We stopped at the visitors’ center in Sault Ste. Marie. One of the young women behind the counter suggested we stop at Manitoulin Island on our way east. We had never heard of it. It seemed like a long drive through the low LaCloche Mountains although it is somewhat interesting country. We both were considering turning around and forgetting it when we reached the island.
One crosses a channel onto the island to the community of Little Current on a one-lane 1913 railroad “swing bridge.” The bridge was converted to also take automobiles in 1946. The railroad stopped using the bridge in the 1980s.
We were a little confused. One sign said we were in the town of “Northeast Manitoulin and the Islands” and another said we were in “Little Current.” It turns out both were correct, Little Current just being a “community.” There is also the town of Gore Bay, eight townships and six Anishinaabe (or Anishnawbet – the Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatoni people) first nation reserves.
You might be tempted to ask: “all that on one island?” It is the largest freshwater-lake island in the world – 1068 square miles. It is so large, it has four rivers and 108 lakes inside the island some of which have their own little islands. Manitoulin lies at the top of Lake Huron next to Georgian Bay.
Charmed by the views from the Manitoulin Hotel, we decided to take a break and stay two nights. We had a great time, but it wasn’t much of a break because we spent the rest of that day and most of the next day driving around the eastern two-thirds of the island.
Coming from Toronto or Windsor, one can also reach South Baymouth at the south end of the island by ferry.
The population of around thirteen thousand swells to about seventeen thousand in the summer, but what charmed us was the laid-back non-commercial feel. There were little restaurants everywhere and many signs for inns, lodges and campgrounds. But there were no big chains. and everything seemed very rustic.
A red fox trotted along beside the road the first day as we approached the M’Chigeeng Reserve. Later in the day, we had to slow down even more to avoid a pheasant in the road. The next day we saw sand hill cranes and a white-tailed deer.
When we were at Grand Portage, we saw a small basket decorated with porcupine quills, but it was far more money than we were willing to pay. At M’Chigeeng, a first nation reserve on the island, a store had hundreds of baskets for sale and more that were not for sale in a museum in a back room. We were the only ones in the store, and the proprietor got several out to show us. She also showed us how they were made. First a birchbark basket and lid are constructed. Then the craftsman punches holes for the design. Natural porcupine quills are not the same color for the full length of the quill, so the design can be varied depending are the part of the quill used. In some cases, the quills are dyed.
“Tufted” areas are created by leaving the ends of quills exposed. Once the box and lid are covered, a new birchbark lining is put inside to hide the ends of the quills. It takes an enormous amount of time. Value depends partially on size, but mostly on the intricacy and precision of the design. An intricate small box can cost more than a larger box because the small area is hard to work.
Alie found one she had to have. She was given a photo of the artist as well.
Pictures were not allowed in the museum, but when we returned the next day to get some pictures of those for sale, Alie had made a new friend and was invited to also take photos in the museum.
I liked the small town/home town feel of the place. I enjoyed walking by the water in Little Current and having breakfast at a coffee shop clearly patronized by “regulars.” We enjoyed chatting with the waitresses in restaurants where we went for dinner.
The 1879 Janet Head Lighthouse at Gore Bay is now in private hands, but the public was invited to walk around and take pictures. When the family is there, they often invite people in. Another light at the pulp mill town of Kagawong dates to 1892 when it and others like it replaced lanterns hung from pole.
But one of our more memorable moments had little to do with the island. The first day, we saw a strange bus-like vehicle with rows of windows along one side in the back. On our second day, we saw it in a parking lot in a small village, and I stopped to get a picture.
The driver hopped out. He was an unusually well-educated truck driver (He spoke English and Spanish now and had studied Russian at a university as a young man.). When he couldn’t afford to upgrade his truck to new California emission standards, he took a job with Rotel Tours, a German tourist company. The company owned the only nine of these hybrid vehicles which had beds for 26 and took German tourists around the US and Canada. Most of the tourists seemed to be middle-aged professionals like teachers; most were women.
While many of the tourists spoke English, the driver had little in common with them and was anxious to talk. While I had an interesting talk with him, Alie spoke to some of the tourists who peppered her with questions. She was able to learn, however, that one felt the beds on board were like “sleeping in a coffin.”