Manitou Island ferry service docked for 2020 season

Leland — The Mishe-Mokwa rides silently at her berth on the river in Leland’s Fishtown, her seats and hold empty.

For the first time in 103 years, a Manitou Island Transit ferry service is not sailing to North and South Manitou Islands. The owners of the company ceased operations for 2020 to the two islands in Lake Michigan due to unsafe and poor dockage.

The Grosvenor family began sailing to the islands in 1917, and four generations have continued serving the islands with residents, hikers, campers, hunters and visitors each summer. Private docks allowed them to safely disembark passengers.

“For the first time in over 100 years, our boat will stay in the harbor,” said Manitou Island Transit company co-owner Megan Grosvenor Munoz in a statement. The company ferries more than 10,000 passengers to the two islands each year. Cancellations and refunds for ferry tickets began going out in March. Tickets cost $42 for adults and $21 for those 12 and younger.

“I believe customers are as devastated as we are,” said Munoz, tearful at the thought of no ferry service this summer. “Many customers rode the ferry to the islands when my grandfather was operating the boat. They are like family to us.”

When the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore was established in 1970 and the government took over the island properties, the ferry service signed contracts and became the authorized concessionaire to allow it the rights to carry supplies and passengers to the islands, which are 12 miles (North Manitou) and 18 miles (South Manitou) offshore in Lake Michigan from Leland, Michigan.

The National Park Service decided in the 1980s that new docks had to be built on both islands. A study was done, engineers were put to work and new sites for the docks were chosen a mile from the existing private piers, which had been used for years by the ferry and park services.

The Grosvenor and Munoz families were against the locations, stating that currents and other natural factors would create problems and a need for yearly dredging.

“The National Park Service has not budgeted money to maintain the docks in a way that is necessary for their location,” Munoz said. “The truth is we are not sure if it is a funding issue or if we are not considered a priority. Every year, we cross our fingers hoping we can get in (to the docks). This year, we cannot.”

According to the federal park service, Lake Michigan’s high water has “damaged the docks at South Manitou Island, making it unsafe for disembarking passengers, and at North Manitou, sand movement over the winter has made dock access nearly impossible, until a previously planned dredging contract can be carried out in late July.” 

Captain Mike Grosvernor, 50, said Luedtke Engineering of Frankfort told “us if the docks aren’t maintained, they would be lost. It’s not fair to taxpayers to build the docks and not maintain them.”

For now, Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich of the National Park Service said a new contract for dredging the North Manitou dock is set to begin removing accumulated sand and debris after July 16.

“The dredging budget of $360,000 is a start,” Ulrich said. “It will open up the pier for a while. Lake Michigan is pretty dynamic right now, with strong winds pushing record-high water levels and sand; it is not expected to change within the near future.”

Plans to raise the South Manitou pier 18 inches this spring was pulled due to the pandemic, which slowed all activity when the national lakeshore was closed for weeks.

“We had canceled entrance fees when we reopened the park,” he said. “The budget is so up in the air now we need to find more money somewhere to keep us going.”

Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich, who has four marine deputies on his staff and a 25-foot rescue boat in Leland harbor, is concerned about those traveling on the water on smaller watercraft in absence of the ferry.

“If it’s blowing hard and the lake is rough, it will take quite a while to reach the island if we have a rescue call or an emergency,” Borkovich said.

“The loss of the ferry will hurt the little guy who wants to bring his family north and enjoy an affordable outing with his family. We are concerned for anyone who tries to visit the island, in a kayak, a small boat. There are so many ways to create a problem without a usable dockage.”

A concern for losing the passenger service to the island is one of safety. Visitors traveling to South Manitou will have to anchor offshore and take a dinghy to land; on North Manitou, there is enough water for a small boat to dock, but the park service limits that stay to 30 minutes to unload or disembark, said Borkovich. 

Charter boats will have to obtain a commercial use authorization permit through the park service.

Manitou Island Transit holds the permit presently but has cut back its liability insurance for the year. 

As far as offering the service again, said Munoz, “we are not taking reservations at this point, not even for 2021.”

The loss of thousands of passengers to the village of Leland at this point is unknown, according to Leland Chamber of Commerce president and gallery owner Jennifer Collins.

“We have customers who stop in the shop in the morning before the ferry leaves for the islands, and some stop in later in the afternoon when the ferry returns. It’s hard to measure the impact of the ferry not operating,” said Collins, “but it’s definitely going to be a big loss to us and the village.

“Lots of us were closed through the COVID-19 shutdowns, and we are going to be hard-pressed to regain that lost business. With the loss of the ferry, it affects every business in town.”

Although the shops in Fishtown were crowded with visitors on a recent Saturday, the loss of the ferry service will still impact stores along the river. Manitou Island Transit maintains a ticket office and gift shop along the dock there and had customers coming and going all day.

“We’ll have to depend on foot traffic this year,” Munoz said.

Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, finds joy in seeing piles of children’s backpacks waiting for the ferry to leave with excited first-time youngsters heading out for an island experience.

“The whole experience of taking the ferry to the islands is what makes this area so special,” she said. 

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