Manitoulin Island

(This column was first published in the August 24, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    In early June members of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society visited Manitoulin Island. I had hoped to join that botanizing expedition but a family reunion in Alabama intervened.

    Manitoulin, the world's largest island in a freshwater lake, is located in Lake Huron north from the Bruce Peninsula across the channel connecting that lake to Georgian Bay. Because it is an extension of the Niagara Escarpment, it shares some of the geological characteristics of the Bruce Peninsula. (The Niagara Escarpment is the same rock formation over which Niagara Falls tumbles. In Canada it curves west around Hamilton, twists north cross-country to the Bruce and after Manitoulin continues around Lake Michigan into northern Illinois.) Like the Bruce, Manitoulin Island is limestone based with high rocks along its north side and flatlands sloping slowly into Lake Huron along its southern shores.

    Irene Wingerter has reported on the Botanical Society's trip for its publication, Clintonia.* According to her, they spent a hectic but enjoyable three days visiting the island's bays and beaches, several of its more than 80 inland lakes, and its mixed woodlands, savannahs, bogs, fens and alvars. (Alvar is a technical term not in my dictionaries. Kalista Lehrer describes alvars in another issue of Clintonia** as flat, sparsely vegetated pavements of limestone or marble bedrock. Extremely rare, they occur only in a few Great Lakes areas and in Estonia and Sweden.)

    As expected, the botanists found scores of wildflowers, ferns and lichens, many with exotic names like death camas, British soldiers, one-flowered cancer-root, Manitoulin gold, Iceland moss and small skullcap.

    My visit to Manitoulin Island came quite unplanned just weeks later. Earl Colborn and I returned by car this time from our annual Minnesota canoe trip. We crossed Wisconsin and passed over the bridge into Ontario at Sault St. Marie. Our plan was to continue east to Sudbury but, with an extra day available, Manitoulin beckoned.

    We turned south onto Route 6 from the Trans-Canada Highway at McKerrow. (I include these directions because this wonderful route is not often taken by visitors from the States. One book describes it as "Ontario's most scenic 31 miles" of highway and indeed it earns that reputation.) We twisted and turned through the La Cloche Mountains, over and around granite and quartzite boulders of the Canadian Shield, some of them pure white. Around every bend a new view emerged of rock formations, local lakes (including the inevitable Loon Lake) and small settlements.

    At the town of Birch Island we left the Precambrian granite to continue on the younger Palaeozoic limestone of the Niagara Escarpment. Now on La Cloche Island we found the broad, flat and almost lifeless alvars. If the ground color had been black instead of dull brown, they would have looked much like parking lots. Finally in the village of Little Current we left this botanically unique but unattractive countryside and crossed a one-way bridge over the water route of the Voyageurs onto Manitoulin Island.

    Without a guide to wildflower areas, we decided to search instead for sandhill cranes, local bird inhabitants that we rarely see in Buffalo. We drove mostly through interior farming country along roads bordered by a profusion of yellow, white, blue and purple wildflowers and by the red of highbush cranberries. Behind them invariably were the criss-crossed w's of old split-rail fencing -- very picturesque.

    We found many birds but no cranes.

    To our delight, however, the next morning on our way to the ferry that would take us to Tobermory on the Bruce, we finally located a pair feeding in an open field. And our last sight of this unusual island was of two more slowly flying in echelon along the shore, their long, outstretched and slightly-drooping necks clearly differentiating them from our local "crane" -- the great blue heron.

    I promised myself an early return to Manitoulin.


* "The Glories of the Bruce and Manitoulin Island," Clintonia 13, 4 (July/August 1998): 1-3.

** "What is an Alvar?" Clintonia 13, 2 (March/April 1998): 1-4.