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Musings: Can-Am hospitalityMusings: Can-Am hospitality

Biking around Canada’s Pelee Island

By Anne Marie Beattie

“Well, you always wanted to fly to Pelee Island, so Pelee it is, for Canada Day weekend.”

Pilot Briefing July 2020
Illustration by Stuart Briers

My husband firmly believes in staying current. Every weekend he finds a new place—or an old place—to fly us, or just himself, and he flies to points within a two-hour radius of our home in southern Ontario.

On this morning of the long weekend—Canada Day is July 1—we choose Pelee Island, situated in the western basin of Lake Erie. To fly there is no problem, a joy, a lark, but ground transportation is something else. To fly into a place is great, but what are you going to do when you get there? I can’t tell you how many times we end up looking for a rental car, a courtesy car, a bicycle—something with wheels to get us around. The 25-square-mile island, the largest in Lake Erie, has bicycle paths and nature walks.

Pelee Island is at the confluence of two migration routes: the Atlantic flyway and the Mississippi flyway. Not taking any chances on obtaining bike rentals, we reason that this day would be a great time to discover how well fold-up bicycles transport. We have two little fold-up jobs: one of fire engine red, the other of silver cloud. These bikes, borrowed from the family ground crew, are perfect transportation—if they can fit in the airplane.

Our waitress talks of tourists and how the residents and merchants of Pelee Island extend the welcome mat, how close our U.S. neighbors are, and how important it is to do everything possible to make everyone welcome.Ideally, it would be nice if they would fit in the cargo hold of our Piper PA–24 Comanche. About two minutes into that attempt revealed either the bikes were too large, or the cargo hold too small. The rear seat was the next consideration. With relatively little struggle both bikes nested in and we were off.

Sunday morning dawned sunny, but cool. Pelee, just above the Canadian-American border at a latitude of 41 degrees, will be even cooler. The weather favors us with winds out of the southwest and broken clouds at 3,200 feet. Flying time two hours. Distance 196 nautical miles and an average speed ranging between 125 and 142 knots. Our route will follow the lakeshore from Toronto along the edges of Lake Ontario.

The big city, the sweeping heights of corporate Canada, give way to rolling farmland and agricultural patches of rich swaths of sometimes green earth, sometimes black, unfolding beneath our wings. At 4,500 feet over Tilsonburg I muse that this rich fertile area was once on par with Winston-Salem, North Carolina—when, for both cities, tobacco was king.

Soon we are on final, circling the island once, lining up with the runway. Pelee doesn’t look much different than the last 100 miles. Southwestern Ontario is wind turbines and flat plowed fields—the breadbasket of Ontario. The shallow waters of Lake Erie reach relatively high temperatures in the summer months, giving the islands a microclimate typical of more southern locations, and a two-week-longer growing season than the adjacent mainland.

We are at 2,000 feet, making a left bank and descending out of the northeast. Over the water I snap a couple of photos and am aware that the cabin is growing quite warm. We make a smooth landing in southwest winds of 2 mph.

What the airport lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in location and warmth. Feted as the most southerly international airport in Canada, its coordinates and radio frequency are found in Nav Canada’s Canada Flight Supplement. Both private aircraft and regular flying schedules use the Pelee Island International Airport, which has a 3,300-foot paved runway. The website reminds pilots and passengers that Pelee Island Airport is an official port of entry into Canada. If traveling from the United States, a valid passport is required.

Standing on the wing I inhale the sweet smell of country grasses, purple asters, and possibly the fragrance of cow. Another airplane, with a U.S. call sign, is coming in and my husband quickly recognizes an RV–6, a homebuilt, with two people on board. I wish I could read their expressions from my distance. Are they thrilled to be here? Are they anticipating a full day ahead of playing tourist as we are? Jim has disengaged the bikes and we saddle up to explore the countryside.

The bikes work well, and our first rest stop is at a gift shop reachable by pedaling a path that includes small stones and ruts. Coming to a full stop in front of the gift shop I race inside to find a hat to purchase. The sun is hot, and naked skin is going to pay dearly with no hat and no sunscreen. When I come out Jim sits at a picnic table provided for travelers. I realize that in my haste I missed two other structures on the property—a farmhouse right out of Anne of Green Gables and a lovely old stone church.

Pelee Island’s year-round population is just under 300, swelling to thousands when Canadian and American summer tourists descend on the island. Tourists arrive by ferry and personal watercraft, particularly convenient for Americans arriving from Ohio shores. In the winter many of the islanders seek a warmer climate and tropical destinations, just as their mainland counterparts do.

It is growing late and a gnawing in the stomach reminds us that it might be a good idea to eat before we start our return flight. Gratefully we find Stone House 1891 and a wait-staff attendant who makes me wonder if they are paying her enough. We learn she is new, first week on the job, and she shows the enthusiasm of a young woman who owns her own business. She has just been hired on, before the summer tourist season.

My husband longingly scans the menu that includes craft beer and the famous Pelee Island wine. I smile, thinking of the sacrifice involved. He’s hot and tired, but it has always, and will continue to be, a mantra that all pilots live with: eight hours from the bottle to the throttle.

Our water arrives in Mason jars with ice and lemon. We suck greedily at the water and order. A thin-crust pizza hits the spot and we wolf it down, mindful of the sun slipping beneath the horizon. Our waitress talks of tourists and how the residents and merchants of Pelee Island extend the welcome mat, how close our U.S. neighbors are, and how important it is in these trying times to do everything possible to make everyone welcome. Firm in the knowledge that this young woman is cementing relations between our two countries, we regretfully leave Stone House and its warm reception.

To prolong our happy time, we return to the airport via the other half of the bike loop around the island. We don’t want to miss any windows of opportunity. We might meet yet another person with a sparkle in the eye and a hand extended in welcome.

Anne Marie Beattie and her husband, Jim, fly their Piper PA–24 Comanche often in search of her next story. The Beatties currently reside in southwestern Ontario surrounded by their sprawling family.

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