Long.Short.Short. A trip to St. Joseph Island

August 11, 2014

c-note_rudderC Notes. A blog by George C. Wilson. 

There are, if you care to take the trip, great sights to see within an easy day’s drive of west Michigan. That is not new information to anyone who has traveled in the Great Lakes basin.  The lakes provide wonderment in locations both famous and unknown throughout the region.  People do tend to get possessive and parochial about the place they grew up in or where they vacation – and that is natural and understandable.

This edition of C Notes is a foray into travel writing.  I am a novice in this genre so please be patient –  rest assured I am not so foolish as to say that one location in the Great Lakes is the best.  I grew up standing on the sands of the golden beaches of the west shore of Lower Michigan.  The deep blue waters of Lake Michigan meeting the clear blue sky at the horizon will forever be etched in my memory.  When someone mentions the Great Lakes it is what I visualize.  But, as I have discovered over a lifetime, there are locations close by that are equally enthralling.

St. Joseph Island, Ontario is located in the St. Mary’s River.  It is separated from Neebish Island, Michigan by the Munuscong channel of the St. Mary’s River.  The island is the third largest island in the Great Lakes.  Number two is Isle Royale. And first is Manitoulin Island – St. Joseph’s neighbor – past Drummond and Cockburn Islands on the southeastern horizon.  St. Joseph Island and its neighboring islands create the land encasement of the North Channel which lies above Lake Huron’s great Georgian Bay.   The North Channel and the St. Mary’s River provide water vistas on all sides of the island.

George C. Wilson

George C. Wilson

The water vistas on St. Joseph Island are charming and subtle in their diversity.  On the west side of the island a visitor gets the feeling they are standing on the shore of one of the myriad of small inland lakes in northern Michigan.  The Munuscong Channel is but a few hundred yards across and the mostly calm water provides that unique acoustic quality of making conversations up and down the channel seem close at hand.  It’s almost as if you could ask the denizens of the cottages on Neebish Island what they are grilling up for dinner and carry on a genial conversation about the quality of the fishing that day.  The quarrelsome honking of Canadian Geese and the screes of seagulls carry across the water and at times it sounds as though they are just a few feet from you – even though you may be separated from them by a quarter mile   The solitude and timeless quality of St. Joseph’s west shore are known to anyone who has spent time on a small northern lake. And as long as you ignore the large channel buoys in the water you can fantasize you are on a fishing trip on a sparsely inhabited lake in the Upper Peninsula.

That fantasy is blown away by the massive lake freighters that use the Munuscong as the up bound channel on the St. Mary’s heading for the Soo Locks and the waters of Lake Superior.  If you are located at a cottage nestled in the cedar groves along the eastern shore of the channel you sense the arrival of a lake freighter before you see it.  The thrum of the massive engines and  propellers cause a vibration you feel in your core.  Then you are compelled to turn your attention to the water’s edge to watch as the great steel behemoths navigate the tight channel. The large boats pass infrequently enough that a passage rarely goes unnoticed but after a few days on the channel their appearance no longer shocks a visitor. And if the mate or captain at the wheel of a north bound freighter is in the mood the friendly recognition horn blasts will announce the boat’s progress up the channel.  Long. Short. Short.  Every horn is pitched differently but they are all huge.  The sound fills the tight universe of water and trees. Some boats announce themselves frequently as they slow down to make the tight turn at the location on the channel known as Sailor’s Landing. Some boats pass silently.  If you want to entice the friendly greeting you must stand on the shore or on your dock and wave your arms enthusiastically.  If you have children in your party that usually works best. The process is reminiscent of those days as a child when you would stand near a highway pumping your fist at tractor trailer drivers trying to compel them to pull their air horn cords.  The sense of triumph at the blast of the ship’s horn takes you back to your preteen days almost instantly.  “I did that!  I made him notice me! The captain of that huge boat thinks I am important!”  Heady stuff for children of all ages.

c-notes_freighterThe southern shores of the island have a different vista entirely.  The distances increase.  You can see Drummond Island easily and the mainland of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Plus a few other lesser islands that dot the confluence of the two great channels of the St. Mary’s to form what is called Munuscong Lake.  If you visit the ruins of Fort St. Joseph on the southwest tip of the island you will be informed that Mackinac Island, though unseen, is only a day’s paddle away. Something the garrison of the fort there learned the hard way early in the War of 1812 over 200 years ago.  The commander of Ft. St. Joseph surprised the garrison on Mackinac Island and enticed them to abandon their redoubt or face massacre from a superior force made up of a few British soldiers and a party of over 200 native warriors.  The Americans returned the favor two years later when they destroyed the vacant fort on St. Joseph.  It was never rebuilt and Mackinac Island became the dominant presence in the upper Great Lakes militarily and economically for the next half century and beyond.  The Status Quo Ante Bellum resolution of the war returned Mackinac to the Americans.  St. Joseph was never again of consequence as an outpost of the British Empire.  The lesson is that tactical military victories can change some things but geography is destiny.  Mackinac Island not only controls the western access to the St. Mary’s but it also dominates the Straits of Mackinac.  St. Joseph was fated to become a backwater in an empire that turned its attention elsewhere.

Not far from old Fort St. Joseph on the island’s southeastern flank is a public park with a humorous homonymic name: Beech Beach.  The vista here is enticing.  The park is small but the view is large.  Out past the horizon is Manitoulin – the long island that sits atop the Georgian Bay. Lesser islands are in the foreground in what is called Potagannissing Bay – formed by St. Joseph and Drummond Islands on the north and south.  The near at hand smaller tree covered islands in the bay seem to whisper to the visitor “Come visit me.  I am so close.  The water is so calm and blue.”  It made me long for a boat to take out on an exploration cruise.

If you progress to the north on the east side of St. Joseph Island you get a lesson in physical geography.  The residual glacial boulders tell the tale of the Laurentian Shield and the massive ice sheets that covered the region as recently as 13,000 years ago – a mere blink of an eye in geologic time.  Ice was likely over three kilometers thick in the region. When it receded it dropped truck sized boulders calved off of the Laurentian Shield.  Rocks that date up to four billion years old – the foundations of a volcanic mountain range that had peaks to rival the height of the modern Hindu Kush of Asia.  Now the landscape of the eastern side of the Island is a duplicate of the Algoma district of Ontario stretching to the Hudson Bay. Thousands of square miles with bare rock outcroppings, lakes, bogs and boulders interrupting the cover of thin soils and tightly packed tiaga, or boreal snowforest, trees.  Modern man, however, in his never ending search for lake front property has tamed the boulder fields and dense tiaga to scratch out thin roads to access the lake frontage on the shore of the North Channel on St. Joseph.  Cottages large and small overlook a very pleasant stretch of water.

Further north the vistas of St. Joseph Island change yet again. The northeastern shore of St. Joseph Island is quite different from the west and south shores.  There are many red gray slick rock islands- some only an acre or two in size- that are peppered across the western reaches of the North Channel.  Some of these islands have cottages on them.  Some are home to only wind sculptured white pines that look like giant examples of Japanese Bonsai trees.  In the blue water of the North Channel the red gray rock islands look like post card refugees from the Maine coast.  To a visitor whose visualization of the Great Lakes is dominated by the golden dunes on Lower Michigan’s west coast this seascape is decidedly foreign in a delightful way.  Oh for a kayak to scoot to and skirt around those beguiling rock islands.

To reach St. Joseph Island you could take a boat. In some cases it is only a trip of a few hundred yards or less.  But if you cross the imaginary line that marks the border of the United States and Canada you will have to report to Canadian customs – as promptly as possible to avoid some difficulty. And if you do that without a passport in the post 9/11 world expect some serious consequences. If you cross the border at the Soo – passport or enhanced Michigan driver’s license required – it is a short drive of 30 minutes or so east on the Trans Canada Highway to Highway 548.  A bridge was completed in 1972 to link the mainland of Ontario with the island. The bridge has lovely views but the trip across is short. Make sure to stop at the roadside convenience park before you cross.  It stands on a rock outcrop in the North Channel and in a lifetime of visiting rest areas on hundreds of highways I have to say this is unique in my experience. It is an elegant meeting of rock and water… odd to see it dedicated to something so mundane as a roadside toilet and a few picnic tables.    The little park offers great views of the span of the bridge at the narrows of the North Channel where for decades a ferry once took vehicles across.

The interior of the island is dominated by farm land in the north.  In August the large round bales of hay strewn across vast fields echo the great boulders found seemingly behind every tree line.  Moving of rocks and boulders deposited by the glaciers must have been and still must be the chief activity of farmers when they are not growing crops of hay and corn.  There are cedar groves along the water front in the west.  A large ridge of hills on the south half of the island is home to a massive forest of hardwoods.  Mostly sugar maples – the trees that give the island fame as Ontario’s greatest maple syrup producing region.  And yes, there were touches of yellow and red in the leaves of those maples during the first week of August. The south eastern part of the island as mentioned is dominated by post glacial tiaga biome.  Highway 548 forms a loop around the island.  Side roads, paved and unpaved, provide access to the interior of the island as well as waterfront enclaves. The island is large – 141 square miles. There are less than 2000 year round residents.

There are two lakeside villages on the island.  Richards Landing is west of the bridge on the north shore and Hilton Beach is on the eastern shore.  Both are small – in comparison to notable lakeside towns on Lake Michigan these two hamlets make Saugatuck and Pentwater look like metropolises.  Small shops and a few eating establishments are in both villages. The pace is slow. Ultra slow.  But you can get great ice cream in both villages.  Just don’t look for the rows of clothing shops and fudge emporiums of Mackinac Isle or the legendary saloons and bars of Lake Erie’s Put-In-Bay Isle. Both villages do have small but modern marina facilities to service the day sailors and summer vagabond voyagers of the North Channel. In the interior of the island there is a place called Kentvale – a handful of houses and a hardware store that serves the whole island.  It may not be a must visit but if you spend any time on the island longer than a day or so you will likely find yourself there at some point.  The friendly service is typical of Canadian hosts across the province.

There are a few motels and B&B establishments on the island.  I was fortunate to be a guest at a small fish camp cottage on the Munuscong Channel on the west side of the island.  My companion and host, Ellen, told me her grandfather had a successful apple season at his orchard near Almont Michigan in 1947 and he used the proceeds to buy the land and with the help of his sons he built the cottage.  Its utilitarian simplicity has been washed in nearly 70 years of accumulated patina.  The interior bare wood (un insulated) walls have taken on deep rich brown hues.  A simple if not highly functional stone fireplace is in the main room leaving the cabin with no heat source other than the sun.  The main room is flanked by two bed lofts with separate stairs to each.  The kitchen and bathroom occupy a lean-to addition on east side of the building.  There is a small covered porch on the east side as well.  The west wall facing the Munuscong Channel is dominated by matching picture windows with sidelights.

The channel is drawing your attention at all times. You start the day standing at the windows looking out and trying to warm yourself – it is Canada and even in August it is cool at night…Ellen calls it “camping with wooden walls.” As you stand at the windows in the morning you wait for the rays of the sun to clear the tall cedar trees surrounding the cottage.  Eventually a lake freighter will pass and the dog eared cottage copy of Know Your Boats will be in your hands or you may venture out to the water and watch it glide past.  Later in the morning you might join neighbors on the channel gesticulating wildly at the helmsman attempting get him to respond. Long. Short. Short. Some channel visitors will stand at the end of their narrow and uneven seasonal (temporary) docks waving like goofballs. If you are there long enough you will mimic them… eventually… if somewhat self-consciously.    Early in the morning, however, a blast on those mighty horns is enough to shake late risers out of their beds.  It is best to let the overnight and early morning boats pass quietly.

It is a fish camp but I am not much of a fisherman. I can tell you at glance, though, that this is the sort of location that Jim Harrison or earlier maybe Ernest Hemingway would write about with detailed and reverent descriptions. I spent my days exploring the island with Ellen and sitting by the channel in an Adirondack chair reading a book.  The water was enticing but far too cold for a swim for this middle aged camper.  I did take a dip my first morning. The balky water heater was not functioning in the cottage so I grabbed my soap and headed in.  It was a mostly successful bath. But shockingly cold water direct from Lake Superior is no way to insure thorough rinsing. The rest of the trip I was content to look at the water and wade in to my ankles.  After three days a plumber from the mainland was able to restore function to water heater.  I was grateful – cold showers of water directly pumped from the channel are very little different from plunging off the dock.   Drinking water was procured at an artesian well in Richard’s Landing and lugged to the cottage in large coolers.  Pure and cold.  Delicious.  But still not bathing material.

The weather during my visit was as generous and gentle as any seen this season in the north.  Five consecutive clear and beautiful sunsets.  Highs in the 70’s.  Cool nights but gentle winds.  Even the legendary mosquitos were passive and I came home with only a few bites to scratch. Nature provides great bounty and beauty in the north and usually the mosquitos make sure you can’t enjoy it as thoroughly as you would like.  On this trip that wasn’t the case.  It’s nice to catch a generous break from nature’s bug born wrath now and then.

The cottage I visited is maintained by a cooperative of descendants of the builder.  They share in its usage and its upkeep.  The short summer season in the north requires someone to open and close the cottage for the harsh winter months.  Cleanliness and order is tested by the accumulated clutter and a lack of storage. But cooperative courtesy reigns, mostly, and the cottage is shared generously.  The furniture is cottage style… or if you like maybe yard sale sheik? Couches convert to beds.  Each loft has two beds so the little building could accommodate a large party of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends.  On my visit it was only my companion and I.  There is a large table facing one of the picture windows.  It is surrounded by eight mismatched chairs – perfect for large dinners and card games and puzzles on rainy days.   It is a table at which to share mostly believable fish stories. The sort of cottage table where family legends are told and myths created and reinforced through retelling throughout the years.  Myths of how cold it was one season years ago.  Stories of the bugs being worse this year than at any time in decades.  Gruesome stories of foul hooking a boat mate and the subsequent slap dash bandaging and return to fishing. Legends of June twilights lasting past eleven in the evening.  Eye popping descriptions of encounters with local wildlife- from bears to deer and numerous other creatures of the northern woods.  Discussions of the last time anyone saw the Northern Lights from the end of the dock.  Arguments about when this cottage neighbor or that cottage neighbor passed on.  The big table has heard those stories and more.

I have not had a great deal of experience spending time in cottages.  But in just a short stay something became very apparent to me.  A cottage marks time in a family.  There are books and magazines of recent publish dates and ancient ones – on a wide variety of topics.  But since this was a farmer’s cottage originally and each successive generation has had farmers as well agricultural literature is prominent.  Drawings and artwork of several generations of kids are affixed to the wall.  Notes from family members pertaining to cottage maintenance are tacked here and there – some outliving their authors by decades.  But there is more than that.  Much more.

As the little lines etched in a door jam of child’s room mark the growth of a boy or girl so too does a cottage shared by an extended family mark the time and ages of the clan.  Each season passes.  A little more stuff is added.  Kitchen utensils from homes long since vacated.  Pillows, quilts and throws from various cousins.  A chair here – a homemade stool there. Some fishing gear and boat paddles. Life jackets and folding camp chairs.  Grills (3) and throw rugs to combat the sand and forest detritus trudged in on feet large and small. Books of all kinds from westerns to romance to regional and Great Lakes history. And, by necessity and demand of usage, the cottage copy of the 2013 edition of Know Your Boats.  Maps – cartoonish and simple to detailed marine charts of the surrounding waters are located on the walls where space permits.  Pictures are tacked to the wall.  And all pictures filled with smiling faces.  Humorous notes tacked to a cork board.  Light jabs mostly – some have been there for a very long while – representing an internal and eternal family dialogue. And don’t forget the volumes of guest books spanning seven decades of visitors with their comments and compliments to their hosts.  All of it adds up.  It creates an atmosphere where even a first time visitor like me can visualize the long gone cottage builder standing by the big picture window looking out at the timeless Munuscong Channel – maybe in an old flannel shirt sipping his coffee on a chilly Ontario summer morning.  He would likely have a smile of wistful pride on his face.   He would be proud of his creation, of course.  Proud to share it with descendants unborn in his time and thus unknown and proud to hold a place in their collective memory. Maybe… just maybe… he would be listening for a freighter sounding a friendly greeting on its massive horn as it proceeds up the channel.

Long. Short. Short.

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