Return to the Scene of the Crime

Later this week, two of my friends from college and I will return to a place where we had one of our worst travel experiences.

In 1996, we decided to visit the Manitou Islands – two rustic, isolated islands that are a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Northwest Michigan. Not able to visit both on the same trip, we decided to take on North Manitou Island, the more remote of the two first, and visit South Manitou Island the following year.

Keath & I still painfully unaware of all we’d left behind

Back then, the internet was still in the very beginning stages of being a research tool. Information on the island was limited, but I did buy a book (the only one available) on that islands that was only about 10 years old at that time. The book and the literature I got from the National Park Service and Sleeping Bear Dunes was pretty specific- you must be self-sufficient to enjoy your time on the islands. There was no running water aside from a pump near the dock, no restroom facilities other than a single port-a-potty, and cooking facilities were not provided. The island had no electricity. In theory, we should have been prepared enough for the trip. The lack of water and toilets were part of the adventure, and we had planned on bringing things to eat that we could cook over the campfire.
The mini-disaster started on the night before the trip. My friend Keath was coming in from Cleveland- a 6 hour drive- and he was meeting Tone and I at a campground just outside of Frankfort, an hour or so drive from the ferry dock in Leland. Tone & I had dinner around the campfire and had a few beers while waiting for Keath to arrive, which we expected to be around 10PM or so. Keath didn’t end up getting there until a little after midnight, and we had a few more beers with him when he arrived. (OK, well, in an effort of full disclosure, it was more than a few.)
We awoke the next morning at 7:45, completely unpacked and a little hungover, and moving decidedly slower than we needed to. Having the hour drive to Leland, we hurriedly packed up our tent, which was soaked from a 5AM shower, and other other belongings and raced toward Leland to catch the ferry. We got to Leland in time to make the boat, but, since we’d failed to pack all of our stuff to go to the island, we were forced to quickly pull stuff out of various bags and places in the car to get them into our hiking backpacks. Needless to say, we failed to pack a lot of the stuff we needed.

The Village area near the island’s dock

The ferry ride over was uneventful, the weather being hot and overcast. It didn’t start raining until we got to the island. The only ‘campground’ on the island is a couple of mowed spaces about a half mile north of the dock area. We grabbed our bags and trudged to the campground, hoping to set up camp and then rest before heading out on the first of our ambitiously planed hikes.
It was when we started setting up camp (in a steady downpour) that we began to realize how much we’d left behind. I noticed the stakes for the tent’s rain fly were missing. I later determined I had left them on a picnic table at our previous night’s campground. We tried using some long sticks at first, the larger logs. After finishing the frustrating task of putting up camp without all the essental pieces, we were hungry and decided to eat. We had, of course, left our main food bag in the car back on the mainland. We were reduced to 4 hotdogs between us. Each of us had a small emergency stash of candy bars and trail mix, but it made for some pretty light meals over the next three days. We also had only 2 bottles of water between us, necessitating frequent trips to the Village area by the dock for refilling.

Inland Lake Manitou

The weather didn’t cooperate for the first day, so we mostly hung around the campground, exploring the ¬†area near us when the weather let up. Most of the time we spent playing cards inside our stuffy tent.
The next morning that rain had thankfully subsided, so we began our exploration of the northern part of the island. We stopped at Lake Manitou, the uniquely colored lake in the middle of the island. We were able to observe some Bald Eagles flying around above us, which was a definite highlight.

We also were able to see some of North Manitou’s abandoned farm buildings, harking back to an era when there was a small but thriving timber & farming business on the island. Many of these building are still standing, but are in decrepit shape and dangerous to enter.
Our big mistake on the second day came when we sorely underestimated how hard off-trail hiking in a mostly untouched wilderness can be. As we neared the Northwest side of the loop trail that encircles the island, we noticed on our map a geological formation called “The Pot Holes”. We all agreed that this sounded really unique. We should have been put off by the fact that the small trail that headed towards these petered out in front of us. Naively, we thought we had to be close so through the dense undergrowth of the forest we went. Mosquitos had been bothering us all day, but their numbers intensified the further we went. A large number of small blackflies that added to our misery. Never seeing the pot holes, we reached the north side of the island and were confronted with a steep cliff between us and the beach. Figuring life had to be better down close to the water, I decided to try and get down the steep embankment. Then the ground gave out from beneath me.

Look closely and you can see Keath and Tone at the top of the bluff

When I finally stopped rolling, I sat up and found my lower half soaked from where I’d landed, my upper half on the sand of the beach and my lower half (shoes, socks and shorts) partially in Lake Michigan. I had a few small cuts on my forehead, and an ankle that began to swell immediately. Keath & Tone were stuck at the top of the bluff, with all their assorted winged friends, but there was no way they were attempting to come down after watching my tumble. So that is how we proceeded back around toward the campground, them furiously spraying themselves and their surroundings with insect repellent on the top of the bluff, and me, limping, sweating and partially soaked walking below on the beach. At some point in time I lost track of them, and when we all made it back to camp a few hours later, not much was said as we all tucked in early on our empty stomachs.

Grave from Settler’s Cemetery

We’d past the worst of it and spent a pretty nice day three hiking the eastern part of the island. We explored more of the old homesteads, and were all captivated by the small settler’s cemetery near the Southeastern side of the island. We saw some deer, lots of squirrels and chipmunks, and even a raccoon. My ankle was pretty sore and my shoes never quite dried, so I left Keath and Tone to hike back around the Southwest side while I hiked back up to the campsite ahead of them.
They came back with stories of the meadow on the other side of the island where the remains of a small hamlet named Crescent City are. The meadow was pretty and had some wild raspberries growing around it, and they had a nice break there.

That final night we were treated to a very pretty sunset over the trees, the first sun we’d seen in the three days. As we sat there, eating the last of out meager supplies for dinner, we promised we would come back again and do the trip the right way. The following year we went to South Manitou Island, where we had a much more pleasant experience- the only hiccup being me forgetting my hiking shoes and having to walk around for two days in my sandals.

We head back over on Friday determined to correct the folly of our youth. We won’t be drinking or camping the night before and all of our supplies will be packed well before we go to bed on Thursday night. We are only going for two days on this trip instead of three. We will not be doing any off-trail hiking. We may not be in as good as shape physically as we were 15 years ago, but I am counting on us being a lot smarter. Our wives and friends still think we are crazy and headed for another comic disaster.

And we also know what poison ivy looks like this time- so hopefully Keath won’t contract a almost fatal case of it like he did last time after picking the wrong spot to relieve himself. No need to get into that here….

Check back next week to see how (and if we survived)…

One Response to “Return to the Scene of the Crime”

  1. Neal says:

    My first time on North Manitou wasn’t the most fun but I’ve been back time and time again. I’m lucky to live in Traverse City so its easy to get out there several times each season. Here’s a link to a story about my first time on North. https://solitudesports.com/backpacking-north-manitou-island/

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