Lake Erie's South Bass Island: Fishing, Partying and Birdwatching
By Susan McKee
Lake Erie is one of those facts of American geography that never quite surfaces as a vacation destination. Most of my impressions of it come from driving the Ohio Turnpike.
All those smokestacks from the industrial plants set along the shore were never enticing. And, wasn’t this the Great Lake fed by the polluted Cuyahoga River — the waterway that caught fire in Cleveland at least three times in the last century?
Then I looked at the map more closely, and Lake Erie produced some surprises. I’d forgotten it formed part of our northern border with Canada. I remembered that a key battle of the War of 1812 was fought on its waters.
And, to my surprise, I saw islands in the western end of the lake that is connected to the mainland by ferry. I hopped in my car and headed to Port Clinton, about halfway between Toledo and Cleveland, to catch the ferry.
The "natives" — the handful of folk who live on the islands
year-round — explained that others come to the islands for three reasons: fishing, bird watching and partying (not that these are mutually exclusive, of course).
Lake Erie is said to be the "Walleye Capital of the World." I’m not an angler, so I can’t vouch for the sports fishing (but there seems to be a lot of it). Birding is an obvious lure: the islands are on the migratory flyways and there were lots of winged creatures.
As for partying, well, that seems to take place on the weekends in the vest-pocket downtown of Put-in-Bay (on South Bass Island).
But, I was there during the week. I found the place blissfully quiet — kind of like I imagined Martha’s Vineyard to be back before the celebrities and politicians discovered it.
A summer resort destination since the 1850s, the islands have a rakish reputation dating to Prohibition — they’re perfectly positioned to facilitate smuggling liquor in from Canada. These days, the Coast Guard maintains vigilant patrol of U. S. territorial waters. Smuggling anything by boat would be extremely difficult in this post 9/11 era.
Battle of Lake Erie
I’m a history buff, so the possibility of learning more about the Battle of Lake Erie (pivotal in the American victory over the British in the War of 1812) caught my attention — as did the huge memorial on South Bass Island to its legendary hero, Oliver Hazard Perry.
He’s the guy who penned, "We have met the enemy and they are ours," when he routed an entire British squadron and captured its ships as prizes of war.
Commodore Perry, then only 28 years old, wrote that declaration right after the victory in a now-famous letter to his commanding officer, William Henry Harrison (who later won the U.S. presidency).
The historic battle was fought on the lake on Sept. 10, 1813, just about 10 miles from the location of the Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay. The monument, an enormous Doric column completed in 1915, commemorates Perry’s accomplishment, of course, but also the greater achievement of nearly two centuries of peace between Canada and the U.S.
A new visitors’ center opened on the memorial grounds in 2002 has a terrific video about the battle as well as a diorama and other exhibits.
The highlight of my visit, though, was a $3 trip to the top of the 352-foot monument (which became part of the National Park Service in 1936). The view is spectacular, not only of South Bass Island but also miles out into the lake. Back at ground level, interred beneath the marble floor of the Indiana limestone rotunda of the memorial, are the remains of three American sailors and three British officers killed in the battle (Perry lived on, and is buried in Trinidad ).
Geology Brings 'Em In
Geology is another draw to Lake Erie ’s islands. Beneath Heineman’s Winery on South Bass Island is Crystal Cave, claimed to be the world’s largest geode — it’s big enough to stand inside, so I did. Although it’s 40 feet below ground level, the cave is above the water level of the lake.
The winery, in operation since 1888, offers tastings and tours. Their award-winning wine is a white made from Riesling grapes grown on North Bass Island.
Across the road from Heineman’s is Perry’s Cave, where an underground stream has carved a huge limestone cave with all the expected formations. (It's named for a tale that Perry and his men once camped there.)
Glacial Grooves State Memorial
But the most unusual geological site is on nearby Kelleys Island. Glacial Grooves State Memorial contains some of the best examples of glacial scarring remaining in the world. During the Ice Age, the Wisconsin Glacier, with its mile-thick ice sheets scoured deep grooves into solid limestone bedrock. On view here is a small reminder of that passage, a trough about 400 feet long, 35-feet wide and as much as 15-feet deep has been preserved.
You can see what happened about 20,000 years ago when an irresistible force met an immovable object. The grooves in the Devonian limestone have exposed marine fossils that are 350 million to 400 million years old.
Two hundred years ago, Kelleys Island was nearly all forest. Then came the timber industry, which harvested all the trees to fuel steamboats operating on the Great Lakes and build the cities along its shoreline. In an effort to recreate the original environment, North Pond, a state nature preserve, was created. A hiking trail takes visitors around a lake embayment, 28-acre marsh and replanted forest with red cedars, pin oak and cottonwoods.
A haven for birders, this island has few inhabitants. June Campbell, a year-round resident, claimed that it’s so quiet at night, you can hear the stars twinkle.
Begin planning your trip to Lake Erie ’s islands with the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce. You’ll find links to everything you need: accommodations (cottages, bed-and-breakfasts, and hotels), fishing charters, restaurants, transportation to the islands, etc.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial is open daily from mid-May to late October.
The glacial grooves are found in Lake Erie Island State Park on Kelleys Island.
For more on Ohio tourism, go to this website.
For an American perspective on the War of 1812, go to this site.
For the Canadian perspective, click here.
I really enjoyed your travel website feature on the Lake Erie Island area!
Here is a link to our library's historical "blog." The latest entry is about someone who used to own vineyards on North Bass: sanduskyhistory.blogspot.com
Dorene Paul, Reference Assistant
114 West Adams Street
Sandusky, OH 44870
Susan McKee is an independent scholar and award-winning freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel. She travels widely and to amazing places–including Armenia, Chad, Finland, Mongolia, and Antarctica. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), she lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.