Our second day of sailing permitted much warmer weather as we set off for Manitou Island. The word “manitou” means “spirit” in the Ojibwe language–interestingly, the island in my hometown of White Bear Lake bears the same name and plays a role in the Native American legend for which the town was named. The story behind the name of this island is less certain, but possibly remains as a remnant from before the Apostle Islands were settled and renamed by white Europeans.
The island is smaller and receives less visitors than Stockton, but it does possess a unique historical site: a restored fishing village, salvaged and restored to a similar appearance that it would have had in the early days of commercial fishing in the Apostle Islands.
We didn’t spend long on the island, but volunteer interpreter Denise showed us around the camp, explaining that most everything in it once belonged to Olson brothers, who had started the camp many years ago. Denise herself lived in a former bunkhouse, a one-room log structure powered only by solar energy. The isolated nature of the island gives her the opportunity to do a lot of hiking and kayaking, and allows her to observe the activities of wildlife on the island. She once was granted a rare sighting of an American pine marten–an endangered animal that has only recently been found to be living in the Apostle Islands.
Denise explained the rustic life of the early fishermen, who sometimes preferred to spend their winter nights in the warmth of the horse barn rather than in their actual quarters, which stood vulnerable to the harsh, icy winds of the lake. The island was home to 25-30 fishermen at a time, who shared their equipment and resources and grew their own crops to sustain their remote island lifestyle.
After our short visit, we headed to Devils Island, famous for its intricately beautiful sea caves, carved out of its sandstone base for thousands of years. While some of our party took a daring and dangerously shivery dip through the tunnels and arches, I opted to go ashore to explore the Devils Island Lighthouse. Our small rubber dinghy floated just inches above the water, and dipped and rocked viciously in the strong winds.
We put ashore on a long, red bar of sandstone close to the water, and hiked up the rocks and cliffs to a more sheltered, forested trail. Only minutes into this walk, I stopped, shocked at the almost complete silence that surrounded me. Even though I knew the waters were slapping against the island stone, the quietness of this small forest made me feel as though I was miles inland, rather than having just stepped out of a rather precarious dinghy. I looked around and noticed an abundance of moss, cedar, and other swampy undergrowth, which likely muffled the powerful and constant heaving of the great lake.
The trail soon opened into a broad field, dominated by a couple of brick houses, and in the distance rose the freestanding white tower of the Devils Island light. A knowledgeable Park Service volunteer led us around the grounds of the light station, explaining the methods for fuel storage, transportation of goods, and source of fresh water for inhabitants of the island. She also warned us about the precarious ledges and cliffs scattered around the island–it is difficult to see from above the rocks that are supporting you, and as she pointed out, it is easy to unwittingly wind up on a ledge with only a few fragile inches between you and a hundred foot plunge to the icy depths of Superior. She took us up the steep cyclical iron staircase of the rocket-shaped tower, having us don heavy green aprons before climbing the final ladder to the top.
“We wear these aprons for two reasons,” she explained. “One is because the light keepers used to wear them, so you get a real sense for what it is like to be in their position. The other is so visitors don’t accidentally scratch the lens with zippers or buttons. It’s a very small space up there, so it’s easy to do without noticing.”
Devils Island is the only lighthouse in the Apostles that still has a Fresnel lens inside. These remarkable and beautiful crystal glass structures were once custom-made in France to refract and project light as far as possible. At one time, all of the Fresnel lenses were removed from the Apostle Island lighthouses with the introduction of the newer Coast Guard models, but this particular lantern was rebuilt and replaced in the lighthouse when it opened for visitors after restoration. Even still, the light bears the mark of years of wear and damage, exhibiting several scratches and cracks.
Soon we were ready to depart the island, though not before sighting a rather fearless snowshoe hare browsing through the thick underbrush.
Apart from a couple of kayakers, we had South Twin all to ourselves–but it wasn’t quite an island paradise. The mosquitoes there were worse than any we had yet encountered. I did have a good time combing the beach and skipping rocks (I was delighted to find a smooth, washed up chunk of rose quartz), but it seemed that our evening beach bonfire encroached on the home of the resident mergansers. We stayed out long enough for s’mores and to witness the hazy sunset before retreating to the mosquito net-equipped boat to escape the needling tormenters for the night.