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The Lake Erie Islands

Ron Tiesson, the former Pelee Island Heritage Centre curator, had a vision for all of the Lake Erie Islands. What if people from the Lake Erie Islands all got together to share ideas about the best way to promote the cultural and natural resources of the Lake Erie Islands Archipelago? On June 4-5, 2013, Pelee, Kelleys, Put-in-Bay, and Middle Bass representatives rallied to Tiessen’s invitation to come to Pelee, explore, brainstorm, and network.

The Lake Erie Islands International Conservation and Cultural Consortium is born.

The first order of business was transportation. Pelee is remote. Captain Russ Brohl piloted his 1969 22’ Lyman with Lisa Brohl as first mate carrying passengers Kelly Farris and Susan Byrnes from Put-in-Bay. I was responsible for Mike and Jean Gora. We left from Middle Bass. The waves were hammer and anvil, the stuff that knocks out fillings. The wind was 25 mph sustained with occasional bursts to 35 MPH. Head seas all the way. It was the most unpleasant boating one could hope for.

We ran parallel from the USA with the Brohls. Russ and his crew soldiered to Scudder. I thought I would be polite and drop off the Goras at West Dock, which was tucked in the lee, then shoot around the horn and knock out a few more teeth. From my Boston Whaler’s deck to West Dock’s tarmac is a ten-foot rise. Mike and Jean shinnied up an iron rung ladder, timing their jumps with the surge.

I motored off, thinking all was well. Turns out not. West Dock was gated, and the Goras had to gator around a security fence like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. Then Customs… I landed at Scudder and checked in, only to discover the Goras were now illegal aliens (and trespassers, to boot). When going to a foreign port, passengers must stay with the boat captain and his vessel and check in together. With some explanation, the local customs people sorted it out. One of the officers glanced out the window and said, “You came across in that? No harm, no foul”.

Griffings Flys To The Lake Erie Islands

Pat Hayes from Kelleys Island was brilliant. He flew in. Griffing Flying Service flies international legs from Sandusky, Ohio. Pat’s specialty is birding, and he heads

Photo of One of the Lake Erie Islands

the Kelleys Island Audubon Club. So flying is second nature to him. Pelee’s niche has organically grown to include ecotourism as a major component in promoting the island.

However, day-tripping is nearly impossible, with a lack of ferry service and customs on the USA side. There is one boat a day, and when that boat breaks down, as it did for five weeks in 2012, you are stranded, castaway. Governmental policy is choking Pelee. It is an island caught in the middle of conflicting bureaucracy. The result is border isolation.

Yet, Pelee has so much to offer. We were treated to a tour of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Managing director Graeme Gibson tracks birds and their habits at the facility. They give talks and demonstrations to educational groups and visitors. The site contributes to a scientific community that gauges North America.

The bird population of the Lake Erie Islands is a barometer by which to judge the health of an ecosystem. Pelee must be very healthy. Interested? Contact Graeme at Graeme.gibson@pibo.ca. This was old hat to birders Hayes and Tom Bartlett ( Bartlett sensibly took the ferry from Sandusky and left the navigation to professionals). Hayes talked about several birds he had banded and connected with for over ten years on Kelleys. In ornithological parlance, these were not “snowbirds” rather they were birds that stayed the winter.

I don’t know what the opposite of a Snowbird is… The Pelee Island Society captures both the natural and cultural history of Pelee. It is an excellent museum housed in the old municipal building across from West Dock, complete without a tour of the local cemetery. It contained some very lovely headstones that go back to the early 1800s, including many from the founding family, the McCormicks.

One of the more interesting? Frederick Fisher died on May 10th, 1867. He was one of the last Indian Chiefs of the Lake Tribes and a Pelee resident. We had a rare opportunity to visit the Pelee Club. It was built in 1883, and it hasn’t changed much since. It possessed the original furniture and paintings. The prestigious member roster included retailer Marshall Fields, railroad car builder George Pullman, Robert Todd Lincoln (Abe and Mary’s kid), and Grocer Barney Kroger.

It was very similar to the Middle Bass Club regarding social standing. The most exciting part of the tour was the bowling alley. Over time, the building that houses the two bowling lanes settled. There are two camel humps (like the back portion of the Blue Streak Roller coaster at Cedar Point) in the longitude of the alleys as a result. As they say in golf, “a tough lie.” The pins were handset. The original club bowling balls had two holes and were made of wood. Like cooking dinner in a bean pot, even bowling was more challenging in the day!

Pelee resident Mo Pierce threw a cocktail party for the delegation at her bed and breakfast at Knoll Farms (519- 738-4774). Before becoming an innkeeper, she was the Pelee Island resident nurse. It turns out Captain Russ Brohl and Mo had met 35 years earlier. In a youthful act of hubris, Brohl had sliced his foot on a stubborn boat air vent, and Mo put ten stitches in his heel.

In typical Pelee fashion, she kiddingly quipped when hearing the story, “So, did you come back 35 years later to complain about the service?” Mhairi McFarlane of the Nature Conservancy gave us a tour of the rich ecological diversity of Pelee. Of particular interest was Stone Road Alvar. Plants have odd names. Favorites? Naval Shaped Corn Salad, Conobia, and Mad Dog Skullcaps. We also visited

Middle Point Woods on the island’s east side. Unlike anything in the western basin, there is a preserve with a mile of sandy beach. The story of how the beach was reclaimed from an invasive species of reeds (Phragmites australis) is compelling.

So what does it all mean? After lunch at the Pelee Island Winery, we recapped our experience. Per Ron Tiessen: “Despite border security issues, infrequent winter ice bridges, and the gift of the internet allowing us to wander all over the globe, there is still an identifiable community amongst the islanders who share the western basin of Lake Erie. It is beautiful we share a sense of belonging to the same human neighborhood, the same little ecological area, our Leke Erie Islands home.

There are dozens of great ideas to share between our islands.” Per Kim Gardner, “The last two days gave us an opportunity to share practices and discuss common interests that will lead to greater potential for future collaboration.” Susan Byrnes, the owner of the Arbor Inn, was thrilled to represent Put-in-Bay. “We encourage our guests to take advantage of the nature trails on Put-in-Bay. We plan to add more ecologically-based alternative activities through our website.

The folks at Pelee have done a great job with this angle.” Jean Gora added, “I like Ron Tiessen’s attempt to link the natural history of the Lake Erie Islands to their people’s history. I don’t think anyone has done it as well as Ron. We would love to have him as a speaker on the other Lake Erie Islands!” Many of Pelee’s woes settle on poor ferry service and constrictive border security.

Yet there is a spirit of optimism on the Lake Erie Islands. It is a special place. Its island personality is emerging. A representative of this identity is local entrepreneur Anne Marie Fortner. She has built her tour business on Pelee. You name the tour (eco, historical, beach glass) she will create a special day or week for you. It can be a bike, car, or bus… She assembled a half marathon in early June despite the ferry and other logistical nightmares that would send a rational person packing.

In lean times she mopped cottages, ran rentals, drove cabs, dressed rabbits, and cleaned pheasants for hunters… She loves Pelee. It shows. That is the spirit that will change Pelee. Yet, keep it the same. She loves and respects her island. It shows in her enthusiasm when she discusses Pelee. Islandwide, there is great respect for Pelee. It is evidenced in the actions of the people we meet who live there. It is an island community with a fascinating past and a bright future.


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