Late summer swoon: a swim to North Manitou Island

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Delightful summer temperatures returned for one final hurrah in late September, just before the Fall Equinox and the onset of autumn. Holland, Mich. resident Jon Ornée took advantage of it.

The triathlete, who is both intensely driven but affable, swam from Pyramid Point to North Manitou Island on Sept. 20. The 7.4-mile swim took him two hours and 50 minutes. If anyone has swum that route before, they probably didn’t do so in less than three hours.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore superintendent Scott Tucker confirmed that he and his staff know of no one in Ornée’s club. But Tucker added, “this is not a recreational activity that we recommend.”

The swim was just the start. Three days later, Ornée and four team members smashed a World Ultra Cycling record by biking 205 miles across Michigan, from Muskegon to Port Sanilac, in eight hours and 17 minutes—beating the previous record by nearly a full hour.

Ornée had hoped to complete the swim in early August, but severely injured his right elbow when he was hit by a car while cycling in May. “I’m extremely grateful that the lake warmed up this week and was so peaceful to allow me to make the crossing a little later in the summer than originally planned,” he said.

After the accident, Ornée had two stainless steel pins inserted into his elbow and a tension wire to hold it together. He was unable to use his arm for two months. All summer he trained using a one-armed stroke which he described as “kind of a hybrid between butterfly and freestyle”.

Ornée, who is a digital designer for Creativino, benefited from warm air and lake temperatures that returned for the final weekend of summer. “A week [before his swim] the water temperature by North Manitou Island was 48 degrees and I thought the window might have closed,” he confessed. “Thankfully the warm weather and south west winds this past week warmed it back up into the 60s.”

He scrambled to find a boat and captain for support, and contacted Traverse City resident Justin Acker, who has a 17-foot Boston Whaler, two days before the swim. Acker and Ornée met for the first time on Thursday evening in Leland. Interlochen resident Robert Lowing followed Ornée in a sea kayak.

“The conditions were absolutely perfect with Lake Michigan as calm as I’ve ever seen it,” said Ornée after completing his journey to North Manitou. “With the exception of one freighter that crossed our path, the morning was completely drama-free. I swam in a wetsuit and fins which helped keep me buoyant and take a little pressure off of my right elbow which is still recovering.”

An experienced triathlete, Ornée conceived the idea of swimming from the mainland to North Manitou while hiking Sleeping Bear Point on July 6, 2018, with his wife, Necia, and their children, Asher and Romana. Naturally, they told the kids the legend of Sleeping Bear and the bear cubs who became the Manitou Islands.

“Whenever I’m standing on a shore looking across the water at the other side, there’s part of me that really wants to swim across,” he said.

Then he was hit by a car on May 16.

“I was temporarily crushed, and disheartened by the crash,” Ornée said. “(The swim) really became a mission that drove my recovery process.”

The furthest distance Ornée had swum before this was 5 kilometers—less than half the distance between Pyramid Point and North Manitou. 

He took three breaks during the journey and treaded water while his support crew tossed him a bottle of water and a smoothie packed with “power greens” (spinach and kale), bananas, blueberries, almonds, chia seeds, carrots, cacao, peanut butter, and vanilla. “It tastes like a chocolate peanut butter milkshake,” Ornée laughed.

“It was 2 hours and 50 minutes of pure gratitude,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t overly difficult either. I was overwhelmed with joy the whole time.”

Swimming to the Manitous

The story of Jon Ornée’s swim to North Manitou went viral on social media. It was also picked up by news outlets throughout northern Michigan. People tipped their caps and offered congratulations. Some tagged their athletic friends on Facebook and dared them to follow suit. A few mentioned stories of friends or family members who had also swum to the islands. [Others hinted at having done so but shunned the spotlight and didn’t offer details.] Ornée might not have been the first to swim to North Manitou, but he probably swam there the fastest.

Here is one other story: On July 25, 2017, Kathy Heikkila, 56 at the time, swam from Sleeping Bear Point to South Manitou. Her daughter Kirsi and a friend accompanied her in a boat to watch out for freighters; her son and husband paddleboarded alongside her. They had hired a charter boat a week earlier, but the weather didn’t cooperate, leaving Heikkila disappointed. 

A week later, on a whim, her son checked the wind for the following morning and noted that Sleeping Bear Bay would be glassy calm. They all awoke at 5 a.m., launched a friend’s boat and dropped Heikkila at Sleeping Bear Point. The swim took her approximately four hours. Heikkila didn’t get out of the water at all, but stopped and treaded water about halfway through the swim to eat a peanut butter sandwich.

“My mom is a very humble person. She didn’t want any news reports on this or any recognition for it,” said daughter Kirsi Anna Heikkila. “It was a personal goal for herself.”