Nature's Way From The South Manitou Island Lighthouse

By Jonathan Schechter

The landscape that is now Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is rightfully described as a masterpiece of ice, wind and water. It came into existence some 13,000 years ago as the last great glacier retreated leaving behind a raw landscape that gave birth to our Great Lakes and the rugged moraines along the western shore of northwest Lower Michigan. And then as winds howled, and waves crashed against the shores for hundreds more years, sand gathered on top of the moraines creating a landscape very much like we know it today and gave birth to the towering perched dunes, perhaps the most spectacular dune feature we see today.

Two islands also formed when the great sheet of ice melted, islands now known as the North and South Manitou Islands. According to stories passed down by the Anishinaabe, those islands symbolize two bear cubs that drowned within sight of the Michigan mainland after fleeing a great fire that raged through the forests of Wisconsin. The heartbroken mother bear collapsed on the mainland, looking out endlessly toward her 'island cubs,' and the national lakeshore had a story that led to a name.

The glacial action also created a deep natural harbor -- Crescent Bay -- on the eastern side of South Manitou Island, and that’s where my ramble of lighthouse keeper reminisce really begins. Soon after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, Crescent Bay became the place for sailing ships and steamers to acquire supplies and seek refuge from storms as they journeyed from Chicago to the Straits of Mackinac. In 1871 the third lighthouse, the one that still towers over the Manitou Passage was constructed.

Fast forward to May 24, 2019.

I departed Leland Harbor shortly after sunrise aboard the National Park Service’s law enforcement boat with basic supplies for my lengthy stay, and of course that included three jars of hot cherry salsa, two bags of chocolate covered cherries, and summer sausage with dried cherries to spice up my omelets. Ninety minutes later I arrived on South Manitou Island for my fourth 40-day tour of duty as a volunteer Lighthouse Keeper for the National Park Service. My eagerness to resume my post on this wilderness island and showcase the lighthouse to island visitors was not an attempt to get away from it all, but rather a way to nourish my ever-growing love affair with the nature of the island and the creatures and diverse flora that flourish on the dunes and in the woodlands.

Within minutes of arriving, I walked the shrinking shore line (rising lake levels have altered the shoreline) in search of tracks and was happy to see fresh coyote prints near the new breakwall that was constructed last year to protect the lighthouse complex from storms on the Manitou Passage. I knew I was 'home again' as a Bald Eagle soared far above the 1901 U.S. Life Saving Service building, the largest structure on the island, a building that now serves as the ranger station.

On day three of my most recent stay I encountered my old friend, “Brother Coyote,” a handsome fellow indeed, one I had become familiar with during the closing days of my previous tour as he would feast on strawberries near the bay. I saw that coyote at relatively close range more than a dozen times during my most recent stay, and on a few occasions we were just separated by about 40 feet. Some of the encounters were during the day, others towards dusk. I am certain, based on tracks observed in the sand, that he saw me many more times than I saw him, without me being aware of his presence. I am also convinced he came to know my behavior very well because we shared the same surroundings and our paths crossed frequently for I was living in his hunting and foraging habitat. Early one morning a few days later I watched the coyote from the lighthouse catwalk as he walked the shoreline apparently feasting on alewives that washed ashore the night before.

The most dramatic encounter – which I will always cherish – occurred my third week while I sat on the steps to the entrance of the lighthouse. I was casually watching the Herring Gulls that build their nest on the breakwall when suddenly the gulls sounded alarm calls and took flight as a female Common Merganser paddled away from the breakwall. Seconds later, the coyote emerged from the water side of the breakwall and climbed up to the closest gull nest. With what seemed like an extraordinary amount of care, he took an egg in his mouth. He spotted me as I raised my camera, gave me a passing glance and trotted down to the end of the breakwall and then into the woods to enjoy his breakfast treat. I was delighted at his slow retreat, for it told me that he did not consider me a threat, but just a human to be wary and watchful of when it was time for his morning omelet.

Of course when I climbed the 117 iron steps to the catwalk of the lighthouse, sometimes more than 10 times a day with island guests, I shared stories of the island’s shipping history, the construction of the lighthouse and of course of the drowning death of Aaron Sheridan. Sheridan was the lighthouse keeper on South Manitou Island from August 1866 until it ended tragically March 15, 1878 when he, his wife Julia and young son Robert all died in the icy passage within sight of the lighthouse after their small boat capsized. Each year I am on the island I hike to the cemetery to pay tribute to their memory at the memorial marker in the island’s cemetery. It seems like the right thing to do.

My passion for the ways of the wild on the island flourished as I encountered beautiful wildflowers, massive white cedars and birds of all sorts including American White Pelicans that stopped at the bay to rest during migration and of course Piping Plovers, an endangered shorebird species with a major ‘cute factor’ that breeds on the island, a component of its limited critical habitat. By the end of my first tour of duty the Law Enforcement park rangers that stayed on the island back then referred to me as ‘the nature guy,’ a title I proudly wore during my fourth tour.

Perhaps my greatest pleasure on the island, in addition to logistical assistance to visiting biologists and members of the piping plover recovery team, was witnessing spectacular sunsets and sunrises and chatting with campers and day visitors and trying to answer their natural history question. The impressively large non-venomous Eastern Hognose Snakes are often discussed, as are the abundance of toads, glacial boulders on the high dunes, the unpleasantly large number of mosquitos (rising waters impeded drainage creating breeding grounds) and the diversity of island wildflowers, including fringed polygala, delicate blue harebells that capture morning dew, and the spectacular wood lilies of the high dunes.

I’m back in Oakland County now, where I write the “Wilder Side of Oakland County” (www.OaklandCountyBlog.com) a weekly nature and hiking blog for the website and Facebook of Oakland County Michigan Government. I’ve already been asked if I will return to South Manitou for a fifth lighthouse keeper tour of duty in 2020. I’ve not yet answered that question, but I do miss “Brother Coyote” and this quote from Gary Snyder, in the Practice of the Wild may hold the answer: “The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”

Jonathan Schechter has a Master of Science Degree from the University of Washington. After a long career as a park naturalist, he works part time for Oakland County Government as its Nature Education Writer and as a contingent Emergency Department Paramedic for McLaren Hospital. He is an avid hiker and an active member of the Wilderness Medical Society certified in Advanced Wilderness Life Support. You can reach him at oaknature@aol.com