Feelin' the vibe

Two-wheeled touring on Manitoulin Island

Manitoulin is literally an island of cycling opportunity. At more than 2,700 square km, this isle of Lake Huron is the largest freshwater island in the world. Almost half of the island’s 13,000 residents are Indigenous, with Manitoulin roots stretching back thousands of years. With a fertile mixture of history, culture, community and scenic beauty—all linked by a series of bike-friendly routes—Manitoulin Island is a unique Northeastern Ontario cycling destination.

My introduction to biking on the island comes as a photographer, shadowing a group of cyclists as they experience a fraction of the more than 800 km of road biking routes. Although our time in the saddle is limited, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the island vibe.

An early morning ride from the town Mindemoya to meet my cycling group reveals the tapestry of lakes, forests, and agricultural lands that stretch between the island’s approximately 20 small communities. By the time I reach my destination at Providence Bay, I’ve seen half a dozen white-tailed deer in fields and clearings.

We meet at The Muchmor, an artisan hub and cafe that is a perfect initiation to the eclectic establishments of the island. What was once a Home Hardware is now a spacious café serving specialty coffee and freshly baked goods. It also doubles as a gallery of island artists and a shop with one-of-a-kind food and gift items. A huge owl and bear mural on an outside wall makes this enterprise impossible to pass by without a second look.

With our group assembled, we head east, towards  the town of Tenkummah, over rolling hills of faded asphalt. Traffic is scarce and moves slowly along this secondary road. Abandoned farmhouses and miles of split rail fencing point to the long history of farming that grew through the 1860s.

We leave the quiet stretches of interior roads at the junction with Highway 6, where we are happy to find a paved cycling lane on this, the island’s busiest road, which links Manitoulin’s gateway communities of Little Current and  South Baymouth. There is a swing bridge at Little Current, which closes to link the island to the mainland for vehicular traffic and opens for marine traffic. South Baymouth is the island’s port for the MS Chi-Cheemaun, the famous passenger and vehicle ferry that sails between South Baymouth and Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula.

The arrival of the Chi-Cheemaun—which can hold up to 240 vehicles—can mean a  spike in traffic, but conscientious drivers and generous paved shoulders make riding  the undulating landscape and rock cuts of Highway 6 a safe and enjoyable experience.

Like virtually every coastal community on Manitoulin, South Baymouth has a lighthouse that reflects the importance of shipping and navigation. A lighthouse tour would take us around the entire island, but our route is less ambitious, taking us north on Highway 6 to another port town.

Manitoulin Roller Mills and Burn's Wharf, built in 1883, are part of Manitowaning’s long history as a major shipping port. Manitowaning is now the home of the S.S. Norisle. The former cargo and passenger ferry connected the island to the mainland from 1946 to 1974, when she was replaced by the MS Chi-Cheemaun.

Just off Highway 6 near Sheguiandah, this perfectly weathered old truck is still used by the owners of Ten Mile Point Trading Post. It’s loaded with character, like the trading post itself.

The store is packed with paintings, drums, furs, and artwork, and boasts the island’s largest collection of traditionally designed native crafts and Indigenous art. 

Many of the items are from the Wikwemikong Unceded First Nations Reserve just across Huron’s Manitowaning Bay, clearly visible from the Ten Mile Point Lookout just outside the trading post.

Manitoulin’s inland waters are also a big part of the island’s story. There are 108 freshwater lakes here; the 104-square-km Lake Manitou is the largest lake in a freshwater island in the world, and Treasure Island in Lake Mindemoya is the largest island in a lake, on an island in a lake, in the world.

Moving inland, we take a navigation break on the shores of Lake Mindemoya. We don’t make a cycling move without first consulting the Cycling Routes and Road Map published by the Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates (MICA). Not only has MICA successfully advocated for paved shoulders and improved signage, they have compiled information on more than a dozen recommended cycling routes that link interesting little communities like M’Chigeeng.

Here we are thoroughly entertained by the animated Anne Beam at the Neon Raven Gallery. Most of the art in the unique adobe-style gallery is Ms. Beam’s original work—from sculpture to pottery to giant mixed-media canvases that take up entire walls.

In addition to a historic waterfront and interesting shops, the town of Kagawong has Bridal Veil Falls. The Kagawong River tumbles into a pool 11 metres below a lip of limestone before rollicking through the woods to Lake Huron. The Kagawong  River trail follows the river, passing several rock carvings of turtles and fish placed in the river and along the trail.

Photo Credit: Bob Gundu

West from Kagawong, a long causeway arcs across the waters of Ice Lake. Even inland, we are never far from water on Manitoulin Island.

There is a refreshing absence of box stores and strip malls on Manitoulin Island. Cradled within the agricultural landscape south of Gore Bay, Linens & Lavender is located in a restored log home, built in the 1870s. Within the picturesque and magnificent old building there are vintage-style linens, imported French soaps, candles, and Canadian blended teas.

Touring the elaborate gardens and sloped landscaping of Red Lodge Resort is the perfect appetizer to a dinner of fresh Lake Huron rainbow trout or whitefish on the screened-in patio. With cottages along the shores of Manitou Lake, this is a great headquarters from which to explore Manitoulin.

As the sun sinks behind the hills of Manitou Lake, we wind down from a full day on the road. We’ve only been served a small portion of what the island has to offer. Fortunately we have a few more days of cycling ahead of us; precious little time when there’s so much more of the island vibe yet to absorb.

Getting There:  Manitoulin Island is accessed year-round via Highway 6, South from Espanola. Cyclists and motorists can reach Manitoulin on the MS Chi-Cheemaun sailing between Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula to South Baymouth from early May to mid-October.

Riders take note, there is one bike shop on this itinerary's route: Lightfoot Bike Shop, 15491 ON-6, Manitowaning, ON P0P 1N0, (705) 859-2322. 

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at www.jamessmedleyoutdoors.com

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