With vacation time brief and adventure calling, the Ross family hops the ferry for an easy overnight escape on South Manitou Island. Their verdict: so totally worth it!

Captain Jim Munoz powers his ferryboat out from the Leland harbor and across the 250-foot-deep Manitou Passage, a stretch of the water highway freighters follow when tracing Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. This morning it’s clear sailing on uncrowded waters for the campers and hikers heading out to South Manitou Island, but a century and more ago, the Manitou Passage would have been bustling with schooners and wood-fired steamers as they shuttled passengers and freight between Great Lakes ports and east, to New York and beyond. A busy day in the 1870s might have seen 200 ships or more pass through. South Manitou Island, where I’m heading with my husband and two children to explore and camp for the weekend, was a major source of wood needed to stoke the steamer ship fireboxes.

The historical record is not clear, but island experts believe the first person to farm here was William Burton, the same man who ran South Manitou’s wooding station. But the first true farmer-settler was George Johann Hutzler, who encountered the island while working as a crewman aboard the steamboat Iowa. He stayed on the island to work at Burton’s wooding operation and then, after a couple of years, moved his family there from Buffalo, New York. Farmers thrived, and soon six farms operated on the island while the mainland was still a wilderness.

Our island destination is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Manitou Island Transit is the sole authorized park concessionaire offering not only transportation but also informative and entertaining open-air tours to the park’s two islands, North Manitou and South Manitou. South Manitou lies 17 miles (about a 1.5-hour ferry ride) from the ferry’s port at Leland, but is only 7 miles from the mainland at Sleeping Bear Point.

Of the national park’s two islands, South Manitou is the “family-friendly” island. Where North is nearly all wilderness and has just one campground (near the harbor) with potable water, South has two campgrounds with potable water, and a third without. Nonetheless, campers must be self-sufficient and come equipped with food, tents, sleeping bags, rain protection, etc. Rounding out the island’s beautiful natural attractions—sandy beaches, towering dunes, forests—are old cemeteries, farmsteads and a fascinating human history.

The Chippewa legend of Sleeping Bear says the Great Spirit created North and South Manitou Islands and the 40-story-high Sleeping Bear Dune promontory to commemorate the courage and love he witnessed during a tragedy in a bear family. As the story goes, a mother bear and two cubs were fleeing a giant forest fire on the west side of the lake and swam into the big water. They pushed east toward what’s now the Michigan shore, but the cubs faltered and drowned within sight of land. The mother bear climbed a dune to wait for her cubs and died there in sorrow. The Great Spirit covered her with sand and made islands rise where her cubs had drowned.

Scientists have a less colorful explanation for the islands: a bedrock of tilted ridges of limestone topped by glacial debris deposited during the last Ice Age. In the long archipelago of islands that extends north to the Straits of Mackinac, South Manitou is the southernmost. No other islands lie between here and Chicago, so South Manitou’s deep, natural harbor was highly prized in a storm, and its wood fuel prized by captains running low.

Captain Munoz steers the ferryboat toward that fingernail-moon-shaped island right past the North Manitou Shoals Lighthouse—well out in the passage—warning ships of a shoal just 22 feet below the surface.

Locals call the light “the crib,” and it looks like a giant concrete wedding cake drizzled not in icing, but in cormorant droppings. A solar panel is stuck to its top, but the crib’s red light flashes only intermittently when the rains dilute the bird droppings. The light’s nickname derives from its crib-style construction, meaning wooden cribs were constructed ashore, towed to the site, filled with stone, and then settled to the bottom. Workers then capped the entire structure with concrete. The crew of five men who manned the lighthouse affectionately called it “The Crib.”

When we arrive on South Manitou, a ranger delivers a short orientation program. There are three walk-in campgrounds on the island—.5-mile, 1.3-mile, 3-mile hikes. Potable water is available at the two closest to the dock. Before walking the 1.5 miles to Weather Station Campground and selecting a site, we sign up for a two-hour guided tour with a naturalist/historian. Visitors can also walk the six-mile farm loop down the old roads, past the abandoned farms and historic buildings, but we have enough time for only one long hike.

We opt for a motorized village tour and tomorrow will walk to such enticing-sounding sites as the Valley of the Giants, the Bluffs and the Perched Dune Hikes. Our guide, Nick, steers the golf cart down a straight-as-an-arrow dirt road called Burdick Road, and stops near Florence Lake, the only lake on the 8.3-square-mile island. Here, Nick finds two baby painted turtles, which he holds up for us to examine, as well as a pretty little ring-neck snake. There are signs of beaver activity, and he explains that the fingers of water radiating out from the banks are “beaver highways,” passageways the beavers excavate to access the forest for food.

The most fascinating part of this walk, however, is seeing the Canada Yew trees crowding the forest floor. The thicket is unusual because typically whitetail deer eat Canada Yew down to the ground, but in recent decades whitetail deer have not been on the island, so the Canada Yew has been able to grow to 10 feet high here, giving the forest a primeval look.

Of the six working farms that thrived up until the late 1800s, only two remain. A highlight of the farm tour is the Hutzler Farm. George Conrad Hutzler Jr. and George Jr.’s son Louis cultivated a highly productive variety of rye seed, called Rosen Rye, that became the standard in American rye farming. The seed is thought to have come from a Russian student at Michigan State University—apparently, it was a staple in his cold homeland. Rosen Rye increased rye yields threefold, but it needed to grow in isolation, lest it mingle and cross-pollinate, as it would on the mainland. South Manitou Island became the perfect place for cultivation.

The Rosen Rye seed grown by the Hutzlers won blue ribbons at the Chicago Hay & Grain Show for a few successive years. Other island farmers grew rye, but they and the Hutzlers also produced several other cash crops, not only, or even predominantly, rye. Rosen Rye did become the predominant variety grown in the United States, expanding field yields at least threefold. The Hutzlers and other island farmers also worked with Michigan State on the development of the Michelite Bean, which also became a national standard. The Rikers were the last family on the Hutzler farm, working as tenant farmers for its then-owner William Boales until 1976.

Related Read: Discover Mammoth Distilling’s Magical Rye on South Manitou Island

Another historical curiosity that caught our attention was an old schoolhouse on Ohio Road near the geographic center of the island, situated so that no student would have to travel more than half the island to school. Thirty-two students attended kindergarten to 8th grade, and pupils who wanted to continue their education had to transfer to the mainland. The school was originally established in 1899 as a result of the compulsory education act and operated continuously until 1946.

We say goodbye to Nick the golf cart driver and, before walking to the campground, climb the 100-foot-tall South Manitou Lighthouse, which was active between 1871 and 1958. Ranger Abbegail Hoye allows us to rest on each flight to catch our breath while she shares interesting tidbits about the lighthouse. To build this lighthouse, 60-foot-long oak beams were driven into the ground and 15 feet of concrete was then poured on top to stabilize and strengthen it. Remarkably, the lighthouse is almost as deep as it is high. The steps were used as scaffolding to build skyward. The lighthouse “office” was on a wide landing where the keeper had a desk, but it was extremely tight. The door to the top interior room was kept shut because the wind flowed through the structure like it would through a chimney, and the signal lamp would have blown out. Lighthouses have individual, distinct signal flash-patterns (timed by their rotators), allowing sailors to tell them apart and know where they are. But oddly enough, the South Manitou Light, though equipped with a rotator, did not rotate, and the light was a constant white signal, visible for about 13 miles.

The keeper looked through his 360-degree windowed view for ships in distress, and today we share that same vista, gazing out over gorgeous Lake Michigan sparkling in the sun, its transparent waters rivaling the aqua-green of the Caribbean Sea. A sinuous band of white shells forms a shallow ridgeline in the water.

South Manitou had the first steam-powered foghorn on Lake Michigan, Ranger Abbegail tells us. Before advanced post-WW II technology, lifesavers would row out in their surfboat or use a line-throwing Lyle Gun and breeches buoy to rescue sailors. On our beach walk tomorrow, we will be able to get a close look at the wreck of the Francisco Morazán, which sank just off the west coast of the island.

After our lighthouse tour, we walk the 1.3 miles into Weather Station Campground, on the island’s south rim, find ourselves a pretty campsite, hang our ticket on our post and proceed to watch the sunset from the nearby beach. The next day we have the whole day to enjoy a seven-mile loop, before heading back on the 4 p.m. ferry.

Picture by Cindy Ross

Morning arrives and we set out on the trail. In a little over two miles, we arrive at the Valley of the Giants Loop Trail through the nearly 600-year-old white cedar grove. A boardwalk winds through the heart of the grove, amid twisted shaggy trunks. This is the only spot on the island where these magnificent trees were spared from the loggers’ axe. The loggers found the bark so encrusted with sand that they feared it would dull their saw blades, which had to be sharpened by hand, tooth by tooth.

Shortly after our magical stroll through the cedars, we climb the forested leeward slope of the dune and break out into the most glorious array of wildflowers. Orange and black tiger lilies are backlit with lowering sunlight, and they bob their heads in the breeze as if to greet us. The grassy sand is covered in mats of flowers. Finally, we climb the highest dune to see the lake from more than 40 stories high. The view runs north, south, west and even eastward across the island. Plunge-stepping, we race down the steep slant of sand to the glittering waters below and dive in to complete the joy. We want to linger, but the ferry leaves promptly at 4 p.m., and if we miss the departure, the captain does not turn back. We push ahead.

south manitou island camping

On the last leg of our hike, we walk the beach past the wreck of the Liberian freighter Francisco Morazán, now a spooky, rusting hulk that rises high above the water. She ran aground in November 1960 during a blinding squall accompanied by strong winds. The captain was thrown more than 70 miles from his thought position. Even though the 940 tons of cargo was lost, all sailors were rescued—although some allege it was an intentional grounding for insurance fraud.

Today, the exposed ship has been completely overtaken by double-crested cormorants. They squawk, as they constantly rearrange and shuffle their wings. Their pungent smell floods our olfactory senses. This popular attraction on the island looks haunted and it is, but not from the lost life of a sailor. Eleven years after the wreck, 16-year-old island resident Ronald Riker swam out to the wreck with his best friend, entered the wreck and drowned. He is buried in the South Manitou cemetery. The birds seem to pay him homage, and we wish his spirit peace as we walk the last remaining stretch back to our campsite.

All in all, we spent less than 36 hours on South Manitou Island, but the 17-mile ferry ride took us to a world apart. As our ferry motors back to the mainland, the steep, sandy face of Sleeping Bear Dune comes into view, welcoming us back with a pack full of memories.

This story is featured in the August 2014 issue of Traverse Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!

Go to South Manitou Island

Ferry: The Manitou Transit Ferry leaves from Leland Harbor’s Fishtown beginning Memorial Day Weekend. Reservations strongly recommended.

Shopping near the Leland dock: Leland village and its legendary Fishtown are must-visits, so save time after the trip to wander the shops and share a dinner to re-hash the trip. The Leland Mercantile is a small but fully stocked grocery within walking distance of the dock—perfect for last-minute provisions.

Camping fee: Up to four people and two tents are allowed at one campsite. Caution: watch for poison ivy lining paths and in campgrounds—there’s lots of it! nps.gov/slbd.