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A South Manitou Journey
by Tom Oswald
The Mishe-MokwaIt was about the time I saw the couple in the Army fatigues that I got really nervous. We were waiting to board the Mishwe-Mokwa, the Leland-based ferry that would take us to South Manitou Island for three days of rustic camping, and we were a little scared.

Were we prepared? Did we bring enough food? Would the Coleman fuel supply hold out? Not to mention the beer?!

So many doubts. Then, when we saw GI Joe and Jane with backpacks the size of refrigerators, we were convinced we were sailing off to our doom. But the people who worked on the boat were nice and eased our minds. And eventually a few "normal" folks arrived at the dock, including an older woman clutching a pillow, and we knew, sort of, that all would be fine.

The 90-minute ride to the island was nothing short of spectacular, offering magnificent views of the Leelanau shoreline -- Good Harbor and Sleeping Bear Bays, Pyramid Point (complete with its recent avalanche), Sleeping Bear Point, and sand dunes, lots and lots of sand dunes.

Our anticipation grew as South Manitou, for so long just a chunk of land resting on the Lake Michigan horizon, came closer to us and began to take shape. The shoreline, which we were soon to discover was a somewhat rocky one, came into view, as did the island's few buildings, including the towering white lighthouse which, along with the island's C-shaped bay, is probably the island's most recognizable feature.

Just getting off the boat gave us our first lesson in rustic, "yeah, this is hard work" camping. The campers, all 50 or so of us, lined up on the dock to help unload the gear. One by one, folks' equipment was handed down the line.

My wife, Karen, and I paid particular attention to this, as this was a great opportunity for a couple of relative novices to learn the ways of rustic camping from those who were more experienced. Other people's stuff ranged from Coleman stoves and lanterns (mine were home in the garage) to giant coolers to tents the size of my tool shed.

Once all the gear was claimed, we were herded into the boathouse where we told the rangers which campground we wanted (there are three from which to choose) and were given a quick lesson in the do's and don'ts of rustic, South Manitou camping. Example: Be sure to hang your food from a tree branch to keep it away from chipmunks, a.k.a. "microbears," which are apparently the most abundant of all wildlife on the island. Then we were off.

Caming on South Manitou We chose the Bay Campground, mainly because it was the closest of the three -- about a half-mile trek, a walk in the park compared to the Popple Campground which was more than three miles from the dock. Our third choice -- the Weather Station Campground - was a hike of about a mile-and-a-half.

There were about 25 campsites from which to choose. We selected one about halfway down the trail that gave us plenty of room and a nice, flat sandy area on which to pitch our tent. It also afforded a gorgeous view of not only the bay but of North Manitou Island and, we thought, gave us some privacy. As it turned out, the site was right along the closest and best path to the beach, a path that was used quite regularly.

Speaking of the beach, it's wonderful as long as you don't mind a few rocks. If you plan to swim, make sure to bring some water shoes or something that lets you walk on rocks. We're not sure if it's that way year-round, but when we were there in early August there were rocks out until you were about waist-deep in the water. The water also was a bit on the chilly side, but nothing we Lake Michigan swimmers have never felt before.

Obviously, the South Manitou scenery was breath-taking, truly nature at its finest. The walks through the island's forests were pure serenity. The perched dunes were lovely, but be warned -- climbing them is much harder than it looks. Be prepared to do a lot of uphill hiking (in sand, no less) or else admire them from below.

For some reason, I found the wreck of the Morazon fascinating. A Liberian freighter that got hung up on a sandbar just off the southwest coast of the island in 1960, the ship sticks about halfway out of the water.

As I stared out at it (it was my first shipwreck), many questions went through my mind: How did the crew react as they discovered they were hopelessly stuck? Did the Liberians ever consider unsticking it? And, what the heck were they doing so close to the dang island?

Sights to See...For being such a small island, South Manitou has an awful lot of things to see. We were there for two-and-a-half days and didn't see it all. I'm told the schoolhouse and the farm buildings are pretty neat, as is the cemetery.

Karen, who has no fear of heights, took the lighthouse tour. If climbing about 100 shaky stairs and then standing white-knuckled to see a view that can be seen just as easily on a post card is your idea of fun, then that's for you. Myself, I felt dizzy standing on the ground waving up at her. But I will admit the pictures she took while up there were very nice.

Here are a couple of well-chosen words about preparedness -- TRAVEL LIGHTLY! I'm proud to say we returned to the mainland with very little food. About the only thing left uneaten was a bag of dehydrated beef stroganoff. And, you know, that dehydrated food isn't all bad. One morning we had dehydrated eggs and sausage and I must admit it was quite satisfying. Of course I liked dorm food too.

We spoke with one couple whose diet those two-and-a-half days consisted of a choice between chicken or beef flavored Ramen noodles. We were a tad more creative, that is if you consider canned beef stew, salami sandwiches and trail mix creative.

Oh, two more words about preparedness: INSECT REPELLENT. The mosquitoes and flies weren't too bad, but they were definitely a presence. Don't forget the bug spray.

If anything, we may have packed a little too light. The nights got a little cooler than we anticipated and we could have used another blanket or two.

Perhaps the best thing about camping on South Manitou Island was the fact that it was on an island. This may sound naive, but there was a certain intrigue about being out in the middle (more or less) of the big lake, where no one could reach me without having to work at it. No casual, just rang you up to chit chat, calls there.

I also found it a pleasant challenge to live on what I carried in on my back. I have rustic camped in the past, but always with my car parked next to the tent, ready at a moment's notice to head off to the store to refill the cooler or to head home if the weather turned. Here, we were pretty much on our own. If the food ran out, it was roots and berries time. If the tent blew over, we just picked it back up.

In basic language, this trip gave me the chance to do something I never have done before. I have found that as I've reached middle age and actually began to pass it by, I'm consistently looking for new experiences. I'm certainly not the jump-out-of-a-plane type (note the lighthouse experience) and skiing over virgin snow down Mt. Everest isn't exactly my thing either.

But this gave me the chance to do something I love to do (camp) and couple it with an adventure that got my juices flowing, made me feel scared at times, exhilarated at others, and almost consistently in awe of my surroundings. In short, it made me feel alive.

So were we prepared? Definitely. The Coleman fuel held out just fine. And as for the beer? It didn't even matter.

Tom Oswald lives in Mason, MI with wife Karen and daughters Erin, Leslie and Stephany. Tom works in the communications office at Michigan State University. The Oswald family can be found in the Leelanau area every summer, walking the beaches and trying not to look like tourists. You can e-mail him at

Copyright 1998 Manitou Publishing Co. & Tom Oswald • All Rights Reserved.

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