North Manitou: Simply Wonderful
Thigh deep in water, surrounded by twilight, I’m standing with my 14-year-old son on the western shore of North Manitou Island casting lures into a calm Great Lake. The sun set a bit ago, and now we have the mile-long Crescent Beach to ourselves – the few other backpackers who had drifted down to catch the sunset left when the orb slid below the rim.
On a scale of one to ten, the likelihood of our catching a fish hovers around 1.5, but I don’t care. I’m happy to linger in island silence and watch slicks of gold, peach and magenta shimmer on blue-black water. A gibbous moon rises over our shoulders, and the damp air of coming night carries mingled scents of lake and forest our way. An hour later we reel in and walk the half-mile to our camp in the forest. No headlamps required in the orange-gray shadows of the summer moon.
Typically, such peak moments happen only occasionally, spaced sporadically throughout the year. But in the four days we camp on North Manitou, they arrive in a steady stream. The brisk boat ride over on the deep blue waters of Lake Michigan in late summer. The hike along 7 miles of deserted beach on our second day. The discovery of beach spiders so well camouflaged they looked like button-clumps of sand skittering over the shore. Manitou means Great Spirit, and indeed my spirit feels great here.
North Manitou lies just west of Leland and is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231-326-5134, nps.gov/slbe). The island embraces about 23 square miles of classic Northern Michigan terrain: 400-foot-high dunes on the northwest corner, flat beaches on the southeast corner, and in between, forests of can’t-get-your-arms-around-them hemlock, beech, maple and oak. One extra-special treat is the shimmery Lake Manitou – an easy wade loaded with huge and hungry smallmouth bass. More than 20 miles of gentle trail, plus 20 miles of beach.
Rustic camping only, $5 per night, plus fee for National Park Pass; water purification needed if you camp outside the campground. Bring a garden trowel to bury your scat. Get there via Manitou Island Transit’s ferry (231-256-9061, leelanau.com/manitou. Round-trip: $29/adult and $15/12 years and younger – reservations strongly recommended.) – Jeff Smith
Note: This article was first published in June 2007, and was updated for the web February 2008.