Driving across the one-lane swing bridge that connects mainland Ontario to the world’s largest freshwater island, Manitoulin, in Lake Huron, is like taking a slow ride back in time. The minute you reach the island you’ll discover yourself transported to a simpler era when wild places still reigned and one could drive for hours on deserted country backroads. Meaning “Spirit Island” in the local Ojibwe language, Manitoulin has a magical feel that I completely loved. From the raw natural beauty to the warm people, a trip here is an experience you won’t soon forget.
To make the most of your time in this remote place where the small communities are linked by just a few roads I recommend spending a few days on a tour with Great Spirit Circle Trail. The company offers natural and cultural based tours by Aboriginal people that provide a unique perspective and an opportunity to interact with locals. The company offers a number of different guided experiences. I choose to do a mixture and spent two days with a fantastic guide named Falcon Migwans, who is the company’s cultural coordinator and lead tour guide.
“The Great Spirit Trail represents the seven First Nations in and around Manitoulin Island. The soft adventure, ecotourism guided tours we offer, they’re all culturally inclined or also known as Aboriginal experiences. So you learn a little bit about first nations culture, spirituality, how we lived hundreds of years ago, how we live in today’s modern day society and how we hold on to some of those traditional teachings and values for the future of our younger ones,” Falcon said.
Bannock and Berries and Tea Making
My first experience involved making bannock, which is a small and flat loaf of bread that cooks in a skillet over an open grate fire. The recipe uses just five ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and a mix of milk and water. It’s then kneaded to a dough-like consistency and put in a smaller cast iron skillet with another one placed on top to create a dutch oven. Falcon rotates the skillet and eventually flips it as he tells us stories about Aboriginal life including how his people started eating Bannock, which isn’t a local recipe, in order to have a hearty meal that would keep them full for a long day’s work. We top ours off with jam made with berries and maple syrup harvested from the island. The meal is the perfect mix of sweet and savory and fills me up completely.
We also brewed a tea with leaves of a cedar tree that packed in a lot of flavor. Falcon showed me the right way to forage them so the leaves will grow back, which is all a part of something so important to his people, which embraces the mana of “living with mother nature, not on her.” And then he sliced up some apples he had instructed me to pick off a tree to add a sweet flavor to the tea.
Medicine Walk on the Great Spirit Circle Trail
One of the highlights of my trip was the Medicine Walk. During this adventure Falcon taught me about the different natural medicines found on Manitoulin Island.
“There’s a huge variety of flora and fauna. So we use it for a variety of different instances. Sometimes for practical uses sometimes for medicinal purposes, spiritual or physical and edible as well,” Falcon said as we walk through the forest. “So when we’re out in the wilderness we showed you one of the trees that fall under all four of the headings, which is the cedar, which is very important to our indigenous people around here. We use it in the medicinal spiritual aspect when we did the smudging or a spiritual purification. And you also had, it’s an edible form while we had the tea. Now we also showed you some of the other practical uses for it.”
He went on to talk about how his people would open a milkweed pod and use the inside as a fire-starter.
“We didn’t have flint stone in this area, so we would start fires by rubbing two sticks together. But it’s a little bit more technological than that. You would need something like milkweed to create friction. It’s like cotton and catches flame very, very easy.”
I also learned about the medicinal and edible uses of plants and afterwards we did a spiritual cleansing.
Make and Take Experiences
Another type of experience offered through Great Spirit Circle Trail are called Make and Take Experiences and these including learning how to make fire without matches or lighters, traditional torch making and drum making, which is what I choose to do. It was quite a cool experience because after making a personal hand drum using deer hide I had a lesson in native song and drum followed by an awesome performance by a professional group. There is also an opportunity to see a drum circle at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, which is another worthwhile experience.
Canoe Heritage Tour
The final tour I did was a sunset trip across Lake Mindemoya to a picnic spot where Falcon served up fresh smoked trout and more cedar tea that was good enough for seconds. On the way there we took two canoes but with wind picking up we shared a canoe on the way back, which was nice to have the extra manpower, especially when paddling in the dark. The skies here are amazing though: there is so little light pollution so on a clear night they are illuminated by thousands of stars.
Bridal Veil Falls
While you are on the island, Falcon also highly recommends you make a stop at Bridal Veil Falls, which is quite well known and can be accessed via hiking trail. Another worthwhile hike is the Cup and Saucer Trail, which provides has you hiking along the edge of the Niagara escarpment overlooking 230 foot cliffs with views of forest and lake in the distance. It is stunning. Afterwards stop at the nearby Main Street Café for a panini or sandwich and fresh baked foods.
Where to Stay: Check out the Mantioulin Hotel located about 20 minutes from the Great Spirit Circle Trail in the town of Little Current, which has a charming downtown right on the water. The rooms are clean and comfortable with contemporary decor reflecting traditional First Nations style. There is a great onsite restaurant that does a filling breakfast with options like wild boar bacon. Other morning fuel-up options in town include Loco Beanz for coffee and the Island Jar for a smoothie.