Exploring the World’s Largest Freshwater Island

The rhythmic chanting of the men becomes louder as our campfire blazes to life. 

It has been a beautiful, but tiring afternoon on horseback while exploring Manitoulin Island–a 1000 square mile patch of land on Lake Huron in northern Ontario–and now, after a long day in the saddle, I sit back, close my eyes and lose myself in the heartbeat of their music.


The performers, also our guides for the afternoon, are members of Manitoulin Island’s First Nation community – the aboriginal peoples who make up a majority of the islands 12 000 permanent inhabitants.

Manitoulin, which separates the larger part of Lake Huron from Georgia Bay, is the world’s largest freshwater island. It also claims the record for having the largest lake (Lake Manitou) within a freshwater island in the world. And, if you can manage to digest this information, Treasure Island in Lake Mindemoya (also on Manitoulin) is the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake in the world.

In pre-colonial times, the native Anishnawbek people considered this island to be sacred, naming it Manidoowaaning, meaning: ‘Island of the Great Spirit,’ which was later morphed, via French and English, into ‘Manitoulin’. The story goes that the Creator, the Great Spirit, chose this fertile island as his own special place in the world.

In touch with the wilderness. Photo by Paul Steyn

In order to preserve and promote their cultural heritage, some of the island residents have put together a set of unique wilderness experiences that they call the Great Spirit Circle Trail. The experiences are designed to delve into the history and culture of the region and its original inhabitants.

“The sound of our drums must be like a heartbeat,” says our guide, Falcon, after their opening number.

“We must be in unison. One voice, one drumstick, one heartbeat.”

At a pow wow––a traditional party or celebration–– the drums, Falcon explains, are placed at the very center, or the heart of the party, and everything revolves around it. The whole group sits around the drums, and on the outside of that, the dancers circle the drummers, then a circle of spectators, and then yet another circle of elders and food vendors. So everything revolves around the drums, the pulsing heart of the celebration.

A natural torch that burned for over 20 minutes. Photo by Paul Steyn

When the music is over, Falcon shows me how to make a torch out of natural ingredients, which he says will burn for over half an hour.

Earlier in the day, we had collected from the forest all the items that we would need to make the torch. We had scraped fine bark from the trunk of a tree and collected globs of sap from gashes in its branches. As we worked, Falcon was telling me the names and uses of each tree. Manitoulin Island is mainly comprised of limestone, which makes for incredibly fertile soil, so there is a huge variety of plant life on the island.

“Almost 80 percent of all the plant species you find all over Canada,” said Falcon, “can be found right here on Manatoulin Island.”

Now, as he unfurls the ingredients in front of us, he tests me on their names.

I fail. I was not listening properly. A few hundred years ago, it would be a terrible error.

Everything his ancestors learned, he explains, they learned through word of mouth. They did not write anything down or record the medicinal uses of plants and trees. They had to listen, experience and remember. For someone like me, so hopelessly attuned to receiving written information instantly, it’s an important lesson.

The bark pieces are in a pile in Falcon’s hand and he mixes the fine shavings with tree sap. A few more items are added and mixed together, and the final gooey product is then placed on the end of a long stick.

“A torch,” he announces.

He hands it to me and I lower the goo into the fire. A bright ball of flame bursts from the end of the stick.

I stare at the orb: amazed, transfixed. I watch it glow and wave it through the air, making shapes out of its bright trail. The torch burns for over 40 minutes.

It’s late, and we retreat to our tipi sleeping quarters, which have been erected on wooden decks in a forest opening. I lie down and look up at the stars through the top of the wooden structure.

The soft eerie calls of loons–nocturnal waterbirds–drift over the lake, and between their shrill cries, I can still hear the men singing somewhere in the distance.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: paul@paulsteyn.com Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram