Friday, March 30, 2007

Southern comfort

According to the hometown Leamington Post (and Shopper), the MV Jiimaan bumped its way through the remaining ice in Leamington Harbour and began its season yesterday. If you don't know, the Jiimaan is the giant government car ferry that runs between the Ontario mainland and Pelee Island in western Lake Erie.

There is really no place quite like Pelee. It's about twenty kilometres long and seven wide and sits about sixteen kilometres off the tip of Point Pelee, the birder's paradise. The island was first settled back in 1834 by a fellow named William McCormick, who purchased the 999-year lease from its former owner, a War of 1812 veteran who had originally bought (swindled?) it from some local Native chiefs for what amounted to a few bags of corn.

At first, William used the island for his hogging operation and lived on the mainland, but he eventually moved his massive brood there and carved a small farmstead out of the forest at the north end. Sections of the rest of the island were leased out and soon a small, struggling community of European and Native farmers took root. But the challenges were many: The entire centre of the island was covered in marsh, which meant mosquitoes which were the size of small birds in the summer, which was (and remains) sweltering. Malaria was a constant threat.

There was also the problem of isolation. In 1833, the colonial government built a lighthouse on the island to alert passing ships of the area's many shifting shoals, but getting oil to the remote light was a constant problem, leaving it unlit for large parts of the navigation season. (The light was lovingly restored by local volunteers in 2000.)

Then, in a quirk of history the island was captured by American rabble rousers who for various reasons were loyal to Upper Canadian Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie. About 400 of them marched across the frozen lake from Sandusky, drove out the settlers and plundered their farmsteads (and the lighthouse) before finally being driven off by British troops and Canadian militia. The aftermath and backbreaking reconstruction sent poor McCormick to an early grave; he died two years later.

But then things started to look up for the beleaguered islanders. The marsh was drained and turned into very rich farmland, dikes were built to keep Lake Erie in its place, and the island's economic mainstay, winemaking, took root in the late nineteenth century.

Today, Pelee retains that slightly isolated, lawless feel. Literally. There is only one police officer, one nurse ... and that's about it for public services. Life moves a little slower here; the people are welcoming, approachable and, well, chatty (especially if you're from far away). And of course there is the classic "Pelee wave," delivered by EVERY passing motorist. If you don't return it, you will certainly mark yourself as a tourist.

I've been going to Pelee since I was a kid, and it holds a very special place in my heart. Upon landing, I head straight for the Westview Tavern, a dank little place that bills itself as "Canada's Most Southern Tavern." And it is. Who can argue with geography, really? It's the only place I've ever been to that can make draft OV taste delicious. The walls are lined with hats from every small business and sports team from here to Cleveland and, in the corner, the jukebox waits to fill the place with all your seventies favourites. It is, in its own way, a little slice of heaven on earth.

From there it's off to Dick's Marina, perched on the edge of a murky swamp at the island's south end. It's home to a few fishing charters and small motorboats, and has a big lawn with scattered firepits for camping. But they charge by the tent here, so if you want to save a couple bucks, you'd better be on good terms with your fellow travellers.

And that's pretty much all there is to it. To some, boring. But to others, magical. For the latter, it's all here: tropical, sandy beaches for swimming, great wine always at the ready, light hiking, or just plain doing nothing.

Summer's coming. And I can't wait.

For more on Pelee Island, click here.

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