Lake Manitou

Lake Manitou

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About 
Lake Manitou

LAKE MANITOU—The largest lake within a fresh water island in the world, with 90 miles of shoreline and depths of up to 162 feet, Lake Manitou is a sublime, nearly unfathomable sprawl of blue.

Perhaps this is why it is named “Manitou,” the Ojibwe word for a spirit or power being, in this case apparently referring to the greatest spirit of all, Kitche Manitou. But Manitou, for all its size, is not an ominous or forbidding lake. Over the years, its surface has been ably plied by everything from canoes and ferries to runabouts and personal watercraft and its exceptionally clear, clean waters offer a paradise for swimmers, anglers and scuba divers.

Yes, it is the deepest lake on the Island. But it is not, notes veteran fishing guide Jack Hayes, as deep as it was once thought to be. “If someone drowned, they would throw out a grappling hook, but they didn’t allow for drift of the line, so they were fooled into thinking it was 300 feet deep.”

Not that the bottom of Manitou is often dragged for bodies. Indeed, Mr. Hayes recalls one drowning: John Wright, a well driller from Mindemoya, went through the ice along with another man while salvaging a vehicle that had sunk the previous week. Mr. Hayes knows the lake as well as anyone. For 35 years he worked as a fishing guide on Manitou, first for Mountainview Lodge and then Timberlane Lodge. He is retired now.

About a 25 years ago he was hired on as boat captain for a hydrographic survey of Manitou. He knows where the fish are, and the reefs too.

“We were depth sounding for shoals, doing surveys for water safety,” he recalls. Since that survey, “a lot of the bad shoals have been marked with buoys,” and a detailed map isavailable showing their whereabouts.

Mr. Hayes notes that all the shoals, and there are a lot, over 400, run in the same direction, northeast to southwest, “because this is the way they were shaped by the glacier.”

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Many other land formations on Manitoulin have the same orientation, including the Cup and Saucer Bluff, which, incidentally, provides an excellent panorama of Lake Manitou if you follow the popular hiking trail to its summit.

One particularly dangerous shoal out in the middle of Lake Manitou is named “Acre Shoal.” It may not be the exact size of an acre, but “it runs a good 150 feet, and is all hard rock,” says Mr. Hayes.

Manitou is famous for its fish, which include bass, perch, whitefish, pike and pickerel, but most notably, lake trout and ling. “It’s a natural lake for lake trout; since before the white man, they’ve always been here,” says Mr. Hayes, adding that, apart from Wolsey Lake (which is attached to the North Channel, hence not technically a lake), “it’s the only real lake for lake trout.”

It’s the depth of Manitou that accounts for its lake trout population, but, also, says Mr. Hayes, “its oxygen, and Manitou has a lot of springs.” These factors also explain the presence of ling. “Ling won’t stay anywhere but a clear, deep water lake.”

Clear and deep, that’s Lake Manitou, and clean. Until fairly recently, many people drew drinking water directly from the lake, without filtering.

Carol Sheppard, who operates the Rockville Inn on Green Bay, the northernmost bay on Lake Manitou, and has lived here for many years, says “we used to always get zero/zero readings” on water quality tests, meaning there was absolutely no bacteria or ecoli. The water quality got worse for a while in the 1970s, she says, due to old, substandard septic systems in place at most homes and cottages Now, Manitou is again a remarkably clean lake.

Ms. Sheppard is partly to thank for this. As a councillor of the former Howland Township, she led a drive to get many of the septic systems on the lake inspected through the Ministry of Health and to educate people about water quality.

Her concern began, she says, “when I was on my honeymoon down at Lake Erie. Coming from here, I’d never seen a brown lake before. I had to ask someone why it was that colour.” She says that ever since that wake-up call, she’s been determined to make sure that Lake Manitou retains its uncommon clarity.

And so far, it has. “I’ve scuba dived in this lake, and you can see 10 to 15 feet,” Ms. Sheppard remarks.

She’s also snowmobiled much of the lake and flown over it as well. In March, Ms. Sheppard says, the view from a plane reveals “a whole bunch of air holes”, spots in the ice surface that are either open or only thinly crusted over, a result, she believes, of either a spring or natural gas. “We have a picture of one hole, where it’s just bubbling,” she says.

One time she and her late husband Ron nearly drove a jeep into an air hole during winter, and another time “one of our neighbours (the late Larry Appleby) had his golden retriever fall in one, but he luckily managed to lasso her with a rope just before she drowned.”

It was Ms. Sheppard’s grandfather, Stan Batman (her maiden name is Batman), who first told her about the air holes. He also talked about crossing Lake Manitou in winter with livestock. “If he’d bought a cattle beast in Mindemoya, he’d bring it across Manitou on his way back to Sheguiandah,” the granddaughter says.

In the early days says of Manitoulin settlement, there was also a regular ferry route from the historic community of Van Zant’s Landing, on the southeast shore of the lake (where Manitoulin Resort is now located) to Lehman’s Landing on the lake’s west side, near the present-day turnoff on the Rockville Road to Camp Mary Anne.

Ms. Sheppard’s great-grandfather, Thomas Batman, operated that ferry. And, in a moment of entwined family lore, it was this predecessor of Ms. Sheppard (nee Batman) who “brought old man Sheppard”, aka Albert Sheppard, the grandfather of her late husband, Ron Sheppard, “across the lake,” a phrase that acts as both a literal description of what happened and an euphemism for “delivered him to his future home.”

Albert Sheppard was a locksmith, and his services, so the story goes, were required in Mindemoya, because the safe at the old Wagg’s Store couldn’t be opened. He went to Wagg’s and did his job, but it was the northwest shore of Lake Manitou, experienced during that ferry ride, that stuck with him. “So he decided to settle here in Rockville,” recounts Ms. Sheppard.

Which is where the ferry operator’s great-granddaughter and locksmith’s grandson made their family home and where Ms. Sheppard and one of her sons live to this day.

Nearby places to stay, eat and play

Rockville is one of many communities, most of them tiny and informal, but formerly bustling and organized, that dot the shores of Lake Manitou.

Apart from Rockville, there’s also Green Bay, Bidwell, Big Lake (just inland from Manitou) and Sandfield. The latter is the most happening community these days, but the others all sported post offices and school houses and churches in their day, and many of those buildings still stand.

If you tour the lake by boat or drive some of the cottage roads, you are also apt to glimpse a style of architecture that seems, if not unique to Lake Manitou, certainly most plentiful here: the so-called cedar pole building. Many cottages and lodges on the lake are constructed in this manner, in which the cedar logs are aligned vertically with the bark left on.

Ms. Sheppard says that most of these buildings, in the northern part of the lake, at any rate, are the work of the late Alfred Spry, who, true to his name, was spry to a ripe old age. So was his wife Lily Spry (nee Snow), who, despite going blind at the age of 27, worked as a midwife and lived to the age of 104.

Ms. Sheppard’s grandfather, Stan Batman, lived to 102.

And they all, presumably, drank water straight out of Lake Manitou!

One could probably do so now, too, but it is recommended that you filter or treat the water. As Mrs. Sheppard notes, “after Walkerton, you can never be too careful.”

But even if you aren’t dipping a cup straight into the lake, Manitou’s crisp, clear waters, teeming with lake trout and bass and perch, and home to numerous pairs of loons, cry out to be experienced up close, ideally by boat or by actually immersing yourself.

Public boat access to Lake Manitou is provided in three locations: at Newby’s Bay (on the Rockville Road southwest of the community of Rockville), at Sandfield, and just beside Manitoulin Resort (just off the Bidwell Road and very close to Manitowaing.)

There is also a wonderful little public beach at the tip of Green Bay where the Bidwell Road meets the lake. The spot is known as the John Dunlop Memorial Park.

Alternatively, you can hike the Cup and Saucer trail, and gaze out over the breath-catching immensity of the lake.

You won’t see it all, even from this promontory, but you’ll get s good sense of its grandeur.

Big Lake

Big Lake

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About 
Big Lake

Less than two miles long and mile at its widest, Big Lake is, well, actually quite small. But it’s an attractive lake, its shoreline fringed with leafy hardwoods and scalloped with a couple of small sand beaches.

Drive east of Mindemoya on Highway 542 and you’ll soon see the lake on your right. Lake Manitou is quite close at this point, just a few hundred yards to the north beyond the red barns of the old Dryden farm.

Given its proximity to Manitou, the biggest lake on the Island, the name seems particularly ironic. Did someone name it Big Lake as a joke? Or was there, perhaps, a mistake made here?

The late Marjorie Young, a resident of the lake for many years, suspected it was the latter. “What I’ve always heard is that Manitou was supposed to be Big Lake, and Big Lake was supposed to be Manitou,” she once said.

It seems inconceivable that a surveyor or cartographer could confuse the two, but who knows, bigger blunders have happened. Were it not for a railway planning faux pas, the city of Sudbury probably would have taken root in the deep, level soil of the valley to its north, rather than been plunked on a heap of rock where explosives are required if you want to have a basement.

If the names really were inadvertently switched, it stands to reason that Big Lake must have held a special significance for the local first nations people as the name “manitou”, meaning a spirit or deity, and is not one to be tossed around lightly. Determining whether Big Lake had that sort of importance and mystique for the local Ojibwe is difficult, however; as there hasn’t been a native presence on Big Lake in many years, and no lore seems to have been passed along concerning its role in the lives of earlier Ojibwe.

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Today, Big Lake is a quiet but fairly developed lake, with many cottages, a dam at one end, and almost all of it encircled by roads.

As recently as 50 years ago, however, there were few roads and just two modest resorts. “When I first came here (early 1950s) there was just Maple Grove Cottages and Coventry’s Cottages, “recalled Mrs. Young.

At that time, Mrs. Young lived in Ohio, and had come to stay at Maple Grove with some friends. It was here that she met her future husband Kenneth, whose parents Digby and Lena were the owners of the resort. The two married in 1955, and Mrs. Young had lived on Big Lake until her passing.

Maple Grove continues to operate as a resort, but under new owners, a young family translated from South Africa, while Coventry’s is now a private residence. Meanwhile, dozens of cottages, as well as a few homes, have sprouted on the shoreline.

There have been other changes, too. “When I first came here, you could see rock and beach stretching way out, and now the water’s right up against the shore,” remarked Mrs. Young. The reason for the higher water is a dam that was constructed in 1959 at the southwest end of the lake, where a creek flows towards Mindemoya, sometimes flooding the village in the spring.

But while the water level has gone up on Big Lake, the fish population has gone down. “there used to be really good pike fishing in there, but it went downhill from overharvesting,” notes a year-round resident.

The late Bert McKenzie of Tehkummah, recalled at one the time pike literally overspilling the banks of Big Lake. He had worked on the highways, and one spring they had to get out of the trucks and kick the pike off the road. The water had flooded the road, leaving a bunch of spawning pike in the path of the road crew.

During Mr. McKenzie’s life he recalled taking a boat out on Big Lake and then dragging it over to Pine Lake, which is just a couple hundred yards south of Big Lake, to go fishing and duck hunting.

Around that time, there was an eccentric loner who lived on Pine Lake, the old fella came from England and lived like a hermit. The only time the English recluse was seen was when he’d walk out to old Ward’s house to get bread, otherwise he was a hermit who lived off the land at Pine Lake, fishing and hunting, keeping a few cows. He died out under a tree.

After hearing the story, I decided I should probably check out this Pine Lake to see if any contemporary hermits, possibly descendants, were hanging out on its shores.

While in McKenzie’s day you had to cross Big Lake in a boat and then drag it across the “narrows,” as they called the strip of land, you can now drive to Pine Lake on the Big Lake Dam road, which made my mission considerably easier.

I turned off on this dirt road, briefly checked out the dam, which provides a nice view of the lake, and continued on, passing a bunch of cottages, many of them rustic log buildings.

One in particular caught my attention, because of the sign above its door, which read: “Big Lake Yacht Club.” I stopped my vehicle, jumped out, and wandered down to meet the yacht club owners.

The sign, they explained, was created for a float that a group of playful Big Lake cottagers contributed to the Mindemoya Homecoming parade over 35 years ago. It subsequently adorned other floats that participated in the Providence Bay parade.

At the “narrows” leading to Pine Lake, the Cooper family had helpfully built a “bridge” out of wooden pallets to span the swampy ground between the cottage road and the lake. I walked across the bridge and stood on the shore of small, shallow Pine Lake. I didn’t see many pines (probably logged out a century ago), nor did I see any hermit dwellings. But it did look like a good place to hunt for ducks.

Having found Pine Lake, my next mission was to find the public beach on Big Lake which I had been told about. I’d forgotten the name of the sideroad he mentioned, though, so after driving back out to Highway 542 and heading east, I just started turning off onto any road that seemed to lead to Big Lake.

I did see a sand beach, but the landowner politely told me the public one was on the other side of the lake.

Pike were plentiful in the old times, and at one time you could catch musky (planted ones) in Big Lake.

Nearby places to stay, eat and play

While pike are scarce, bass still frequent the lake in decent numbers. According to the year-round resident I befriended, one of his neighbours on Big Lake recently hooked a 9-pound smallmouth.

The lake is quite shallow, with weed beds here and there, even in the very middle. Estimates are that greatest depth is a mere 20 feet. (And that’s since the dam was created to bring the level up.)

I asked about the public beach, and was told me the way to reach it is via Myles Side Road. I thanked him and jumped back in my car.

It was a roundabout way to get there. You have a to drive a few miles away from the lake on Highway 542., then double back towards it on Myles Sideroad.

But it was worth it. The beach was devoid of swimmers when I visited. It also wasn’t very big, just a tiny crescent of sand, a few reeds growing at its edges, and a picnic table whose legs were leaning on a wicked angle, as if it had been partially flattened by a tornado.

Yet it struck me as all the more appealing for these very reasons. It was out-of-the-way, rarely used, private. Private yet public (the property is owned and maintained by Central Manitoulin.)

I didn’t go for a swim, as the waves were pounding in, and the sun had disappeared behind some clouds. But I did appreciate the view from this pretty, obscure, unadvertised spot.

Maybe it’s not a mistake it got named Big Lake after all.

There is a boat launch just off Highway 542 where the road skirts the lake’s north end. It’s located at the west (Mindemoya) stretch of lakefront highway.

Maple Grove Cottages

Maple Grove Cottages

Big Lake

Maple Grove Cottages is proud to offer you clean comfortable cottages. Designed to fit your budget and the needs of your family. Whether passing through or spending an extended stay on Manitoulin Island.

We are centrally located on Big Lake making all local attractions easily accessible. We have 5 cottages uniquely all facing the lake. All cottages have enclosed porches, their own fire pit, bbq and parking spot. A sandy beach for easy access to swimming in the lake.

Playground for the kids and a wonderful fishing spot from the point. We offer boat, canoes, kayak and a paddle board for daily rentals.

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