The canoes of the Redcoats glided silently in pitch darkness, their birch-bark bows trained on Mackinac Island in an offensive led by Captain Charles Roberts, a veteran British militiaman who had served in Ceylon and India. The captain commanded about 40 soldiers, long in the tooth and banished for garrison duty at a forgotten, partially built British fort on St. Joseph Island, about 45 water miles east-northeast, near Drummond Island.
Roberts’s motley crew of outcasts were offered a degree of stealth and strength by the 400 Ojibwe, Odawa, Sioux, Winnebago and Menominee natives and 160 French Canadian voyageurs the captain had shrewdly rustled up as reinforcements. But by all measures, what was soon to be the first engagement of the War of 1812 was quite literally a shot in the dark.
For miles they coursed Lake Huron’s crystalline waters—across the international border, south at Drummond Island, and west along the lush Les Cheneaux Islands. Well before sunrise on July 17, they landed on a coarse pebble beach on Mackinac Island’s northwest tip, ready for battle. The Americans, asleep in their fort overlooking the Straits on the island’s south side, didn’t stand a chance. In fact, while the Indians stormed the highlands, and the voyageurs installed a six-pounder gun aimed at the American fort from atop Mackinac’s northern palisade, U.S. Lieutenant Porter Hanks and his 60 troops were oblivious that nearly a month earlier President James Madison had declared war on Great Britain.
By mid-morning, the Redcoat siege had ended without drama or bloodshed. Hanks promptly surrendered, and his bewildered troops were paroled as prisoners of war to be used in negotiating the future release of captured British soldiers. The voyageurs and Indians dispersed, and the Canadians triumphantly raised the Union Jack over the fort.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Washington, D.C., Thomas Jefferson was still trumpeting his belief that at long last, expelling England from North America once and for all would be “a mere matter of marching.” But on this day at Mackinac, the Brits had scored a critical victory in securing the Upper Great Lakes, and their success continued. Two years later, British soldiers ruled Detroit, had burned the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building to the point of destruction and reduced parts of Baltimore to rubble. A proudly flying star-spangled banner that survived 25 hours of British bombardment at Baltimore Harbor’s Fort McHenry had inspired the American national anthem, but the upstart Canadians had succeeded in defending British North America in what’s been called the second war of independence.
On a hot, humid morning nearly 199 years to the day after the British attack, photographer Aaron Peterson and I—a proud and lifelong Canadian citizen myself—launch our sea kayaks north of the ferry docks in St. Ignace, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and begin the four-mile crossing to Mackinac Island. We had initially planned a three-day tour retracing the entire route from St. Joseph Island but were scared off by the logistics of haggling a Canadian writer and U.S. photographer across the watery border without imprisonment by Homeland Security. Besides, the prospect of simply crossing to Mackinac Island was intimidating enough. The last time I did it, two friends and I were nearly run down by a small navy of speeding passenger ferries and arrived at the island with white knuckles and bursting bladders, only to be turned back to the mainland when our cursory inspection of the bustling marina revealed no suitable landings for our diminutive crafts.
This time, Peterson and I make the crossing at dawn in glassy calm waters, aiming for the island’s northwest side. The Mackinac Bridge towers above as we stroke for a decidedly quaint, undeveloped island shoreline. This will be my first time setting foot on Mackinac Island, and I’m expecting a full complement of fudge, kitsch and touristos. But when we serendipitously arrive at British Landing, the still-pristine limestone beach and turquoise water where Captain Roberts’s Redcoats pulled out two centuries ago surprise me. Other than the odd cyclist, the place is deserted. Interpretive signs identify various species of trees and shrubs, a modest blue plaque recounts the story of the British attack and Lieutenant Hank’s “capitulation,” and a stout, bronzed cannon points resolutely at the arches of the Big Mac.
“You’ve gotta storm the place,” Peterson says. Throughout the hourlong crossing he goaded me on. Exploiting my Canadian sense of honor, he coached me on a shot list that included scaling the Fort Mackinac walls, assaulting an in-costume interpreter and generally creating mischief and disorder among throngs of tourists while brandishing a Canadian flag and an oversized stuffed beaver (which I neglected to supply, much to my lens-man’s chagrin).
At first I shrugged off Peterson’s stupid suggestions. But now, awakened by the unexpected beauty of the place, a wave of Canadian pride washes over me, and brazen, nationalistic thoughts commandeer my logic. I suddenly come to believe that in many ways, it could be argued that Mackinac Island should be Canadian soil. After all, British soldiers built the fort on the island’s south side in 1780 before being evicted when the end of the American Revolution rerouted the international border north in 1793. This same year, I might add, Ben Franklin also shafted Canada out of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale—another sore spot for Canucks. From a geological standpoint, Mackinac Island’s underlying bedrock represents the western tip of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO-recognized limestone spine that buttresses the province of Ontario’s southern half.
For a moment, I aspire to go against my quintessentially unassuming Canadian ethos. In the spirit of popular mid-90’s Molson beer advertisements that glorified maple leaves, beavers, snowshoes and hockey pucks, thumbed its nose at American culture and yielded a temporary spike in national pride, part of me wants to climb atop the ancient armament, wave a red and white flag and bellow, “I … Am … Canadian!” Being the good photographer that he is and sensing my vulnerability under the intoxication of nationalistic fervor, Peterson spurs me on. “This is your island, man!” he says. He buffs his camera lens, adjusts the shutter speed. He levels his gaze upon me: “Claim it!”
I return to my senses when a perplexed cyclist blurts to her partner, none too softly, “What the hell is he doing?” as I pose stoically with paddle and Canadian flag by the cannon. Embarrassed, I dart back to my kayak and insist that it’s time we get back on the water. I’m clearly no Captain Charles Roberts.
I’ll forgive you if you have never heard the details of the War of 1812. But now, on the eve of its bicentennial, let me now share with you how the popular Northern Michigan tourist vortex known as Mackinac Island holds a key to Canada’s heritage, a story that generations of Canadian sixth-graders have studied while their American counterparts heard nary a single factoid.
America was a young, growing nation in the 1790s, seeking trade, export and economic growth—and maybe even a land grab of a new, sprawling, resource-rich state to the north. America’s old British foes on the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, were mired in a tedious war with Napoleon’s France. To secure troops, England passed measures to enable it to “impress” British ex-pats living abroad for service in the Royal Navy. Napoleon implemented the Berlin Decree, blockading vessels’ passage in European waters with the hopes of slowing British trade. England further imposed sanctions of their own, effectively stifling all American exports to Europe, and crippling the nascent United States economy.
Frustrated to be encumbered by a dispute it wanted nothing to do with, America got its war machine ticking. By February 1812, the U.S. volunteer army consisted of 50,000 soldiers, compared to Britain’s paltry 4,450 Canadian troops. Washington’s “War Hawks,” a troupe of power-hungry Anglophobes led by Kentucky-based Speaker of the House Henry Clay (those adjectives might just be my Canadian nationalism talking), saw British North America as free for the taking. People like Jefferson even suggested that the Canadians would welcome a U.S. invasion as a means of escaping British rule. President Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, but he made the critical error of failing to communicate the news to his remote fort at Mackinac.
What they lacked in numbers the Canadians made up for in spades with a spunky leader named General Sir Isaac Brock and solid relations with the country’s native people and the hard-working voyageurs of the fur trade. The Americans were grossly mistaken in their belief that the Canadians would welcome their rule or roll over and play dead. The surprise British-Canadian attack at Mackinac sent shockwaves through the Union. Combined with a second siege at Fort Detroit one month later, Britain gained full control over the lucrative western fur trade and garnered support of the territory’s feared Indian warriors.
From there the Redcoats never looked back. Though they lost General Brock when he was killed in a battle in October 1812 and then lost the city of York (now Toronto) to a fiery American raid, the Brits responded by torching Buffalo, ransacking Washington and, as a final coup, raining cannonballs on the stoic American holdouts at Fort McHenry, near Baltimore’s strategic privateer port. On Christmas Eve 1814, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent restored the border between Canada and the United States and effectively ended the war.
Ostensibly two nations—the United States and Britain—took part in the War of 1812, but it was a third nation not even born yet—Canada—that eventually became the unlikely winner. In the beginning, the Canadians were simply caught in the crossfire—volunteered by their British overlords to fight for the colony while the bigwigs of the Royal Navy attended to more pressing military causes in Europe. In classic peacemaking Canuck style, the colonists wanted nothing to do with the conflict. They were soft-line British loyalists and adventure-seeking voyageurs hoping to be left alone to enjoy the free land and low taxes of the rugged Canadian wilderness. But in reluctantly rallying behind Brock, forging partnerships with natives and courageously staving off the burgeoning military superpower next door, the Canadians became united and proud, setting in motion the idea of their own independence, which came in 1867.
In the Ojibwa creation story, Mackinac Island is the place where the world began. It’s the Great Turtle—the carapace of the giant reptile who was the first to emerge from the floodwaters and support the weight of life on Earth. Today, on a calm morning before the crowds of tourists arrive, we paddle the island’s north and east shores and find they have the feeling of Eden: Ancient cedars cling to limestone bluffs, bald eagles soar, and a slowly building Lake Huron swell breaks whitecaps rhythmically on gravel shoals. For the better part of an hour, Peterson and I experience Mackinac as it must’ve been in the days of old.
Our first glimpse of the stalwart lighthouse on Round Island provides short warning that the peaceful shoreline is about to change. By now we’re saddle sore and ready for lunch, so we dodge yachts, sailboats and ferries in the harbor before finding a place to pull out on an inconspicuous boulder beach beneath the Shepler’s pier. No one seems to notice when two sodden seafarers hop a fence and strike off for the fort on the hill.
Carefully groomed lapdogs yap while their owners—generally women wearing white slacks—chat on cellphones; a man at a bike-rental booth calmly accepts a patron’s complaints; and Boy Scout volunteers enforce the fee schedule for touring the old fort. We hastily pay our 11 bucks apiece and climb the ramp to the fort. From the edge of the stockade we gaze out over the lake, which has grown restless in a building wind. I pose for a few more photos before we push through the crowds on our way back to the boats. Up on the hill, the cannon roars in its noon-hour firing demonstration.
I’d love to sample fudge and play tourist for a bit longer, but my photographer is too overwhelmed to linger. “Put more than five people in the same spot and I’m over-stimmed,” sighs Peterson, who lives on a secluded farm in the Upper Peninsula. We clamber back over the guardrail to the water’s edge to the quizzical glances of passersby.
Back on the water, Peterson becomes unusually quiet, and I can tell what he’s thinking. The Americans torched Fort St. Joseph—Captain Roberts’s launch point—in 1814, shortly before the end of the war, and the ruins of the place have been an idyll ever since, perched on a grassy point with a view of the dozens of islands that pepper Lake Huron’s North Channel in a way that’s reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. The old fort is a place where the passage of time hasn’t diminished a sense of isolation, peace and beauty. A vastly underutilized national historic park protects what’s left of the place. Peterson, my reclusive American counterpart, is hankering for a trade.
As our sea kayaks surf the three-foot waves that ply the channel between Mackinac Island and the Upper Peninsula, I realize that maybe I really do have something to be proud of. Maybe Canada didn’t get the short end of the stick, after all. In the island-pocked waters of Lake Huron just north of here is a place where the meek have inherited the Earth.