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Ocean Paddling Club Cleveland Message Board Places to Paddle and Put-in Spots › Trip Report: 12-Island Lake Erie Kayak Tour

Trip Report: 12-Island Lake Erie Kayak Tour

A former member
Post #: 67
Lake Erie: 1 Day/12 Islands/25 Miles

Report Type: Day Trip Report
Trip Date: October 22, 2012
Nearest City: Catawba, OH
Difficulty: Easy (with good conditions)

This is not a trip report solely about paddling. It was a long trip, on flat water, with perfect weather. As I began writing it, I referenced dozens of websites to learn more about the islands I’d just visited. Each island has a story and I included some lore about each one. My stories fall short of all the information available; information that can be found online, in books, and in all kinds of historical archives. Instead, here are some of the things I learned which help me better know this great island archipelago in my own backyard. So if you already know all about the islands or you’d prefer not to read a “travel report,” this one is better skipped.

There were at least a half dozen kayakers who wanted to join us on this 26 mile “11-Island Lake Erie Tour.” Maybe as many dates were possibilities, as we tried to determine the day with the best conditions for this all day paddle. When four could go; the others couldn’t – but then it didn’t matter because weather conditions changed and no one went. Then two of those who wanted to go were out of town; another had to work; well, by August 22, when we had near-perfect conditions, it was down to Frank Webber and me. And, as it turned out, we did a 12-island tour.

The drive from Cleveland to Catawba Island took about 90 minutes. Besides my paddling gear, I arrived with tent, sleeping bag, water purifier, repair kit, first aid kit and a hearty dinner. While I had plenty of space in my boat, I asked Frank to carry the heavier items so that his much faster boat would be just a bit slower (leveling the playing field, so to speak). None of these would ordinarily be needed for a day paddle, but in open water island-hopping on Lake Erie, in a worst case scenario, I was prepared.

Catawba is no longer technically an island, since it is connected by an isthmus to the Ohio mainland, but it is identified on our tour map as island #1. We launched from a small cobble limestone beach at Catawba Island State Park at 9 AM. I wore my drysuit with a fleece layer underneath, fleece hat, hand warmers on my toes, and had my pogies at the ready; Frank wore long sleeves and long pants, as well as a dry top (later removed due to heat), and paddled barefoot. It was an easy paddle out and around the point, with winds from the south, waves of less than a foot, sunny skies, and a predicted high of 71 degrees. Other than an occasional fishing boat and the ferry between Catawba and South Bass Island, we saw no other water traffic.

We headed straight to Mouse Island, #2 on our map, and 2 miles from our launch. A boat dock jutted out from the south side of the island, but we put-in on the west side, on a small pebbly beach. We walked to the center of the island to the remains of a stone fireplace which, according to history was once part of a cabin. There is also a more recent collapsed shack, as well as an intact storage shed with its doors wide open. Inside were the vestiges of a summer of fun: lawn chairs, sun umbrella, beach toys and party drinks. After a quick look-around, we were back in our kayaks.

Island #3 is Starve Island; well-named because there is nothing there. Unless you count a couple hundred sea birds sitting on a pile of large limestone rocks. Since there are shoals around the island, and it is fairly shallow coming in from all sides, we elected to take pictures and get as good a look as we could from our boats.

Since I’d been to the South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous, and we both knew the island well, we moved in for some pictures of Perry’s Monument as we paddled on to the next island, around the northeast tip of South Bass Island (#4). Through the clear, shallow water, we could easily see the limestone bottom of the lake. So much of that area is a foot or less deep that you really have to stay on alert not to hit the occasional rock.

Now paddling more north than east, it was hard to identify Ballast Island. It is like this throughout the islands. Depth perception is skewed. You could be looking at three islands far apart from each other, and they look like one mass of land. Optical illusions abound. As we approached where we knew Ballast to be, we came upon a smaller island near it. It’s called Lost Ballast Island. This YouTube video shows an interesting view of it relative to Ballast Island, as well as a grounded boat being pulled off. Since they call it an island, and indeed it now is, I will call it #5.

According to legend, Ballast Island (#6) earned its name when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used rocks from the island to provide ballast for his ships before sailing out to meet the British fleet during the War of 1812. Commercial shipping magnate and two-time Cleveland mayor George W. Gardner was one its early owners. Quite the water lover, he formed the Ivanhoe Boat Club, bringing rowing to the Cuyahoga River in the early 1800s. He is also credited with founding the Cleveland Yacht Club and the Inter-Lake Yachting Association. Gardner’s descendants continue to vacation among the seven remaining homes on the private island. Ballast also has a substantial, protected dock area.

Upon leaving the Ballasts, we decided to follow a different route than the original one on the map we were following. We would swing down to Gibraltar Island, instead of paddling north along the east coast of Middle Bass Island. Gibraltar is located in a cove on the north side of South Bass Island. Though I had previously paddled the north side of South Bass, I could not recall seeing another island there; nor could it be seen from Ballast. Again, all that green on the horizon looks like one mass of land. Now heading straight southwest, we continued to enjoy the blue sky and sunshine. It was truly the Indian summer day we had been waiting for.

A former member
Post #: 68

Gibraltar Island (now #7) is indeed “tucked” into Put-In-Bay and, even though it has the highest land elevation in the Put-In-Bay area, we it took a while to separate it visually from the island behind it. But soon, Needle’s Eye, located on the northeast end of Gibraltar Island, became clearly evident. Described as Ohio’s most famous example of a sea arch, it features an opening 32 inches wide by 15 feet in height (including the portion below lake level). Above Needle’s Eye, an outcrop of dolomite on the northeast end of Gibraltar Island marks the highest land elevation in the Put-in-Bay area. This provided a lookout point for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the fight against the British during the War of 1812. Some years after the war, Cooke’s Castle was built on the island, and it stands today above the Gibraltar-like cliffs on the eastern side of the island.

Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory currently occupies Gibraltar. Composed of teaching and research facilities, and offering classes to students, this lush, green island is home to the oldest freshwater field station in the United States. The island is private and signage makes it clear that you should not enter; however, after covering ten miles, and ready for lunch and a rest, we quietly put in on the island’s southwest sandy beach. Though clearly in view of several people on the lab’s campus, no one bothered us. Feeling refreshed, we next set out for the westernmost point of Middle Bass Island.

Since we’d both visited Middle Bass Island before, we did a “fly-by,” took some pictures, and continued paddling toward #8, Sugar Island. Early photos show Sugar Island was once connected to Middle Bass Island by an isthmus (the soil on the isthmus was later lost to the lake due to lumbering). In the mid-1850s, 50 acres of sugar groves on the western tip of Middle Bass Island were sold to William Rehberg. Later, 850 more acres were added to the original purchase at “Sugar Point.” A homestead was developed as well as a fishery, which employed a number of workers. The soil and climate throughout the Lake Erie islands was extremely suitable for fruit growing, particularly grapes, and Mr. Rehberg had great success. In 1869 he erected the first wine cellar and later a public hall above it.

Later Rehberg donated that building and land on Sugar Point to the Toledo & Lake Erie Fishing & Boating Association for their clubhouse site, and later, when it became a popular resort for the families of the club members, he divided several a acres there and sold lots for cottages to individuals, and that exclusive end of the island became the Middle Bass Club location. But back in the day, it was a resort destination offering beach, boating, fishing, bathing, ball grounds and more, with regular steamers bringing tourists during the summer. The club site, easily visible as you paddle around the western-most end of Middle Bass Island, still looks like a resort.

It’s important to note that when coming from the south on the west side of Middle Bass, the area around that west point of Middle Bass is extremely shallow. As we paddled between Middle Bass and Sugar, the remains of the isthmus were just inched below our boats.

North Bass Island (#9), also known as Isle St. George, is located 18 miles from the Ohio mainland and less than 2 miles from the Canadian border (the border cutting across the lake, not the Canadian mainland). ODNR owns and manages 87 percent of the 677-acre island as a wildlife area and state park. It is Lake Erie’s largest undeveloped island, with no restaurants, shops, or ferry service, though there is an air strip. It is open to primitive camping with a special permit. There is a long sandy beach on the eastern shore. On the western side are Manila Bay and Fox Marsh, a 40-acre wetland, and one of the best places to view wildlife.

At our 15 mile point we put in on one of North Bass’s crushed zebra mussel shell beaches, just west of the ferry landing on the south side of the island. Once out of our boats and up on the pier, we could see the vineyards to the north, flanking both sides of a two-lane road that bisects the island and heads straight north to the other side of the island. There was some farming activity around the dock where grapes were being readied to be shipped off the island.

With two islands to go, and the cloud formations changing in a graying sky, we were soon on our way toward the very private Rattlesnake Island (#11). Some say the island was named after the timber rattlesnake, present on the islands years ago; others say the name is derived from the island’s shape, with the two tiny islands off its western tip representing the rattles. The lore around this island abounds, mostly because for years no one knew who owned it or what went on there. There are about 20 private homes, a club/restaurant, air strip, 4-hole golf course, beaches and a dock on 85 acres. Entrance is by invitation only and, since ours was lost in the mail, we paddled along the eastern shore past the dock on the south, then headed southwest, straight to our last island.

A former member
Post #: 69

Sixteen acres of Green Island (#12) is a wildlife refuge, operated by ODNR and not open to the public. The remaining 1.3 acres of the island, including an automatic navigation light, are owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The island’s limestone bluffs are covered with vegetation. I read somewhere of an unpublished 2007 survey identified three definitive caves on Green Island, plus several small cavelets and one cenote. The group surveyed a total 400 feet of cave in five different caves.

It is not possible to land on its east side and finding a spot on its south side takes some hunting. One of the most interesting things we saw on Green Island, I haven’t seen on any of the other Lake Erie islands (though I still have 17 more to visit). We each climbed a different route up the hill to the flat area of the island. Looking down at the ground, I shouted, “How about escargot for dinner?” The answer came back, “Where are these from?” Mollusk shells nearly carpeted that side of the island’s forest floor. I’ve since had a change to do some research and founds various scientists have been studying Lake Erie mollusks since the 1920s. In reading a couple papers, I believe these are a pleurocerid snail called Goniobasis (or “Elimia”) Livescens; however, I’ve sent pictures of them to be identified.

We finally came upon a long, narrow, straight sidewalk, running from one side of the island to the other, through the dense vegetation, with the old lighthouse at one end and twisted rails leading down the step bank at the other end. I couldn’t find any information on the sidewalk, but at over six inches deep, set on stone, set in a dug out trench; it was meant to last a long time. We found the usual beer bottles, beverage cans (and other signs that visitors do not take out what they bring in), as well as a not-so-old 2-wheeled yard cart –handy for moving your party from one side if the island to the other.

As with several of the Lake Erie islands, Green is being overrun with cormorants. During the 1930s and 40s the birds were quickly multiplying, then by the mid-50s chemical contaminants in the environment wiped them out. The EPA’s pollution controls led to a remarkable cormorant resurgence. Their presence threatens the herons and egrets, and their high-nitrogen feces, or guano, burns up vegetation as they also strip vegetation and break down trees. It was sad to see this occurring on Green Island. With most of the leaves having fallen, we could see cormorant nests everywhere we looked. Many trees will remain bare in the spring.

We put in back at Catawba at 4:15 PM, having covered 25 miles.

ADDITIONAL NOTES: The western basin of Lake Erie is quite shallow, so waves tend to be steep with a short fetch. Though our conditions were about as good as possible, things can change quickly on Lake Erie. Going out with a Plan B will lead to a better experience if things get


North Bass Island - primitive camping by reservation

Missle Bass Island State Park
•20 non-electric sites
•Each site has a fire ring and picnic table
•One vault latrine
•No drinking water, showers, or electric is available

South Bass Island State Park
•120 non-electric sites
•11 full service sites with electric, water and sewer hook-ups
•Campground offers flush toilets, showers, and a dump station
•Pet are permitted on designated sites
•Also cabins and cabinettes

Sea Kayaks, compass, VHF radio
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