Johnson's Island (Lake Erie) - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip
Day Trip Report
October 14, 2006
On Columbus Day, 2006, the master mariner himself could not have wished for a sunnier sky, a warmer shore or a friendlier sea than those of northern Ohio. If the captain and his crew had sailed Sandusky Bay that day, they would have discovered not a trade route to India, but a different treasure: Indian summer.
Blessed with a pleasant mix of history, exploration and weather, I set out to circumnavigate Johnson’s Island.
Shaped like a teardrop falling from the Marblehead peninsula, Johnson’s Island is about a mile long and half-mile wide. The island, named for an early owner, earned its niche in Ohio history as a Civil War prison camp for thousands of Confederate officers. To this day it remains the final resting place for more than 200 sons of the South. The Johnson’s Island quarry also fed limestone to breakwall projects around northern Ohio. Current residents seem to like it - now the island is an enclave of tony summer homes.
Johnsons Island’s rich history is well documented and makes for interesting reading. Save that for winter. If you’d rather spend a warm day in your boat instead of the library, grab your chart and plan an afternoon paddle trip around there.
I launched from the concrete boat ramp of the Dempsey Wildlife Access, a free facility on the south side of Marblehead. I paddled east, hugging the shoreline of the Marblehead peninsula. The views there foreshadow most of what you’ll see along the JI shore: cottages, breakwalls, small beaches, powerboats and sailboats, docks and boat lifts.
After about a mile and a half, I came to the causeway that connects Johnson’s Island to the mainland. The structure is about six-tenths of a mile in length from peninsula south to island. Its five bridges are functional, with riprap mounded from the water’s surface to the concrete slabs that form the roadway. I paddled under the northernmost bridge, then headed south to make a clockwise circuit.
Four bridges are about five feet high, but the middle bridge is a treat. It rises 29 feet and looks even taller from the cockpit of a kayak. Give it some room, partly to avoid unexpected powerboats, but mostly to get the best view. Seen from the side, the bay and bridge form a rectangular frame, like a giant painting or movie screen or stage proscenium. Is today’s show comedy or tragedy? Drama or farce? Looking west, I saw the Edison Bridge over Sandusky Bay and the simple play of sunlight on the water.
Heading south, parallel to the causeway, the scenery is pretty tame. I rounded the island’s northeast point and began heading along the eastern side. My trip so far was idyllic, but Johnsons Island wasn’t always that way. The same time in 1864, a cold snap settled over the stockade. On Oct. 8 of that year, Georgia infantry Lt. William E. Killen noted snow and sleet fell nearly all day. The next day, Oct. 9, 142 years before my jaunt, the weather was “fair and very cold.” Killen is there still. The Confederate cemetery is the only attraction that draws tourists to Johnsons Island, but it is not well marked from the water. If you look carefully, the clearing that is the graveyard is visible through the trees. This side of the island gives the best view of Bay Point to the west and the city of Sandusky about three miles south.
At the southeast curve of the island, plants are grown up on both sides of a rocky opening that appears no more than 10 feet wide. Paddle through it to an acre or two of still water surrounded by vegetation. I counted eight turtles sunning themselves on branches sticking up out of the water. I don’t know the depth there, but I didn’t hit bottom as I paddled. I have no idea what this structure originally was - a dock for the prison or quarry? But it could make a pleasant spot to raft up and break for water and a snack.
Just after that, heading west, is the entrance channel to the former quarry. Johnsons Island apparently sent tons of limestone to the breakwalls of Cedar Point, Lorain, Cleveland and other places. Now the pit is home to dozens of homes and boat docks. These earth-tone mansions match the pale gray rock but seem to have less personality than the more colorful cottages along the island shore. Some of the houses sit atop ledges, with spiral staircases dripping down like frozen wispy waterfalls. On one a couple busy with rollers and paint pans whitewashed their steps; if they saw me, they made no sign. In the water a beamy bass boat hovered near the shore as an angler flicked a lure around the dock posts. While I was there he hooked two fish and landed one. A floating sign cheerfully informs that anchoring, docking and swimming are prohibited inside this watery Shangri-la. There’s no sign warning against paddling around.
Once I left the marina and mansions, I continued my clockwise course around the island. I rounded the west side, then looped up to the north, where I paddled under the causeway again. My route continued north parallel to the causeway, back west underneath it, then along Marblehead’s southern shore heading west to the Dempsey Access. The weather remained perfect, with only a ghost of a breeze rippling the surface of Sandusky Bay.
Back at the ramp, as I loaded my boat, I spotted the angler I saw earlier in the quarry.
“Were you over at Johnson’s Island?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I saw you there,” he said. “That’s a long way for you.”
“I enjoy it,” I said.
Since this trip, I have paddled around Johnson’s Island several times more, in a variety of conditions. I still enjoy it.
For people who don’t live there, Johnson’s Island has just one attraction: the Civil War cemetery. By rights, in an emergency, you could land almost anywhere along its shore. However, JI has no boat ramps, marinas, snack stands, hotels or restrooms. Marblehead has lots more stuff just a few minutes’ drive from Dempsey Access.
Dempsey Access is a free facility. Ohio Division of Watercraft may be there; U.S. Coast Guard could be on Sandusky Bay, so carry registration and safety gear.
From Ohio 2, exit west of Sandusky Bay to Ohio 269 north. Follow the signs to Dempsey Access; they are well marked.
“Recreational Chart 14842: South Shore of Lake Erie” has lots of details.
is a wealth of historical information.
I also found Lt. W.E. Killen’s diary, transcribed, edited and introduced by Roger Long (1991), in the reference section of the Sandusky Library.
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