Leelanau News and Events

Jobs, Whiskey, And A School Bell: News From The Manitous

By Ross Boissoneau | Feb. 24, 2023

Though the Manitou Islands have no permanent human inhabitants (nor skunks, porcupines, or red squirrels) the two islands off the coast of Leelanau County are still making news.

Legend has it the islands were created to mark the final resting spot of two bear cubs swimming from Wisconsin, while the sand dunes mark the hillside where their mother saw them slip beneath the waves. Both North and South Manitou boast storied histories: Used by Native Americans for hunting and fishing, by the mid-1800s they served as refueling stations for steamships.

As the mainland developed and roads were established, island living became less tenable. The population continued to drop, and in 1970 South Manitou became part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Ten years later, the National Park Service took possession of North Manitou Island for $11 million.

Today, while many of the buildings remain, there are no year-round residents. But thousands visit yearly, typically taking passage on the Mishe-Mokwa of Leland. Manitou Island Transit provides trips to and from the islands from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. Beginning June 15, the company offers service seven days a week.

In a typical summer, Manitou Island Transit carries 6,000 to South Manitou and 4,000 to North Manitou.

The National Park Service staffs the islands each summer and is now hiring for numerous positions and internships. NPS Superintendent Scott Tucker says maintenance workers, rangers and others, including volunteers, work from early April into November. That includes interns in education and natural resources. Projects include plant surveys and public programs. “We’re looking to fill 100 seasonal openings [for the entire park],” Tucker says.

The paid positions are supplemented by volunteers, including those who live and work as lighthouse keepers. “They live on South Manitou for a month each. We have two individuals and one couple who do one month each,” says Tucker.

In addition to some historic buildings, there are also vestiges of historic farms’ plantings. That includes several types of apple varieties, many of which are difficult to identify today. South Manitou was also theplace to grow and harvest Rosen rye, a once-popular variety of grain used in rye whiskey.

Now Mammoth Distilling is working to bring the variety back into commercial production.

Rosen rye was originally grown on the island in the early 1900s. The island location acted as a hedge against cross-pollination with other ryes, as unfortunately became common on the mainland. By 1970 distillers were no longer using it, and at the same time the farms there were abandoned as the NPS acquired the island.

Mammoth's Chief Distiller Ari Sussman says the grain’s unique character and spiciness give the resulting rye whiskey a taste all its own. Mammoth is working to re-establish the grain on a plot of land leased from the National Park Service before planting it on the mainland.

Chad Munger, founder and CEO of Mammoth, says the history struck him. “When we discovered the story, we knew we had to give it a shot,” he says. The project started with 18 grams of seeds from the federal seed bank, propagated in the laboratory greenhouses at Michigan State University.

The first year, the company planted just a tiny patch of Rosen rye. Munger says this will be a decades-long project. “It’s a slow mover. It’s the cradle for genetically pure seed.” The fact the company is growing it in a historically important location gives the project even more legs.

“We’ve ramped up the acreage significantly since the last Rosen Rye Day,” adds Sussman. That’s right, the distillery hosts people on the island each year to celebrate the return of the crop to the island. This year it is planned for June 23.

“Last year we had 100-120 people. We’re going to do some interesting things this year,” Munger says, including making a community mash with barley, rye and corn. “We combine it into a barrel of whiskey we’ll share.”

Munger is hopeful they’ll harvest enough Rosen rye this year to both propagate it and make their first Rosen rye whiskey. He says the goal is for the crop from South Manitou Island to function as a seed nursery, supplying fresh, pure seeds that can then be cultivated into usable rye crop on the mainland.

They’re not the only ones reinventing island history. Leland Public School teacher Nick Seguin and others associated with the school are embarking on their own rebuilding project. When studying old maps, Seguin, a former NPS staffer who also worked for Manitou Island Transit, discovered that the former site of the North Manitou School was still deeded to the “township school unit,” i.e. Leland Public School.

Seguin saw an opportunity to expand the school’s reach, so he and volunteers installed a lockable fire pit and cooking grate, a flag pole and a wooden outbuilding on the site. Upcoming plans call for building a bunkhouse and gathering space for students, which will resemble the 1800s school. The original school bell was returned to the island and reinstalled in 2021. 

The vision is to provide a unique opportunity for place-based and outdoor education for LPS students and others.  Thus far, LPS sports teams have utilized the site for team-building and training camping trips.

Deer have thrived so much that the NPS now sponsors an annual deer hunt on North Manitou. The hunt takes place from the last Saturday in October through the first Saturday in November. Superintendent Tucker says there were 207 hunting permits issued last year, and 99 deer were taken. The hunters camp for the week, sometimes longer – this year the weather precluded the Mishe-Mokwa from making its return trip as planned. “They were scheduled to be picked up Saturday and were not until Monday. It was cold, rainy and miserable. It’s part of the experience,” Tucker says.

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