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Simply billed as a "gathering," kayakers were invited to attend and spend the weekend enjoying the natural wonders of Lake Erie. In its second year it has quickly become a tradition for this weekend to coincide with the annual Mills Race Sailboat Regatta which begins in Toledo, OH and ends at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island.
Getting to South Bass Island is half of the adventure. Some attendees waited in line at the Miller Boat Line to catch the ferry, some carried their boats on to the ferry and launched upon landing on the island and a large group made the three mile crossing from the mainland. Everywhere you turned there seemed to be another colorful kayak landing on the beach or pulling into the campground.
Having agreed to meet a group of paddlers on the small beach east of the Miller Ferry, I made my traditional launch from my parentís beach in Port Clinton. Rough conditions set the stage for my six-mile crossing to Catawba Island to meet the group. A northwest wind was pushing whitecaps and 3-5 ft. seas to the beach and as far as the eye could see across the lake. I loaded my boat and said a quick goodbye to my send-off party. I knew it would take every bit of two hours to make the crossing to Catawba Point to rendezvous with my crossing party and to make the crossing to the island.
A wave broke over my bow as soon as I launched and I knew it would be grueling trip. In its usual uncooperative self, Lake Erie was being as unruly as ever. Except for a sailboat in the distance and a few bobbing boats near Catawba Island State Park, I had the western basin of Lake Erie to myself. I probably paddled more vertical miles of water than horizontal during the first part of my trip. I thought to myself, "if the entire weekend is going to be like this, itís going to be a long camp-bound weekend."
A wet hour and a half later I rounded the point near the Miller Boat line and into the shelter of the small inlet which was to be our real starting point. Iíve seen on nautical maps that the area east of the Miller Ferry is called Scott Point. Right on time, my group was loading their boats and pulling on foul weather gear. Pulling onto the beach, it felt good to unclench my fingers from the paddle and pop out of my boat. My landing had made our launch party a group of six. The excitement was contagious as we headed away from the beach; it was good to get away for a long weekend.
Lake Erieís temperamental attitude, namely the wind, had changed direction again and our open water crossing to South Bass was uneventful. The whitecaps had turned to 1-3 ft rollers and the skies had cleared. By the time we pulled into South Bass State Park we had burned an hour and a half making the crossing. Familiar landmarks greeted us as we closed on the island. Seeing the South Bass lighthouse and its red brick almost seemed like someone had laid out the red carpet for us.
Friday evening wound down in normal pre-camp routines. Tents were being set, gear was set-out to dry, food was unpacked. Most importantly we rekindled old friendships from last year. It was good to see that a large number of our core group from the previous year had made the return trip! A tent city quickly popped up along the limestone cliffs of the campground. It didnít take long before the group was gathered around a campfire, sharing stories and catching up. As dusk started to fall, I slipped down to my boat for a final twilight paddle to watch the Miller Ferry make its last drop for the day. Just before I landed for the evening, I looked over my left shoulder to the northwest and saw the first of what was many Mills Race sailboats making the turn around the island and into the night.
Around the campfire Friday evening the group made plans to gather at the beach at 10 a.m. for a group paddle. The previous year we tackled Middle Bass Island and this year I was excited to add North Bass to my slate of circumnavigated Erie Islands. Conditions for our day paddle couldnít have been better, the water conditions were no more than 1-3 seas, the wind was variable, but didnít hider us, the skies were blue, but the temperatures were mild and in the low to mid 70ís. The water temperatures were cooler than the previous year and topped out in the high 60ís. I think I can talk for the group by saying it was a perfect day to be on the water.
As planned, we crossed from South Bass to Sugar Island. We stopped for lunch on a thin spit of the island pointing towards Middle Bass. I always enjoy eating my lunch on the water, it makes it taste sweeter when you have to work for it a bit! We left the shores of Sugar Island and pointed our boats to North Bass. Hoping to have favorable winds from the north for our ride home, we decided to circumnavigate the island counter-clockwise. I enjoyed the less inhabited shores of North Bass as compared to Middle or South Bass. You could see from the water line that the island had a long history in agriculture. Old barns and a few farm houses could be seen from the water.
In 2004, the State of Ohio purchased most of the island with intentions to turn the island back into a natural island habitat. Right now they're ripping up the vineyards on North Bass Island to create a state park and nature preserve that will forestall development and recreate the habitat of a hundred years ago. Officials say it will offer visitors an island experience distinctly different from that found on the other Lake Erie Islands. North Bass is the smallest inhabited island in the Bass Island chain. At just 704 acres, itís only a mile from shore to shore.
Our group stopped to stretch our legs on the west side of the island at a small bay called Manila Bay, the white beach in front us turned out to be layer upon layer of zebra mussel shells. In the clear afternoon the beach almost sparkled. It was a great spot to land, refuel and stretch our legs. The scenery looked like a post card and I would have liked to stay and explore the bay longer. What looked like a gently sloping sandy bottom that angled from the beach to more than several dozen yards out into the water turned out to be a limestone ledge. I could easily wade out into the bay, looking through the completely clear water from my hips to the bottom. The amazing clarity of the water is a fairly recent phenomenon on Lake Erie. Since Zebra Mussels were accidentally introduced to the lake by ocean freighters, they have been both a pest and unexpected cleaning filter for the lake. On one hand they filter microorganisms and algae out of the water and away from the smallest baitfish in the lake and on the other hand, the lake is undoubtedly cleaner. I can remember fishing as a kid and not knowing what I had caught until it made it to the boat. I never could have expected to stand waist deep in the lake and see my toes!
On my next trip back to Manila Bay, Iíd like to check out a marshy area Iíve seen in aerial shots of the island. There appears to be a several acre pond/marsh near the eastern end of Manila Bay, but some bushwhacking would be needed to reach any inland water.
As our group pulled away from North Bass we had several options, complete the circumnavigation and return to South Bass or head further west and round Rattlesnake Island, we chose the latter. Having perfect paddling weather is easy motivation for tacking additional miles to our trip.
Rattlesnake Island is the owner of some unique history. For years there have been rumors of mob ownership ties and itís well known that privacy is closely guarded. Private boaters are not allowed to land on the island and stories have circulated about armed guards and guard dogs patrolling the island. While I canít confirm these rumors, I can tell you that the island is privately owned by 65 members of the Rattlesnake club. There are high priced lake homes with million dollar views, a private bar, restaurant, pool, health club, tennis courts and a three-hole golf course that also doubles as a landing strip for their airport. While we had no intention of landing, being in a kayak is the closest Iíve been to the island while we rounded the western tip. The shoreline is mostly bordered by Lake Erieís distinctive limestone ledges. Part of our party paddled out to the small outcropping of rocks on the western tip that looks like the rattle of the famed snake. The sea birds that call the rocks home were not impressed with our investigative party and in a burst of feathers, hundreds of ill-tempered birds took flight, not happy to be up roosted.
Before heading back to our campsite, our group decided to add one last stretch to our afternoon paddle. Looking at our maps we plotted a course for Green Island. We had visited Green Island before, but adding a third island to our day paddle was too appealing. There is quite a bit of open water between the two islands and our strength in numbers approach was appealing. The approximately three mile crossing was fairly uninterrupted by power boat traffic. Only blue skies and relatively smooth water separated us from our destination. Reaching Green Island was easy and I was disappointed to see that Green was in worse shape than last year. Cormorants have begun to take over the island, in addition to several other uninhabited Erie Islands. Their extremely acidic guano coats everything and quickly begins to strip vegetation from the island. I have read recently that ODNR is taking steps to help thin out the populations that are also pushing out the indigenous sea birds. They reproduce rapidly and they are making their mark by consuming millions of pounds of bait fish, not to mention they are just plain ugly!
Floating into our final destination at the State Park finished a 15 mile day of mostly open water paddling. We were near or landed at five Erie Islands and we enjoyed our adventure. As we hit the beach our party dispersed to stretch legs, refuel and to hit the showers. During the afternoon paddle, discussions of a group dinner outing were started. At dinner time our wily group of amateur seafarers strolled the mile into town for cold beverages and anything that closely resembled pirate stew. As usual our search for food lead us to the Boardwalk restaurant and again we were not disappointed. I lost count of the lobster sandwiches, Mahi-Mahi, and lobster bisque dinners that were consumed.
A long afternoon in the sun, large quantities of food and the appeal of an evening campfire brought us back to the campsite after dinner. Like the first night, stories were shared, wine was passed and I quickly became addicted to kettle cooked, pepper coated potato chips! Before the night ended the group made plans to paddle into the harbor of Put-in-Bay for breakfast the following morning. As the last embers of the campfire smoldered our weary group said their goodnights and disappeared back to their tents.
Morning brought a refreshed crowd to the beach and we planned to make a 9 a.m. appearance for breakfast. Following the early morning crowd, our group landed along the harbor amongst the sail and powerboats. Ditching our paddling gear we preceded towards Frostyís Bar for the best breakfast in town. As usual the line was long, but moving quickly. Bleary eyed partiers and sailors from the previous evening served as interesting conversation material as we waited. We filled two tables and were quickly treated to generous plates of eggs, pancakes, breakfast meat and gallons of steaming coffee.
Leaving the harbor garnered more than a crowd as they watched a couple dozen kayakers suit-up for launch. Interested watchers quizzed our self-built boat members and kids wondered how we stay upright in such little boats? As we pushed off from shore we had accumulated a large send off party. Heading out of the harbor counter-clockwise, we decided to stretch our arms by making another trip out and around Green Island. I always enjoy paddling around Green Island because of the many sections of the island that have broken off and landed near shore, creating a maze of chutes and slots to paddle through and around. On the western end, we stretched our necks to see if we could catch a glimpse of the Light House ruins. The thick vegetation and the multiple no trespassing signs obscured our view.
As we headed back to the State Park for the last time, the curtain on this yearís Rendezvous was quickly coming to a close. It had been an amazing weekend. We spent three amazing days on the water, we rekindled friendships and we met lots of new friends and paddlers. Again we had paddlers from all corners of Ohio, several Michigan paddlers and a transplanted Canadian from the Detroit area. For the weekend we paddled almost 46 miles of water. Our group started to break camp and disperse around 2:30 p.m. and our original launch party picked up a few additional paddlers on the way back to the mainland. Near Mouse Island, I made my usual western split towards Port Clinton for the final stretch home. I already have next yearís date penciled into my calendar.