By: Tom Bamonte
When Dave Kaknes promised to "sing" the story of Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie around the campfire I knew that the Lake Erie Islands trip was one not to be missed. Unfortunately, we never got the hear Dave emulate Homer. The skeeters and the allure of a nearby bar and grill kept us from gathering around a campfire. Yet, a dozen of us had a fine trip to the Lake Erie islands on the weekend of June 25, 2010 and we even learned the story of Oliver H. Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie.
There is a significant archipelago in Lake Erie, about six hours of easy driving east of Chicago. The islands allow the adventuresome to island hop the roughly 35 miles from the mainland in Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, to Point Pelee, the southernmost point of mainland Canada, on the north shore of the Lake.
On the United States side the islands include Kelley's Island, South Bass Island, Middle Bass Island and North Bass Island. Pelee Island, a sizable island about 7 miles long and three miles wide, is the largest Canadian island. Scattered throughout are smaller islands, some occupied and some uninhabited and serving as nurseries for gulls and cormorants. As migrating birds, like kayakers, enjoy island hopping, the archipelago is a favorite of bird watchers.
In contrast to the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan, the site of last year's trip, this is not a wilderness area, although Ohio is transforming North Bass island into a more rustic area. Most of the larger islands are filled with cottages, as this is a vacation mecca for Ohioans and others. Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island is a classic tourist town, with a fine harbor, restaurants, bars and museums. The other large islands have amenities such as bars and general stores.
Frequent ferries serve the islands and fleets of golf carts provide land transportation. There is lots of boat traffic and, as we found out, the Coast Guard has an active presence.
These amenities give groups plenty of options. The ferries provide an alternative to open water crossings in hazardous conditions. The museums and historical sites on the islands arguably provide more mental stimulation than watching gophers. And what's not to like about the ready availability of food, beer and ice cream after a day of paddling.
The paddling environment among these islands is the real deal. (Chart) Lake Erie is shallow compared to the familiar waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Even a mile or more from land the water still had that tan color that indicates shallow water. The deepest spots among the islands is only about 30 feet deep.
The area is prone to sudden and violent thunderstorms that generally swoop in from the west. Combine high winds and shallow water and very quickly you have choppy, unpredictable waves. The shoreline in many places is rocky and there are some areas with cliffs where there are no easy landings.
Nevertheless, there plenty of beaches and other places of shelter mixed in with the rock. In short, this area has plenty of challenges--and plenty of safety options--for the paddler.
One undeniable benefit of the shallow water is the warm water temperatures in the summer. The water temperatures were in the low seventies when we visited, which made rolls and rescue practice a real delight. The latest GLCFS data shows that water temperatures have continued to climb into the mid to upper seventies.2010 TRIP
This trip was inspired by a New York Times article lauding the Lake Erie Islands area as a paddling destination. We wanted someplace within a reasonable drive of Chicago that would offer options for paddlers at all levels of experience and interests. The prospect of paddling in an area with plenty of touristy amenities was an appealing contrast to the typical grit-your-teeth-and-get-away-from-it-all wilderness trip.
The crew consisted of Dave Kaknes and his wife Jeanie, Pat Lutsch, Jim DesJardins, Erin Jones, Denis Jones (no relation), David Avni, the engineer known as Bill, Steve Muntz, Denise Poloyac, Hether Hoffman and I. It was a nice mixture of ages (20s to 80s) and paddling experience (zero to many years). We coordinated travel arrangements, contact lists and the like through a Yahoo group specially created for the trip.
The first group arrived at our campground on Middle Bass Island on Friday, mostly by car ferry from Catawba Island. I had arrived early enough to paddle over from the launch site just east of the ferry (map here courtesy of local paddle Marius Asipauskas). I stayed to the east of the ferry route when paddling the three miles to South Bass Island and then crossed over near the terminal on the south shore of the Island. I continued up the west side of South Bass Island, playing in the choppy water kicked up by the cliffs and explored Put-in-Bay harbor, looking for landing sites. (There is a good spot just east of the Boardwalk Restaurant, which is easy to find in the center of the harbor.) The crossing from Put-in-Bay to the campground on the southwest side of Middle Bass Island is a bit over a mile. Boat traffic is heavy.
At the south tip of Middle Bass are the remains of the Lonz Winery. The once thriving winery was housed in a Spanish/Moorish style of building that is very distinctive. The winery business collapsed after a deck full of imbibing visitors fell down a decade ago, causing many injuries. The building provides a convenient landmark for the crossing from Put-in-Bay. The campground is about a quarter of a mile northwest of the winery. Aim for the picnic table at the head of the beach.
The campground was built in a wetlands so the mosquitoes were challenging, especially after a very wet June. Apparently, this was the only lakefront property available so the State did what it could. Nearby is a marina with showers. There was no potable water, but the ranger sold water in one gallon jugs.
One of my enduring images from the trip was walking back from the ranger's office and seeing much of the group in silhouette against the late sunset, clustered around the table. The scene made me realize how important these trips are for bringing people together for the simple pleasures of each other's company and the kind of face-to-face chit-chat that our Facebook-deprived ancestors used to do from their front porches.
On Saturday morning, the rest of the group arrived, having paddled from the Catawba Island launch site. They had encountered some "interesting" chop amidst the cliffs and outcroppings on the west side of South Bass Island but overall had a nice crossing. With their arrival our beach was festooned with almost a dozen colorful kayaks.
Erin and I had missed their arrival because we had embarked on a crossing to Pelee Island. Our route took us from our campground on the southwest corner of Middle Bass Island to the northeast tip of the island, about 2.5 miles away. From there we made a six mile crossing to the southern tip of Pelee Island. This was a fine paddle, with modest following seas and wind from the southwest.
We landed and took a break at the south end of Pelee Island, right where the trees tapered off into a long sand spit. The weather forecast was for thunderstorms developing later in the day, so we did not stay long.
In light of the darkening
sky we decided to return via Middle Island. This uninhabited island
has a reputation for being spooky and it lived up to that reputation.
It is overrun by gulls and cormorants. There are stands of dead trees
covered with cormorants. Gulls fill the sky and on the west spit where
we landed there was a gull rookery where we both saw our first gull
chicks. It wasn't until after we had finished lunch that we wanderws
up the the sign--planted in the middle of the rookery--that informed us
that we weren't supposed to be on this island.
The sky cleared a bit and we made a beeline back to South Bass Island. A Coast Guard vessel met us as we crossed back into the United States. I thought we might be hauled aboard, asked to produce passports (we had them) and interrogated. The crew decided, however, that we weren't worth the trouble and sent us on our way. We pushed against the headwind and made it back to Middle Bass without incident. The same Coast Guard boat cruised by as we entered the channel between Middle and South Bass islands and the crew waved. They had verified that we were not terrorists threats, just two goofballs in kayaks.
Crossings stir up your feelings. The tedium of paddling and watching your destination not get any closer is offset by the heightened alertness as one scans the sky and the water for hazards. You are very alone in a tiny boat miles from shore and the thoughts of so much that can go wrong creep around the edge of your consciousness. Yet, it is so right to be out there under the dome of the sky with the only sounds being the wind, the hiss of the waves and the slice/slap of the paddle.
We got to talking near the end of the trip about our shared guilt at devoting so much time and energy to paddling when there is so much else the world needs done and so many injustices to right. We didn't come to any definitive answers to a question that I know bedevils some other paddlers as well.
My view is that there is something inherently good in doing any activity well. Our careful, successful crossing honored those who over the centuries had developed the design of our craft and those in the paddling community who had taken the time to teach us our paddling skills. As appreciative witnesses to the nature around us we honored our world. Our modest paddling achievement, like those throughout the weekend by others in the group, reflected well on the companions who encouraged us and served as on-shore support in case we ran into trouble. Certainly our trip did nothing to cure global warming or cancer, but there is just something that feels right, even virtuous, about performing a challenging task well.
On our crossing Erin nursed fantasies of being greeted upon landing with a welcome parade and a fine dinner spread. I cautioned her against such high expectations, explaining that we would be lucky to get a few kind words and a pat on the back for our achievement. This seemingly blase attitude towards individual paddling achievements has a strong ethical and practical basis. When a paddling group lavishes too much praise on individual paddling achievements it creates an incentive for group members to take undue risks and attempt paddles beyond their capabilities. So, Erin never got her parade for her first major crossing, and rightfully so, but I do recall that two dashing gentlemen (Bill and David) bearing a pizza box appeared soon after we landed and presented such to Erin. This act of chivalry came after they had spent a hard afternoon at Walleyes sampling the microbrews and watching the World Cup matches while braving the air conditioning. Truly noble men.
That night the group split between those who went to a nearby bar and grill for dinner and those who cooked. The group came back together to watch the sunset from the picnic table.
After sunset some of us went to bed but an intrepid group launched and paddled up the west side of the island into the fading light of sunset. Once clear of the island they turned and watched the full moon rise. This moonlight paddle was the trip highlight for many of those participants. Here is Jim Des Jardins' report on this spectacular paddle:
The most outstanding event for me was thepaddle. There were six of us, Dave, Steve, Denise, Hether, Dani (a novice) and myself. We launched from our campsite on just after sundown and returned in the dark about two hours later.
It was almost dark when arrived at the north to the end of the island and decided to cross to Sugar Island, approximately a mile northwest. Heather escorted Dani back to the launching point as it was getting dark, he did not have a spray skirt and we were going to paddle over open water. The rest of us paddled over to and around Sugar Island and then back to the launching point.
All was well in our paddling world. It was a wonderfully calm and quiet evening with a close to full moon guiding us back. Few words were spoken. It was enough being out on a calm moonlit sea. The few lights on shore helped guide us along. We arrived back at the launch point where Pat had put a torch (a mosquito repellent flame) to guide us in. For me, it was the perfect moonlight paddle.
Note for next time: Don’t forget the GPS and a headlamp, only Denise had brought a headlamp.
SundayThe weather forecast for Sunday was for deteriorating conditions. In the morning we took a group paddle around Rattlesnake Island, which is controlled by a private club. The island has its own landing strip and a varied rocky coast. We enjoyed the paddle and the view back to the main group of islands. We returned to wish Dave and Jeanine off. They had to return early to care for their business. Their unfortunate early departure deprived us of the story of Oliver H. Perry. We would have to learn the tale on our own.
Sunday also featured the drama of Erin's car, which had literally died as it pulled into the campsite Friday night. Various muttered incantations and under-the-hood interventions had failed to revive the alternator. The car had to be towed to the ferry. We later learned that Erin, Bill and David had arranged for a tow truck to meet them on Catawba Island. They spent an undoubtedly pleasant few hours in a Sandusky, Ohio garage and then had a safe journey back to Chicago.
After it was clear that our services to push Erin's car to the dock would not be needed, we decided to paddle over to Put-in-Bay after lunch for ice cream. A few of us triggered a near-mutiny by the ice cream crazed when we lingered over our lunches. Furious negotiations ensued and a launch time was settled upon. We pushed off at precisely the time agreed to. This was a valuable lesson in trip leadership. The promise of ice cream on a hot sticky day is a powerful motivator for folks to get launch ready on time.
View From Campsite Beach to Put-in-Bay (Steve Muntz)
Put-in-Bay has a long, crescent-shaped harbor that is protected from the prevailing southwest winds. There is an island in the mouth of the harbor that provides additional protection. The 352 foot high Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial towers over the area. We landed just east of the Boardwalk Restaurant, a culinary landmark that juts into the harbor and advertises Ohio's best lobster bisque. The last I checked the nearest lobsters were about 600 miles away, so the restaurant may not face much local competition in the lobster bisque department.
Put-in-Bay is organized around a grassy square that faces the harbor. It is packed full of bars, restaurants and ye olde souvenir shoppes. It was oppressively hot and humid so we made our way to an ice cream shop. We gave our delicious ice cream rapturous attention as we sat in a shady gazebo.
A storm was moving in so we re-secured our boats and then walked over to the National Park Service museum, just in time for a captivating movie about the Battle of Lake Erie. We learned how Oliver H. Perry had assembled a fleet and engaged the British fleet in a decisive battle for control of Lake Erie. We learned of possible treachery in Perry's ranks by one of his captains, who failed to engage the Britsh with his ship. When Perry's flagship was crippled, he rowed from his crippled flagship to the ship that was holding back, took command and led his fleet to victory. The whole of Lake Erie might be in Canada had it not been for Perry. The movie was a striking tale well delivered, but I still would have liked to have heard Dave's rendition around a campfire.
We returned to the harbor and had one of those difficult stay-or-go moments. The sky was threatening but the one mile crossing back to camp was short. In the end, Jim Des Jardins, a sailor and kayaker with plenty of years of experience watching the weather, made the call--"Let's go."
More storms were forecast, so we went to the nearby bar and grill for dinner. Then it was time to watch the sunset and hit the sack.
Just as we were getting comfortable in our "beds" the tornado siren in Put-in-Bay began wailing. Pat rousted us out of our tents and we assembled back in the bar. When the radar showed no imminent threat, we adjourned for what turned out to be a quiet night. From the lightening to the north and south of us it appeared that the storm had split in two and avoided Middle Bass Island. A local indicated that Middle Bass frequently is spared the worst of thunderstorms in a similar fashion.
The water was still a little bumpy Monday morning and there was a brisk southwest wind. Jim, Pat and Denis were driving back. The rest of us had a difficult decision whether to paddle the six miles or so back to the put-in on Catawba Island or load our boats on the ferry by hand.
We decided to break up the trip into segments and decision points. The first leg of the trip was across the channel to South Bass Island. The channel funneled the wind and waves so this was potentially the most difficult part of the trip. All felt comfortable enough to give it a go, especially since there were plenty of take-out options and potential rescue boats. This leg was uneventful and everyone felt more confident having made this initial crossing.From there we proceeded down the east side of South Bass, getting some but far from complete protection from the wind. We then landed for lunch at a rare unsettled spot a couple of hundred yards east of the ferry terminal on the south side of South Bass Island. This gave us a chance to assess conditions for the main crossing of the day to Catawba Island. With some paddling and lunch under our belts and improving conditions we had a consensus to go for the crossing rather than unload our boats and haul them and gear onto the ferry.
Denise Landing-"Whew" Is RIght (Denis Jones)
The final crossing under sunny skies with a breeze and modest beam waves gave us a chance to enjoy paddling and lock in our mind's eye this delightful paddling environment. While armchair critics might scoff at the thought of "serious" paddling among populated islands offering ready access to ice cream and beer, we knew differently. The Lake Erie islands offer the best of both approaches--an interesting and challenging paddling environment and the chance to indulge in the pleasures of "civilization" after landing.
I'm looking forward to the 2011 trip.