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June 18, 2004

The aboriginal connection to the Manitous goes back centuries

I wrote about the fascinating Manitou Islands SW of North Bay on Lake Nipissing recently and have received more information from various sources.  I went on the Chief Commanda Manitou Island Cruise and was disappointed that the “commentary” about the islands was about 1 minute long in a 90-minute cruise.  The islands close up appeared to be back in their natural state with only the head frame and a couple of storage tanks remaining on Newman Island. 

Going back geologically, the sedimentary limestone is a major factor in the islands’ history.  It was mined and hauled to build the bridges on the CPR in the 1880’s and probably for other projects.  A lime kiln on Little Manitou where limestone was heated to make lime, an ingredient in mortar, for the masons laying the limestone.  The kiln complete with roof and fire box is shown in the photo.  (Dr. Kevin O’Grady 1970).  The building on the left is apparently an old explosives shed, probably moved there from a limestone blasting site.  The kiln has been destroyed by heavy ice over the years. 

 The lime kiln on Little Manitou in 1970 and since destroyed by ice.  Dr. K. O’Grady photo.

Geologically the island is the way it is today because of glaciation grinding the surface of the islands down and leaving deposits of sand and till. 

Champlain liked the islands

The till formed the base for future growth of the wide variety of trees and shrubs.  Champlain in July 1613 commented in his journal during a 2 day visit with 7-800 aboriginal Nipissings that “offshore there are pretty islands…(one with) 3 or 4 ponds…surrounded by meadows and thick woods”.  Those ponds are the base of nesting sites of the great blue herons who like the protection of the water from predators. 

There are apparently some interesting fossils in the limestone that have been studied but have been relatively unexplored.  Geology had an impact on the naming of Calder Island.  As mentioned in the previous article the Young family who owned the island until recently did not know the source of the name. 

Reason for name

Dr. Kevin O’Grady drew my attention to the fact that geologists call a formation where there is a circular ring with a sunken core that at one time was alive with molten material, a caldera - a derivation of the word caldron or cauldron (a boiling pot).  It would be reasonable that surveyors would name an island Calder or as it says in one reference Caulder. 

In terms of names some names are still ambiguous.  One interesting reference by F.E. Carter in her book Place Names of Ontario (on microfiche at the North Bay Library) gives some background on the Manitou name.  She states that Akentouton is a Huron Indian name from 1651 that evolved into Manitoualin and eventually Manitou Island. 

Campers on the beach on the isthmus on the Great Manitou Island.  Nugget Photo.

There are some 50 birds identified on the Manitous.  There are several Osprey nests but the most important guest is the Great Blue Heron.  Their grey-blue plumage and long white feathers around their head and their 2-meter wing span create a beautiful image.  They build nests of sticks on dead trees in swampy areas and lay 3-5 eggs.  Over several days within a couple of months they are flying and they join their parents on the trip south in the fall.  They eat snakes, salamanders, grasshoppers, mice etc. most of which are not on the islands and require long trips to find. 

Natives find island mysterious

The aboriginal connection with the islands goes back for centuries and is reflected in the name Manitou.  Some references suggest that native people have found the islands mysterious and the name Devil or Ghost Islands have apparently been used by native people.  One myth has a native Nipissing maiden in love with an enemy Iroquois brave who is caught and burned at the stake on one of the islands.  The maiden jumps into the fire and dies also.  Wayne Bliss who wrote a book Islands in the Sky 1991 about the Manitous. tells this story and includes a drawing of the event.  Another legend also cites that has a fasting maiden sees her people turned in to snakes and disappear.  Some have suggested that the curse may be a factor in the mines failings.  The settlement by cottagers failing and the sinking of the John Fraser etc. 

I was given a couple of Nugget articles with lots of photos about the uranium mine on Newman Island by Ray Muttart of Chisholm Township. 

Third article planned

I also have several other photos of the mine.  I will use these in a third article on the Manitou in the near future providing a closer look at the mine. 

Some other notes of interest.  The WKP Kennedy book on North Bay has an interesting footnote that falls in with the curse idea.  He writes that on August 23, 1904 2 men left North Bay to travel to the French River in a 12 foot birchbark canoe.  A storm drove them ashore on one of the Manitous where the Steamer “Hazel B” found them and rescued them. 

Speaking of Lake Nipissing boats there was one called the Manitou Island I, a 15 meter World War II vintage landing craft used to haul supplies to logging camps and tourist lodges after the war.

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