Racing to a Campsite on South Manitou Island

Backpacking in Michigan

Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne is on the Manitou Islands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for two weeks working on a MichiganTrailMaps.com mapping project. Here is his first Trail Talk blog entry. For more on the islands, check out Backpacking In Michigan available from our e-shop.

By Jim DuFresne

One of the most anticipated port-of-calls occurs almost daily during the summer when the Mishe-Mokwa pulls up to the wharf on South Manitou Island. The 5,000-acre island, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, lies 17 miles west of Leland on the mainland and is the site of three campgrounds, numerous shipwrecks, a restored lighthouse and a wonderful trail system.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

But no cars, motels, outlet malls or even a Starbucks.

For most visitors the only way to reach this island is onboard the Mishe-Mokwa, the Manitou Island Transit ferry that cruises across the Manitou Passage, an historic shipping lane scattered with 19th century shipwrecks. The trip takes 90 minutes and the vessel is often packed with backpackers, day hikers, families ready for an afternoon on an exotic beach. Everybody on the boat is eager to set foot on what they perceive as a paradise isolated from the madness at home.

On the island’s wharf there is another large group also anxiously waiting for the Mishe-Mokwa. These were the campers who had stayed overnight on the island, some as long as a week, and, while a get-away paradise is nice, they are now longing for a hot shower, a cold beer, food that doesn’t require two cups of boiling water and, heavens forbid, a peak at their Facebook page to see what they have been missing.

I was part of the influx of new campers. We waited for our packs and duffle bags to be unloaded and then headed up to the Boathouse at the head of the dock. This building was built to store the rescue boats as part of the U.S. Lifesaving Station stationed here in the late 1800s. Today it’s where park rangers give their camper orientation.

It’s takes about 15 minutes to go over the dos and don’ts and when it is over the ranger hands you your backcountry permit and you’re free to hike out to a campground and stake a site. You can tell who’s there for the first time. They take their time gathering up their gear, they study campgrounds maps to decide where they might want to go, they’re in no hurry.

The rest of us grab our packs and run as if this was the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Backpackers heading off to Bay Campground on South Manitou Island.

Sites are handed out on a first-one-to-reach-it-first-one-to-get-it basis. The two closest campgrounds, Weather Station and Bay, are also the most desirable because each has strip of seven or eight sites that are primo, some of the best places to pitch a tent in Michigan, possibly in the Midwest. Maybe the country. Who knows? All I know is these are sites worth hustling for.

I was slated to be on the island for a while and really wanted to stay at one of those beach-front sites at Bay Campground the entire time so I picked up my gear, a backpack and duffle bag, and the race was on.

Bay Campground is the closest campground to the Boathouse but it’s still a good  half mile trek. It was obvious there were five groups who had been here before and were intent of securing a primo site. I easily passed the first two groups on the trail without breaking a sweat and caught the third one, a husband and wife, when they stopped to fill their water bottles.

That left only the leaders, a husband, whose cap said he was a veteran of Desert Storm, and his wife who had no problem maintaining his military pace. They were shouldering monster packs and carrying two kayaks between them, the end of one in each hand.

And I still had a hard time closing the gap between us. Then I noticed their Achilles heel; two young sons, one six and the other four, and when the four-year-old announced he had to go to the bathroom I caught up and zipped around them on the outside corner of the trail.

I entered the campground ready to stake out the best site available. But when I went down the side trail to site No. 10, standing in the middle it, grinning from ear to ear and not even breathing hard, was Military Mom.

I was stunned. “How did you get here so fast?”

“We dropped the kayaks and while my husband watched the boys I took to the beach.”

I tipped my hat to her gold medal performance and headed over to site No. 12.

It wasn’t a bad consolation prize. Like site No. 10, it sits in the fringe of pines that line the Crescent Bay shoreline. I pitched my tent in the shade but from a pair of benches in my site had a view of the beach, Lake Michigan and the mainland to the east. Every morning I woke up and watched a stunning sunrise take place over the bay without ever leaving my sleeping bag.

This was my home for almost a week and when it was time to go – while I longed for that cold beer, hot shower and soft mattress – I knew I was leaving a place worth racing to.

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3 Responses to Racing to a Campsite on South Manitou Island

  1. Teresa says:

    I haven’t had time to read your post lately. So, now I’m catching up. A very funny twist to your story. Your reaction on your face would have been pricless to see! I’m planning some small vacations for next year. I’m not sure if I’ll head back to Isle Royale for my “redo” or if one of these other places you write about will make the list.

  2. We’re coming out with maps to North and South Manitou Island this winter. Either would be a wonderful and easy backpacking trip. South Manitou could also be a place to camp and enjoy a series of day hikes. Stay posted to our werb site at http://www.michigantrailmaps.com for details on the maps and more on these incredible islands that are part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

  3. Dave says:

    What a great story! You described the mad rush to the campsites perfectly. When we were up there last summer, it was pretty easy to tell where most were headed, depending on how their gear was packed and how much stuff they had dangling from their packs. We camped at Popple and only had to share it with one other solo hiker.

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