Thursday, March 3, 2011

Exploring South Manitou Island Part I

 *Be sure to check out part two of this series by clicking RIGHT HERE!*

An ancient Chippewa Indian legend tells the tale of how the Manitou Islands came to be.  The story goes that a mother bear fled from a great forest fire in Wisconsin with her two cubs and swam across Lake Michigan to the Michigan shore for safety.  Upon reaching the shore the mother climbed a steep bluff to await her cubs arrival.  The cubs, exhausted from their long swim, were lost to the great lake and never made it ashore.  Filled with grief the mother bear waited day after day for the cubs on the steep bluff until her final breath.  The Great Spirit Manitou marked her final resting place with the Sleeping Bear Dunes and raised North and South Manitou Island from the depths of Lake Michigan in remembrance of where the two cubs perished.  Today these geological wonders still stand where the Great Spirit placed them for generations of people to come and experience the beauty and wonder of northern Michigan.
Located about ten miles offshore from Glen Arbor in Leelanau County, Michigan sits South Manitou Island in the chilled aqua waters of Lake Michigan.  If you are curious where exactly in Michigan this area is located here is an easy way to give you a good idea where to look on a map.  Stick out your left hand with your palm facing out.  Kinda looks like the outline of the state, right?  Focus on your pinkie fingernail, that is Leelanau County and just off the left side of the tip of your pinkie are the Manitou Islands.  Sure, you could have just jumped on Google maps and typed it in but I think my way is more fun and original.  Only a bit over 8 square miles in area, what this island lacks in size is more than made up for with its natural history and long list of incredible sights.  As mentioned in my earlier post on the Pitcher's Thistle, Leelanau County is one of my favorite summer memories from my childhood and even now as an adult.  A couple summers ago I spent two days and a night backpacking and exploring this remarkable environmental gem and would like to take you back there with me to get a first hand look at just how unique a place this is.  So make yourself comfortable and enjoy the pictures and journey this post takes you on.  Here we go!

Map courtesy of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (U.S. NPS)
Above is a map to reference whenever I talk about a specific part of the island (don't forget to click on the pictures to see them in bigger, greater detail).

North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse
 An hour and a half long ferry ride from Leland, Michigan is the only way to get to the island if you do not have a capable boat of your own.  The ferry is loud and slow but with the lake breeze and warmth of the morning sun on your face along with the sights make for a bearable trip out.  Pictured above is the North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse with our destination the blob of land on the left.  Built in 1935 to help ships make the perilous voyage through the Manitou Passage safely, it now sits in solitude as a roost for numerous Gulls, Cormorants and Terns.  The Manitou Passage has long been considered one of the most dangerous areas in all of the Great Lakes.  There are over 50 known shipwreck sites in the area around the Manitous and many are popular diving spots.  As you can see from the map above the eastern side of the island curves to form the best natural bay and harbor to be found in-between Chicago and the Straits of Mackinac.  Many a ship was saved during the 19th and 20th centuries from the violent and deadly storms Lake Michigan is fabled for.

*Note*  Since this trip was made over two years ago and I never planned on writing a travel blog for it I will do my best to use what pictures I took to the best of their advantage.  If I could do it all over again I would take much more specific photographs of the different areas and features of the island to better show off what I'm talking about.

So with that said let's take our first steps into the wilderness.  I started off walking along the southern edge of the island in a general westerly direction.  This course takes you through the woods all the way to the perched dunes at the western edge of the island.   In the mid-1800's South Manitou's forests fueled the boilers for the hundreds of steamships that sailed through the area.  This heavy logging caused the island's virigin forest to be all but gone before the turn of the century in 1900.  Only a small area in the southwestern corner was never touched, but we will get to that later in the post.

American Basswood
White Birch

The island today is covered in a second growth forest that resembles in species make-up the forest that prevailed the settlers.  The flora and forest type of the island falls into the same categories as the rest of the northern Great Lake states with a few exceptions.  Under the Northern Hardwoods banner, South Manitou's forests change subtly in areas and are dominated by American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) with a strong association of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch (B. papyrifera), Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), American Basswood (Tilia americana), Ash (Fraxinus spp.) and the occasional Red Oak (Quercus rubra) on the interior of the island.  The coastal areas of the island have many of the aforementioned trees but also contain White Pine (Pinus strobus), Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) and Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) with many White Birch and Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) mixed in.  With the clearing of the land for cordwood for the steamers came homesteads, farms, livestock fields and orchards for the early settlers.  When the farms failed the land was allowed to succeed back to its current forested state.  Signs of their occupancy can still be seen throughout the island today.  A few houses and barns in varying stages of decay and ruin are scattered amongst the fields and forests.  Also serving as evidence of those who came before are a number of species of non-indigenous plants left to grow on the island.  American Chestnut, Mulberry, Black Walnut, Apple, Cherry and Pear can still be found growing "wild" amongst the native vegetation.

Aralia racemosa
Clintonia borealis

Despite the clearing of the original forests on South Manitou, the island still enjoys a very lush, diverse and rich aray of herbaceous species.  Some of the species many of you from our home state of Ohio would be very familiar with such as;  Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), Wild Leek (Allium triccocum), Canada Violet (Viola canadensis) and Spikenard (Aralia racemosa).  Most however are either not found in our state or are very rare like the species from the picture above; Bluebead-lily (Clintonia borealis), which is an endangered species in Ohio.  Another rare species in Ohio that is commonly found as a ground cover on the island is Canadian Yew (Taxus canadensis).  A few more species found on the island include; Northern Bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra), Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum) and Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).  I wish I had photographs of these species but there's always next time.  Many of the plants I saw were among the largest I am likely to ever see, especially those of the woody 'shrub' variety such as the three native Aralia species and Canada Yew.  The reason for this is there are no grazing mammals living on the island to eat back and keep all the new growth at bay.  White-tailed Deer were introduced to North Manitou island but never to the South which has caused the degradation to the native ground cover and herbaceous species of the North island.  Many species found on South Manitou are no longer to be found on its larger neighbor due to this unfortunate decision to release the deer several decades ago.

Eastern Garter Snake
Perhaps the only reptile on South Manitou Island is the Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) and boy are they everywhere.  It seems every couple of steps one would go slithering away into the underbrush.  This one was kind enough to pose for a photograph or two even if he does seem a bit perturbed.  Making your way along the southern edge of South Manitou about half way across the island is the only inland body of water, Lake Florence.

Lake Florence, the islands only interior body of water
According to a limnological investigation done by the University of Michigan Biological Station, Florence Lake is only 26 feet deep at its maximum and has an overall mean depth of only 10 feet.  Watermarks around the shores indicate water levels have a tendency to fluctuate.  Due to there being no inlet or outlet sources on the lake and the lake sitting at an elevation lower than that of Lake Michigan, the water level is directly controlled by the water level of Lake Michigan itself.  Another interesting fact about Florence Lake is that despite its relatively small size in area, its watershed drains nearly 50% of the islands land surface (rain/ground water runoff).  Many different species of aquatic plants grow in and along Lake Florence.  Species from the genus' Carex, Scirpus and Potogometon were the most common observed.  

The rusting wreckage of the Francisco Morazan
As mentioned earlier, the Manitou Passage is famous for its many shipwrecks spread throughout the area.  The most famous and noticeable of all the wrecks is the 1960 grounding of the Francisco Morazan.  After dropping off cargo and getting reloaded in Chicago, the Francisco Morazan was headed for the Netherlands when on the night of November 29th in a terrible snowstorm it ran aground on a shallow shoal just off the shore of South Manitou.  All of her crew survived and were rescued without much difficulty and the wreckage was left to rust in her shallow, watery grave.

The once prized ship is now just a roost for passing seabirds
After leaving the shoreline and the ghostly remains of the Francisco Morazan you are not very far away from entering the most enchanting and memorable section of the island...the Valley of the Giants.  A small, ancient virgin grove of Northern White Cedars on the southwest corner on the island contains some of the oldest and largest of their kind on the planet, including the former national champion.

Virgin White Cedar forest
Ancient White Cedar tree

While these pictures cannot truly give these mammoth and ancient trees the true justice they deserve it can give you but a small taste of one of the rarest ecosystems in the country.  It is believed that the remote location of the grove as well as the proximity to the dunes is what allowed this magnificent masterpiece of nature to survive to this day.  Sand from the dunes forever mixed into the bark and grain on the wood would quickly dull and ruin the loggers saw blades is one hypothesis or perhaps the lumberman didn't have the heart to take down all the mighty monarchs of the forest.  Whatever the reason may be, let us be forever thankful it survived.  With heights reaching 100 feet tall and girths 3-5 feet in diameter, it's not everyday you get to see a forest like this in today's world, let alone one of this type of tree.  

The fallen former national champion White Cedar

On a sad note, here is what remains of what I believe to have been the former national champion Thuja 
occidentalis.  Almost six feet in diameter and nearly 100 feet in height, I wish I could have stood next to this behemoth to give you a size comparison.  The trees of this size in this grove have been aged using a corer to count the growth rings.  The largest ones have been growing for over 500 years!  That's incredible to even think about.  I've seen 500-1,000+ year old trees out in Washington state but to see something like this back east is mind blowing.

Your blogger and a huge Cedar!
Virgin White Cedar forest

I can't wait until I get the chance to get back to this place and really explore this area of the island more.  The 40 acre virgin grove is a very well-mixed aged stand.  There are many seedlings and saplings patiently biding their time to reach the lofty goals of their ancestors as well as many cedars of a more normal size filling in the holes in the canopy.  This time-tested forest is slowly weening itself of its largest members and will one day not have the same visual affect on visitors as it does today.  Several rare and threatened species of plants make their only homes on this island in this secluded grove as well.  Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) and Green Spleenwort Fern (Asplenium viride) are both threatened species in Michigan and are both part of very disjunct populations on South Manitou.  Green Spleenwort is not found anywhere in the lower peninsula except for South Manitou while the Walking Fern is found in only two other counties in the L.P. but both populations are well over 100 miles away.  How these ferns got to the island, who knows?  The Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) can also be found in the secluded haunt of the ancient cedars.

I think I have had enough for one post!  Up next is the climb up the perched dunes to the top of the island for one of the best panoramic and beautiful views I've ever seen!  Hope you have enjoyed the first part, I will be sure to post the follow up sometime in the next day or so.

1 comment:

  1. Nice descriptions! I worked on middle bass island two years ago and, though part of Ohio, the island atmosphere was much more relaxing. I learned the true meaning of "island time," spending any free time careless and searching for unique island/lake species. This post makes me want to visit a total different area of the country. You think you have a decent grip on species until you visit somewhere other than SE Ohio.