On the west coast of the seven-acre outcropping that is Old Hen Island is a little clearing called Sunset Strip. It’s a great place to watch the sun fall into Lake Erie, leaving you with a crystal clear view of the crescent Moon against a deep blue sky turning to black.
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.
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.
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.
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.