Homesteading on Manitoulin Island

homesteading island
Manitouin Island is a great spot for homesteading, especially if you like the combination of farmland, forests and clean lakes. This is one of more than 100 inland lakes on Manitoulin

Finding a homesteading property  wasn’t easy for Mary and I, and you’ll probably run into most of the same challenges we did.

You need to find a piece of land that’s attractive and productive, ideally with a combination of farmland and forest. You’ll also want it located in a locale that you like, it has to fit your budget, and it needs either the kind of buildings you can live with or no buildings at all. All these things, plus the land also has to be for sale, too.  That’s a tall order, but after four years of searching, we did find an area that clicked with us right away, and a piece of land . . .

Ideal Homesteading Properties Not That Common

When I looked at homestead properties in farming areas, I found wall-to-wall corn fields with brown, silted rivers, phosphorus-polluted lakes and high land prices. When I looked at cottage country, I found clean water and lots of trees, but not enough soil to grow a tomato plant.

My last land scouting trip was to an area with rich soil, but a climate so cold you couldn’t even grow an apple tree. The 6 hours it took to drive there was a big disappointment, and I was really getting discouraged at this stage because nothing I’d found was even remotely close to what I wanted to build my life around. I was 22 years old by then, living with my parents, and on my way back home I decided to take a detour and travel across Manitoulin Island. I had no expectations, I just wanted to see the place. Within five minutes of crossing the swing bridge in an island town called Little Current, I knew that somewhere here was the place for me.  I was right.

homesteading rail fences
Cedar rail fences are common enough to be ordinary on Manitoulin homesteading properties. Some rails in this fence still bear the chard edges from the time an Island-wide fire swept Manitoulin for European settlement.

The reasons for the attraction back then are the same as they are today. Manitoulin is the most diverse landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s the largest freshwater island in the world, and includes a refreshing balance of family farms, mature forests and over 100 clean inland lakes with lots of fish. The south shore looks like the ocean and the north shore fronts on one of the most spectacular sailing areas in the world. Manitoulin is teeming with deer (you can easily see 40 or 50 during a one hour evening drive in the summer), rabbits are everywhere, as are coyotes. There are also bobcat, fisher, bald eagles, blue birds and even trustworthy though unconfirmed sightings of cougar. Also  – and this has always been vitally important for me –  Manitoulin is two or three hours drive from the nearest city, so there isn’t even a whiff of the urban about it. It’s a franchise-free zone, with none of the lifestyle nonsense that kicks in when rural places are really just bedroom communities for people with city careers.

homesteading apple tree
This maiden’s blush apple tree is still a productive part of our homesteading life today and was also bearing fruit when our late neighbour, Ivan Bailey, was a boy. He was born in 1909.

My discovery of Manitoulin happened on a summer, warm day in August of 1985, and many things surprised me about the island. Apple trees were one of them. They grew on farmsteads around the island, but also they grew wild along the sides of the road. And most of them were more or less worm-free without care – something I’d never seen before.

Asking price for a 100 acre Manitoulin farm without buildings back then was $30,000. After a few days searching I found a listing for a 91.5 acre parcel of good soil and forest for $18K. I made an offer of $16.5K, it was accepted, and the rest is history. It took all my savings to buy the land and a little bit extra from my parents, but homesteading had now moved from theory to reality. It was time to start thinking about building a house, but I had to do it cheap.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 1.17.48 PMClick  to read what we did with our homestead land once the deed was settled. It was a surprising test that you’ll do better at if you know it might be coming.

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