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The spirit of Manitoulin Island can be found in sacred First Nation heritage sites, along the shores of a 6,000-year-old lake, lurking behind mystical waterfalls and sometimes sitting atop steep, boulder-strewn nature trails. Our writer strapped on his hiking boots in order to tap into the mystery of what the Ojibway call “Spirit Island.”

Manitoulin Island shorelineFlickr/Kevin Cabral (CC by 2.0)

MISERY BAY BELIED its name, and for that I’m eternally grateful. The first time I heard about Misery Bay Provincial Park, which sits on the Lake Huron coastline of Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario, was from an Ojibway elder I met on a Grey Coach bus. That was 25 years ago. I was on my way to join friends for a camping weekend when he settled into the seat beside me.

“Hi, I’m George from Manitoulin Island. Where are you going?” I told him the name of the provincial park my friends and I were visiting near Tobermory, on the Bruce Peninsula, whereupon George paused for a long moment. “Next time go up further to Manitoulin Island. Visit a place called Misery Bay. You’ll find good trails, and spirits, too.”

As intrigued as I was with Manitoulin Island, the world’s largest freshwater island known for its rich Indigenous culture (also called Spirit Island), I didn’t follow George’s advice that day; my youthful self just didn’t fancy a reunion with my university pals in a place called Misery – a name that conjured up images of a bleak, treeless swamp inhabited by buzzards and other ill-begotten scavengers. Fast-forward 25 years and, in a curious twist of fate, there I was heading to Manitoulin Island for a three-day trip which would start with a morning hike through Misery Bay Provincial Park.

Within only an hour of arriving, I wished I’d taken George’s advice much sooner.

Manitoulin Island forestFlickr/Andy Moore (CC by SA 2.0)

Rather than the barren wasteland I’d envisioned all those years ago, I was greeted with a tableau that’s the stuff of every hiker’s fantasy: a brief morning shower had left the cedar trees weeping rainwater onto the limestone bedrock and the rising summer heat created what felt like a bubble of lavender-scented humidity. The sunbathed the rocky shoreline in one of those golden hues you only see in Photoshopped destination travel ads. The Lake Huron water was crystal clear, lovingly constructed Inukshuks stood like sentinels on the shoreline and the 15-kilometer trail ahead of me was lined with a riot of goldenrod, black-eyed Susans, and purple bergamot.

“When you walk the trails to Misery Bay, you’re actually walking across the floor an ancient seabed,” explained Gaynor Orford, a volunteer with the organization Friends of Misery Bay Provincial Park. “The trails also cross shorelines of four post-glacial lakes that were created over the past 6,000 years.” It was a hike worth waiting for, and not just because of its physical beauty.

Taking a breather on a flat chunk of limestone on the shore, I felt a visceral connection to my surroundings – to the lichen covered rocks, the gnarled cedar trees, the expansive skies, the gentle waves lapping at the water’s edge. And in the morning stillness, George’s words echoed through my mind: “And there will be spirits, too.”

Hiking for me is often an escape from the urban grind. While I’m generally too sheepish to admit it, strapping on my boots in the morning can net out at the end of the day in a state of sheer bliss. Occasionally I’ll be half-way through a day-long hike and I’ll experience an almost spiritual connection with nature. Some people refer to this as a visitation from the Earth Spirit, which is exactly what I felt the next day as we hiked the Cup and Saucer Trail, a 12-kilometer trail sitting on an extension of the Niagara Escarpment, the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that runs all the way to Manitoulin.

Cup and Saucer Trail

Flickr/Sam MacCutchan (CCbySA2.0)

The highest point of Manitoulin Island is found on this trail, and it’s where I planted myself on a rock 353 meters above sea level and was moved to utter something lofty about the natural beauty around me when another group of hikers came by for a photo op. I couldn’t begrudge them for their intrusion; along one section of the Cup and Saucer trail runs a two-kilometer stretch of 70-meter cliffs that offer stunning, 180-degree views of the escarpment, the big waters of Lake Huron in the distance, and a vast expanse of green below.

But there were equally beautiful (‘Instagram-able’, even) moments on another hike a day later at Wikwemikong, on the eastern end of Manitoulin. There, we tackled the Bebamikawe Memorial Trail stretching 14 kilometers, constructed in memory of a local chief and four members of the Wikwemikong band who were killed in a tragic car accident in 1971.

“Their spirit lives on through this trail,” said a local historical interpreter. Bebamikawe means “to leave footprints behind” or “to make a path.” That’s what we did as we wrestled the muddy, well trodden trails of the Bebamikawe one afternoon in order to reach three scenic points which overlook La Cloche Mountains, the North Channel and the traditional fishing islands once favoured by the Anishnaabek of Wikwemikong. Signage at each lookout shared snapshots of the lives of the First Nations communities who once hunted, fished and made their homes on Manitoulin. It was a walking lesson in local Indigenous history and culture.

At the end of that afternoon, as we scraped congealed mud from our boots, my friend Stavros voiced what I was thinking: “It felt like the spirits of those car accident victims were walking with us.” Perhaps they were indeed “the spirits,” as George described, willing us to honour the home of their ancestors.

muddy boots

I didn’t expect, however, that my spiritual quest would at one point leave me sopping wet with water-logged hiking boots. A short way from the tiny town of Kagawong, which in Ojibway means “where the mists rise from the falling waters,” is the popular tourist stop of Bridal Veil Falls, a majestic nine-meter waterfall which figures into the Legend of Maswein. Fresh, glistening water surges down the rock face leaving enough space behind the falls for eager hikers to disappear behind the veil of cascading water. Legend has it that the ancient magician Maswein, a member of the Odawa tribe, hid there after their Iroquois enemies chased the Odawas from Manitoulin Island. Apparently Maswein stayed behind to spy on the Iroquois and prepare for his people’s eventual return to Manitoulin – which they did, but only after the courageous Maswein met a series of challenges set by the Great Spirit Manitou.

It was obvious that following Maswein’s footsteps along the rocky embankment and up over slippery boulders to reach the hidden area behind the waterfalls was not going to leave me high and dry. Of course I got soaked, from head to toes. But it was worth it: I stood behind the veil of falling water, which was loud enough to drown out the voices of all the other visitors, and just let my thoughts carry me away. It made for a peaceful moment and gave me a sense of the true spirit of Manitoulin Island.

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