North Manitou Island- You’d Better Really Want It (pt1)

When I was a younger man, I loved camping. I still do, but now I like campgrounds with nice shower & toilet blocks, swimming pools and hot tubs, and even WiFi. Yes, I acknowledge that I have become soft in my old age. (38 is now old.) That point was brought home to me last weekend, when two of my friends from college and I returned to the rustic setting of North Manitou Island, a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, some 40 miles West of Traverse City, Michigan.
I wrote a post last week about our ill-fated adventure to this island in 1996. Being older (as I already mentioned) and wiser (open for debate), we returned to the island in hopes of experiencing a better visit, not something out of a bad episode of Survivor.
Thick Fog in Frankfort
The trip began ominously. We’d stayed the night before in Frankfort, about 40 miles south of the Leland, the town the ferry to the island leaves from. Frankfort is a cute-as-a-button little town right on the shores of  Lake Michigan. Our hotel, The Harbor Lights Resort, was chosen by me because it sits right on the beach. In my mind I envisioned us having a good dinner and a couple of beers at a local resturant called Villa Marine, then strolling out to the beach for a splendid sunset over the lake. We did have the excellent meal and beers at the above mentioned place, but a thick layer of marine fog hovered over the whole town, making it impossible for us the see the water from our room, less than 500 feet away. The next morning, that layer of fog was still in place. It seemed thick upon our arrival in Leland. The morning was also chilly for June, with temps in the mid 50s.
A Foggy arrival at the North Manitou Island Dock
The ferry from Leland took an hour. We could tell the sun was making an effort to burn off the fog, but by the time we made it to the dock on North Manitou, we were once again right in the thick of it.
Our Campsite
We hauled our bags down the dock to the nearby Orientation Building, where we filled our water bottles at the island’s only source for drinking water. After a quick introductory lecture by Paul, the amiable NPS Ranger, we headed north toward the village campground, half a kilometer away. North Manitou has only one established campground. Most of the island’s visitors set up camp in backwoods camping spots, which can be pretty much anywhere, as long as they are 300 yards away from a historic structure or water source (Lake Michigan or the island’s two inland lakes, Manitou & Tamarack) and 100 yards away from any trial. After our experience with poison ivy last time, we were determined not to spend any time off-trail hiking, much less setting up camp in such an area. It was a good decision, as our spot in the Village Campground was perfectly pleasant.
Poison Ivy!
The main trail system on North Manitou Island is in the rough shape of two loops, connected through the center by the same trail, the centerline trail. Our mission on day one was to hike the northern of the two loops. Going by the milage provided by the NPS’ map, this would be about a 14 mile hike, since we were planning on including some of the side trails as well. We’d only hiked part of this loop last time. We were expecting a trail about 6-10 feet wide, much like the main trail is for most of the eastern and center portions. We had not gone far when we realized this was not the case. Most of the trail along the north side was no more than 2 feet wide, and it was much smaller in places. It wasn’t hard to follow, it just kept us hiking through some dense foliage on each side, including, to our horror, tons of poison ivy. All the literature on the island advises wearing long pants, but we had opted for shorts figuring (incorrectly) that if we stayed on the main trail, we wouldn’t have a problems with poison ivy. After trying hard to swerve around it when we saw it, we eventually gave up and just accepted that we were going to get it.
Typical view on the north side trail
Fancy Net Hat
Our experience last time had taught us that the mosquitos and flies were at their worst on the north side of the island. We all sprayed down with Deep Woods OFF, and generally the bugs didn’t bother us a s bad as last time. I couldn’t have the repellent on my hands (didn’t want it getting on my nice camera) and my face (can’t stand that), so I wore my the net hat I got in Australia almost 10 years ago to protect my face and just dealt with a few bites on my hands.
Wrecked vehicles at The Stromer Camp
A couple hours into our hike we stopped and ate lunch in a pretty field near The Stromer Camp. This logging camp had many vehicles that had been left by the lumber company when they abandoned the island. They sit rotting in their forest graveyard, a short distance off the main trail.
Deer in the train near Crescent City
The hiking was hard. The skies ended up clearing and the temperature got into the mid 70s. We hiked up to the island’s high point on the trail on the northwest side of the island, before taking what is called The Old Grade, where a small rail line for transporting timber once ran, down the west side of the island to the site of Crescent City. I had been hiking a short distance in front of my friends, and right as I was leaving the deep forest area and moving in to the fields around Crescent City, I spotted a deer standing right in the middle of the trail. It even stared me down long enough for me to get my camera out and snap a quick picture.
Keath and Tone near the ruins of the Crescent City dock
There is nothing left on the site of what once was Crescent City, except for the ruins of the dock and a barn at a nearby homestead, The Swensons. Crescent City wasn’t much of a city, it was a few building set up here to house the workers during the island’s short-lived days as a logging island. Exhausted, we rested on the beach and geared up for the last push across the island to our campsite.
Sign for the Centerline Trail
Not much can be said for the Centerline Trail, which bisects the island and forms the southern half of the northern loop and the northern half of the southern loop. There were no sight, and no mile makers, which proved to be fairly maddening, since we never had an idea of how far we had to go.
Gourmet Camp Meal
Dinner that evening was one of the highlights of the trip. Most of the hardcore camping crowd chooses to eat freeze-dried meals made by heating water over a small, one burner camp stove. Knowing we weren’t going to hike with our packs all over the island, I packed my brand new two-burner stove. We had an excellent meal of marinated chicken. We were exhausted, but proud of an impressive hike.

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