting sands of the lake’s bottom, over 50 ships met their end here. This seemingly idyllic strait is one of the most dangerous spots in Lake Michigan to navigate.

In the 1830s, an enterprising Bavarian immigrant named Burton recognized the island’s promise and constructed a dock in the middle of the crescent-shaped bay he knew was deep enough to accommodate boats laden with cargo. Once the dock was finished, a settlement sprang up to support the needs of the incoming ships.

The harbor, already marked by a general store and blacksmith shop, soon sported several houses and cottages. In response to the shifting sands surrounding the island, a lighthouse went up to mark the shore. Farms and a post office were established. The islanders even built a school for the ever-growing population of children. Their way of life was not to last. As coal became more prevalent and less costly, the passing ships no longer needed what the island had to offer.

The settlers hung on, but were eventually drawn back to the mainland by the advent of automobiles and paved roads. Drawn by those conveniences, they deserted their cottages and shops and farms, leaving them to the forces of time and nature and vandals. The years slipped uneventfully by. In the mid-1970s, the island was swept into the protective fold of the National Park Service and became part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

With perched sand dunes, pristine beaches and unparalleled bluff-top views, this silent and sleepy spot has become a draw for day-trippers, divers, hikers and die-hard campers. Other than the ranger station near the lighthouse, there are no conveniences. The ferry ride over from Leland takes about an hour-and-a-half and the Manitou Island Transit service offers a selection of tractor-drawn wagon tours. The open-air, narrated tours highlight the island’s most interesting spot—from the abandoned farms, schoolhouse and cemetery to the dunes, shipwrecks and virgin forest.

South Manitou schoolhouse interior
South Manitou schoolhouse interior

Each tour invites you to jump off and explore. You can visit the now-restored schoolhouse; marvel at the warbled reflections of gnarled apple trees in farmhouse windows; explore the dilapidated farm buildings, including a barn with a foundation constructed of wedges of white cedar mortared together; or experience the mystical hush surrounding a venerable stand of Northern White Cedars said to contain the oldest and largest specimens in the world.

Whether you go for the silence or for the history of a bygone era or for the flora and fauna, South Manitou promises something for everyone, poetry not excluded.

– Tammy L. Currier

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For gorgeous images of South Manitou, visit Lars Jensen’s site:

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