The Ojibwa believed that when Gitchi Manitou (the Great Spirit) created the world he reserved the best bits for himself and created Manitoulin (God’s Island) as his home. Divine intervention or not, Manitoulin is strikingly different from the harsh grey rocks of the Canadian Shield that surrounds it, its white cliffs, wide lakes, gentle woodland and stretches of open, prairie-like farmland presenting an altogether more welcoming aspect. This rural idyll has long attracted hundreds of summer sailors, who ply the lakes that punctuate the island, and has also proved increasingly popular with motorized city folk, who arrive here in numbers on the car ferry from Tobermory. These visitors fan out across the island, exploring its sleepy nooks and crannies, but Manitoulin is at its most diverting along Hwy-6, which drifts across the eastern edge of the island for 70km from the South Baymouth ferry dock to Little Current via Manitowaning and Sheguiandah.
Manitoulin is the world’s largest freshwater island (at over 2700 square kilometres) and about a quarter of its twelve thousand inhabitants are Aboriginals, descendants of groups believed to have arrived here over ten thousand years ago. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of these Paleoamericans at Sheguiandah, on the east coast, and the small display of artefacts at the museum here contains some of the oldest human traces found in Ontario. Much later, in 1836, the island’s Aboriginal peoples – primarily Ojibwa and Odawa – reluctantly signed a treaty that turned Manitoulin into a refuge for several Georgian Bay bands, who had been dispossessed by white settlers. Few of them came, which was just as well because the whites soon revised their position and wanted the island all for themselves. In 1862, this pressure culminated in a second treaty that gave most of the island to the newcomers. It was all particularly shabby and, to their credit, the Ojibwa band living on the eastern tip of the island at Wikwemikong refused to sign. Their descendants still live on this so-called “unceded reserve” and, during the third weekend in August, hold the largest pow wow in the country (w wikwemikong.ca).
Heading west from Little Current, Hwy-540 ducks and weaves its way right along the northern edge of Manitoulin, giving long, lingering views over the North Channel. The road also accesses several popular hiking trails, notably the 12km-long Cup and Saucer Lookout Trail, which starts near – and is signposted from – the junction of Hwy-540 and Bidwell Rd, about 20km from Little Current. The trail reaches the highest point of the island (460m) and involves climbing rough wooden ladders and squeezing through natural rock chimneys.