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A Dangerous Trip to the Manitou Islands

Posted on July 20th, 2020

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And so our coronavirus summer continues. In the latest Trail Talk blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne writes about the Manitou Islands being open but for most people no place they can visit. For the first time in more than a century, there is no ferry service from Leland this summer.

It’s been hard on everybody, even us. In February, we released our new waterproof map; North & South Manitou Islands Trail Map.  A month later, we realized only a trickle of adventurers will be visiting those islands this summer.

By Jim DuFresne

Both South and North Manitou Islands are designated wilderness areas within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This year they will be more wilderness than ever before.

Jim DuFresne

Like Isle Royale National Park, the two Lake Michigan islands are officially open, but there is no ferry service. For the first time in more than a century, the Grosvenor family, who began running mail boats to the Manitous in 1917, will not be leaving their Manitou Island Transit dock in Leland’s Fishtown.

Unlike Isle Royale, no floatplane service is available to transport a limited number of backpackers or campers. Except for private boats and possibly a fishing charter captain willing to take you across for a hefty fee, there is no way to reach the Manitous. Or to be picked up.

If you somehow manage to land at the shoreline of either, lucky you. You’ll see few people if anybody at the former lifesaving stations whose historic buildings double as an orientation center and ranger station in normal times.

But these are not normal times. A combination of high water, drifting sand bars and a lack of National Park Service funds for dredging left both docks incapable of handling the Manitou Islands Transit ferry. Then there is the coronavirus and its effect on visitor numbers.

The Manitou Island Transit ferry picking up backpackers at South Manitou Island.

The NPS says the docks will be usable by mid to late summer, but by then, the season will not be long enough for the ferry company to make a profit transporting day visitors, campers and backpackers. Or even break even. In a typical summer, Manitou Island Transit carries 10,000 passengers to the islands, roughly 6,000 to South Manitou and another 4,000 to North Manitou. Private boats who ventured to the islands are considerably less, 225 to South Manitou last year, and only eight to North Manitou.

The inability to reach two remote islands in Lake Michigan affects more than just the ferry captain and his deckhands. There are motels, restaurants and other small businesses in Leland that service and supply the wave of hikers and campers passing through on their way to the Manitous. There is a small army of seasonal help that sells tickets, transports campers from the overnight parking lot, work the cash registers in shops and stores.

Then there is us. In February, MichiganTrailMaps.com released its new North & South Manitou Islands Trail Map, a large format, waterproof map that covers both islands, one on each side. For a small publishing company like us, the project was a considerable investment of our time and financing. A month after the map came back from the printers, we knew we wouldn’t be selling many this year.

By then, the islands, for all practical purposes, were close for the summer.

But these concerns are pale compared to what worries many locals. From park rangers and the Glen Arbor Fire Department to the U.S. Coast Guard and anybody who participates in search-and-rescues, their greatest fear is that people will try to paddle to the Manitous.

From Sleeping Bear Point on the mainland, South Manitou Island is a 7-mile paddle. North Manitou is 10 miles. That’s a paddle across the Manitou Passage, a 16-mile long channel of lake freighters, strong currents and a 150-year history of shipwrecks.

One park official estimated that 10 to 20 kayakers make the crossing to the Manitous every summer. But these are experienced paddlers equipped with skirts, bilge pumps and probably the skill to roll their boat to an upright position if a wave overturns them, a.k.a an Eskimo roll.

A backpacker on South Manitou Island.

What worries rescuers are casual paddlers looking at South Manitou from D.H. Day Campground on a calm morning and impulsively deciding to paddle across … in a sit-upon kayak or a small plastic recreational boat. With little or no planning.

Why not? The islands look so close; the lake is so calm.

That’s was the case in 2013 when a father and his eight-year-old son rented a canoe and paddle to North Manitou Island. They filed a float plan at D.H. Day Campground, and park officials warned them about making the trip.

They left the campground anyway and reached North Manitou Island at 1 p.m., where they rested for two hours before heading back to the mainland. They were about a mile from shore at around 8 p.m. when a rogue wave tipped over the canoe, sending father and son into the 55-degree water.

They were experienced paddlers; they were wearing life jackets, they stayed with the overturned canoe, the father used his cell phone to call for help.

But the canoe was green, and it took the Coast Guard helicopter crew more than two hours before they located the pair clinging to their boat. The son died that night of hypothermia at Munson Hospital in Traverse City.

This is what worries park and local officials the most this summer. And it should.

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