Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Pelee Island circle tour

After more than a year, I was finally able to make it down to Pelee Island a couple of weeks back. Pelee figures prominently in my book, Lake Erie Stories, and is a place I've always felt at home, ever since I started going there as a little kid.

If you've not heard of it, Pelee is the southernmost inhabited place in Canada. (Tiny Middle Island, about three kilometres south of Pelee, is the southernmost point, though no one lives there.) Located in Lake Erie's western basin, Pelee is about 15 kilometres long and 8 wide, and home to a small number of year-round residents. The island is best known for winemaking. Bottles of its trademark Pelee Island wine hold a dominant place in most Ontario liquor stores.

Our favourite way to experience Pelee is to get off the ferry at the West Dock and cycle around the island essentially until we run out of time, then catch the ferry home. Pelee is rich in beautiful places to stop and explore, picnic, or nap along the way.

I think it's fair to say that the recession has been harder on the province's smaller communities than it has on larger cities, and Pelee is no exception. A big part of its economy depends on pleasure boaters, and one of its two marinas, Dick's, which is located at the south end, certainly looks to be in decline. This used to be the campground, which was operational until just last year.

This is one of my favourite Pelee beaches, located on the east side, just south of lighthouse point. Here, Amy gazes out over Lake Erie into the treacherous Pelee Passage. Numerous boats have been driven to the bottom in this shallow stretch of water. I wrote about one, the wreck of the freighter Clarion in 1909, in Lake Erie Stories.

I'd love to know the history of this old structure, located in the island's interior. The archway over the door and what looks like covered windows is indicative of a church, but the simple wood construction is closer to that of a barn. Either way, it cuts a rather regal presence among the surrounding ruins of partly disassembled cars, trucks, and farm machinery.

Pelee has one of the neatest graveyards of any small community I've visited. The peaceful cemetery is shady and beautiful, the perfect place for a picnic. It's located on the island's northwest corner. Here, you can view the grave of the island's founder, William McCormick, who moved his family here way back in the 1820s. Back then, the island was largely deserted, and two-thirds covered by marshland. Former local MP Shaughnessy Cohen is also buried here. In 1998, Cohen collapsed on the floor of the House of Commons and died shortly afterward.

A couple of the graves are so old that they are literally being covered over by trees, as is the case in this photo.

Pelee Island's tiny school is also located at the north end. Just a small number of children, from kindergarten to grade 8, attend the school. When they reach high school, island kids billet with families on the mainland, and return home to the island on the weekends. I don't know about you, but I found the proximity of this "no hunting" sign to the school a little jarring.

Rain spatters against the window of the Pelee Islander on the way back to the dock in Leamington. After four beautiful days on Pelee, it was time to head back to the hustle of the city. Luckily for us, the rain held off until the trip home, which made for a rather bleak view of Lake Erie, but we were grateful, nonetheless.

It'll probably be close to another year before I'm able to make it back to Pelee Island. But vignettes from this special place come back to me almost daily, and will no doubt continue to do so through the long winter ahead.

To me, that's the mark of a great trip.