The Whispered Stories Of The Maples

There are five structures on Hen Island in Lake Erie:  a combination boathouse, kitchen, and dormitory, a bunkhouse, the Pete Nowak Lodge, a utility shed — and a small, two-story building at the rear of the island called “The Maples.”

Of the structures, The Maples may have the most interesting history.  It was the no-frills living quarters of the hired men who — in the days before the internal combustion engine and the outboard motor — rowed the Quinnebog Fishing Club members out to Old Hen Island.  The island is miles away from the shore in any direction, and rowing out to an island in the middle of Lake Erie had to be hard work, especially when the weather turned foul and whitecaps dotted the surface of the shallow lake. Why is it called The Maples?  The answer to that basic question is lost in the mists of time.

The rowers had to put their backs into their work to make it out to the island — but I’m guessing that when they reached their destination and tossed their duffel bags down they had a very good time until the departure hour arrived.  Although the building is now used for storage, there must have been tables and chairs and a stove on the first floor and bunk beds on the second floor.  No doubt poker games were played, flasks of cheap whiskey were quaffed, laughter rang out at a bawdy joke, and a line or two was wet from the back shore of the island.

The Maples is a silent place, now, but it’s not hard to hear the tales it has to tell.

Meet The Great Black-Backed Gull

At least, that’s what I think this bird is after looking through the Waterbirds of Ohio guidebook from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website.  It’s one of many bird species we saw this year on our visit to Old Hen Island in Lake Erie.

This bird is huge — not quite as big as a chicken, but much, much larger than the robins, cardinals and blue jays we see here in central Ohio. It must weigh several pounds, and it’s not particularly intimidated by an approaching human.  Its oily feathers allow it to float comfortably on the water.  It bobs up and down on the swells of Lake Erie and then takes off and wheels around the island, high in the air.  It’s also perfectly comfortable waddling around the patch of grass in the middle of the island, looking suspiciously at whoever might come near.

These gulls also are loud.  In the morning, their startling cries that greet the sunrise could wake the dead — or even the snoring cribbage player who might have had a few Labatt’s too many the night before.  And, of course, the gulls are happy to leave their markers.  The rocky shores of the island are coated with chalky droppings that look like multiple coats of bright white paint.

Mindless Pleasures From A Ring, A Line, And A Tree

On Hen Island there is a huge tree near the bunkhouse.  On one of its outstretched limbs a line has been hung.  At the end of the line is an iron ring, hanging from a hook on the trunk of the tree.

The concept is simplicity itself.  You remove the ring from the hook and pitch it out into the open space, trying to get the ring to swing out on the line, return toward the trunk, and land securely in the hook.  Of course, it looks easier than it actually is, and trying to make the right throw, in the right direction, with the right velocity and speed, becomes an exercise in patience and frustration.  But when the key lands on the hook with a satisfying thunk, the feelings of pleasure and achievement are as real as any.

It’s addictive, of course.  And try to walk past it — just try! — when other folks are playing.  You can’t resist the opportunity to take a turn and make your toss, and while you’re waiting kibbutz with your fellow players about the proper direction (should it be toward the laundry line, or the little tree?), the vigor of the toss (you don’t want to be short, you know), whether the ring should be thrown steady or slowly spinning (you can argue for hours about which approach increases your likelihood of success), and countless other fine points, like the coefficient of friction and wind gradients.

You take your turn, endure the close calls, lament the near misses, hoot at the successes, and enjoy yourself immensely as the hours slowly pass.

Hen Island, Lake Erie, 6:30 a.m., August 12, 2012

We had a great time at our annual father-son get-together at the Quinnebog Fishing Club on Hen Island, although we missed Richard and Chris.  The weather for most of the weekend was wet, cool, and stormy, but fortunately it doesn’t rain on the cribbage table.  In any case, this morning’s sunrise was beautiful.

Celebrating The Men Of Hen

In a few weeks we’ll be heading off to the Quinnebog Fishing Club on Old Hen Island in Lake Erie for its annual father-son get-together.

We’ll play cribbage, drink lots of beer, eat until we can’t stuff down any more, smoke some cigars, brush cobwebs from our faces as we do the walking circuit around the little island, toss a few horseshoes, read books on the porch facing the lake, watch some great sunsets, and drink some more beer before staggering off to bed when the generator is turned off.  We might even wet a line or two in the forlorn hope of catching a fish.  We’ll pray that the temperatures aren’t too warm and the air isn’t too humid, so that we can sleep comfortably on the little cots in the old wooden (and therefore non-air-conditioned) bunkhouse.

It’s always a fun weekend — something that, in reality, demands a special, commemorative t-shirt.  So, this year we finally made one.

Russell, as the family’s talented graphic artist, came up with a great design.  At his instruction, we’re going with black t-shirts with his original logo featuring a water view of the island on the back and the “Men of Hen” insignia on the shirt pocket on the front.  The shirt pocket, of course, makes it easier to carry around a cigar, cutter, and lighter.

I think the t-shirts look very cool, although we’ll have to reserve judgment until some of the less than svelte 50-something men on the trip try them on.  Until then, we’ll only say:  All hail the Men of Hen!

Pelee Island

When we travel to Hen Island, we go through Pelee Island — a little-known part of Canada found smack dab in the middle of Lake Erie.  Hen Island actually is part of the Pelee Island Township, which consists of nine islands.

Pelee, as viewed from our plane

Pelee Island looks like someone carved out a few miles of Ohio farmland, hoisted it out, and plopped it into the lake.  The place is flat as a pancake, and when approached from the air it looks like an island of farms.  Pelee Island has a small air strip and is regularly visited by ferries, but it has the feel of a remote place — sparsely inhabited, not much activity, and not many people out and about.  However, once or twice our Hen Island trip has coincided with a celebration the locals call Pelee Fest, and it is clear from that experience that the locals and visitors know how to have a good time.

Pelee Island is part of Ontario province and is the southernmost part of Canada.  It’s also the largest island in Lake Erie, covering about 10,000 acres, and has about 300 permanent residents.  The population gets up to 1,500 during the summer months, when Pelee is a popular fishing destination.  Farming is the big focus of the economy, although Pelee Island also features the Pelee Island Winery.

An Old Hen Sunset

Lake Erie is “Ohio’s Great Lake.”  It is dotted with islands, large and small, some of which are in the American part of the lake and some of which, like Old Hen Island, are in the Canadian sector.  Wherever they are, Lake Erie islands have their own, distinctive feel.  It’s like you’re not in the Midwest any more, but instead have somehow been transported to some faraway, languid, magical realm.

One of the highlights of any overnight visit to a Lake Erie island is the sunset.  They tend to be spectacular, as you look out due west and see the sun fall into the vast body of water, turned fiery gold for the occasion.  This photo was taken Friday night, from the “Sunset Strip” vantage point on the western shore of Old Hen Island.

Hot As Hen

We attended the annual father-son get-together at the Quinnebog Fishing Club on Old Hen Island this weekend.

As always, we had a wonderful time playing cards, throwing horseshoes, traversing the webby rim of the island, drinking beer, chatting with the other guests, and eating like gladiators.  The generous hospitality of the Quinnebog members is legendary in our family, and this weekend was no exception.  Thanks, gentlemen!

It was hot as blazes when we were there, with the sun high in the white sky during the day and the air heavy and sultry at night.  The heat posed sleeping challenges for spoiled wusses like me who are now so used to air conditioning that they get uncomfortable in any sleep environment that isn’t kept at a constant 70 degrees, or lower.  The dormitory building on the island is an older wooden frame building that has never known the niceties of central air.  It got a little warm in there.

In such circumstances, you just have to laugh at the outlandish notion of using a blanket, position yourself to take full advantage of any stray breezes that might find their way into your room, and recognize that waking up a little hotter than normal isn’t the end of the world.  After all, the hot summer days just make iced-down beers taste that much better, and you just can’t find a better place than the rocking chair porch of the Pete Nowak Lodge on a balmy afternoon.

Equally important, humans apparently aren’t the only creatures affected by the broiling summer days.  The sea gulls and other water birds spent a lot of time bobbing in the water, the fish generally kept to themselves, and even the despised biting black flies couldn’t be troubled to chomp on a bare leg.  If a little heat is what it necessary to avoid the welt-raising plague of biting insects, I’ll take it any day.

Laying Around On Old Hen Island

We just got back from an all-too-short visit to the Canadian waters of Lake Erie.

The Quinnebog Fishing Club dock and main hall

On Friday Richard, Russell and I drove up to Sandusky to the Griffing Air Terminal, where we met Chris and Danny and Al and Joe.  We all boarded a nine-seater plane and took one of the shortest international flights anywhere in the world.  Our 12-minute flight took us over Cedar Point, Put-in-Bay, and the rest of the Bass Islands.  We landed on Pelee Island, which is part of Canada.  From Pelee we took a boat and headed due west to Old Hen Island and the Quinnebog Fishing Club for its annual father-son get-together.

Friday's sunset on Old Hen Island

The Quinnebog Fishing Club is a corporation that was formed in the late 1800s by a group of Ohioans from the Sandusky area.  By charter, it can have no more than 25 members.  Somehow the corporation acquired Old Hen Island, which is a rocky, tree-covered five-acre dab of land that rises from Lake Erie between North Bass Island and the Canadian mainland.  The island has been the site of the Club ever since.

There isn’t much on Old Hen Island.  About half of it is covered by trees and strewn with rock.  The first structure you see as you approach the island is the green and white, turreted main building at the dock.  It stores fishing and boating supplies on the ground floor and features a dining hall on the second floor and staff residential quarters on the third floor.  There is a spartan bunk house with rooms equipped with cots for use by members and their guests.  Finally, there is an excellent bar with a fine screened-in porch, card tables, and a pool table.

The porch and bar

Admittedly, we spent most of our time in the bar, playing lots of cribbage and drinking Labatt’s beer.  Between the constant card games, however, we did do a bit of (unsuccessful) fishing, ate lots of very good food, threw horseshoes, watched sunsets, explored the tiny island, sat on the porch in total darkness after the generator was turned off for the night, and visited with friends old and new.  I can’t imagine a better place to unwind and spend a father-son weekend.

Thanks to the members of the Quinnebog Fishing Club for hosting the Webner and Hartnett men and putting up with us!