On Pelee Island, the gulls have staked out their territory on the rocky outcroppings shielding the west dock. The gulls know that humans may use the breakwaters for other purposes, but those rocks are theirs.
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 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.
The Griffing Flying Service in Sandusky, Ohio is a small business that took off and became a crucial part of commerce along Ohio’s north coast. Since the 1930s, Griffing has operated a combination flying school, airport, and charter service that caters to the Lake Erie islands and provides a key travel option for island visitors and residents alike.
If you walk in the front door of the Griffing terminal building, you will immediately see colorful scraps of cloth tacked to a bulletin board, with handwritten information reporting on milestones — like “first solo” — achieved by flight students. The rest of the operation has a similarly down-home, relaxed feel to it. The pilots are friendly and will load your baggage for you. If you are a regular traveler, the receptionist will keep your name and passport information on file from year-to-year to make the reservation process easier. When you fly with Griffing, you really do fly the friendly skies.
The flying experience at Griffing also a lot of fun. You fly in propeller planes that offer a totally different sensation than flying in a jet. You aren’t shielded from the experience by a huge, soundproofed plane and plush seats. Instead, you are close to the ground, feeling the plane picking up speed as it bounces down the runway and lifts steadily into the air. The pilot isn’t locked away in a closed cockpit, he’s just a few feet away, doing his pilot thing. (On some flights, I’ve even sat in the co-pilot seat for an especially close-up view.) On our trips to Pelee Island and Rattlesnake Island, the planes have never gotten more than 1000 feet off the ground (or over the lake, as the case may be), and when the plane banks and comes in for a landing, you feel the pull and the drop to the runway in your gut.
Anyone who has never flown in a smaller plane should give it a try sometime. Griffing Flying Service is a good place to start.
We just got back from an all-too-short visit to the Canadian waters of Lake Erie.
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.
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.
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!