Island Time: It’s the phrase you see proclaimed all over Manitoulin Island.
First, here are some statistics of interest. Manitoulin Island, in Lake Huron, is the largest freshwater island in the world and is about 426 sq.km in size, with 108 freshwater lakes. It also has the largest lake in a freshwater island in the world (Lake Manitou). Treasure Island in Lake Mindemoya is the largest island in a lake, on an island in a lake, in the world!
Little Current, the town at the northeast entrance to the island by land is a good five-hour drive from Orangeville: more, with necessary breaks. On the way is the famous, heritage designated, Little Current Swing Bridge, the only connection to the mainland. The swing bridge began in 1912 for trains and was left open to allow marine traffic until trains needed to cross. Since 1949, the bridge swings around to “open” periodically for boats, but has been accommodating mainly car traffic since 1980. Be prepared for a picturesque stop, if you are there at the “right” time. As we approached, we saw traffic halted and sailboats going back and forth in the straight. An island tourism information office is located just after the bridge crossing.
We left at the end of our week by the other option for accessing the island, the brightly painted MS Chi-Cheemaun (and its distinctive chimney) – the passenger and vehicle ferry. The name comes from the Ojibwe for “big canoe”. It crosses between Tobermory, at the very end on the Bruce Peninsula, and South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island, and connects Highway 6 on both sides. The very comfortable 40 km (25 mi) trip operates several times a day from spring to fall, taking almost two hours. It is a mini-cruise, going past scenic shores and open water! Just make sure you book your tickets weeks ahead to avoid disappointment. The ship was completely full the day we took it, and those without reservations were turned away.
MANITOULIN’S WHY AND HOW
The English name we use, comes via the French, for the First Nations’ name of Manidoowaaling or “cave of the spirit” named after an underwater cave where a powerful spirit is believed to live. In addition, the town of Manitowaning, corrupted from the French, is near that same underwater cave. Nowadays, the locals call Manitoulin Island Mnidoo Mnis in Odawa, or “Spirit Island”.
The eastern peninsula of Manitoulin Island is the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory and is home to the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, including the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples, making up the Three Fires Confederacy. “Unceded” means they have not given up their ancestral lands through treaties. About 8,000 persons are part of the First Nations population making up more than one third of the island inhabitants.
Two treaties with the British, the 1836 Bond Head Treaty (after Francis Bond Head, then Lt. Governor of Upper Canada) or “Treaty 45”, effectively made Manitoulin Island a reserve for all Indigenous people in Upper Canada, although no land was ceded to the Crown. In 1862, land was needed for increasing European island settlement, and the McDougall Treaty or “Treaty 94” ceded most of island land to the government, except for Wiikwemkoong and five other territories. There were further treaties, but Wiikwemkoong remains Canada’s only officially recognized Unceded Territory.
Found in Wiikwemkoong, the town of Manitouwaning was the first European settlement on the island for administrative and educational purposes and has the oldest (1845) Anglican church in northern Ontario. Manitouwaning later became important for shipping, and has a historic 1883 wharf and an 1886 lighthouse preserved for visitors to see.
WHAT TO DO, SEE AND EAT
Our accommodation was in Wiikwemkoong itself, just a few minutes from Manitouwaning. Bayside Resort was a charming combination of 4 modern solid log cabins, in one of which the owners reside. Beautifully appointed with all we needed, including a kitchen, we even had our own barbeque, patio, outdoor table with umbrella, and fire pit (wood supplied too). It was steps from a lovely dock and the pristine waters of South Bay. It was private, quiet and serene, just what we wanted. Many other options exist on the island though, from campsites to “American plan” resorts, to the historic Meldrum Bay Inn.
Gore Bay, founded in 1890, is at the Island’s north side. It is the administrative and government seat. Sitting on the North Channel, it is also a favourite spot for boaters to weigh anchor with a beautiful and large marina. Driving there to the other side of the island gave us a nice day trip on quiet agricultural and forest roads, with nature and other sights to enjoy at our own pace, with no traffic! This included an impressive war memorial to islanders at the side of the road.
There is so much to offer on Manitoulin Island to “get away from it all”. First, there is a great opportunity to learn more about our First Nations’ culture. Immerse yourself in it, because Ontario has the most Indigenous people in Canada, and most remote First Nations; each is unique in their beliefs, language and histories. You can listen to traditional storytellers on a canoe heritage sunset tour, or attend a multi-day powwow. The Wiikwemkoong Annual Cultural Festival running since 1961, is North Eastern North America’s largest and longest running powwow. Again, be sure to book well ahead, as our resort was already reserved over a year in advance for this!
First Nations nature and culture is offered on the Great Spirit Circle Trail. But there are plenty more trails at all levels of experience and ability all over the island, and stunning views from the top of the Niagara Escarpment (yes, it goes that far!). One trail near our resort is famous for the local dogs who may accompany you on your walk. The Lewis Twin Peaks Trail near Nemi is close to the Centennial Museum of Sheguiandah, which features not only artifacts from early settler life starting in the mid 1800s, but from the estimated 11,500-year-old Sheguiandah Archaeology Site. Starting again in 2022, tours of that important archeological site can be booked. The spectacular Bridal Veil Falls are another popular destination. That’s besides the canoeing, fishing, boating and horseback riding you can do!
Local foods and cuisine include Indigenous ingredients. Wiikwemkoong even has a food truck serving Bannock items in town. I found out that Manitoulin Islanders refer to themselves as “haweaters”. Why? Hawberries, are the bright red fruit of the hawthorn tree. Local lore has it that shortly after early European settlers arrived, a famine took place. Hawthorns grow well in dry soil, and settlers began to supplement their diets with the hawthorn berries saving them from starvation and scurvy. Preserves may be bought to take home. The island is also known for whitefish and pickerel, which is served on the island, and can be purchased already smoked for easy transport home.
For arts lovers, there are numerous galleries dotted over the island dealing in First Nation and other art and crafts. The island inspires creativeness and its many artists include such famous names as Carl Beam and Daphne Odjig. There are three live theatres, including the oldest running indigenous touring theatre in North America, the Debajemujig Theatre Group. Carl Beam created the impressive entrance to the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng First Nation, which also has a museum and gallery.
And “Spirit Island” as it truly was to us too, really did magically transport us quickly to island time!
WRITTEN BY: DIANA JANOSIK-WRONSKI