Take a Hike
South Manitou Island is a beautiful and challenging trek.
BY PATTY LaNOUE STEARNS
Michael Hood likes to call his brand of outdoor activity a quiet sports adventure — a trip in which you will stretch your legs probably more than you believed you were capable and your inner explorer as well. Think of it as recreation unplugged, non-mechanized travel, using self-reliance and life skills most folks have lost or forgotten. No lights, no blaring music, just you, your backpack, a guide, the sun and stars above and Mother Nature to keep everyone engaged. It’s Outward Bound and Indiana Jones rolled into one, with a clean, green message to go along with it. “We try to emphasize leaving a really small footprint — what they call ‘leave no trace,’ ” says the effervescent Hood, a lifelong outdoors enthusiast, Lansing, Mich.-area native and former Emergency Medical Technician who has been leading tours for 25 years under the banner of Vertical Ventures.
“Whenever you go into a place, it should be at least as good if not better than if you haven’t been there.”
For newbies, his Sleeping Bear and South Manitou Island Adventure is one of the easier jaunts, but it’s nonetheless stunning, stimulating and invigorating (hint: wear good shoes). After a two-hour ferry ride out of Leland, Mich., across Lake Michigan’s deep navy-blue waters and through the fabled Manitou Passage where many a ship has been wrecked, you’ll land onshore. After the park-service orientation of the island, hoist your backpack and follow Hood and his crew to your campsite, where you’ll start a fire pit, set up tents and take day hikes from there. South Manitou, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, boasts a myriad of sights: 14 miles of sandy lakeshore, 450-foot dunes, an 1871 lighthouse open for tours, an inland lake, hiking trails through forests, an 1899 schoolhouse, founders’ cemetery and farms.
“It’s such a great location,” says Hood, who also takes hikers to check out the partially submerged shipwreck of the Francisco Morazan on the island’s south shore, as well as the windswept ancient white cedar forest called the Land of the Giants, not far from the wreck. “And the wildlife is spectacular,” enthuses Hood. “We actually watched a turtle laying eggs on a trail, baby seagulls just hatched on the shoreline, all the lady slippers had just come out. We saw a thing nobody had seen: a flock of about 30 to 40 swans in the surf, fighting two- and three-foot swells out there.”
Brian Gee, who works for the ski patrol in Crested Butte, Colo., can attest to the thrill of one of Hood’s trips. “He has one of the best senses of being able to work with a group and know what that group is capable of. He’s incredibly apt at dealing with people and pushing them just the right amount.” Gee worked as a guide with Hood for eight years.
“He’s one of the safest and most knowledgeable guys I’ve ever encountered. He knows so much about the environment he’s in, whether it’s in Canada or Michigan or anywhere he goes. He can tell you all about the local fauna and the environment, and his personality is such that he always loves to have a good time — very engaging, very personable.”
Hood’s also the cook on these excursions: “We bring all the provisions we need for the trip — everything’s cooked home-style,” Hood says. “We package all of our own food, pre-made, dehydrated, use all fresh vegetables and meats and make wonderful stews, pasties, chili and all kinds of stuff.”
He jokes that after hosting some 15,000 campers, backpackers and rock climbers all over the United States and Canada on his adventures, nobody’s ever tried to kill him because of his cooking. The day trips range from $270 to $400 and are an amazing way to hit all of the highlights of the island. But Vertical Ventures is really more about personal growth, and as Gee sees it, the experience just may be “the hardest, best thing you ever do in your life. Michael will push you to the limits, but in the safest way possible. He knows when you’ve had enough and will pull back a bit, but he will always make sure you have a good time.”
To book, call Vertical Ventures Rock Climbing & Wilderness Programs, East Lansing, Mich.; 517-420-4341; vertical-ventures.net