Story by Chris Nowakowski
MANITOULIN ISLAND, ONTARIO — One brisk spring night in London, Ontario while staring up at the night sky, my 11-year-old niece asked, “Uncle Chris, where’s the Milky Way?” It was a great question, one whose a correct response is near extinction. Most people know what the Milky Way is and that it is out there, somewhere, but very few have ever seen it.
The fact is that at the turn of the 20th century the visibility of the Milky Way began to fade. Light pollution became so strong, that even seeing a few stars required a drive out into the country.
Imagine that there was a place that could take you back in time, not historically, but in terms of darkness. A place where the night sky looked as it did in the late 1800s. Places such as this still exist. For many Ontarians, one of them can be reached on a long but pleasant afternoon drive. Manitoulin Island is 600 kilometres (372 miles) northwest of Toronto and 665 kilometres (410 miles) west of Ottawa. The closest city is Sudbury, 175 kilometres (108 miles) away, and that isolation leaves the island free from the kind of light pollution that obstructs your view of the stars in urban centres. Visitors will indulge in the chance to see the night sky in all its glory, the way that many of our great grandparents saw it. Imagine looking up and rather than glimpsing the few stars you might catch sight of in the city, you fill your eyes with thousands of stars. In this sky, the Big Dipper is no longer an easy find as it plays hide and seek amongst the myriad stars and formations surrounding it.
The night skies in Manitoulin Island are so dark that we are able to see much more than just the stars, we’re able to see into the Milky Way galaxy. Getting back to my niece’s question, what is the Milky Way?
It’s the patch of sky that most star gazers describe as “spilled milk” stretching across the entire sky, home to millions of twinkly lights many, many light years away. This is also the galaxy that our sun and our home, Earth, reside in. I wasn’t able to bring my niece with me and show her, but I was able to get some photographs and the necessary words to tell this story to her.
What I have said to her is, “If you ever want experience a feeling unlike any other, go to Manitoulin, wait for the night to fall and look up. All those little dots and specks, they are all stars in our very own neighborhood, the Milky Way. Each little speck is just like our sun, shining brightly for eons, with its light taking many years just to reach you on that very night.”
Don’t worry about bringing a telescope to the island, you likely won’t even want to use it. However, a good set of binoculars and a camera lens with a large aperture will be your best friends.
Day and Night Delights on Manitoulin Island
The daytime will also excite you. The island is big, about 40 kilometres across and 120 kilometres wide. Within that massive acreage, visitors will discover Lake Manitou, the largest lake inside a freshwater island. If that’s not a fun enough fact for you then this one is sure to impress. Treasure Island is the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake in the world. Go ahead and read that again, it can be a bit of head scratcher. Once you’ve figured it out, make it a mission to step foot on Treasure Island while travelling the waters of Lake Manitou, found on Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island.
Another scenic high is Bridal Veil Falls, a terrific natural feature where you can go for a dip that will have you feeling like you’re on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. The hiking trails are among some of the best in Eastern Canada. The Cup and Saucer trail will take you to an elevation of 1,155 feet and reveal views of the island that will astound you.
If you’re a beach lover like me, Providence Bay is a must. The crystal clear freshwater that exceeds 40-feet of visibility is stunning. No wonder the Georgian Bay area has some of the worlds most renowned diving.
When you’re hungry, head for schnitzel at the Happy Moose. I simply fell in love with it and became a regular. The owner’s a German lady and she’s quite the personality. Stopping in for a bite to eat is a must if you are planning a trip here.
Coming to Manitoulin does require a bit of planning. The island only has two ways to reach it by car. You can drive around Georgian Bay and come in through Sudbury via the one-lane Little Current Swing Bridge, which crosses the North Channel at Little Current, or you can do what most people do and drive up the Bruce Peninsula and take the ferry from Tobermory. If you too prefer the latter, then a reservation in advance is required. Each day, the ferry is fully booked so you don’t want to take your chances. The passage takes a couple of hours and offers remarkable scenery along the way. Once off the ferry, there’s nowhere that a car won’t take you within an hour.
Every road is scenic, filled with all sorts of stops and adventures waiting to be had. Don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep, because once nightfall arrives and the Milky Way comes out, you won’t be going to bed any time soon. Bring a blanket and a pillow and you may not even make it back to your room.
More About Manitoulin Island
Where to Stay: There aren’t very many hotels on Manitoulin. My wife and I stayed in a private room at the Auberge Inn Hostel, and it was $90 a night. It was nice and close to the beach at Providence Bay and the owners were very nice and accommodating. They even had bike and kayak rentals to explore the area.
Ferry Ride: Arrive at least an hour early for the ferry, even with a reservation the ferry will give your spot away to the next in line. For our mid-size sedan and the two of us, the crossing was just under $80 each way. Click here to make ferry reservations.
Where to Eat: The Happy Moose only accepts cash, so hit one of the banks on the island earlier in the day — and don’t worry, a delicious schnitzel dinner won’t break the bank. Priced at $13 for the meal, it was my go-to place every day of my visit. It was busy during rush hours, but your patience will be rewarded.
More Tips for Visiting Manitoulin Island
- Canadian lakes are colder than you might think, so a thin wetsuit might make the water a little more comfortable for some swimmers.
- Long weekends and the annual Powwow celebration are Manitoulin’s busiest times. Plan far ahead if this is when you plan to come.
- Don’t be afraid of the “busy times.” Due to limited places to stay, even the busiest times will seem like you have the entire island to yourself
- Once on the island, remember island time is in effect, and everything closes earlier than you might be used to in a large city.
- Cell-phone reception is sporadic so don’t count on it or if you’re using your smartphone, download the maps in advance.
- Gordon’s Park hosts stargazing parties, but find out in advance which part of their park they will be holding the event. When we went it was their busiest night of the year and they held it near the reception area, which wasn’t that dark at all.
More Stargazing and Space Travel in Canada