Isle of spirits: Magic and mystery envelop
May 12, 2002
BY GERRY VOLGENAU
FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER
LITTLE CURRENT, Ontario -- On certain days when the
air is heavy and moist, the Lake Huron horizon can simply vanish.
As though in a dream, boats seem to sail off into
the sky, swimmers wade and splash among the clouds.
It is magical, mysterious. And for me, the very
essence of Manitoulin Island and Lake Huron's North Channel and Georgian Bay.
Many visitors find Manitoulin's magic in its
The island has changed little in the last 50 years,
still an idyll of small farms, quiet villages, B&Bs, fishing lodges and
eight reserves for First Nations bands. There is no glitz. No hustle. People
come with binoculars to search out some 155 breeding bird species. They come
for superb fishing, to buy native art (not much else of interest is for sale),
to attend native powwows, to pedal bicycles along quiet lanes and to gaze out
over the endless vistas of the northland's cobalt waters.
But these islands have a more profound magic:
Manitoulin and its neighboring islands have more breath-catching intrigue than
any other of the Great Lakes.
The name Manitoulin means spirit island. And for
uncounted centuries, the Chippewa, Ottawa and Pottawatomi people believed that
the Great Spirit or Kitche Manitou lived in the island's highlands.
Even today, every time I visit -- and I have
visited half a dozen times -- I run onto another jaw-dropping story. Some are
as ancient as the Indian legends. Some are modern.
What, for example, brings apparent mystic power to
an outcropping of rock on nearby Birch Island?
For centuries, Indians hiked up to Dreamer's Rock
on vision quests. They fasted for days, sought spiritual direction and often,
in their dreams, found the proper path for their lives.
Not far on Great Cloche Island, in a largely empty
field stands a boulder that, when struck, rings like a bell. It has been sacred
to the Indians for centuries, and the earliest French voyageurs recorded its
ringing in the 1500s.
Why does it ring? Magic perhaps. Scientists, so
far, have been unable to explain its chimes.
What about the unexplained drowning of Daniel
George Dodge, heir to John Dodge, cofounder of Dodge Motor Cars?
On his honeymoon in 1938 at the age of 21, he
apparently drowned accidentally in a desperate attempt to get medical treatment
after a dynamite explosion. But was it an accident?
And is it possible that Manitoulin is the epicenter
of what might be a Bermuda Triangle of the Great Lakes?
Probably not, but some 500 ships over the centuries
have vanished in the area. And in more recent times, at least 36 airplanes have
gone down in the water. Some were never seen again.
One craft, carrying mail for vacationing President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, sank near Birch Island in 1943 after catching fire on
its return trip to base at Macomb County's Selfridge Field.
Birch Island: Dreamer's Rock
Esther Osche might properly be called a
deh-bah-jeh-mah-jig, or storyteller in the Ojibway language. She is one
of the few remaining keepers of oral tradition among the people of her
Whitefish River band.
Quick to smile and joke, Osche has a profound sense
of the miraculous as she spins out the legends of her people. Osche is the best
person, and the most likely one, to lead visitors up the steep, stony trail to
On top of the 300-foot-high bluff, you can look out
over the broad sweep of the North Channel, Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island and
the La Cloche passage, where voyageurs passed on their way west from Montreal.
The rock has a smooth, flat top where you can find
an indentation the size and shape to hold a person sleeping on his side.
For generations, Indian children reaching adulthood
have come to this promontory to begin their spiritual journeys. They fast and
pray and seek their life vision. They stay for several days with drinking water
and only a blanket to fend off the night chills.
Adults, too, climb to Dreamer's Rock seeking help
with life problems.
Osche spins the legend of the rock and the famous
Ojibway chief Shawonoswe (SHAH-woe-nahs-way), who came to seek wisdom on the
rock long before white men came.
Shawonoswe climbed to Dreamer's Rock again and
again to fast and pray. First he came as a boy and later as young
man. He would sit for days facing where the sun set over the lake. And over
time, his people gave him his name, which means "he who faces west."
But despite his visits, the spirits never came to
him. Other boys had visions, but he did not. His friends felt sorry for him. So
Shawonoswe, feeling that he needed to accomplish something with his life, took
up the bow and the lance fighting his band's enemies without fear.
Years went by. His fame had grown. And once again
he returned to Dreamer's Rock. But on this day, everything was different.
A great white thunderbird appeared. He took
Showonoswe on his back and carried him east across Lake Huron's waters to the
heights of a holy mountain called Nehahupkung.
There at the edge of cliff, Shawonoswe saw before
him a figure sitting on a cloud, literally in midair. The figure was holding a
dish of water in his lap.
"Who are you?" Shawonoswe asked.
"I am your creator," he said, and then asked
Shawonoswe to step off the cliff, come to him and look into the dish of water.
Shawonoswe was afraid. But even so, he stepped off
into thin air. Surprised, he found that he did not fall. Instead, he seemed to
be walking on soft, firm moss.
He looked into the swirling water of the dish. He
saw animals. He could understand their talk and could read their minds.
"Animals are your relatives," the creator said. "You should not abuse them."
He saw the coming of men dressed in robes like
women with hair on their faces. The French Jesuits who would arrive hundreds of
years later. He saw that wherever the men in robes went, the land was swallowed
up and his people fell as in death, speechless and unable to move. He saw his
people killed in terrible wars.
The creator then gave Shawonoswe rules to live by,
rules that he was to pass along to his people. These were rules like the Ten
Commandments. They said the people should share so no one was in need, be
grateful and brave.
Shawonoswe returned to his people and became a
great leader and healer, a mighty medicine man.
And, as instructed, he arranged for a celebration
of the creator each year in the spring and fall. At that time, a great cedar
pole was erected. And the creator's lessons were taught at the base of that
Years later when the voyageurs came, they reported
joining a huge gathering of people at a giant cedar pole. The French described
them as kind, innocent and tender with one another.
Great Cloche Island: Bell Rock
Many people on Manitoulin Island believe the
legendary Bell Rock no longer exists. One guidebook states that the rock
exists, but it no longer chimes.
It does exist. And to this day it rings.
Osche calls the rock grandfather. And she makes an
offering of tobacco on each visit.
Early voyageurs knew of the rock. When they came in
their canoes, they would stop and strike it with their axes, the peals heard
for 40 miles. It was taller than most men of the time and took four touching
fingertip-to-fingertip to reach around it.
To the voyageurs, it sounded like church bells in
France, so they named the island for the rock, calling it La Cloche, or
To the Ojibway, the voice of the sacred rock is
that of spirits who brought them lessons. In turn, the Ojibway used the rock to
connect with the spirit world.
The rock also was a warning bell.
If their enemy, the Iroquois, came, the Ojibway
would bang the rock to gather their warriors. One night the Iroquois sneaked in
and attacked the village, killing many. A few Ojibway escaped, fleeing to the
shores of Lake Superior.
The Iroquois settled by the rock, but even though
they struck it again and again, it would not ring. Soon, the Iroquois fell sick
with a skin disease and died within three days.
In time, the Ojibway villagers returned. They
buried the dead Iroquois and restarted their lives. The rock regained its
As Shawonoswe predicted, the Jesuits came and
dismissed Ojibway belief in the rock as idol worship. The Ojibway continued to
worship the rock in secret. About 65 years ago, tragedy beset: The rock was
"Legend says that a priest came and blessed the
rock, and it broke," Osche said, "just as a heart might break."
There are other stories of how the rock broke:
workmen from the nearby aggregate open-pit mine, a lightning strike.
Today, Bell Rock is a fragment of the original, a
4- by 4-foot boulder standing with two splinters from the original, yards off a
dirt road busy with thundering trucks.
Two of the rocks are silent. But one still rings,
its voice soft but pure.
Manitoulin Island: the strange death of Danny
It started as a Cinderella story but ended as dark
as a Stephen King novel.
It is a tale woven into the fabric of the island.
To know the island is to know about young Dodge. To the islanders, this bit of
history bespeaks the island's importance, given it could attract celebrities
like the Dodges. It also holds the mystery of Dodge's sudden death.
It's not unusual in Kagawong, one of Ontario's
prettiest villages on Manitoulin's north shore, to see a villager with a group
of visitors, gesturing far across the blue to a dark-hued peninsula.
"That's Maple Point. That's where it all happened,"
His name was Daniel George Dodge, but everyone
called him Danny.
In 1938 at the age of 21, Danny had dark hair
combed straight back, steel-rim glasses and the firm Dodge family jaw. He liked
to tinker alone with experiments in his workshop. A few older villagers in
Kagawong remember him.
They recall his flashy red convertible "with lots
of horns and lights." Dodge would give them rides to Gore Bay. They remember
his racy speedboat. And they recalled how he liked to hang around the Kagawong
docks with the local kids and wait for the packet boat to bring the mail.
"He was a kind of like James Dean," said Austin
Hunt, 80, a lifelong resident in Kagawong. As a boy, he had known Dodge, who
was about five years older.
The village of Kagawong still looks much as it did
64 years ago, except the railroad tracks are gone. It's a quiet, pretty village
where people stroll a wooded path to the nearby Bridal Veil Falls. The name
Kagawong means "where mists rise from the falling water."
Dodgeowned a lodge on Maple Point, which was a
half-hour ride along a bone-jarring road that ran north from Kagawong.
The lodge, which I've visited several times, was no
Mackinac Island mansion but it wasn't a primitive hunter's cabin, either. It
had a huge stone fireplace, a pool table, an electric generator, a tennis court
and a small dock where Dodge kept his mahogany resort boat named MAC.
Pretty modest stuff for a young man worth $11
You can visit his lodge today. For four years, it
has been run by Sandy and David Hurcomb as the Dodge Lodge bed & breakfast.
As the villagers told it, Danny fell in love "with an island girl" who was the
telephone operator in the nearby town of Gore Bay. Annie Lorraine MacDonald was
Lorraine (sometimes spelled Laurine) MacDonald was
tall, athletic and, in her later years, given to wearing large hats. Dodge's
widowed mother, Matilda Dodge Wilson, was horrified. She opposed the wedding
and pegged his bride as a gold digger, according to villagers and newspaper
Despite family opposition, the two were married
Aug. 2, 1938, at Meadow Brook Hall in what is now Rochester Hills.
Days later, newspapers said, the honeymooners
showed up at his lodge on Manitoulin Island's north shore. Lorraine made her
influence felt within days. Dodge fired his longtime caretaker and hired three
of her friends, Frank Valiquette, Lloyd Bryant and Bryant's wife.
Aug. 15, disaster struck. The three men were
fiddling with dynamite in the garage as Lorraine Dodge watched from the door. A
fuse was lighted. Danny Dodge tried to throw the stick out a window, but it hit
the ledge and bounced back. By some accounts, it set off a pile of dynamite
caps on the floor.
Newspapers at the time reported that all four were
injured and burned. One newspaper quoted doctors as saying Danny Dodge's
injuries were so severe he could not have survived.
Bryant lay near death, riddled with wood splinters
and scraps of metal. His stomach was cut open and an artery in his arm was
The four decided to try to reach a doctor by taking
Dodge's boat to Little Current, the island's largest town.
All four plus Bryant's wife got into the
250-horsepower Lodge Torpedo speedboat. Lorraine Dodge took the wheel despite
her injuries. Valiquette sat beside her. Danny Dodge and the Bryants were in
the back, with Bryant's wife desperately trying to stop her husband's bleeding.
On smooth water, the boatcould make the trip to Little Current in 40 minutes.
On that day, the waves were greater than 4 feet high. After two hours, the boat
had reached Honora Point, still 40 minutes from Little Current.
Injured and exhausted, Lorraine Dodge said she
could drive no longer. She asked Valiquette to take the wheel. That's when it
happened, Lorraine Dodge later testified at a coroner's inquest. "I asked Frank
to take over driving the boat. My arm hurt so badly," she said.
"I then heard Mrs. Bryant scream and when I looked,
Dan was going over the side of the boat. We turned back and tried to rescue him
but could not. We searched for about 10 minutes."
At that point, after determining the location, the
remaining group decided to go on to Little Current.
Danny Dodge's drowning was front-page news in
Detroit and across the nation. According to a recent story by journalist Roger
Tottman, Danny Dodge's stepfather, Alfred G. Wilson, offered a $1,500 reward
for finding the body. Scores of boats came to join the search, including a
two-person sub from Detroit. Days went by, then weeks. Twenty-three days later,
two fishermen found his body.
Oct. 24,1938, a coroner's jury in Little Current
handed down its verdict: "accidental death by drowning."
Yet some islanders still speculate that the
young bride planned the apparent accident to gain a fortune. Some say it was
just a slip and fall. Others say Danny Dodge killed himself, either because he
couldn't bear the pain of his injuries or because he felt responsible for
Bryant's apparently certain death. (In fact, Bryant lived.)
Lorraine Dodge, after a court battle, inherited
between $1.25 million and $2.5 million, the amount changing with various
Following the accident, she was married briefly to
the plastic surgeon who helped her following the blast. She married again,
moved to Indiana and later to San Diego. Her last visit to the island was two
years ago, Austin Hunt said.
This stretch of Lake Huron might not be a northern
Bermuda Triangle, but hundreds of ships and dozens of airplanes have gone down
here, says Richard Hammond of Manitoulin, a sleuth of lost airplanes and ships.
By his estimate, some 300 to 400 ships have sunk off the southern banks of
Manitoulin and perhaps an equal number in the North Channel.
One of the ships is suspected to be the Griffon,
which belonged to La Salle, the famous French explorer. In the late summer of
1679, the ship was to carry him on a great exploration. He intended to go from
just above Niagara Falls through the Great Lakes to the foot of Lake Michigan
and then down to the mouth of the Mississippi.
La Salle stopped at Green Bay in Lake Michigan
where he filled the ship with beaver pelts to pay off some of his debts and
sent it back without him.
The Griffon, its crew of five and the furs were
never seen again.
Lots of other ships have sunk near Manitoulin,
Hammond said. They were caught in storms, got lost and foundered during the
island's heavy fogs that come in spring and fall. Others were so poorly made
that they sank. Still others were deliberately set afire and sunk so owners
could collect insurance.
As for the airplanes, Hammond counts 36.
Three summers ago, he salvaged Roosevelt's plane, a
U.S. Army Air Corps Beechcraft Uc-43B Traveler Staggerwing dispatched as a mail
plane while FDR was on a fishing trip at Manitoulin in August 1943.
The incident did not get much publicity at the time
because Roosevelt was supposed to be concentrating on winning World War II, not
on catching pickerel.
The plane had been sent up from Selfridge Field
near Detroit. During takeoff on MacGregor Bay for the return to Michigan, an
electrical fire broke out, fuel ignited and the plane sank in 90 feet of water.
The pilot and a crew member were rescued.
After some searching, Hammond found the plane's
engine, its floats and other parts three years ago. His finds and the complete
story are on display at the Centennial Museum at Sheguiandah.
So if you are a pragmatic sort, you must believe
there is a logical explanation for the sinking of every one of the ships near
Manitoulin Island. And if they disappeared, there's probably an explanation for
that, too. That's what Hammond thinks.
But if your mind finds enchantment in mysteries,
then maybe, just maybe, something unexplainable happened. Maybe something
magical happened when the horizon just vanished and boats drifted into the
Contact GERRY VOLGENAU at 313-223-6521