The Isles of Lake Michigan

The Isles of Lake Michigan

In the North 1/3 of Lake Michigan are a number of Islands some government owned, others privately owned, some inhabited, others not.  Every year in the Chicago Mackinac race we sail by these four Islands, and I have hiked on South Manitou Island twice.  The distance between the South edge of South Manitou Island to the North tip of North Fox Island is about 48.5 miles.  Bring the mosquito repellent with you!




1 North Fox Island
Is about 1 mile by 2 miles, State of Michigan owned and uninhabitated.

In the mid-1970’s it had a a horrible history. An Ann Arbor, MI millionaire had purchased the whole Island and set up the “Brother Paul’s Children Mission.” He flew children ages 7 – 16 in his own plane to his island retreat. The allegations are that he was a pedophile.  When the story broke out, he flew to Europe to a country that didn’t have extradition to the U.S. and remained there until his death, never facing the law.

Today a not for profit group called Recreational Aviation Foundation negotiated with the State of Michigan to become responsible for the airstrip, after having spent years repairing, mowing, trimming, and filling holes they reopened the 3,000 ft. turf airfield in August 2015.



2 South Fox Island
This Island is 5.3 square miles, about 5 miles by 1.5 miles. It is 2/3 privately owned and 1/3 by the State of Michigan. It hosts a 5,500’ airstrip (to handle the Gulfstream V) and 5,000 s.f. four bedroom home for a private family (the developer of nearby Bay Harbor Resort in Little Traverse Bay), and an Indian cemetery.  Shortly after the home was complete, a chunk of the Island broke off leaving the house 12′ from the water’s edge.  The house was lifted and moved further inland. The family has horses and ATVs to get around.  There are deer, pristine beaches, and virgin cedars.  Deer hunting is allowed on the State owned portion of the Island.



3 North Manitou Island
Is four by eight miles, and serviced by a ferry from Leland, MI.  Park passes and camping fees are required. Private watercraft are permitted with limited docking, no fires allowed other than public fire pits near Ranger Station.  Also nearby is one water spigot and one outhouse.

In the days of steam engine boats, firewood was cut on the island and sold to passing ships.  Then apple and cherry orchards came to fill where the trees once stood. Later a business imported deer for hunters, installed a 4,000’ lighted airstrip, and some summer homes were built.

Today the Island is reversing the man-made disruption. The fauna is returning, many homes have been torn down, but the cemetery including former inhabitants of the island remains. Paths include an old logging railroad, there’s two inland lakes, wilderness camping is allowed, and there are over 50 known protected shipwrecks in the waters surrounding the Island.

N Manitou


4 South Manitou Island
Is about eight and a quarter square miles, about 3 miles by 3 miles. There are old growth white cedars that are 500 years old some 18 feet in circumferance, 100′ tall.  How did they survive?  They were too hard and took too long to cut down to power the steamships back in the day.

Early on it was a perfect place for steamships to stop, coming up the Lake from Chicago to load additional firewood for the boilers.  Traintracks were laid to bring wood from the interior of the Island to the dock.  After the Island was cleared, immigrants from Bavaria settled homesteads and established farms. There was a kindergarten through 8th grade school operating until 1946 with 32 students at its peak, a grocery store, post office and blacksmith shop.   Some homes were “kit” homes from either Sears of Montgomery Wards.  As ships converted to cheaper coal abandoning wood, the revenue on the Island dwindled forcing the settlers to abandon the Island.  Over time, the buildings tired from age, vandalism and looters.

What is left is now preserved.   A graveyard with early settlers and sailors exists. You may climb up to the top of the 65′ tall lighthouse. There is a visitors station. There are open air tour vehicles too. There are 50 protected shipwrecks around the Island. Poison ivy is abundant, there are three campsites, water is available, and pets are not welcome.

Mammals include fox, beaver, coyote, chipmunk, fox, squirrel, snowshoe hare, deer mouse and four species of bats. And you better get used to Eastern gartner snakes. A ferry from Leland, MI will take you out and back. In the interior of the Island is Florence Lake, with maximum depth of 26′, mean depth 10′ and takes in water from 50% of the Island’s surface. A dayhikers description is beautiful and motivating to visit.


Learn to sail, buy a sailboat and go explore the wonders of Lake Michigan.  It awaits your arrival.


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