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May 21, 2004

The Manitou Island Provincial Nature Preserve

When the conditions are right the 5 Manitou Islands seem to mysteriously float in space 10km SW of North Bay in Lake Nipissing.  Native people who used the islands seasonally for thousands of years are recognized in the name Manitou (Great Spirit).  Champlain stopped there in 1615 as a part of his map making and recorded his observations. 

Surveyors included the islands in their work in the mid 1800’s and as North Bay grew the islands were claimed and used.  This week and in a future article I will look at some of the islands’ history.  The islands became a Provincial Nature Preserve after 1982 when H.M. Pangman purchased the land and donated it to the Nature Conservancy of Ontario.  The MNR and the Ontario Heritage Foundation are involved in its maintenance, development and preservation. 

Calder Island was not included until recently when the Young family from Barrie who owned it for a century, generously donated it through the Nature Conservancy.  The elliptical ring of islands is now complete.  Some people looking at air photos thought the islands were caused by a huge meteorite like the crater at Brent but soon found this was not the case. 

In simple terms the earth’s crust split from the west end of Lake Nipissing and along what is now the Mattawa/Ottawa/St. Lawrence river system, 565 million years ago.  Some molten rock rose to the surface and created areas including the Manitous that over time became a part of our landscape.   

Some 450 million years ago a huge lake developed over the Great Lakes area and over millions of years left layers of limestone deposits.  Starting 45,000 years ago several glaciers covered the area and flattened high spots and took away a lot of the limestone.  The flattened Manitous have some of the old limestone and some of the glacial residue, much of it below water.  After the last glacier 9000 years ago vegetation began to grow and birds, animals and aboriginal people began to appear.  Champlain records several hundred people in family groups on Lake Nipissing when he came 400 years ago. 

There are detailed reports on most aspects of the Manitous including birds, heronries, geology, earth and life science, land use and archaeology.  Archaeological studies indicate native presence going back at least 2000 years primarily on the isthmus on the north side of the Great Manitou. 

The history of the names of the islands is vague but interesting.  The complex was apparently simply called the Northern Islands when first recorded by the white man.  When they became the Manitous the large island was call the Grand Manitou or Big Manitou (as compared to Little Manitou) or as it is now called the Great Manitou.  I have a map that calls the 3 small islands (now Calder, Newman and Rankin) the McDonald Islands.  Another source calls the Little Manitou McDonald Island. 

A Mr. Newman owned one of the islands and sold it to a Mr. Ferguson – probably North Bay’s founder John Ferguson – and called another island he owned Newman Island which remains today.  The Youngs who owned Calder island for over a century have no idea where the name Calder came from.  One source spelled the name Caulder.  The Rankin Island was named after Robert Rankin who came to the area in 1888 and became a butcher, councillor, reeve and mayor of North Bay. 

In this overview there are a few other highlights of note.  There was a short-lived hotel /dance hall on the Great Manitou isthmus with appropriate motor cruises back and forth in the early days of North Bay.  The island was also subdivided into 29 cottage lots to develop the island but this also failed. 

The islands’ limestone was also in demand especially for the bridges on the CPR and a kiln was built on Little Manitou to produce mortar.  The kiln was intact for years until winter ice damaged it. 

The other interesting feature is the uranium mining that took place on Newman Island from 1953 to 1960.  A huge deposit to the east of the island was accessed through a 442 foot shaft on the island and several drifts.  The ore was processed in a plant on the north shore until the effort proved unprofitable.  The head frame can still be seen from North Bay and can be seen up close outside a fence on the island.  The shaft has been capped. 

The Great Manitou, beside the beach where visitors go, has a large Great Blue Heron colony and an Osprey nesting site that protects and supports these beautiful birds. 

A tourist operator has a land use permit to keep ice huts on the east side of Rankin Island in the summer. 

For a first hand look at the Manitou Islands the Chief Commanda has a 1 ½ hour “Manitou Island Scenic Cruise” beginning tomorrow Saturday May 22 at 1 p.m. and going weekends until June 13 when it goes every day (except Sunday) until Labour Day.  There is apparently someone who gives a ‘commentary’ on the cruise along with an open air BBQ and bar.  Sounds like fun.

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