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Lake Erie Islands - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip

Report Type: Weekend Trip Report
Trip Dates: June 2005
Nearest City: Put-in-Bay, OH, USA
Difficulty: Moderate
Submitted by: emanoh View Profile

Description:

The act of planting seeds in Northwest Ohio is as common as breathing and eating. Our agricultural roots trickle down into our very beings. Seeds like ideas sometimes need time to grow and the idea of putting together a Lake Erie based Kayak gathering took shape during the snow covered days of early winter in Toledo, OH (2005). Like a farmer during the winter solstice, a kayaker eagerly awaits the first break in weather to practice their craft.

The seed was planted and when a group of Toledo, OH kayakers put their heads together and created what was to become the inaugural South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous. A date was selected for June 10-12, 2005 and the necessity of marketing the event began. Early planning for the event put the base of operations at South Bass Island State Park, where kayakers from across Ohio and the tri-state area could meet and share in one of the most unique adventure experiences in the Midwest. The Lake Erie Islands are a hidden jewel in our home region of the country. The island area is made up of the directional Bass Islands (North, Middle and South), Green, Rattlesnake, Ballast, Sugar, Kelly’s, Mouse and the Canadian Islands of Pelee and Middle islands (There are additional islands in the western basin of Lake Erie, but are not relevant to this report)

The goal was to put together a relaxed, semi-structured event, where kayak enthusiasts could camp and engage in a multitude of kayak adventures. There are numerous day trips and crossings for every skill level and aptitude. If attendees wanted to stick to the South Bass Shore, it would offer a safe, beginner intermediate outing, if experienced kayakers wanted to make crossings to other islands, their cravings would be met.

Our group created a Web site (http://www.virtualboss.net/pf/kayaking/05SouthBass.htm) and a message board string was set on Paddling.net (http://www.paddling.net/message/showThread.html?fid=meet&tid=298239), from there the interest took off! The word was out and kayakers from all over Ohio, Michigan and Canada started to replay and visit the site. More than 1650 hits were made to the website and 125 posts were made to our message board string. We sent email with our links to every paddling club, organization and chat group we could find. We started to amass a list of attendees that reached 30 campers and possibly more kayakers!

Through our info gathering process and the message board, a launch time was set for 10 a.m. on June 10 to make the crossing from the mainland to South Bass Island. Having had this date circled on may calendar for months, I couldn’t wait to leave the beach in Port Clinton, OH to meet up with our launch team at a beach near the Miller Ferry line. Six miles later, I rounded Catawba Point near Mouse Island and could see numerous brightly colored kayaks parked on shore and readying for launch. My arrival pushed the number making the crossing to six and upon landing; I quickly noticed some familiar faces from previous adventures and some new faces that would quickly become friends and paddling partners. Our initial group included paddlers from Ohio and Michigan.

The entire weekend called for southerly winds, temps in the 80’s, scattered thunderstorms and low possibility of small craft warnings. In selecting this location for a kayak gathering safety was a top priority. Lake Erie is notorious for its sudden storms and rough conditions. It’s relatively shallow western basin, can make conditions rough for even the largest of luxury liners. By making South Bass Island State Park our meeting location, we could easily load and launch boats and make a bee-line for the Miller Ferry if conditions made our trip and return crossing impossible. Kayaking the Lake Erie Islands offers the basics in kayak day-tripping and camping with the luxury of being able to go into the town of Put-in-Bay for food and festivities. This is not a true “hard-core” camping trip, but one that offers as many luxuries as one deems necessary. Being in close proximity to the ferry would allow kayakers not comfortable with the crossing to bring their cars topped with kayaks to their campsites.

At approximately 10:30 am our mini rainbow armada slid into the water and pointed our compasses and GPS units for 0 degrees due north and towards the South Bass Island light house. Over the course of the short three mile crossing and mile up the coast to the state park, the easy and leisurely crossing took the pace of an afternoon tea over a wild and artery pulsating crossing. Southern winds blocked by the Catawba peninsula made our tabletop flat crossing one of the easiest I’ve made. The conversation ranged from trips taken, to boats owned, to gear used and lost. After those three miles the six of us became fast friends and it laid the ground work for what was going to be an amazing weekend of paddling.

Our landing completed a short and sweet leg of what would be a 40+ mile weekend. The landing was a flurry of activity and everyone checked into their sites, unpacked their boats and finally saw how people maneuvered on dry land. The rest of the afternoon involved practicing rolls, rescues, showing each other our boats and watching kayak after kayak roll into the state park. As a neat side story, we noticed a sailboat parked off the coast with a self-built kayak on board. Turns out the gentleman had a friend paddling with us and had dropped anchor, hoping we paddle out and find him. The 71 year old solo sailor was an avid kayaker and wanted to join us for our weekend of paddling. Arrangements were made to swing by and pick him up at his boat in the Put-in-Bay harbor the next day. As the evening progressed, we gathered for a rendezvous with dinner. A short walk into downtown secured us cold beers, fresh lobster sandwiches, and a well deserved seat overlooking the bay of Put-in-Bay. The evening was capped with a short return trip to the campsite and a view of the first fleet of boats rounding the island for the famous Mills Race sailboat race. This 100+ mile race uses the islands as a rounding point and we had a front row seat overlooking the lake. More stories and conversing continued until midnight and word worn kayakers decided to hit their bunks, readying for a long day of kayaking ahead.

Morning came early for me as I poked my head out of my tent and surveyed the aftermath of our late evening bull session. I had only an hour to pull myself together and paddle a mile around the southern end of the island to meet the 8 a.m. ferry. A good buddy of mine was a passenger on board along with his unusual kayak shaped luggage. Being a solo traveler, he didn’t feel safe making the crossing by himself so we arranged for him to be dropped at the ferry dock and ride the ferry over. I rounded the ferry dock just as I could see him draped over the bow like Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Titanic. I landed and helped him carry the kayak off the ferry. Quick hello’s and a big sigh of relief from my buddy, glad to be away from his desk were welcome.

Paddling back around to the campsite allowed our new rendezvous member time to get reaccelerated to being on the water. It had been a few years since his last foray in a kayak and this trip was a long-time coming and a welcome break from hectic home life.

By the time we returned, the beach was even more littered with kayaks. Sitting on the cliffs overlooking the lake, it was like watching the swallows returning to Capistrano. Boats of all makes and colors were arriving in droves.

The night before, it was determined that the goal of the second day would be a circumnavigation of Middle Bass Island. This approx 14 mile paddle would make for a nice afternoon on the water. Our rough timeline consisted of leaving the state park at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. We gathered for a group meeting near the beach and every time we’d begin to go through the day’s agenda another boat would pull up! By 10:30 a.m. we had amassed a group of 21 boaters that wanted to join in the group paddle. After our safety talk, it was determined that a portion of the group wanted to bite off a shorter paddle. Sticking to the shores of South Bass Island was recommended. The plan for the day was to stick with a buddy, round the northern side of South Bass, regroup in the harbor, pick up our sailor/paddler and then split into two groups. One group would continue around Middle Bass and the second group would make the shorter paddle around our home island.

Once everyone launched, I hung back with my organizer buddies and surveyed our large rainbow armada as they rounded the island. I thought to myself, “This is what it’s all about, sharing this experience with other kayakers!” Months of work cumulated in seeing paddlers from cities hundreds of miles away come to the island for a weekend of paddling. We had paddlers from cities in Michigan: Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Monroe. A large contingent of Ohio paddlers traveled from: Toledo, Findlay, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton. It was quite a sight to see and after our weekend journey, I had a friend tell me that she spotted our group from the Jet Express ferry that morning. She said the ferry riders were ohhing and ahhing as they watched our large group paddle along the northern shore of the island.

Making our way into downtown Put-in-Bay is an interesting paddle. Travelers can paddle along the dolomite cliffs that line the northern side of the island, view the amazing summer homes and paddle through chunks of the island that have broken free and landed near shore. One of the most unusual sites is the large wheel house of the former Benson Ford lake freighter. In 1986 it was sliced from its hull and hoisted onto the cliffs overlooking the lake and turned into a summer cottage!

During the short trip into downtown, I notice a paddler that didn’t look familiar at the put-in. I paddled up to him and introduced myself. I told him we were paddling into the bay to pick up a kayaker from his sailboat. Laughing he said that I’d already found him! On a whim he had launched his boat and found our group in route to pick him up.

I raced to the head of our group and steered them in the right direction towards the western end of Gibraltar Island in the Bay of Put-in-Bay. Once everyone was gathered together in the lee of the island, we determined who was taking the short trip around the island and who was going to take the long trip around Middle Bass. We split into two groups, bade our farewells and parted onto separate journeys. As a group we moved out through the protected harbor around the southeastern side of Gibraltar and out into the main entry to the harbor. They say there is safety in numbers and crossing this busy boat traffic area was made easier with our large pod. We stuck together and plotted a 2 mile course over to the infamous Lonz Winery castle.

The Historic Lonz Winery on Lake Erie's Middle Bass Island has been a tradition since the 1800's. It first opened during the Civil War as the Golden Eagle Winery; by 1875 it was the largest wine producer in the United States. The winery, with its castle like architecture, looms like a fortress along the beach. Its infamous reputation as a party location was cut short in the summer of 2000 when it’s outside patio collapsed, killing one and injuring 70. The castle has since avoided the wrecking ball and is now part of the planned state park grounds proposed by the state. I can’t imagine the Lake Erie horizon without the stone walls of the Lonz Winery.

We regrouped at the base of the winery and decided on a clockwise route around Middle Bass Island. Our planned departure time was designed to put us near Sugar Island for a lunch stop and a stretch of the legs. Paddling north around the island, we could see the sparser, less dense concentration of cottages and summer homes. While there are year-round residents on Middle Bass, its numbers are fewer than the more populated South Bass Island. Actually, the island had recently received some local media attention about 2005 being the last class of students attending their public school. A class of two students will now have to travel by air to South Bass for school.

Rounding the tip of Middle Bass, we could spy Sugar Island in the distance. Sugar is a small, inhabited island that is separated from Middle by a shallow under water isthmus. It is well known to power boaters to not take a shortcut between Middle and Sugar. As we paddled, the water became more and more shallow and I am still surprised at how clear Lake Erie is becoming. This phenomenon can be attributed to any number of environmental reasons, most notably the Zebra mussel filtration of the lake. First described as a ballast water pest, the mussels have been hailed as the number one lake filterer for the past decade. While still considered a pest, its significance has been diminished by more evasive pests the past couple of years, namely the Round Goby and other ballast riding pests from the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Our clocks showed 1 p.m. and with stomachs growling and our legs needing a stretch, our fleet pulled onto the shores of Sugar Island. Our boats were lined up like roadsters at a root beer stand. One-by-one we popped our skirts and stepped into the shallow waters lining the beach. All manner of contraband was pulled from below decks. From basic cold meat sandwiches to gourmet wraps, our crew was a well fed and experienced brood. Everyone packed extras and the proverbial hat was passed around several times as everyone sampled each others wares. It was a beautiful day for a paddle and the blue skies punctuated the clear, unspoiled waters around our lunch spot. Fully hydrated and fed, we packed up after a well deserved 40 minute lunch and headed back to our journey.

Throughout the rendezvous weekend, weathercasters called for scattered thunder showers. So far a brief overnight shower was the only precipitation we had received. By Saturday afternoon mostly clear skies started to rumble. In the distance we could hear thunder clouds grumbling, while our general area was clear, I was not looking forward to paddling in any kind of rain storm. As we crossed over to the shores of Middle Bass Island, we gathered the group together to listen to the NOAA radio. The emergency storm recording only called for scattered showers and a 50 percent chance of rain. We outlined our contingency plan to head for shore if the wind and rain picked up. I am glad to report that we did not have to utilize any contingency plans throughout the weekend. Smooth paddling and clear skies filled the skies for the rest of our trip.

As we rounded the northern most tip of Middle Bass Island we could see North Bass and Pelee Islands in the distance. By now our group had become spread out and it was time to regroup before making the last leg home. We rounded the long peninsula that makes up the northeast point of the island and cut across open water back towards the Lonz Winery. This two mile crossing put us just north of Ballast Island and pointed at Commodore Perry’s International Peace Monument. This famous tower can be seen for miles across the lake and seemed a fitting beacon for our compasses. We set our heading away from Middle Bass and towards the northwest coast of the bay of Put-in-Bay. This busy water thoroughfare is the most nerve wracking section of the trip. Powerboats eager to make it into the bay, round this corner before hitting the no wake area near Gibraltar Island. As we neared the shores of South Bass, I looked back over my shoulder to where we had started to make our crossing and we had peeled off just before making it to Lonz’s Winery, thus making a full circumnavigation of the island.

Sitting in the shadow of the 352 ft. tall Perry’s Monument our group gathered; glad to be in the safe, no wake waters outside the harbor. We had been on the water a couple of hours since our lunch break and several in our party wanted to pull into downtown for a snack and to stretch their legs. Saying our goodbyes, our original party of 12 was now reduced to five as our paired down party departed and continued a relaxed paddle through the harbor. On this particular weekend, Put-in-Bay played host to one of the oldest and most prestigious sailing races on Lake Erie. Every dock and mooring ball tethered a sleek and colorful sailboat. After a full day of putting miles behind us, it was fun to explore the harbor and receive looks from the many boaters relaxing after a full night of sailing.

The final leg of our Middle Bass journey involved retracing our route from the morning. We paddled close to the shore along the northern edge of the island. It was fun to dart in and out of the chutes created by large broken chunks of the islands. Years of wave action has carved mini-caves out of the rock. These caves-like overhangs are large enough to paddle into and turn around. We took the time to turn these backdrops into interesting photo opportunities. As we rounded the bend, back to the state park, we were greeted by kayakers that had split from us earlier and paddled around South Bass. Both parties of excited kayakers traded stories from our earlier adventures as we paddled back to shore.

After a 14+ mile open water paddle, I was ready for a hot shower, food and a well deserved nap. I had put extra miles on my boat by doubling back through the group many times throughout the day to check on paddlers and make sure everyone was keeping up with the group. The campsites displayed various levels of activity and inactivity. On trips such as these everyone marches to the beat of a different drummer. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon our fragmented group started to reappear and like the thunder earlier in the day, the rumblings and grumblings of a dinner search party started to emerge. Put-in-Bay offers numerous dining choices and by 7 p.m. our group was ready to hunt bear if needed. While some campers decided to remain at camp, a dozen famished kayakers headed into town for dinner and not a moment too soon! After the two-mile walk into downtown, it didn’t take long to ease our suffering with cold beers and tasty seafood. By now our group had fast become friends and conversation came easy to the group that was now bound by time on the water and gold, frothy-headed beverages.

By dark, Put-in-Bay had lit up like a roman candle and its well deserved reputation as a party destination has started. Sailors looking for their land legs, coeds looking for a dance and men of all ages had started their weekly search for the women of their dreams. Our interested group walked the strip, more out of curiosity than desire to join in. The sun, waves, miles and food had started to take their toll and we could all hear our campsites calling our names. Not many of our group watched the back side of midnight slide by, before wandering off to bed. We all had to get our rest; we had another full day of paddling ahead!

Breakfast came early Sunday morning as the sun poked into my tent at 7:30 a.m. Hot coffee, some gorp and a couple of bananas made for a simple and nourishing breakfast. I had already marked Middle Bass Island off my to-do list and now wanted to tackle Green Island. Green Island is an easy mile and a half paddle from the State Park. In my youth, I had fished for perch off the shores of the island. By circumnavigating the island, I would fulfill a childhood dream to add this to my quiver of rounded Erie Islands. I had also known about an abandoned lighthouse on the island and was eager to land my boat and explore. As a child my father had landed on the island and explored the lighthouse remains, but in the 70’s an errant campfire lit the roof on fire, leaving the abandoned lighthouse roofless. The coast guard had long-ago installed an automated light on Green Island’s southwest tip, replacing the need for a live-in keeper.

Like the Magnificent Seven mounting their steeds, the Touring 21 geared up and headed out for our second group paddle of the weekend. Like the day before, I hung back in the pack and watched 21 pairs of oars dipping the water as we headed over to Green Island. Uninhabited, there is something foreign and remote about Green Island even though it is only a short paddle from South Bass. Every day thousands of people pass its shores on the Jet Express Ferry and never think twice about its important early days as a light outpost. Reaching the island, I could see it would be hard to land unless the island sloped down to the lake. Our group paddled the shoreline and looked up at its scarred, steep, rocky shores. There were many play spots and areas where only kayaks could dart between rocks. There were several openings where time and waves had carved a natural keyhole through the rocks. Paddling to the opening, a paddler had to wait for the lake surge, time it just right and scoot through the opening. As we rounded the far west end of the island, I noticed the spot on the island near where I though the old lighthouse stood and where I would feel comfortable landing a kayak.

I had a dilemma, I hadn’t explored the island, so I wasn’t sure what state the remains were in and I also knew that our large group could not all land and explore. Completing our circumnavigation, most of the group opted for lunch and our group split into two parties. One group paddled into downtown and a second group headed back to the campsite. I hung back with three of my paddling buddies and informed them of the lighthouse remains hidden on the island. Renewed by an unexpected adventure we scurried back to the landing spot I had spied earlier. Pointing our boats between the rocks, we landed and pulled our boats onto a ledge of rock onshore. Preparing for the worst, I donned my long sleeve paddling jacket, readying for bushwhacking and biting bugs. Climbing up and over the rock ledge it took about 10 ft to notice a once well worn path through the trees. Stepping into the shaded perimeter of the island, the Green Island lighthouse appeared clear as day. It was almost ridiculously easy to find, no bushwhacking required. Actually, there was an ancient sidewalk leading up to the front steps of the structure. As plain as day, the numbers 1864 were carved into the stone edifice of the former light tower. Missing the roof and the very top of the beacon, the lighthouse stood like it hadn’t been touched by time. The stone looked as new as the first day it was built. It was easy to visualize what the structure would have looked like in its heyday.

Walking up to the building, I felt like I had struck gold. I had always been curious to see the remains, but had no idea they would be in such good condition. Any wood flooring, shutters or roof remains were long gone, lost in fire or weathered away. We walked up the massive front steps beneath the carved 1864 numerals and looked into what was the main living structure beneath the tower. We could look right into the basement and across the first floor to the fire place and hearth. At one time it looked as if the building housed three living floors, not including the beacon tower. Gazing up into the tower, someone had hung what looked like an old gym rope in the second floor of the tower, to the top of the tower. Tugging on the rope and doing a quick mathematical equation, judging my mass against the age and weathering of the rope, I quickly deduced that my fat butt wasn’t climbing up the tower. The lightest member of our group eagerly volunteered to shimmy up the rope and within several seconds mimicked the best gym class climb I’d ever seen! Our climber was in the second story of the tower and reported that the tower stairs were missing, but the old wrought iron stair hand rail was still intact and he could look out the second story windows. The old brickwork was solid and intact and over 100 years of hard winters and summer storms hadn’t loosened their grip. Sliding back to earth our climber rejoined our search party and we continued to explore the island. Rounding the side of the structure, I could see the remains of an old rock wall, the outhouses and several concrete pads that could have housed the ice house, hen houses and storage outhouses. The buildings were long gone, but one could see how this was once a manned, working light station. For me, the most fascinating part of the remains was found behind the light tower. Standing on what was once the back porch; you can look the length of the island and out its opposite end. If you look down, your eyes will find a rock-solid, laser straight sidewalk that runs the length of the island. Like the light at the end of a tunnel the sidewalk cut a path through the trees, as straight as an arrow. The temptation to follow the path was too much to resist. We started walking, interested to see what we’d find at the end. Being on the island was truly exotic. When I mentioned the island was uninhabited, that’s not entirely true; thousands of lake birds reside on the island, giving it a spooky Alfred Hitchcock feel. Walking the path, the calls and screeches follow you wherever you go, there’s no escaping the call of the wild on Green Island. Reaching the far end of the island, we found what used to be a loading and launching pad for supplies and boats. Two metal rails angled towards the water, part of what used to be a mini rail system used to load supplies to the lighthouse. The elements had long ago twisted the rails and crumbled the landing.

Having burned the better part of an hour poking around the island our landing party decided to mount up and return to the camp ground for refueling and reloading for the trip back to the mainland. Upon reaching our beached kayaks, we looked offshore to find our sail boating / kayaking friend from the day before anchored 100 yards off the island. He had been looking for us on the lake and noticed our four kayaks tucked into the rocks. We paddled out to him and relayed our exploring experience before bidding him farewell for the paddle home.

Reaching the campsite for the last time our party had started to disband, boats were being loaded up, campsites were being cleared and goodbyes were being said. Our crossing party started to gather around noon for our trip back to Catawba Island. We came over with six boats and we were returning with eight. Earlier departures had provided us with new faces riding atop at least half the boats. A mile from Mouse Island myself and my buddy said our goodbyes and peeled off for Port Clinton, completing the final six miles of our journey.

As a side story to our weekend, I’d also like to share a neat experience we had watching students from the Ohio State University Lake Erie Research Center (housed on Gibraltar Island) wangle bags of endangered Lake Erie Water Snakes for tagging and releasing. The state park shoreline is trimmed with lots of rocks and stumps. The harmless snakes love to huddle in the cool pockets and shade of these hiding places. The students were lying on their bellies, reaching in the holes up to their shoulders and pulling out handfuls of snakes. It was quite a sight to see and very interesting to watch these students practice their craft. The following day the students brought their marked pillow cases back to the exact locations where the snakes had been captured for release. Each snake had a bright green dot of paint on their backs where a microchip had been placed. I asked what the life span of those microchips was and one of the students replied “technically forever, we’ve only had a few that have stopped working.” I’ll never forget one of the female students pinning a 3 footer between her knees and slowly pulling the tail until she could get her hand around its head. While the snakes aren’t poisonous, like most animals, they’ll still bite when provoked. I’d probably bite someone too if they were pulling on my leg! The OSU research center has a neat webpage at http://www.sg.ohio-state.edu/SLAB/index.asp.

The three days provided many exciting adventures and the opportunity to meet an awesome group of paddlers and people. We had men, women, grandparents and couples, at least two states were represented and at least 10 different cities. As a group we covered almost 40 miles of water and paddled around or near seven different islands (Mouse, South & Middle Bass, Green, Gibraltar, Ballast and Sugar Islands). Multiple trips were made into downtown for meals, and lots of fun was had practicing skills off the state park shore. I’m ready to do it again next year, sign me up!

Comments:

This weekend trip was the Inaugural South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous. The first of what we hope will become an annual event. Our first year drew almost 30 kayakers and at least 10 additional paddlers couldn't make it after indicating they would. We are tentatively looking to make the second weekend in June the annual date for this event. We want to thank paddling.net for helping make this happen. We hosted our message board on the " Getting Together" page and received lots of feedback from the board! Thanks again for sending us stickers for our attendees!

Accommodations:

Camping conditions at the State Park are excellent. Park is very clean, tent camping locations all have excellent views of the lake. The showers are hot and the restrooms are clean and well maintained.

Outfitting:

Sea Kayaks, 12+ feet at the minimum

Fees:

There is a fee for camping. Reserve your site at www.ohiodnr.com. There is a two night minimum.

Directions:

In Ohio from the east or west you can take the Turnpike or Route 2 to reach Port Clinton or Catawba Island. Sand Road will take you around Catawba Point and past the Miller Ferry and to the small rocky put-in beach.

Resources:

Any charts of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.


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