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The Heartbeat of the Land

The splendour of this magnificent island, at the tip of Cape Robert on the Nimkee Trail, Sheshegwaning First Nation. • Credit: Steven Fox-Radulovich
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The Heartbeat of the Land

Aboriginal Motorcycle Tourism on Manitoulin Island

Ontario's Manitoulin Island is rich with so much culture and beauty and, as the world's largest freshwater island, it's best not to try and take it all in in just one day.

NortheasternOntario.com's trip planner is a great way to connect you with one of the many motorcycle friendly accommodations on the island or anywhere in Northeastern Ontario. Take your bike along the Georgian Bay Coastal Route and either hop on the ferry at Tobermory or zip over the swing bridge at Little Current and you've made it. The Manitoulin Island Tour has been drawing motorcycle cruisers the world over for years with it's serene beauty and relaxed island atmosphere. An unforgettable weekend of riding and exploring is that close at hand! 

The Creator's Island

photo 1 stop sign resized 
First Nations are a great place to stop and explore the back country.  

Mantioulin Island—or Mnidoo Mnising, the Creator’s Island. It is said that when you look at the Island, you are looking through the eyes of Manitou and seeing what he envisioned his creation to look like. He picked the clearest lakes, bluest skies, his favourite plants and medicines, filled the lakes with the tastiest fish, and filled the lands with game.

A botany professor once told me that 75% of the flora and fauna of Canada can be found on Manitoulin. The Island contains some unique biodiversity and ecology—mixed forests, towering limestone bluffs, inland lakes, savannah, lush forest and wetland. You will also find alvars, a result of glaciers scraping to bedrock where plant life clings tenuously. More than half of the earth’s alvars are found in the Great Lakes basin. The scenery is spectacular and unique, and changing all the time. On an adventure bike, you can get to those out of the way places and see them all as well as get to meet the people that this land shaped, the Anishinabe.

photo 2 nimkee trail
Multi-purpose trails like the Nimkee Trail in Sheshegwaning, offer good intermediate to advanced riding.

Riders have a connection to the road and our environment that you just don’t experience the same way in the insular environment of a car, or a “cage,” as some riders cheekily refer to our four-wheel brethren. There is a sense of connection not only to our natural environment, but the people in it as well. You don’t have to get out of your cage to engage; on a bike, you stop and strike up a conversation. Drive by tourism is great but every once in a while it’s nice to take the time to put the kickstand down, socialize, and take it all in.

Pow Wow Time

photo 3 pow wow signage 
Checking out a pow wow is a great day trip and a good reason as any to visit a First Nation community. 

The Anishnabe say that the heartbeat of Mother Earth, the land, is in the drum. You can feel the drum resonating in your chest, much like hammering pistons. It’s powerful. If you want to get connected to the land in a way like no other, meet the people and experience the songs and dances that come from the land, go to a pow wow.

Most pow wows, if not all, are open to everybody. And this is the great thing: the traditional pow wows are usually free, some ask for donation. Often, First Nation peoples are more than accommodating and welcome visitors. The traditional pow wows are smaller and more intimate, more of a social as opposed to the competition pow wows, that is what they were originally for, a social event, a gathering, a celebration. Slow down, stop in and take a look around. It’s worth it. 

photo 11 big dream catcherZhiibaahaasing pow wow grounds, with the world's largest dream catcher and peace pipe. You can drive right up to them on your bike.

Pow Wows Schedule 2016

  • • Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation. Traditional Pow Wow. June 4 & 5
  • • Thunderbird Park in Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve Traditional Pow Wow. June 18 & 19
  • • Sheshegwaning First Nation, Traditional Pow Wow, June 18 & 19
  • • Sheguiandah First Nation, Traditional Pow Wow, July 2 & 3
  • • Sagamok Anishnawbek, Traditional Pow Wow, July 13 – 14
  • • Wikwemikong Unceded, Indian Reserve, Cultural Festival and Pow Wow, July 30 & August 1
  • • Whitefish River First Nation, Traditional Pow Wow, August 20 & 21
  • • Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, Traditional Pow Wow, August 26 & 29
  • • M’Chigeeng First Nation, Traditional Pow Wow, September 3 & 4


View Manitoulin North Shore Pow Wows in a larger map

photo 4 michigeen pow wow groundsM’Chigeeng Pow wow grounds. There is a hiking trail in the background that takes you to a great lookout at the top of the bluff. I would not recommend taking a bike. I tried.

Pretty much every First Nation community has its own pow wow grounds. Aside from the dancing and singing, the pow wow is more often than not used as an excuse to eat, calories be damned. It may do you good to cut the rug out there and burn off a few calories. Listen for when they say “intertribal," everybody dance. No worries, you can dance like a crazy person. Nobody minds; as long as you are sincere about being crazy, they will respect that. Just be respectful and be mindful, as there are some songs and dances that are ceremonial for given dancers and you could get reprimanded for taking pictures.

Different communities have different protocols. Think of it as an educational trip; when in doubt about what is going on, ask. There will be somebody out there who will be more than happy to explain everything to you. Traditional pow wows are often smaller and very friendly, it’s a social event.  Everyone is welcome! Dancers, singers, friends, family and visitors socialize.

photo 5 AOK pow wow
Pow wow at Aundeck Omni Kannning (AOK). It’s a good idea to be respectful, the pow wow grounds are considered sacred. I probably should not have parked so close, as I slunk out afterward. When in doubt, ask.


photo 6 dancersSome local colour from around the Island, Tom Hare (background) sang with a champion drum group. Retired from singing, Tom now comes to pow wows for the food.

You will more often than not find traders at a pow wow, where you can buy direct from the artisans and craftspeople at a much more reasonable price than the gift shops. They are more than happy to talk about their craft and and if interested there is always the possibility of getting custom work done. The vendors also have various types of native fare. The famous Indian Taco is a must if you have never had it before. I usually go for the salt pork on fried bread, and a corn soup. Scope out other people’s foods and if it looks good, ask where they got it. That is the best way. Or just eat your way from one vendor to the next.

photo 7 craft vendorsThere are plenty of food, arts and crafts vendors at pow wows. It’s a great place to buy native crafts for a good price. You are usually dealing directly with the people that make them.

Getting Around

photo 8 turtle crossing 

Access to First Nations communities doesn’t require an adventure bike. For many First Nation communities, you can weave your way slowly there through secondary or gravel road access. So sometimes it’s just good to slow down and enjoy the view. With that said, there are always a few roads that the adventure rider can take to get off the beaten path a bit and really enjoy the scenery. 

photo 9 winding dirt roadWhy go straight there? Enjoy the ride and wind your way to the pow wow through the numerous back roads. This one out to Zhiibaahaasing is about 9km long, a good break from asphalt. 

Once you’re on the Island, pow wow or no, drive-by tourism is an option. You should do both. There is still plenty of cultural touring that you can do in self guided tours and the Great Spirit Circle Trail offers a range of activities on site, and guided tours. Calling ahead is a good idea if you want something specific. They can also point you in the right direction to get accommodations in a First Nation community. The GSCT offers a range of experiences that you can chose from.

view coming in GSCT 
The Great Spirit Circle Trail, above, is at the bottom of a downhill sweeper as you come into the community of M’Chigeeng First Nation.

The GSCT main office is an information centre located in M’Chigeeng First Nation and features a traditional village, and free wifi! There are a range of on-site activities such as workshops, guided tours and other packages that you can arrange through the GSCT. If you have time it is well worth it for this unique experience. Point is, it’s more than just a tourist information centre. They can give you all sorts of ideas and information on what is currently going on. Check out the website for more information better yet, just stop in.  

photo 10 falcon and author 
Falcon Migwans and the author outside of the Great Spirit Circle Trail Office. Falcon is a drummer, dancer, craftsman and all around go-to guy at the GSTC. When we arrived they had gone out with a group and harvested huge morels and were about to cook them on a campfire with venison and leeks. Motorcycles welcome! 

While in M’Chigeeng, there are a couple of great places to eat, check out Maggie’s and Seasons. Nimkee Gallery has an awesome collection of high end fine arts and crafts and Lillians Crafts has a massive selection to chose from.

Stay Awhile

If you are looking for a place to stay, there are some wonderful places right in the communities. If you book ahead there are accommodations to be had at Rainbow Lodge, they have a main lodge and two separate cabins. This is a beautiful location and walking distance from the pow wow. Aundeck Omni Kanning has cottages available as well that are pretty much on site at the pow wow grounds and Sheshegwaning has Nishin Eco Lodge. There is everything from glamping to a new hotel and conference centre, depending on how adventurous you feel. The Great Spirit Circle trail has all this information, best consult with them, book ahead of time, summer is a busy time on the Island.

photo 12 eco lodge
The ride out to the Eco Lodge in Sheshegwanning is a great ride for any level of adventure bike. Staging rides from there would make for a great weekend.


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