TtRAVERSE CITY — Dave Hooper may know more about North Manitou Island than just about anybody living.
Hooper, of Cedar, was a National Park Service backcountry ranger on the island from 1989-96. That’s when he got to know islander Rita Rusco, who became island store manager and postmaster in 1943.
“I was lucky enough to find the place that I was meant to spend a lot of time on, someplace that really spoke to me,” said Hooper, 67, now a Leelanau Historical Society volunteer who leads an annual day trip to the island. “Rita wrote a book about the island and through listening to her and her research, it really intrigued me.
“Aside from being an island, it’s just a great example of what it was like in the early days in this country. Everything was far away, everything was a chore to get to,” he said.
Hooper estimates that he’s explored about three-quarters of the eight-mile-long island, all by foot — the only way to get around. The now uninhabited island is managed as a wilderness area by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, except for about 27 acres around the former village.
He’ll guide visitors to some of his favorite spots around the village, including the former light-saving station, on this year’s tour, scheduled for Aug. 20. Participants will get to learn about the history of the island, explore its natural beauty and view the progress of restoration projects by Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, a group dedicated to preserving the historic structures and cultural landscapes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Current restoration projects include the Katie Shepard Hotel, also called “The Beeches,” a blufftop dining hall and inn built in 1895 as part of North Manitou’s “Cottage Row.” And the “Blossom Cottage,” or the the Monte Carlo House, rumored to have been designed and built in 1893-94 by a young Frank Lloyd Wright for George and Carrie Blossom of Chicago.
Leelanau Historical Society Executive Director Francie Gits said the trip is a rare chance for day-trippers to explore North Manitou, which is reached by private boat or Manitou Island Transit, a fifth-generation ferry service which has transported people and goods — including cherries and cattle — to and from the island since 1917.
“You can’t go over just for the day; you have to spend the night,” said Gits, adding that the island is popular with hikers and campers. “This gives people the opportunity to just go over for the day and tour the island and come right back.”
The society has hosted the summer trip since 1992, with Hooper as guide. Along the way, he passes on nuggets of information, such as the fact that North Manitou Island was very similar to its sister, South Manitou Island, in the 1800s. But in 1910 or 1915, a group started to buy up the land, making it more of a private island that the public didn’t visit unless they were guests of a resident.
“They were the ones who introduced deer. They wanted to make it a hunting preserve,” Hooper said. “There’s a little lake there and they stocked the lake with fish.”
Hooper said he considers the tours a way to carry on Rusco’s work.
“She loved the island and I would like more people to know about it and give them the bug,” he said. “The island isn’t for everybody, and when people come out there I try and present it as factually as I can. And if it appeals to them, great.”
Hooper, who works at Everglades National Park during the winter, got the nature bug early. His grandfather was a logger who owned a cabin in northern Maine, where Hooper still visits with family in the fall.
But he said North Manitou Island always calls to him, especially when he works with the Historical Society based in Leland, about 12 miles east-southeast of the island.
“We all look at the sunset going over North Manitou Island and wonder what’s going on out there,” he said. “There’s so much natural diversity out there, so much history out there. Sometimes you just have to go where the island takes you.”
Tour reservations are $65 per person, including boat fare, park fee and a box lunch. The rain date is scheduled for August 22. For reservations or more information, call 256-7475 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.