Manitoulin Island is the largest freshwater island in the world and is located in Lake Huron. Its history is rich and spans thousands of years, with Indigenous peoples playing a significant role in shaping the island’s culture and heritage. Carol Patterson shares her experience on the island, when exploring its past, present, and future through an indigenous lens.
Manitoulin Island is known as “Mnidoo Mnising” or “Island of the Spirit” to the Odawa people. It has been used by First Nations for thousands of years. It’s where great Anishinaabe leaders were buried. It’s a sacred place.
According to a brochure I picked up at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation it was a place where people came to receive dreams and visions. To a deadline-burdened travel writer, a visit to this special place before a travel conference was my brief chance to reflect on the connection between land and spirit.
I was only on the island for three days, a sneeze’s length in comparison to the centuries-long relationship between the land and people of the Confederacy of the Three Fires (the Ojibway, Odawa and Potawatomi) and I hoped to learn from people who knew the island deeply.
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Arriving On Manitoulin Island
Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron is the world’s largest island on a freshwater lake. It’s big enough to have a lake on it that’s big enough to have its own island. But even though it’s an island large enough to hold more than 100 freshwater lakes, and a human population of greater than 14,000 people, I barely noticed I’d arrived on an island.
If you arrive via the M.S. Chi-Cheemaun Ferry from the south across Georgian Bay, it’s obvious you’re visiting an island. But I drove to Manitoulin from Sudbury, Ontario crossing over a narrow channel on the Little Current Swing Bridge. I missed the hourly swing of the bridge to let boat traffic pass and I could have been fooled into thinking I’d simply crossed a large river and was still on the mainland.
But soon the island vibe percolated through my awareness. The streets were quiet and meeting times were flexible. I learned that on Monday many businesses were closed. Dinner on my first day was takeout at 4:45pm, an early dash to forage before restaurants shut for the night.
As I nibbled a sandwich in my room at the Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre, watching the gulls circle over Lake Huron, I felt a stillness I was loath to disturb. Perhaps it was the rocky substrata rocks. Perhaps it was the place of spirits, but I slept deeply that night, an unusual feat for me on road trips.
Manitoulin Island and Its Indigenous Roots
Visiting the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation
The next morning it was off to the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation to learn about indigenous culture. Steven Fox-Radulovich greeted our group of travel media, his posture erect as he orientated us to the round atrium.
“The circle makes each speaker equal,” he explained drawing our attention to the lack of corners.
His gaze flitted around the group as he explained how his mother had been instrumental in starting the center. “It was created to address the lack of cultural awareness,” Fox-Radulovich stated. Although the main audience is people living on the island, visitors are allowed.
Our group was introduced to Darlene, one of the local artisans, who invited us into the room where we could try bracelet making using traditional techniques. Darlene told us she teaches many school kids, helpful as we struggled to weave a friendship band or master the complex braiding of a mystery bracelet. My mystery was how to finish. Hands waved in the air for Darlene’s attention and she patiently unwove clumsy attempts or repeated instructions.
I left with two cherished mementos and a new appreciation for the handmade creations I saw at island stores and galleries.
Stopping By Manitoulin Eco Park
At an unexpected stop at Manitoulin Eco Park I learned more about traditional ways. The rustic, conservation-orientated campground and nature trails once known as Gordon’s Park, were made famous when the Arrogant Worms, a Canada comedy band, recorded a song about the park’s Mounted Animal Nature Trail (from back in the day when Gordon’s taxidermy was placed along the nature trail).
The campground is popular with families and with stargazers. It is Canada’s first Royal Astronomical Society of Canada designated commercial Dark Sky Preserve. The old taxidermy mounts have been moved indoors to the Nature Center and the focus now is on the wild plants and animals.
“Now we have a living trail,” Charnoe explained, as I walked the woods her and she shared some of her teachings about the island. “My elders say they were here before the ice (came). After the ice it was a ceremonial land. Ten thousand years ago, it was the time to move here,” she recounted.
I thought about this history as I wandered the island. Our group headed to Bridal Veil Falls Trail System to meet up again with Fox-Radulovic for hike. He waited at the trailhead near the falls with his very large dog, the summer crowds not yet filling the popular location.
Fox-Radulovic walked the shady path, showing us the trail through his eyes. “This plant is an antidote to poison ivy,” he explained, pointing at a leafy green bush, “it will grow close to poison ivy so if you got poison ivy on your skin, you could grab some of these leaves and create your own relief.”
He described how species introduced for sports fishermen were upsetting the balance with resident fish populations and pointed out sculptures added to the landscape. He shared his thoughts on those that he thought went best with the landscape. I could admire the artistry, but my favourite island hike was the Cup and Saucer Trail, no statues to mar the natural landscape, and boasting one of the best views in Ontario.
It’s one of Ontario’s most popular hikes and our group had the chance to tackle it twice. Rain fell steadily as I wandered through the mist, the calls of an Eastern Wood Phoebe accompanying me for part of the journey.
My feet skittered across wet rocks and scrambled up wooden ladders. I reflected on how modern travelers started hiking this trail just decades ago, but for many centuries before that First Nation peoples crossed these forests for trade or celebrations or renewal.
As a travel writer, I was retreating from daily routine, but it was the opportunity to learn more about this ancient place from the people who’d known it the longest, that were lifting my spirits.
What Other Indigenous Experiences Could You Add to Your Manitoulin Island Itinerary?
- Wikmemikong Tourism, located in northeastern Manitoulin, offers daily cultural experiences on their site. They include traditional culinary tours and offerings, the opportunity to paddle ancient canoe routes of the Anishnaabe people, hiking on the Bebamikawe Memorial Hiking Trail, and so much more.
- Powwows and Festivals: Manitoulin Island hosts various powwows and Indigenous festivals throughout the year. These events showcase traditional dancing, drumming, arts, crafts, cuisine, and so much more. Visitors have the opportunity to witness and participate in these vibrant celebrations of Indigenous culture. You can find a full list here.
- Traditional Workshops: Indigenous artisans offer workshops where visitors can learn traditional crafts such as beadwork, quillwork, basketry, and moccasin-making. These workshops provide hands-on experiences that highlight the intricate artistry and skills of Indigenous artisans.
- Storytelling and Interpretive Centers: Interpretive centres and cultural hubs on the island often feature storytelling sessions where Indigenous elders and storytellers share oral histories, legends, and teachings. These sessions provide insights into the spiritual and cultural beliefs of the Anishinaabe people.
- Spiritual Retreats: Manitoulin Island’s spiritual significance is deeply rooted in Indigenous beliefs. Some Indigenous tourism experiences may include opportunities to participate in ceremonies, meditation, and other spiritual practices guided by Indigenous leaders.
- Cultural Centers and Museums: Cultural centers and museums on Manitoulin Island offer exhibitions, artifacts, and educational materials that provide insight into the history, traditions, and contemporary life of the Anishinaabe peoples.
- Elders’ Wisdom: Engaging with Indigenous elders allows visitors to learn directly from those who hold traditional knowledge and wisdom. Elders often share insights into the past, present, and future of their culture.
Indigenous tourism not only provides meaningful experiences for visitors but also supports the preservation and continuation of Indigenous traditions and ways of life on Manitoulin Island. In the end, visitors will have a lot to discover and appreciate on one of Ontario’s most famous islands.
Carol Patterson was a guest of Sudbury Tourism but they did not review her story and the opinions are her own.
Carol Patterson is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and an award-winning journalist seeking out North America’s best wildlife viewing experiences. You’ll often find her and her camera following the seasons and the birds that come with them. She’s been a pilot, an accountant, a university professor, and an avian tourism consultant, but says her best gig is writing stories for curious travelers.