South Manitou Island

A weekend on South Manitou Island by Jason Kantz

Rangers and Boy Scouts

Boat ride to the island.
Riding the old plough.
Wall of mortered logs
Sandy path up the wooded side of the dune.
Collecting stones on the shore.
Rocky beach.

On the boat ride over to South Manitou island, a troop leader was telling the young scouts war stories and bad jokes: "How many times can a 747 land on an aircraft carrier? Once. You can land anything on an aircraft carrier once."

South Manitou Island is so novel for people like myself coming over for only three days, while the rangers actually live there without cars, without grocery stores, without phones, without convenience. Once Angela shushed me because she was listening to a conversation between two Rangers. When I asked what they were talking about, she said "Ranger Problems"--matters of who works what shifts, and whether the radios work or not.

I think one ranger had been away from civilization for too long. She was about 60+ years of old, greeted us when we arrived on South Manitou, asked what campsite we were hiking to, and with a salute said, "Carry on!" Then on the last day of our trip, as we waited for the boat ride to return us to the Michigan mainland, she greeted us again like we were new arrivals. We had to tell her we were leaving South Manitou. She told us at 2:00 P.M. we could take the lighthouse tour while we were waiting for our boat. She walked away. Three minutes later she came up to us again to tell us at 2:00 P.M. we could take the lighthouse tour--just as though she'd never seen us before.

The first and last path we hiked was 'paved' for a brief distance with planks of 2x6's over the sand. I thought that it was a major step toward civilization. With a wooden path, you can pull a cart instead of carrying everything on your back. Pave all the paths with boards and you are one step away from roads. Get roads and cars and you're pretty much there--convenience. But then you have to get gas and cars over to the island somehow. But then you couldn't come there to get away from cars. Carrying everything on my back reminded me how badly I take logistics for granted. It also made me think that it wouldn't be fun if I had to do it for more than a weekend. South Manitou Island is a nice place to visit, but, personally, I wouldn't want to live there like the rangers.

At one of the three water sources on the island, there was a sign that said "No Washing". We were filling my camel pack with water and the bite piece fell into the sand. I asked Angela to wash it off. As she was "washing" my mouthpiece, a Ranger walked up and said "Hi," startling Angela. Further up the trail I said, "You're afraid of the Rangers, aren't you." She admitted it. Later I admitted it too. We were both afraid of the Rangers. I was scared of breaking an island rule or accidentally trampling a precious South Manitou resource. The rule was minimal impact camping. What would the Rangers do to you if you made an impact?

As we lay in the sun in front of the Ranger house, waiting for our boat we noticed an abnormally large and aggressive seagull in our company. The picnic area was his territory, and any bird that flew near it received the seagull battle cry. If a bird flew too close he was chased down and nipped. This was pure entertainment and we wanted to instigate a fight. Angela pulled out a marshmallow and threw it in the grass by the seagull. He pecked at it and tried to eat it, but, since seagulls have to swallow without chewing, he decided it wasn't worth plugging his own throat. So we turned to raisins. He seemed to like the raisins. Then a Ranger came out of the house and down the steps. She smiled at us and said, "Hi." Angela and I both turned our attention to the bright white marshmallow shining in the sun between green blades of grass. (What would the Rangers do to you if you made an impact?) She walked right over and past the marshmallow to test her radio at the far edge of the picnic area. Angela picked up the marshmallow and threw it in the trash.

The Hike Around South Manitou

As I hiked around South Manitou Island I felt like I was constantly killing ... killing insects. The mosquitoes wanted my blood. We passed carcasses on the trails covered with flies and who knows what other species. Then there was the bear issue. This year black bear tracks were spotted on the island, so we had to hang our food and clothes from a branch 12 ft in the air. I was reminded of something I'd recently read:

There might be wildness, there might be deep forest, there might even be grizzly bears and mountain lions, but it is cleanly sorted out, and the rules (don't mess with bear cubs, hang your food from a tree limb at night) are well-known, and published in the Boy Scout Manual. In those Pacific islands there is too much that is alive, and all of it is in a continual process of eating and being eaten by something else, and once you set foot in the place, you're buying into the deal.

Pg. 111 of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

And as I rode over to the island on the boat I was reminded of "Apocalypse Now" the modern day rendition of "The Heart of Darkness". I entered a daydream about riding a boat in the Far East during the Vietnam War, remembering the wilderness scenes from the movie, remembering how a total break down of law and order was portrayed.

"Who's the commanding officer here?"

... gun fire

... reply: "Ain't You?"

My recurring thought was, "Wow, I'm glad there are rules and laws so we all don't end up killing each other." Take the boats for example. There is a set protocol to communicating and navigating the waters of Lake Michigan. Follow the protocol; no one ends up dead.

Our ten-mile hike on Saturday took its toll on me. Being only a pretend hiker who was challenged by sand dunes, I have a new appreciation for the real hikers who tackle actual challenges like volcanoes and Mount Everest. Our meager hike took us past an old school house, a cemetery, and an old farm where George C. Hutzler grew the best rye in the country. We climbed to the top of the perched sand dunes on the west side of South Manitou. In a cool wind three hundred feet above the shore we ate our lunch. Then we descended the dunes and walked along the great lake away from the sunset.

Boats on Lake Michigan

Out on Lake Michigan there was a dense fog, but on the shore of the island it was relatively sunny and calm. From our blanket on the rocky sand we could hear a boat's radio. A young skipper out on the foggy lake was broadcasting, "This is the North Manitou Transit calling the boat six miles east of the North Manitou shore. Please respond." He repeated the message two more times, and eventually a voice came across, "I could be the boat six miles from the shore." Then they communicated their headings to avoid collision. The North Manitou ferry warned the small boat of a large freighter out on the waters. The small boat thanked him for the information, said he could see it on his radar, and that he would watch out.

There are a few shipwrecks around South Manitou Island. We hiked past The Francisco Morazan. It was a Liberian Freighter heading from Chicago to the Netherlands in 1960 when a storm hit and the freighter beached just off the coast of the island. Nobody died.


This is a very beautiful island! We love it and it is very haunted island too!

Contributed by K. Green on February 3, 2002.

I work on the boats that transport tourist from Leland to the Manitou islands, and I must say there are few areas around the country that have been preserved as well as North and South Manitou. If you ever get a chance to visit northern Michigan I would strongly suggest you pay a visit to the islands and see this truly remarkable piece of history.

Contributed by Sam Simpson on March 11, 2002.

The Manitou Islands are beautiful, but in Michigan, the island to visit is Isle Royale!! Saw 11 moose in oneday there, it is truly a wilderness island.

Contributed by Clem Balanoff on June 3, 2002.

I am the newsletter editor for the manitou islands memorial Society, you can get more info on south and north manitou at Your article brings back memories.

Contributed by Fred Swanson on February 16, 2004.

Hi, I enjoyed your comments about your stay on So. Manitou Island. My Great great grandparents were the Hutzlers. My grandmother & mother were born on the island. Mother is 97 & is still relating stories of her life there. My grandfather & grandmother John & Lottie Tobin owned the general store, and grandmother was the postmistress from 1928 until it's closing. My father was a Coast Guards man, where he met & married my mother. I attended the one room schoolhouse years ago, about 1942. Thanks for the memories. Blessing, Bonnie Bellmer..Petoskey, MI.

Contributed by Bonnie Bellmer on August 8, 2010