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The Cosmopolitan World of South Manitou Island

Posted on September 14th, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Here is the second blog in a series based  on Jim DuFresne’s recent research trip on South and North Manitou Islands, part of  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

By Jim DuFresne

There are two former U.S. Lifesaving Service boathouses on South Manitou Island. The largest is at the head of the wharf and is where newly arrived campers gather with the park ranger for backcountry orientation.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Next to it is a smaller boathouse.

“Welcome to the South Manitou Island Fitness Club,” said ranger Sean Campillo as he lead me inside. I was still trying to adjust to the darkness when Campillo flung open the surfboat doors at the end of it.

In the flood of sudden sunlight I realized he was right, this was a fitness club hiding in a historic boathouse. There were weight racks and benches and jump ropes and mats and a bicycle machine.

All of it, but particularly the speed bag and bench press rack, were strategically positioned in front of the large doors at the end. When opened, the gray, weathered doors framed an incredible scene; Crescent Bay harboring a few anchored boats, the golden dunes and beaches that surround it, North Manitou Island just three miles to the north and all around a blue sky that on the horizon is absorbed by an even bluer Lake Michigan.

This is where you’ll find Campillo before he puts on his park ranger uniform every day. Early in the morning he squeezes in a workout, often while watching the sunrise over Crescent Bay. An hour of lifting that strengthens the muscles and sooths the soul.

Park Ranger Sean Campillo

Sean Campillo , park ranger on South Manitou Island.

Let the day begin.

“I’ve been in a lot of weight rooms,” said Campillo, who played rugby for Indiana University. “But this is the best one I’ve ever worked out in.”

The job that goes with it isn’t bad either.

From April to November, Campillo lives and works on a South Manitou, a 5,000-acre island in the middle of Lake Michigan that has no cars, no convenient stores, no cable TV and only mediocre cell phone service from the back side of the island.

He lives in the restored U.S. Lifesaving Service Station from the turn of the century and works a schedule that calls for 10 days on South Manitou and four days off on the mainland.

On the island Campillo is everything. As South Manitou’s only ranger, he is law enforcement, the emergency medical person, the search and rescue guy, and occasionally the historian who gives lighthouse tours.

“Take a good look at this face because if you have a problem out here this is who you need to find,” Campillo tells the new campers.

South Manitou may be a remote, isolated island but at times it’s surprisingly busy. On the day I arrived the ferry was full, 150 passengers including a group of 60 senior citizens on a day trip from Grayling.

Others were day hikers and families, who arrive with the ferry at 11 a.m. and leave when it returns to Leland at 4 p.m. There were also campers outfitted with everything they need to spend a few nights, kayakers arriving with their own boats and backpackers planning an extended walk around South Manitou.

The South Manitou Island Fitness Club

The South Manitou Island Fitness Club

Already on the island was a small maintenance staff  for National Park Service (NPS), researchers conducting a water quality study of Lake Michigan and my favorite group; park volunteers.

More than 20 volunteers, most of them retirees ranging in age from mid to late 60s, were there for up to two weeks, restoring the historic barns and homes leftover from South Manitou’s heyday as an agricultural center a century ago.

In return for their labor, the NPS gives them transportation to the island and room-and-board once they are there. “How long do you work?” I asked one volunteer. “Six hours,” he said without hesitation, “and they pretty much hold you to it.”

Still we were sitting on the shady front porch of the ranger station, watching the ferry depart for the day, drinking a cold beer from the private stash he brought with him. Then we headed over for the dinner volunteers stage nightly at one of the historic cottages. This was Tuesday so it was Fajitas Night and somebody was mixing Margaritas in the kitchen.

Not a bad way to spend a week or two.

This is Campillo’s world, an island with up to 300 people on it during the day, maybe less than 100 at night. A place where the most common medical mishap is a blister on the back heel and most emergencies are hikers who just missed the ferry.

For the suddenly marooned day visitor, Campillo lends them a tent and a sleeping bag – there’s no turning the ferry around – and shows them a chest in the large boathouse filled with Ramen Noodles and instant oatmeal that departing backpackers have left behind.

Then he calls it a day on a remote island in the middle of Lake Michigan.

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