This dazzling painting-like photo highlights Manitoulin’s largest and longest-running powwow, Wikwemikong Cultural Festival and Powwow, held each August. Raul Rincon
Ontario’s Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron is the largest freshwater island on the planet. But that’s not all … it is also a global model for richly-interpreted aboriginal tourism with educational and cultural experiences that offer something for every interest. At the heart of its success story is the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT), http://circletrail.com, a co-operative marketing initiative representing eight First Nations communities and over 50 business partners. Until 1997 there was no aboriginal involvement in the island’s tourism, the region’s primary industry. Today, aboriginal educational interpretive tours and workshops, soft adventure and wilderness eco-adventures, accommodations, eateries and special events are a source of great pride in the native communities, delivered professionally and authentically for appreciative visitors.
1. If you have to admit defeat when it comes to locating Manitoulin Island on a map, we’re here to help orient you with an excellent map at the end of this article.
2. In Canada, native bands and tribes are identified by the title of First Nations, rather than Indians, as you will see throughout this article.
Rhythmically striking a hand drum, our guide, Falcon Migwans, begins our group’s welcome ceremony. His chant calls for the spirit guides to protect us. He then ignites a mixture of cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco, and circles the room with the smoking bowl. He waves the sweetly-sharp vapors around us, a “spiritual soap and water,” he explains, to release our negative energy and let in more positive forces. We are participating in one of 17 nature-based and cultural options presented from an aboriginal perspective.
Falcon leads a Voice of the Drum traditional song and drum experience where visitors may try drumming themselves. Great Spirit Circle Trail
A good place to begin any exploration of Manitoulin’s aboriginal culture is at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and Museum, where the exhibits focus on First Nations history and contemporary aboriginal arts. A one-hour guided tour of the museum is recommended. Nearby in M’Chigeeng, the Great Spirit Circle Trail offers a variety of summertime programs, from guided hikes and canoe excursions to workshops on traditional First Nations crafts and culture, from storytelling to drum making.
I joined a two-hour music and dance program where, after our welcome ceremony, performers from Rolling Thunder Dance Traditions demonstrated traditional dance styles. Our host explained that the classic two-step dance pattern represents the heartbeat, where one foot is always touching the earth. Those who weren’t too shy practiced a simple circle dance. We also learned about the dancers’ colorful regalia, which should never be called “costumes” because this term that would be considered disrespectful to the sacred garments.
Later in the day, I joined Falcon again, this time for a “Mother Earth Hike.” As we climbed the bluff above the M’Chigeeng powwow grounds, he pointed out many local plants and herbs and told me how they are traditionally used in aboriginal medicine and cooking.
A First Nations dancer displays her intricately-decorated regalia. Carolyn Heller
Across the street from the Ojibwe Cultural Museum, the Immaculate Conception Church blends First Nations and Catholic religious traditions. Visitors are welcome in the unusual round building with a conical roof that recalls a traditional teepee. On the bright blue front door, a yellow sun with four rays in the shape of a cross is a native symbol of Christ. Inside, other native paintings and carvings decorate the church.
At first, Lillian’s Porcupine Quill Basket Museum, also in M’Chigeeng, looks like a typical souvenir shop. But make your way past the trinkets to the fascinating displays of a local First Nations craft: baskets and boxes intricately woven from colorful dyed porcupine quills. You’ll need to look closely to see how the quills fit together into complex patterns. Make sure you see the exhibits by master craftspeople in the back room.
Built in 1972, Manitoulin’s Church of the Immaculate Conception represents a teepee, a fire pit and the circle of life. It is a seamless coming together of art, architecture and spirituality. Carolyn Heller
Several of Manitoulin’s First Nations hold annual powwows. Open to the public, these festivals of traditional dance, music, and food are one of the most interesting ways to experience aboriginal culture, so try to time your visit to include a powwow. A master of ceremonies typically leads the powwow and explains the various dances and ceremonies.
Manitoulin’s largest and longest-running powwow is the Wikwemikong Cultural Festival and Powwow, next held from July 29 to August 1, 2016 at the Wikwemikong Reserve on the island’s east side. The Great Spirit Circle Trail can provide an island powwow schedule and details about these events.
A First Nations dance host in traditional regalia introduces aboriginal performers. Carolyn Heller
If you visit during July or August, don’t miss a production by Manitoulin’s aboriginal theatre company. The Debajehmujig Theatre Group performs works with aboriginal themes in the ruins of Wikwemikong’s Holy Cross Mission.
Owned jointly by the Great Spirit Circle Trail and several of the region’s First Nations, the island’s newest lodging is the Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre. This 59-room property opened in 2013 in Little Current with seven of the rooms being wheelchair-accessible.
The Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation rents several comfortable cabins on their waterfront reserve south of Little Current. If you prefer, you can even stay in a teepee. Contact Endaa-aang Tourism for details and rates.
A guided sunrise Canoe Heritage Tour connects guests with the spirit of the water in a memorable experience. Half-day, full-day, full-moon and sunset tours are also available. Great Spirit Circle Trail
The island’s best place to eat is the Garden’s Gate Restaurant in an unassuming country farmhouse. Much of the restaurant’s produce comes from its own organic garden or from other local growers. The Garden’s Gate is located in Tehkummah, 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of the South Baymouth ferry docks.
In Gore Bay, the casual Buoys Eatery and Take Out has two specialties that make it worth a stop: local whitefish and pizzas with out-of-the-ordinary toppings.
One of Manitoulin’s most popular hikes is the Cup and Saucer Trail, which gets rave reviews from TripAdvisor contributors as the #2 attraction on the island. The trail climbs the Niagara Escarpment to spectacular lookouts from the 70-meter (230-foot) cliffs. The trailhead is 18 kilometers (11 miles) west of Little Current.
Beyond exploring aboriginal culture, Manitoulin offers plenty of opportunities for both outdoor recreation and relaxation. The island is ringed with beaches with the best sandy spots found on the south shore. My favorite is Providence Bay Beach, a long strip of soft sand along Lake Huron, backed by swaying grasses and a boardwalk trail. It’s a perfect place to relax and consider what you’ve learned about aboriginal traditions – and to hold onto that positive spiritual energy just a little longer.
Enjoy a guided Mother Earth Hiking Tour on the “Cup and Saucer” hiking trail along the Niagara Escarpment. Great Spirit Circle Trail
For comprehensive visitor information, contact Manitoulin Tourism.
Getting There: From Toronto or other points in southern Ontario, the most direct route to Manitoulin Island is by boat, early May through mid-October. The MS Chi-Cheemaun car ferry makes the two-hour trip to Manitoulin from Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula. Tobermory is a four-hour drive northwest out of Toronto. “The Big Canoe” (that’s the meaning of the ferry’s Ojibway name) docks in South Baymouth on Manitoulin’s south shore.
It’s also possible to drive onto the island, if you approach it from the north. From the city of Sudbury, it’s about a 90-minute drive to Manitoulin’s Swing Bridge which resembles a drawbridge except that it swings sideways, instead of lifting, to allow boats to pass. The Swing Bridge connects Highway 6 on the mainland with the Manitoulin town of Little Current.
More Ontario Destinations:
While in this visitor-friendly province, allow time for side trips. Still in the Manitoulin neighborhood, combine your island exploration with stops in one or more of Ontario’s magnificent outdoor destinations along Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. Near Tobermory, on the south point of land where the ferry leaves for the island, explore the intricate rock formations, jagged cliffs, and Caribbean-blue waters at the Bruce Peninsula National Park. On Lake Huron’s north shore facing the island, dramatic Killarney Provincial Park attracts hikers and canoe-trippers to its rugged white dolomite ridges, pink granite cliffs, pine forests, and crystal clear lakes.
Spotlighting other Ontario destinations, check out two richly-illustrated Ontario feature articles in our Travel Article Library: Ottawa, Canada’s Capital City and a driving and boat cruise exploration of the historic Rideau Canal.
Image above: The ferry, Chi-Cheemaun, passes a lighthouse on Cove Island. Owen Sound Transportation Company
Manitoulin Island is the world’s largest freshwater lake. It 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. The island itself has 108 freshwater lakes, some of which have their own islands. It also has four major rivers which provide spawning grounds for salmon and trout. Archaeological discoveries demonstrate that the earliest human occupation of the area dates from 12,000 years ago.
Map courtesy of The Great Spirit Circle Trail.
Moon Handbooks: Ontario, 2nd edition 2015, by Carolyn B. Heller
The 488-page Moon Handbooks: Ontario, from Avalon Travel Publishing, shares the best ways to experience all that Ontario has to offer, from exploring the Great Lakes and learning about aboriginal culture to dining at Toronto’s most innovative restaurants.
Complete with tips on enjoying more than just the famous falls on the Niagara peninsula, hopping a ferry to Pelee Island for wine-tasting and relaxation, and ice skating on the world’s longest skating rink in Ottawa, Moon Ontario gives travelers tools to create more personal and memorable experiences in Canada’s most populous province. The guide is available in print (ISBN: 9781631210419) and as an e-book (ISBN: 9781631210426) from all major online outlets; you can also purchase a copy at your favorite independent bookstore.
Travel writer Carolyn B. Heller, www.cbheller.com, is the author of three books, Moon Handbooks: Ontario, Moon Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies Road Trip, and Living Abroad in Canada. In addition, she has contributed to more than 50 other travel and restaurant guides. Learn more about travel in Ontario at Carolyn’s Ontario Travel Guide tumblr site and follow her adventures on Twitter.