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Sure, it has water. It is a main nautical gateway from the mainland to the Lake Erie Islands. It has too many boats, too little natural beauty.
It also has given me several pleasant afternoons of paddling. When time and conditions are right, I’ll go back.
West Harbor’s main navigational feature is the channel heading roughly southwest-northeast from the inner harbor to the lake. The channel splits partway up, so from overhead it looks like a crooked “Y”. Depending on the route, it ranges from about 1.62 to 1.76 miles long as measured in straight lines. The channels are well marked with the standard navigational aids colored red and green.
Following these channels, heading back and forth, in and out, are boats. Lots of boats. Dozens of boats. Not kayaks and canoes, but bigger boats, ranging from motorized inflatables to PWCs to runabouts to high seas sailing yachts.
Thankfully, many of those rec boaters play it safe. But you know at least one vessel is going to be a problem. It’s the one piloted by a Hawaiian-shirt- and Bermuda-shorts-wearing party animal who is refreshing his captain skills from last summer. He can’t get too concerned because he’s late for a beer-thirty appointment on Put-in-Bay. He’s got one hand on the wheel, the other in the cooler. He’s got one eye out for water cops, the other out for chicks in bikinis. He’s not expecting a paddler in his path. If you end up there, by the rule of tonnage, he’s got the right of way! In short: This is no place to capsize.
The harbor seems to be a no-wake area, but idle speed of a cabin cruiser is fast enough to be dangerous to a paddler and PWCs can speed across the shallows. Avoid these waters unless you enjoy practicing maneuverability under moving hulls and spinning propellers.
Even if you go there and can avoid boat traffic, there’s little natural beauty to see. There are some shoals and trees and grasses, Canada geese and gulls and anglers. But West Harbor is a working recreational and charter boat waterway. It exists for boats (see above) and it maintains all the slips, gas docks, snack stands, towing companies and sea walls needed to float the fleet.
All in all, there’s almost no reason for a paddler to go to West Harbor. And yet ...
I bought my first sea kayak in July 2006 and by October I was eager to keep it wet as long as possible. On several Sundays, Lake Erie was too rough to go out for a solo run. So I tried West Harbor, which is somewhat close to a family weekend retreat. This year in spring, summer and fall I also have plied its waters with my boat. The harbor offered several enjoyable trips.
For all its seeming drawbacks, West Harbor also has its advantages. Launching is free from the ramps of West Harbor State Park Marina and Catawba Island Township. Boat traffic, when it is not busy, is relatively predictable because the big boats must stay in the channel or run aground. The shallows often have enough water to float a paddle boat. Waves likely are small because the harbor is relatively small with houses to break up the wind. Heading south, the many channels offer views of homes that range from shacks to mansions to under construction. There are lots of boats docked on the sea walls and, invariably, the people messing about in the them will smile and say hi. For a treat, find a favorite funny name painted on a transom, then practice your sweep turns at the end of a deserted inlet.
And I was wrong about the wildlife. On a trip there in September 2007, I saw two bald eagles flying overhead. That made my day.
West Harbor can work as a fall paddle, post-Labor Day, when the summertime population dwindles. Spring, before Memorial Day and the vacation season boom, is a good time. However, I must err on the side of caution and rate this trip as moderate-difficult, not because of its water conditions, but because of the boat traffic. When West Harbor is buzzing with motorboats, there is little margin for error. Use extra caution, dress to be seen and paddle as if you’re invisible.
At West Harbor State Park, two restaurants are nearby; several eateries and hotels sit along Ohio 163 and Ohio 53.
To find the Catawba Island Township launch, follow Ohio 53 north past Ohio 163 and onto Catawba Island. Look for the ramp on the right (east) side. The sign is not huge; if you reach the ferry docks on the northern tip of the island, you’ve gone way too far.
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