It is strangely still in this place nestled between the cobalt waters of Lake Huron off Manitoulin Island’s east coast and the trailhead of a serpentine path that leads into dense forest before climbing rugged granite ridges.
Gentle waves lap the stone shore in a serenade of liquid melodies. The wind whispers in nearby aspens, sending leaves like silver coins all aflutter.
Even though I’m part of a group of eight visitors participating in a First Nations tourism initiative called “The Unceded Experience” here on the world’s largest freshwater island, at the moment I feel a sense of solitude. For very good reason.
We are about to negotiate the First Nations Bebamikawe Memorial Trail, stopping at historic sites, savouring panoramic views of Lake Huron, learning to forage for both food and traditional medicinal plants.
But first we are invited to reflect, to absorb the spirit of this island into our very souls.
For a few moments our group has separated. Our tour guide has given each of us a small bundle of tobacco. Now, standing alone near the trailhead, I spread the tobacco on the ground to acknowledge and offer thanks to Missabe, a spirit giant, guardian of this realm.
I find the experience both cleansing and surprisingly moving.
I glance about me after I scatter this tribute across my chosen section of the forest floor. My fellow travelers seem equally affected.
I look toward the lake. I look up at the ridges towering above. As I stand here on the island of the Great Spirit I almost sense the presence of Gitchi Manitou all around me.
This is no ordinary tourist excursion, this no ordinary place.
According to Anishinaabe tradition all things in the world were infused with spirits called Manitous. There were good Manitous and bad ones, not necessarily co-equal in power or influence. The greatest of these – prime creator – was Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit.
In creating the world, Gitchi Manitou reserved the perfect place for himself, a sanctuary embodying the best that creation had to offer . . .
That place is Manitoulin Island: Island of the Great Spirit.
I first visited Manitoulin more than thirty years ago, spending most of that trip in this part of the island as my wife and I spent several days immersing ourselves in a celebration called the Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival.
We strolled the market and perused First Nations arts and crafts, we sampled local cuisine from bannock to corn soup, we experienced one of northeastern North America’s largest and longest-running powwows, feeling the beat of the drummers in our own chests as dancers stomped and trotted, dancers clad in costumes ranging from dresses festooned with tiny bells to over-the-top regalia that showed like pheasants’ plumage. Come evening we attended the costumed presentation of a theatre group called “De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig” (“Storytellers”) as they acted out traditional Thunderbird stories.
That visit to the Island of the Great Spirit would prove to be just the first of many.
I am an avid sailor and the waters embracing Manitoulin’s north shore, a nautical paradise called the North Channel, comprise one of North America’s prime boating destinations.
Drawn to the beauty of Manitoulin Island itself (along with her nearby islands) I’ve returned to sail here seven or eight times, dropping anchor in secluded anchorages we shared with no one, havens embraced by scenery that surely inspired the masterpieces of Group of Seven artists.
. . . . . . .
But it’s been some time since I explored ashore on Great Spirit Island itself and I’ve decided that I wanted to learn even more about First Nations culture.
Manitoulin Island is the perfect venue for that cultural enrichment. Fully 38% of island residents are First Nations, settled in eight distinct communities.
Both because they’ve done a great job in organizing First-Nations-curated tourist-friendly activities and because this part of the island is unique from a historical perspective, my wife and I have returned yet again to the eastern shores of Manitoulin: specifically the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.
“This land where we stand has never been ceded from First Nations by treaty,” explained our guide, Jack Rivers, standing on a wooden lookout as he offered a preview of what we would experience over the next few hours. “This is the only recognized unsurrendered territory in Canada.”
The tourism initiative we’re currently part of – “The Unceded Experience” – reflects that historic significance. First planned and implemented in 2008, it is a success story when it comes to the desirable growth of First Nations tourism.
After our introduction at that lookout offering panoramic views of Mindemoya Bay, our next stop is the ruins of an industrial school built in 1847. It’s right next door to one of Northern Ontario’s oldest Catholic churches.
Jack Rivers stands in the shadow of the school’s stone walls and shares stories of the hardships and accompanying challenges related to this building and its impact on the community.
They seem at first tales without happy endings but a visit to the church itself does instill a small feeling of optimism in me.
Plastic-covered placards at the entrance display the text of the Lord’s Prayer in Anishnaabek; the ‘Stations of the Cross’ decorating the walls are examples of First Nations artistry.
Rudimentary though these artifacts may be, there’s nothing rudimentary about the work of James Simon Mishibinijima, whose private gallery is one stop on our journey of discovery. This display of the work of Mishibinijima, a world-renowned First Nations artist, features masterpieces that are hallmarks of sometimes whimsical, sometimes sombre, magic realism, a collection that truly evokes for me the essence of Great Spirit Island.
After our visit to the church, our whirlwind tour takes us to that trailhead at Bebamikawe, where a First Nations chef named Vinny prepares a traditional lunch for us.
While options here at the Outdoor Culinary Space generally include stone-cooked venison, wild rice and cedar plank or clay-baked Georgian Bay trout, accompanied by a couple of herbal teas featuring the fruits of your foraging, fire conditions are such that we have to make do with bannock and a venison stew. In fairness, the latter is nothing short of delicious.
It’s also fitting sustenance for the challenge of the trail itself.
Because we’ve arrived a couple of weeks early for the powwow, we next make our way to Prairie Point, a gathering spot where the members of Rolling Thunder Dance Group offer us a rousing demonstration of the traditional powwow dance categories with explanations for the differences between them. Think grass dancing, fancy shawl and feather dance, jingle dress and men’s and women’s traditional.
The drum circle sings the songs of the people, their drum the heartbeat of the land. Foreground is a rainbow of costumes; the now-sky-blue waters of Lake Huron and the alabaster quartzite heights of the LaCloche Mountains are background.
For a while I take in the view then I close my eyes and let myself be embraced by the spirit of this place, my own heart beating in synchronicity with the rhythm of Grandfather Drum.
In just one day I have begun to learn the history of this land, this unique place on a unique island. In just one day I have already begun to empathize with the challenges they faced, the pain they suffered. But I have begun to hope with them too, for this place, this experience, is one more important step in a process of reconciliation.
Indigenous tourism is alive and well on Manitoulin Island.
Riding back to our hotel (appropriately enough our lodgings are at Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre, inspired by First Nations culture from the natural construction materials to the teepee style fireplace dominating the lobby, an establishment owned and administered by the various First Nations groups who call this place home) I replay our Manitoulin experiences – both today’s and that of earlier days.
Leaving Wiikwemkoong behind, one morning we stroll a path leading from Bridal Veil Falls to the waters of Lake Huron itself, completely immersed in the pristine beauty of a sacred place.
One morning we hike a trail that tourists call Cup and Saucer (reference to unique geological features of the trail itself), but even here the presence of the Great Spirit make itself known. According to local storyteller Johnny Debassige, this place is called “Michigiwadinong”, tribute to an erstwhile trickster who escaped to achieve the bluffs that (when the weather is right) offer some of the best views on Manitoulin. The “saucer” was the head of the spear dropped by Nenabozhoo while being pursued by angry Mohawk; the “cup” was the handle of his spear.
At one point during our hike there our group spreads out along the trail and I find myself completely alone yet strangely not alone.
Here, shrouded in mist and fog, pelted by rain, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the mystical quality of this place. I experience a sudden epiphany.
As I stand here in a cathedral of pine and aspen and granite I feel a benign yet powerful presence all about me.
I am alone yet not alone.
Here on the island of the Great Spirit.
EMBRACING THE SPIRIT OF MANITOULIN
While the tour we signed up for was a condensed version of the “Unceded Territory Experience” Wikwemikong Tourism offers a wealth of choices, from dark sky canoeing to the different culinary experiences, from day trips to group tours.