"Watch out for deer!" we are continually warned as we drive across the largest freshwater island in the world, but what exactly does one do with a dead porcupine lying prone on the road? It's quite simple for Carol Sheppard. She hoists a shovel out of her car's trunk and scoops up the lifeless critter into a plastic bag. Then, she transports it to the closest Native Centre.
Carol and husband Ron, who own the Rockville Inn on Lake Manitou, direct me to Lillian's Indian Crafts at M'Chigeeng, not far from their comfortable inn. In the gallery/museum, Lillian Debassige proudly displays her exquisite porcupine quill and birch bark baskets ranging in size from 1-8 inches, beautifully fashioned in myriad sizes and shapes for tourists to treasure back home.
The quillwork by Ojibwe, Odawa, and other Woodland tribes and accomplished artists such as Josette Debassige, Ann Pangowish and Victoria Oswamik requires patience and skill. Porcupine quills are plucked individually and carefully in the spring, for when summer progresses, they fill with oily fluid. The quills were once dyed in baths of roots, flowers, ferns, berries or bark, but now commercial dyes are used. Attached to the birch bark where they dry, their new positions remain fixed.
Birch bark was the base of the material culture of most Woodland tribes - readily available, light-weight, flexible and long-lasting, used in the construction of wigwams, canoes, and stencils for decorating utensils such as cups, bowls and spoons. Containers for storage and cooking were also fashioned from birch bark. Important history and philosophy was recorded on birch bark scrolls.
Manitowaning on Manitoulin's east coast was the first European settlement while Wikwemikong, just north, remains the only unceded Indian Reserve in Canada. Manitoulin enjoys a sizeable First Nation presence, their distinctive crafts displayed in galleries throughout this huge 2,766 km-sized island.
At Brenda Renwick's Southbay Gallery in South Baymouth where the
Tobermoray-Manitoulin Chi-Cheemaun ferry docks, we examine beautiful indigenous creations and Holly Burrett at the Ten Mile Point Trading Post and Gallery near Shegulandah on the east coast offers more along with a terrific view of the north channel. Holly shows us a hawberry bush growing outside when I inquire, having learned that the locals are referred to as "haweaters."
We drive almost the entire island from Little Current in the northeast to scenic Gore Bay midway to Meldrum Bay in the northwest, and I must confess that amidst the attractive views, I'm suffering culture shock. It's so laid back here that I notice not a single Tim Hortons, Starbucks, McDonalds or Burger King. The idiom "fast" simply does not exist here, and the favourite recreation appears to be fishing as we encounter Charlie, a relative of Carol Sheppard's whiling away the hours fishing for trout on luminous Lake Manitou where we watch stunning sunrises and sunsets at the Rockville Inn. The only stop lights we see are at the swing bridge in Little Current, one of two ways to get on or off the island, the other, a more relaxed two-hour ferry ride aboard the Chi-Cheemaun (big canoe) which saves one the long haul through Sudbury.
Gradually, I realize that Manitoulin is a natural spa offering a stress-free environment with life moving at a much slower pace. Time and water seemingly flow gently together as the sun gently rises over crystal clear lakes. It's a beacon for hikers and cyclists with winding scenic roads and superb hiking trails including the famed "Cup and Saucer" route near the Rockville Inn. Nonetheless, as you slowly wind your away around this lovely island with gorgeous panoramic views, don't forget: watch out for deer!
Quill boxes at Lillian's, photo by Mike Keenan
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Manitoulin Island has an area of 2,766 km2 (1,068 sq mi), making it the 172nd largest island in the world and Canada's 31st largest island.
The island separates the larger part of Lake Huron to its south and west from Georgian Bay to its east and the North Channel to the north.
Manitoulin Island has 108 freshwater lakes and four major rivers: the Kagawong, Manitou River, Blue Jay Creek in Michael's Bay and Mindemoya Rivers, which provide spawning grounds for salmon and trout.
The island is physio-graphically part of Southern Ontario, an "eastward extension of the Interior Plains, a region characterized by low relief and sedimentary underpinnings". The island consists mainly of dolomite as it is a continuation of the Bruce Peninsula and Niagara Escarpment. This geological rock formation runs South into Niagara Falls and continues into New York State.