Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of The Great Lakes

Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of The Great Lakes by Andrea Gutsche and Cindy Bisaillon is another book I have had kicking around for years yet never got around to reading in its entirety. I acquired the book, which came with an accompanying 72-minute VHS video, when it first came out in 1999. I was fascinated by the often forgotten, if not entirely unknown tales from the Great Lakes islands, yet I only read about the islands I was immediately drawn to (for example, Middle Island, Pelee Island, Manitoulin Island, and Isle Royale). Mysterious Islands is divided into five chapters, one for each Great Lake, moving from east to west. The book is filled with black and white photographs throughout its 296 pages, but unfortunately many are too small or of poor quality to make much of them. At times I even stood holding the book directly under a lamp, or worse, shining a flashlight on certain pictures in order to see what they depicted. The book was surprisingly heavy, but that was due to its high quality of glossy paper. Ever the armchair editor, I was struck by the number of typographical errors in Mysterious Islands. That the authors named no less than two proofreaders in the Acknowledgements only made me roll my eyes heavenward. I do wonder what it is that proofreaders actually do.

On to the islands. Middle Island, the speck of Canada lying south of Pelee Island lays claim to the title of being the southernmost part of Canada. It was the hub of a thriving bootlegging and smuggling ring during the time of Prohibition. The chapter even had a photo of the Middle Island clubhouse, where all the boozing and gambling took place. A closeup of Middle Island and its crumbling clubhouse can be found here. There was plenty to read about Pelee Island, but I was shocked to find only four pages devoted to Manitoulin. Wouldn't the largest island in the Great Lakes merit more than this? Manitoulin also claims several lakes of its own. I have cycled around these lakes within a lake, and even seen the islands within these lakes. I thought that the authors would surely give at least a cursory mention to Lake Manitou, the world's largest lake-in-a-lake.

Sugar Island, located in Lake Huron, has an unusual claim to fame: it was one of twenty-two spots in North America selected as a possible site for the new United Nations headquarters. Former Michigan governor Chase Osborn proposed the site based on how it was peacefully acquired by the US in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Osborn believed Sugar Island fulfilled the spirit of the new UN pledge, "to settle international disputes by peaceful means, to refrain from the threat or use of force". The UN instead settled on another island to build its headquarters: Manhattan.

I love to read lighthouse stories and Mysterious Islands had plenty of them. Caribou Island, the most remote of all the Great Lakes islands, lies in Lake Superior, 100 km from the nearest port. It thus had the most isolated lighthouse. Caribou was uninhabited, although the rock 1.6 km offshore where the lighthouse was actually located housed only the lighthouse keeper and his family. Imagine living on a rock--quite literally--with no one else around for 100 km. There wouldn't have even been other land to visit, unless you rowed out to Caribou. This might be the closest an Ontarian can come to feeling what it's like to live on Tristan da Cunha. See Caribou Island here, and the speck of white on the offshore rock which is the lighthouse.

In 1917, the government stopped transporting lighthouse keepers and their families back home in December. In effect, their employer just abandoned them. Lighthouse keepers had to make their way back to the mainland themselves. I read this time and time again, and sometimes the keepers suffered tragic results. The Caribou lighthouse keeper refitted a sailboat yet was trapped for eight days in Lake Superior's ice and storms. It was another five years before the government reintroduced winter transport home.

Mysterious Islands spent an admirable time reporting on the history of the Great Lakes islands before European settlement. The authors reported on the alliances and treaties made between settlers and the First Nations. The islands were home to mines, cults (more than one), prisons and countless shipwrecks. It is my hope to visit some of these islands and I am glad to have had the opportunity to learn so much of their history.

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