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There are probably only a few kayakers that tackle this trip each year and dipping a paddle into foreign water for the first time was almost too appealing to resist. While Iíve spent a lifetime fishing and boating on Lake Erie, I had never crossed the border on the lake. I found it quite amusing that my first trip across the international border would be in a kayak and not a power boat.
Like me, our group of five dedicated paddlers was like-minded about crossing Lake Erie. For the sake of this report Iíll include our partyís first names: Kelly, Joe, Patrick, Jeff, myself (Eric) and our dedicated shuttle driver Jeff. We hail from scattered points throughout Ohio and Michigan and have become friends on numerous paddling adventures over the past couple of years.
An opportunity presented itself in the form of an invitation to join on an Erie crossing expedition. Emails had been traded back and forth since the spring and a weekend was selected for Aug. 18-20, 2006. Three-days were slated for the approx 50-mile crossing. The previous year Kelly had taken his kayak on the Sandusky, OH ferry to Pelee for the weekend to scout camping and landing locations. His advance work was invaluable to our trip.
Lake Erie offers a unique stepping-stone path across the lake in the form of the Bass Island Archipelago consisting of 23 scattered Islands. While some are highly developed, others remain untouched and wild. Or group decided to leave from our usual Catawba Island launch east of the Miller Ferry. Skies were overcast and an east wind forced us to lean into it on the way to South Bass Island. Our group made a quick stop on the far eastern end of the island to rendezvous with one of our group that camped on South Bass. We rested on a spit of land in the shadow the Perryís International Peace Monument; a very fitting send-off for our outing.
We passed Ballast Island to the west and charted a course for the far eastern tip if Middle Bass Island. The wind started to lay down as we reached the island and the skies cleared enough for us to look across the 6-miles of open water to Pelee Island. We stopped again to look at our charts and check our GPS coordinates.
The actual crossing to Pelee was uneventful. Boat traffic was minimal, primarily because we were 15 miles from the mainland and in open water between Middle Bass and our destination. Those in our group with GPS units began a countdown for when we crossed the border. We joked about not seeing a dotted line in the water, as indicated on our charts.
As we closed on the island we could see the mammoth 61 meter long MV Jiimaan passenger ferry getting ready to dock at the West Dock of Pelee. The Jiimann services the island from a dock in Kingsville Ontario. We landed on a small sandy beach north of the West Dock. A few swimmers and bystanders watched with confused looks as we told them we came from the states. For those who donít kayak, its hard for them to comprehend covering more than 20 miles of open water in an outing.
We stowed our gear in our boats, gathered our identification info and proceeded to look for the check-in with Customs. While we had previously arranged for our camp sites, as with all foreigners we needed to report that we were in the country. While the West Dock loading and unloading area looked fairly new and renovated, I was surprised to find our reporting station to be in the form of a battered and beaten 70ís era phone booth. Jeff from our party called the customs number on the phone and was able to report for all of us.
The Customs Officer asked their usual series of questions and didnít quite comprehend when we told him that we came by kayak. In his French Canadian accent he replied with a confused "you came by arm?" Each of us reported our names and birth dates and in return we received a reference number in the event someone questioned our check-in.
Standing in the middle of what would be considered downtown, one could make a 360 degree spin and take it all in. Downtown consisted of a heritage center, two bar/restaurants, a trading post, police station, medical center, bike rental and a few outbuildings attached to the dock. For those that are familiar with the hustle and bustle of South Bass Island, Pelee is about as far on the other end of the spectrum as one could imagine. My guess is that 95 % of its 10,000 acres consist of farmland and nature areas and the remaining 5% is shoreline and cottages.
After our check-in, we stopped at the Pelee Island Hotel and Pub for grub and a celebratory Canadian beer. It had been a long paddle and the cold suds were earned and refreshing. At our late lunch, we quickly found that the residents of Pelee are extremely friendly and welcoming. I also realized that since we were on an island, we would be seeing many of the same visitors throughout our stay.
By late afternoon we realized that we still needed to complete our paddle for the day and we re-launched our boats for the final stretch to our campsite. Pelee Island is an extremely long island, it stretches almost 9-miles in length, while only being 4-miles wide. Since we were already at West Dock, we only need to make a six-mile sprint along the western side of the island and around Sheridan Point.
At Sheridan Point we passed near Huldaís Rock. Huldaís Rock is named for a local legend about a tragic story of an Indian maiden named Hulda. Many years ago it is said that Hulda fell in love with an Englishman who promised to return but never did. Hulda would wait at the rock, looking into the lake for his return. When he didnít return Hulda leapt to her death in sorrow from the cliff that was once large and high off the northwest corner of the island. Weather and time has since reduced the rock to a fraction of its original size and the waves that foam and surge around the grave stone are said to chant her name for eternity.
We rounded Sheridan Point and headed towards our landing at North Bay. We passed what looked like had been a sizable commercial dock, but is now left in ruins rusting with each year that goes by. We had gotten directions to a public access beach by Mark Emerich the owner of the Anchor & Wheel Restaurant and the proprietor of our camp ground. Contact info, photos and amenities can be found at: www.anchorandwheel.com. We landed at the public access beach near one of the Anchor & Wheel properties shown in the link above. The Scudder Marina was just to the east of our landing. When we landed it completed a 20+ mile day for our group with full kayaks. It was getting late in the day and everyone was glad to set foot on solid ground. If there is one problem with this landing location, itís almost a kilometer from the campground. After contemplating humping to our camp, we reconsidered and dialed the island taxi listed in one of the brochures Kelly had secured on his scouting trip. When the taxi arrived nobody complained as Tammy the driver collected a $3 fare from everyone and we shuttled the short distance to our camp. We said goodbye to our boats on the beach and pointed towards our campground.
Our campground ended up being 5 acres of grass field behind the Anchor & Wheel Restaurant. I donít think anyone was surprised to find that we were the only campers staying that weekend. There were a smattering of year-round trailers and a room annex that housed guest rooms for the Anchor & Wheel. The rest room facilities were serviceable and most importantly provided hot showers with good water pressure.
Setting camp didnít take long and I probably spent more time letting the hot shower peel away the lake miles than I spent popping my tent. It didnít take much convincing to partake in the restaurant that was within easy walking distance to our camp. The colorful lights and Caribbean music drew us in like sirens calling wayward sailors. I was surprised to find the Anchor & Wheel to be a warm, inviting and wonderfully nautical dining location. The menu equally matches the dťcor for diversity and creativity. One can order anything from all-you-can-eat Lake Erie pickerel to prime rib.
Shortly after dinner Jeff our shuttle driver arrived via the ferry from Kingsville. Unexpectedly he pulled right into the middle of our campsite with his trailer in tow. Jeff had left work Friday afternoon and drove I-75 to Detroit and into Canada via Windsor. Jeff served as an important part of this expedition, because he served as our island shuttle, our safety net if the weather was too rough to cross to Point Pelee and most importantly he would pick us up on the Canadian mainland if we were able to complete the crossing. Jeff was a great addition to our group and fit well with the rest of the characters on the trip. It was fun to have him along and will always remember him saying "this is great! This is high adventure for me!"
After dinner we headed to the Pelee Island Hotel and Pub for a nightcap and to listen to the much advertised karaoke night at the bar. Earlier at lunch our waitress did an excellent job at reeling us back in for a few cocktails that evening. While none of us had any preconceived notions that this would be wild wilderness adventure, it was a pleasant discovery to find that the night life on Pelee more than entertaining. We had all packed food and beverages to spend the weekend "roughing-it" by cooking and camping, but having a shuttle and easy access to cold beverages and warm home-cooked food was too much to resist. Sleep came easy on Friday night and I donít think Iíve ever felt a more comfortable or welcomed sleeping bag as I crawled into my tent, thus ending the first day of our adventure.
An overnight rain woke most of our party much too early. The patter of droplets pounded on my tent like a never-ending snooze button. Countless times, I dozed off only to be awakened again by another round of wind and rain. By breakfast, everyone was ready to get out and stretch our legs. We piled into Jeffís van for the mid-morning trip to the Westview Tavern for a hot breakfast and steaming coffee. The plan for the day was to explore the island from bow to stern and everything in between. Except for Kellyís scouting trip, none of us had been to the island. We started our exploration by visiting the Trading Post. All I have to say about the Trading Post, is that itís an amazing experience to just visit this ramshackle building. Its filled floor to ceiling with years upon yearís worth of souvenirs, clothing, knickknacks and antiques, you have to see it to believe it. We left the Trading Post and drove quickly checked on our boats. Everything was still in order at the beach and our kayaks remained where we left them. We proceeded to follow the coast along the north shore, looking for the road that led to Lighthouse Point.
Following the perimeter of the island is easy, because there are not that many roads on the island. Veering northeast we found the trail that heads to the lighthouse. It should be noted that to the west of Lighthouse Point is the Lighthouse Point Nature Reserve and Lake Henry. Lake Henry was formed in 1972 after high water flooded the farmland of Mr. Henry Nageleisen. At first this "lake" was separated from Lake Erie by a thin line of trees and sand, but because of natural erosion and lake levels this is now like a bay and part of Lake Erie. We stopped to bird watch for a few minutes and I made a mental note that Iíd like to explore the lake in the future. There is quite a hike out to the northern most tip of the island and to the lighthouse. The trail winds through the marsh and to a beach on the east side of the point. From there itís a couple hundred yards to the lighthouse.
The Pelee Island Lighthouse was established in 1833 and helped guide ships through the dangerous Point Pelee passage until 1909. After the lighthouse was decommissioned it was left to the elements to deteriorate. It became one of the first lighthouses to be placed on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday List of endangered lighthouses. After 10 years of fundraising and hard work by the Relight the Lighthouse Committee, the group was notified that their application for a federal grant had gone through and the final funds to restore the light had been secured. Completion of the restoration was finalized in 2000. After barely standing as a stone shell for almost 90 years, The light now stands as it did more almost a century ago. The massive base of the lighthouse has been reinforced with timber supports and the beacon house now has a roof. While the lighthouse no longer signals ships, the dedication of the people of Pelee helped to save this amazing historical treasure.
We piled back into the van to continue sightseeing and followed the road down the eastern side of the island. The eastern side is mostly covered by vacation homes and beaches. We drove past South Bay and Dickís Marina. There is a marina, camping, store and customs check-in at Dickís. It should be noted that following many of the roads of the island are deep drainage ditches and dykes that help to keep the island dry for farming and grape growing.
From the farthest north section of the island, we traveled to the Fish Point Provincial Nature Preserve on the southern end. A 1.6 kilometer trail through the Fish Point Preserve leads you near the water and undergrowth until it ends at an amazing beach looking back at the Bass Islands in the states and towards Middle Island near the border. A large mile-long sandbar reaches out into the lake and seems to go towards the horizon. The wind had picked up and the green-blue waves of Lake Erie were crashing on the beach from the south. Walking south on the spit of sand brought us upon two more kayak campers. We were surprised to find two strangers that quickly became friends. We traded stories and found that the two kayakers were staying the night and then heading back to Kellyís Island the next day. While it is not legal to camp in the preserve, the two adventurers were willing to take the chance at being caught. We said our goodbyes and hiked along the eastern western edge of South Bay until we were able to intersect the trail.
Leaving Fish Point we zigzagged along Peleeís roads until we found the Pelee Pheasant Farm and the former site of the Pelee Island Winery. Apparently the busiest time on the island is the annual Pheasant hunts that take place in the fall through November. We completed the circumnavigation of the island by finishing our day at the Pelee Island Winery. Sitting in the shadow of the winery pavilion we were surrounded by row upon row of vineyards. The winery complex is worth a visit and Iíd recommend it to anyone visiting the island. Unique to the pavilion is the deli where we visitors can pick frozen meats from their menu and then grill them yourself on the covered patio. Several bottles of wine were consumed as we finished a late lunch and listened to the live music from the pavilion. Saturday ended as perfectly as the previous night, by having a late dinner at the Anchor & Wheel and then traveling to town for a few cocktails before turning in.
Throughout the night, the wind continued to howl and did not die as expected. Overcast skies and a constant blow from the north had our group sharing disgusted stares. Our final crossing consisted of a 12-mile open water paddle to Point Pelee National Park. Nobody wanted to utter the words "Ferry." As we broke camp and finished breakfast our hopes of making the crossing continued to fade. We loaded the trailer for the short trip to our boats and left the Anchor & Wheel behind.
Arriving at our boats found the lake in an angry state and the surf was crashing on shore. There were whitecaps all the way to the horizon and it wasnít safe for a kayak crossing. Fooling ourselves, we were determined to paddle a mile from shore, regroup and then decide if the conditions would allow us to cross. After a wet and brutal sprint from the beach, the swells continued to grow bigger. For every five strokes forward, we were blown back two. Any crossing would have been slow going, with no relief until the mainland. Members of our party would disappear between breaking swells and the island would completely vanish when Iíd look over my shoulder. Our battered group didnít even have to say the words, but we pointed our boats northwest and around Sheridan Point and towards the West Dock. With the wind blowing we had to round the point more than a mile offshore to keep from getting blown into the rocks. Once around the point, we could head directly down wind and at that point, the race was on; the race between our boats and the race to make the 11 a.m. ferry for the mainland! We had little more than an hour to make the 6-mile paddle to the ferry. Coasting on the edge of breaking waves and swells, we braced against the following seas and picked up speed the whole way. At one point we reached 11 mph on the GPS. At the front of the pack, I looked at Kelly and we agreed that with the wind at our backs, weíd hit the beach "hot!"
In the distance, Jeff our shuttle driver was in-line for the ferry when he picked-up one, two then five little dots in his binoculars. Not believing weíd make the beach before the ferry pulled away, he negotiated with the dock workers to allow him to get out of line so he could pull around and pick us up. We covered the last couple of miles in minutes and each boat was hurled far up the beach like surf-tossed driftwood. We had 10-minutes to beach, load our boats onto the trailer, run to the ticket office and walk on the ferry.
Dripping wet we stood in line for our $7.50 tickets and Jeff pulled around to load our cargo into the ferry. Iím sure we were a sight to see, standing there dripping wet, still wearing our PFDís. By all accounts we had cut it too close, but it didnít matter, we were all laughing, not believing that weíd actually made it on-time!
As the ferry pulled away, it ended our wild weekend on Pelee. While we all wanted desperately to make the complete crossing to the Canadian mainland, the most important thing was that we were all safe and alive. The crossing would have been brutal and no small crafts should have been on the water, let alone five little kayaks. As they say, "we lived to fight another day." While our final crossing to Kingsville ended on the deck of a ferry, we all considered this a scouting trip and that weíd be back next year to try it again!
There are no ATM machines on the island. While most of the bars and restaurants take credit cards, it's advised to bring plenty of cash.
Unless you have a shuttle driver, plan on renting bicycles or paying for taxi rides during your stay, it's extremely difficult to get around the island. The island is 9 miles long and most of the points of interest would be too far to walk.
Our return trip on the ferry to Kingsville cost $7.50 and the van and trailer cost $45 for one crossing. Reservations are required for the Jiimaan and more info can be found at www.ontarioferries.com.
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Touring Kayak Paddles