I feel so guilty letting this secret out! You really don’t have to go far, board a plane or spend a fortune to get away from it all to have an island experience.
Ontario’s Pelee Island offers it all: peace and serenity, no traffic, friendly people, ecotourism and birding, culture, bicycling, history and … a winery! The beaches are great too, stretching way, way, out with shallow, warm waters…even I went in to enjoy the waves. Pelee Island is basically located in the middle of Lake Erie near Windsor and Detroit.
Pelee Island, 42 square kilometers in size, is actually the southern-most populated place in Canada. Normally, about 200 persons are “permanent”, but the population swells to over 1500 with summer cottagers coming from both Canada and the USA, because of its proximity and ferry to Sundusky, Ohio.
To be truthful, Canada’s actual southern-most point is the unpopulated Middle Island, and both are part of an archipelago of 22 islands, nine of which are Canadian. You must reach Middle Island by boat from Pelee Island, or nearby Ohio. Middle Island is near the official border between Canada and the United States: and that makes for some good stories. In fact, in circling Middle Island by boat, my cell phone company advised me I was now on roaming charges; the invisible watery border was so close. Fortunately, another few feet of the puttering motor took us back into Canada and all was good again. No US Coast Guard after us either!
What’s in the Name?
Pelee is French for “bald”, because the first Europeans there were French traders and explorers who found the flat island barren. However, there is evidence of Indigenous occupation for 10,000 to 20,000 years. Despite this name, it has been an important stopping off point for travelers over the ages, providing hunting, fishing and farming. In 1788, the land was leased to Thomas McKee by local tribes. William McCormick bought it in 1823 and his family settled there in 1834. McCormick was also put in charge of the lighthouse after much ado, as it was built in 1833 with no keeper’s residence. The lighthouse was necessary to guide ships through the treacherous Pelee Passage, but McCormick complained to “the powers that be” about lack of adequate quality oil provided to light it. The island’s economy grew to also encompass lumber, stone quarrying, farming and then wine as early as the 1860’s.
After the Treaty of Ghent ended the American Revolution, it dictated that Lake Erie be divided down the middle between Upper Canada and the USA. David Thompson placed a survey marker on Pelee Island in 1819, and John Delafield placed another in 1821. During the War of 1812, the Battle of Lake Erie took place not far from the island. In the War of 1812, Middle Island was disputed territory. American sympathizers to the rebel cause in the Rebellion of 1837, members of a secret association known as the “Hunter’s Lodge, unsuccessfully attacked British forces in the 1838 Battle of Pelee Island, (and in other places like Prescott), to “liberate” Upper Canada during the associated Patriot War.
Famous names have been related to the island from both the US and Canada. Robert E. Lee was there in 1835 soon after graduating Westpoint, to lead an effort settling a dispute over the Ohio and Michigan borders. He would have had to refer to Thompson’s and Delafield’s survey markers to do this. A lingering island legend says he killed the lighthouse keeper while there, as in a later flowery letter he describes killing a “Canadian Snake” defending the light house (which is still there), while trying to gain access for his work. Lee was known for joking in his letters, and as there is no record of McCormick or any other lighthouse keeper being murdered, he most likely really did kill a snake and used this to mock the British government. After all, the island is known for its snake species!
A cousin of John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry fame, was involved in development of the island. A Gilded Age club was established on the island too in 1893, for the purpose of hunting and fishing by wealthy Americans like Marshall Field, George Pullman, Robert Todd Lincoln and Barney Kroger. The Pelee Club still exists, and has hosted at least four US presidents as well.
The island is so peaceful that Canadian author Margaret Atwood spends much of her time there, and has written most of her books on Pelee. She has in the last few years been hosting an annual fundraising dinner for the Pelee Island Bird Observatory as well. Her exact home’s location though, is a secret closely guarded by permanent islanders who are “honoured” with local acceptance by knowing where it is!
During prohibition a speakeasy was built on Middle Island, complete with airstrip beginning and ending in the water, a casino and luxury rooms to stay over, and run by a “mysterious underworld character” named Joe Roscoe from Toledo, and involved the Purple Gang of Detroit. Al Capone himself was rumoured to have visited there, and even hidden treasure, although never proven. Rum runners left from there in modified boats with whiskey and beer for delivery to nearby American islands and even mainland Ohio. As many as 200 persons a day were known to frequent the establishment, and it was also known for its pheasant dinners. The building was eventually abandoned when prohibition ended. It was victim to a fire in the mid twentieth century and little is left. Since 1999, the island is owned by Parks Canada as a refuge for over 35 rare and endangered species.
If you are an ecotourist, Pelee Island will delight you too, as a destination. Most people know it because of birds, and at least 242 different species have been identified there. Pelee is found on two major migratory bird routes, the Atlantic Flyway and the Mississippi flyway. It is also designated as a “globally important bird area” by several important organizations. The annual “Springsong Weekend” celebrates the yearly return of the migratory birds and is celebrated on Pelee usually on Mother’s Day weekend. The Pelee Island Bird Observatory conserves and studies birds on the island, and visitors have the chance to take part in tracking, tagging and photographing all the different kinds of birds that come. These migratory routes are also used by Monarch Butterflies and dragonflies.
One of Ontario’s most botanically significant sites, the Island has several Nature Conservancy of Canada areas, and two Provincial Nature Reserves. Glaciation did a good job there, scraping the island flat (the scrapes themselves left visible marks), and also depositions of stones. Resulting wildlife habitats include alvars (limestone areas with shallow soil cover), sand dunes and soils deep enough for trees of the Eastern Deciduous forest to grow.
The islands are home to thousands of species of plants and animals and some of the most biologically diverse natural habitats in Canada. On Pelee Island you find many creatures usually not in Canada, including the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus, Sassafras Tree, Hop Tree and Smallmouth Salamander. Many are species at risk, as previously mentioned. There are at least four snake varieties on the island but you’ll be pleased to know that none of them are poisonous. If you are a hunter, the annual and organized fall pheasant shoot has attracted thousands to the island.
Wine and Culture Anyone?
One of the island pleasures is Pelee Island Wines. No, it’s not just a label at the LCBO, but a going concern with 550 acres of its own grapes, a huge reception building with a very impressive carved wood bar for tastings, food to eat on the lovely patio on site and of course the souvenir section. It’s been going since 1979. My eyes were certainly opened wide by the fact that the winery is actually on the same latitude as Rioja, Spain, Porto, Portugal, Provence, France, and Tuscany, Italy, and it has the most heat units in the country! A whole bunch of varietals are grown there too. Before you leave, also make sure you investigate the vestiges of the wine industry’s past. At the other end of the island (minutes away in fact), are the ruins of Vin Villa, a winery dating to 1871, whose wines won prizes as far away as Europe.
Early August, The Island Unplugged Music Festival takes place for fans of folk music. There are some other festivities to look into as well, and a writer’s retreat led by published authors.
Planning on going?
No chain stores, burger bars, shopping centres or crowds. A traffic jam is two cars at one of the island’s few stop signs! For groceries and gas you have to go to the local coop, so you may want to stock up before you go!
It’s a biker’s dream because it’s totally flat too. A number of bed and breakfasts exist, and a few restaurants. Take advantage of Island life! When we were there, the local Masons were offering a fresh lake perch fundraising dinner Saturday night for the grand sum of $20 each, no reservations required. A great way to get oriented is the Zodiac boat tour from the marina with a very knowledgeable and friendly operator, which takes about three hours and goes to several outlying islands where birds like pelicans breed.
However, do make sure you plan well ahead! Accommodation is there but limited Inns and B and B’s available. There is a campground too. The ferry, while reasonable in cost, only takes so many cars, so it is wise to reserve well ahead if you want to take the car on and off the island. Walking on with your luggage and bicycle is much easier. The parking lot can be limited as well: we arrived early afternoon the Thursday before a long weekend to walk on, and got the second last spot! The ferry and island are dog friendly, but just make sure you check with the place you are staying first.
For people who like “low key” and to truly get away, without leaving the country, this is the place!
Written by: Diana Janosik-Wronski