Pelee, The Island Of Laughter
Our first trip to a lesser traveled Great Lakes’ island started with horror and then built into a wonderful week of fun and adventure for everyone. The memories and storytelling of our visit to Lake Erie’s largest island is why we’ve made it a repeat trip. It’s kind of ironic considering nothing happens fast on Pelee Island. But it allows our extended family quality time together, which is what this kind of vacationing is supposed to do.
Before I share the entertaining tale of the attack of the blood thirsty black flies, let’s start at the beginning of this island adventure.
Most of us couldn’t stomach the ferry ride to Pelee Island. It was nighttime and Lake Erie was white capping. Grandma regretted her sugary snack and cup of coffee. Her eyes fixated at the bottom of a bag. The contents of her stomach followed. The boys returned from the bow, soaked head to toe. They were having the time of their lives facing uncertainty on the high seas.
The next day, we awoke at our beachfront rental to sunny skies and waves that were still pretty big. We swam, diving into the breaking waves all morning. Then, we noticed swimming companions peeking out from the water, shooting from waves, doing wild wrapping rituals on the beach. They were Lake Erie water snakes; an endangered species but you wouldn’t have known that from looking around. Pelee Island was a haven for them as well as the endangered blue racer snake. It’s the only place in Canada you will see either of those two snakes. Another endangered snake on the island is the eastern foxsnake. Anyway, after seeing several water snakes near me in the water, I beached myself but the kids were having too much fun to care.
Pelee Island was perfect for bicycle riding an afternoon away so that’s what we decided to do. Our destination was to be an old lighthouse built nearly 200 years ago. Before we set out, we all took turns spraying each other with bug repellent.
“I swear they’re biting me more after I put the repellent on than before,” I complained to my wife. She said it was my imagination. Maybe it was.
It was time to go and Grandma, my mom, zoomed ahead. She lives life like she’s forever 12.
“Why doesn’t Grandma have to wear a bicycle helmet?” asked my 12-year-old daughter.
“Just ride,” several of us sighed.
My niece was not very good at riding a bicycle, especially compared to her daredevil little brother. So, the pack broke in two. I kept pace with my daughter, son and nephew. My mom stayed back – much as she loved riding fast with a huge grin and wild eyes – with my niece, wife, sister and sister’s boyfriend. About every quarter-mile, my niece wiped out. But the fractured pack kept moving down the road to an end of the island where we would eventually pick up a trailhead to a beach and finally the lighthouse.
I kept getting bit by black flies. No one else seemed to notice, so I gutted it out and continued. I really had no choice. It was more of a nuisance than anything else. Nearly two miles into the ride, there was a considerable gap between my group of kids and my niece’s group of adults. I nearly jackknifed my bike I was bit so damn hard by a black fly. It hurt but that pain was quickly eclipsed by another, and another and another.
I was miserable.
It turned out that I was no longer the only one. My daughter and nephew were ahead of my son and me. They slowed down because the black flies grew thicker and thicker. The four of us pressed on a little bit further, hoping we’d blow through the swarm. By the time we reached the end of the road and the beginning of the trailhead, we were engulfed in a cloud of black flies. My daughter was hurting out loud, my son had no filter as he shrieked from the constant biting, and my little nephew suffered in silence. I yelled at the flies. It was all I could do before we turned around and tried to flee. My daughter was the fastest out of there. I hung back with the two young boys. They needed to keep both hands on their handlebars and that kept them from swatting at the meat-eating flies. The swarm was so thick, and the bites so ferocious, my son was bleeding. I considered maybe it was my scent since I had attracted them long before anyone else even noticed. I told the boys to ride ahead and follow my daughter.
Once they were well ahead of me, I rode like the wind in my effort to escape the misery. But misery was glued to me. As it turned out, the flies never left the boys, either, nor my daughter for that matter. When the four of us flew past the slower-paced riders, headed in the opposite direction, the kids were screaming in pain – except for my silent nephew – from the constant biting. As the slower group described to us later, when we flew past them our white shirts looked black, and we resembled a bad Pig-Pen scene from the Peanuts comic strip. As for me, they reported that I looked just like a bee-keeper blanketed in bees. The black cloud stuck to me no matter where I went. As I rode past the slower group, I yelled to turn around but it was too late. The flies swarmed them, too, unbeknownst to me because I had the boys to worry about. My daughter was too far ahead for me to have any immediate concern.
It was sheer terror for about two miles. At some point, my wife left her slower group and caught up to us, typical of a mother needing to protect her young.
I had to make the painful decision to have the boys stop their bicycles a couple of times to shake and swat the flies away.
After a while, I said, “Just ride! The only way this is going to stop is getting back to the house.”
It was awful not being able to help them. Both boys were downright scared. My son yelled out loud. My nephew had horror in his eyes but never said a peep. They both rode and rode because there was no alternative. They looked to me for help but there was nothing I could do except emphasize that the only way to make it stop was to get back so ride-ride-ride!
Finally, we got back, shook the flies off and ran inside to safety. I went back outside to look down the road to see how far back the others were. That’s when my sister skid across the lawn, jumped from her bike before it stopped and sped off in her car. It happened in a blur.
Because my niece couldn’t ride a bike far under normal conditions, she was being eaten alive along with everyone in her group. She was in hysterics by the time the rescue vehicle brought her back.
An hour later, small amounts of blood were wiped from the fair-skinned youngsters. Tears dried and medicine applied, we sat around the room overlooking the beach and lake, completely drained from the experience.
My niece joined us. She was washed up and wrapped in a towel for comfort.
Since I wasn’t with her on the ride, I said, “Tell me about your awesome bike ride.”
Her bottom lip puffed out as she softly replied, “I fell down a hill, got scraped and got eaten by flies.”
“So it was fun,” I teased.
“No,” she said sheepishly.
“Was it kind of fun?” Grandma asked.
She looked through sad eyes with that puffy lip expression and faintly said, “Yes.”
The room erupted in laughter because we all knew this was an incredible experience we’d not soon forget.
The rest of the week was one wonderful adventure after another. We didn’t go anywhere without riding bikes and rarely saw a motor vehicle. The island is as flat as flat can be so even little kids can ride bikes pretty much all day long. It’s probably why a popular Ontario marathon is held there. If you don’t bring your own bikes, no worries, there’s a bicycle shop on the island just down the street from the ferry port in what you might call downtown. This stretch has a restaurant and bar, antique store, museum, ice cream stand, the bicycle shop and not much else. Be sure to bring your own groceries! There is a commissary on the other side of the island, but it’s nothing like a full grocery store. If you run out of some staple items, you can hopefully get them there.
A few days later, we worked up our bravery to return to the site of the historic lighthouse. We were astonished that not a single black fly was anywhere to be found this time around.
The trailhead led us to an unmarked split in the trail so we turned right and walked over a little footbridge instead of continuing straight. It led to a beach and long sandy walk toward The Pelee Island Lighthouse. All and all, it’s about a mile long walk from the road to the northeastern tip of the island and Lighthouse Point Provincial Nature Reserve.
The whitewashed tower was erected in 1833 and became inactive in 1903. You cannot go inside but it is a photogenic piece of architecture. The quaint tower has giant wood beams braced at angles from the ground, leaning partially up its walls for further support to protect it from decay due to the erosion of crashing waves. The timbers certainly add to its allure and picturesque quality. Surrounded by huge boulders, trees and brush, it’s no wonder much of the island’s art shops use it as a focal point.
Leaving no stone unturned so-to-speak on this day of adventure, we learned the legend of Hulda’s Rock. This story centers on an unassuming rock jutting from the shoals just offshore. Hulda was an Indian maiden. She was the beautiful daughter and pride of the island tribe’s chief. One day a pale face man came to the island for fish and game. But his heart and hers intertwined. So he stayed. Happy years passed and then came word of the man’s dying mother on a distant shore. So Hulda’s love went to be by his mother’s side one last time. He pledged his return to his true love before another moon should wane. But many moons came and went, and with each Hulda’s heartache grew to unbearable pain. Eventually, a letter made its way to Hulda’s outstretched hands.
It was… “A letter that brought a withering blight
And broke a faithful heart that night;
That told a tale of broken trust
And hurled bright hopes down in the dust.
Hark! Hark, a wail of dark despair
Floats out upon the midnight air;
A splash is heard, and Pelee’s pride
Floats out upon blue Erie’s tide.
Upon the north of Pelee Isle,
There stranger liner but awhile;
View “Hulda’s rock” – the mariner’s guide,
That marks the fate of the Indian bride.
It marks that death-leap into the sea,
And marks a white man’s perfidy.
The waves that gainst it foam and surge
Seem chanting e’er a funeral dirge.”
As we biked to another part of the island we came across a rather large, roadside, stone model of an old winery that used to be on the island. Its ruins can still be seen today. It was called Vin Villa and it was the first known winery in Ontario, Canada. It was built by Thaddeus Smith in 1868. His wine cellar was cut 12 feet deep into solid rock. The cellar was 40 feet wide by 60 feet long. The basement was built over top of it. The entrance was large enough for horses and wagons with full loads of grapes to clear. From the ground up stood a one and a half story, southern-style mansion. The entire structure was built from the stones hewn out of the wine cellar. It was mostly burned to the ground in 1963, leaving some tall stone walls reaching skyward along with the trees now rooted all around what’s left of this architectural gem.
A newer winery is just down the road from the stone model. Just follow the vineyards to the Pelee Island Winery. Here, you can barbeque your own meal on a gorgeous outdoor patio large enough for many groups to do the same but with enough space between grills and tables to feel you’re on your own. Special entertainment is often in the air mixing with the sweet smell of grapes. The pavilion is the hub of island activity. An interactive wine tour and tasting is definitely recommended. Heck, you can even sit at a table inside a giant wine barrel if that’s your taste.
As I mentioned earlier, this was not our only retreat to Pelee Island. In a recent visit, we spent time at two wonderfully strange stops and gathered more sea glass than we had anywhere else, including Glass Beach in California.
But first, like the first time around, our week started with an unexpected obstacle to overcome.
We hopped in our car once they rolled it off the ferry, and headed for the customs checkpoint. After all, this was Canada and we were entering from the United States. Anyway, I was in an honest mood so when the customs officer asked if I had any pepper spray, I said yes. Now, I did pause to consider how to answer. I quickly wondered if they already knew because we were separated from our vehicle on the ferry where they were parked below and out of sight. When I said yes and had my wife hand me the tiny bottle from the glove compartment, my 17-year-old daughter spoke up and said, “I have Mace in my purse. Is that illegal?”
So I was escorted to a little building to find out.
Inside it was explained to me that if I did not voluntarily give them the spray, I would have been in serious doo-doo if they had found it on their own. According to the agents (Is that what they are called?), pepper spray is considered a weapon and if they would have found it, the situation would have been treated exactly the same as if I were trying to smuggle in any other type of weapon. I filled out some paperwork and left the spray bottles with them.
We rolled up to another beachfront stay only this one was very secluded. There was nobody else in sight, except for dozens of geese bathing on our beach. But hey, no snakes. None that we could see anyway.
Pelee Island is a major destination to see migrating birds as they pause there on their flight across Lake Erie. The Pelee Island Bird Observatory is a member of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. During peak migration, experienced birders regularly report citing more than 100 species per day. The island is a haven for songbirds. Common migrating species include horned larks, ducks, geese, swans, common flickers, tree swallows, hermit thrushes, winter wrens, gulls, herons, swallows, woodpeckers, rails, sparrows, hawks, thrushes and warblers. And that’s the short list!
Every morning and evening, most of us combed up and down the beach and found sea glass that washed up with the tide. My nephew was the “sea glass whisperer.” He perfected a ritual he had developed. He’d chant and dance for the island sea glass gods from a boulder at the water’s edge before his hunts. It worked because he found more sea glass than anyone else.
Almost from the get-go, we headed out on our bicycles for a 17 mile trip around the island, hitting our favorite spots, including two roadside novelties I have yet to reveal. Along the way, there was lots of waving to strangers as you rode past one another much like boaters out on the lake. Keep in mind, bicycling is easy on this flat island unless you choose some of the inner island roads which can be deep in gravel. Then it’s like riding in quicksand. But the perimeter and main interior roads were pretty much smooth sailing.
Still, be careful. Just like several years earlier, my niece had her biking troubles. This time, someone stopped suddenly and the chain reaction had her swerve to miss the person in front of her only to find just beyond the brush – on almost every road mind you – is a steep drop to an old canal. These trenches are all throughout the island’s interior. So over the handlebars she went, skidding headfirst until she tangled in enough foliage to stop her from the murky stagnant water below. It was a minor miracle that we could pull her back up by the ankles and that she didn’t have a scratch on her.
Things were going our way.
The island is chock full of hidden surprises. But we were well aware of two strategically spaced ice cream huts that always proved to be great stopping points for rest and refreshments. One was just down the road from a water toy rental place we had not known about. They had everything there to provide hours of fun in Lake Erie. You could rent kayaks, paddle boards, and a number of other toys by the hour, half-day or all day.
As we circled the island we came to one of our two favorite stops – the shoe tree. There were so many pairs of shoes tied together by their laces and snagged on branches that one limb had broken. It was now braced back up with the help of some supports. My niece pulled a pair of old tennis shoes from her backpack and proceeded to add to this weird form of art. But it proved more difficult than it looked to actually get a pair of shoes to wrap their laces around a branch. Finally, her place in shoe tree history was secured. At least as long as the shoelaces would take to rot through.
A short distance further down the western side of the island is a haven for Inukshuks perched along the stony shoreline, gazing out to sea. An Inukshuk is a human-looking stone structure that usually includes stacked stones for the legs, a long stone laid across the leg stones creating hips, and another even longer stone stacked on top of it for shoulders. Finally, a rounder stone was hoisted and centered at the top to form the head. These landmarks were created by Inuit and other tribes of native people spanning North America. They marked that someone was here and you are on the right path. It was the official symbol used for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. On Canada’s Pelee Island, overlooking all the smaller, makeshift stone men left by passersby, is the Stoneman. This massive stone sculpture was designed as a testament to island perseverance. It was built by Pete Letkeman and named by the students of Pelee Island Public School. Yes, people do live here year-round. There are a lot of farms on the island. There’s even a small public library.
Although trips in the car were done sparingly, it was necessary for exploring the many artisan and antique stores dotting the island. And of course, how else were we to transport back to the rental house all the tastiness we boxed up at Conorlee’s Bakery & Delicatessen? For the heck of it, we also stopped at the Pelee Island Heritage Center. It had some pretty cool old-time exhibits. The pinned map of shipwrecks in western Lake Erie stood out as did the diverse collection of kites on display.
We wished our island stay overlapped with the much hyped annual summer music festival – The Island Unplugged. It’s a family-friendly music and arts festival featuring music acts from regional to national fame. An old rock quarry on the island serves as a unique setting for a wide variety of special events.
Back at the rental house, we had eight of us circled around a huge wooden dining table playing a board game and laughing it up. The house had no air-conditioning because the screened windows all around provided all the coolness you needed. An unexpected and massive crack of thunder shook everyone out of their skin. The breeze picked up and the sun dimmed but we figured we had enough time for someone to finish their turn at the game before we went outside to watch the storm roll in.
That’s when a hurricane force wind blasted us and everything in the house!
Contents of shelves blew to the floor, a picture flew off the wall, and darkness fell on us all. We scrambled to an interior closet, emptied it and packed it with bodies. When all was clear, we assessed the damage and wondered how long before electricity would be restored. It wasn’t much of a storm. It hardly rained and after the first few minutes of wind blasts, it was pretty much over.
We soon found out that the toilets and water supply also needed electricity to work.
In the morning, we discovered a couple of telephone poles on our edge of the island had blown over. The other half of the island still had power. But our fate rested in the hands of a crew that had to be notified on the mainland and catch a ferry across before they could even begin working to restore the lost power. So we headed to the commissary and bought the last of the bottled water they had available.
Afterward, we rode our bikes to the southernmost point on the island, known as Fish Point Provincial Nature Preserve. Other than the nearby, tiny and uninhabited Middle Island, Pelee Island was the furthest populated point you could stand in Canada. And in a freak of nature, it has a sand bar created by competing current. It twists southward like a tail creating what is known as Point Pelee. While on the wooded trail to get from the road to the sandy beaches and Point Pelee, we took a wrong turn. The trail turned but we went straight because the shore was right there. So we spent a lot of time and energy navigating enormous pieces of driftwood. It was pretty to be sure. So pretty a couple had a photographer snapping shots of them with the smooth, wavy, sun bleached and barkless tree remains as their backdrop to happiness.
Finally, we reached the Point Pelee beach and the long walk out to its southernmost tip. Pelee. From an aerial view, which my brother-in-law had when he flew to the U.S. mainland in a four-seater airplane, the island with its sandy tail looks like a stingray. The sand is soft and deep making it one helluva workout to trek across. When we neared the Point, the kids ran through the hundreds of seagulls blanketing the last stretch of the island’s tail. The seagulls lazily took to the air creating quite a dizzying sight of white in every direction we looked.
Our last evening was filled with s’more over a beach fire, hammock time, swimming, sea glass hunting and star gazing.
Fully relaxed and ready to face the hectic lives we all had to return to, we retreated inside. The lights flickered and turned on for the first time in 24-hours.
As we reminisced about our island escapades, we were reminded why Pelee is an island of laughter.