A Cruise to Main Duck
spg and crew surveys a windrow of zebra mussel shells- they were 6 feet high at the light house!
Dawn was lightening the east by 4 am and the horizon was clearly visible when I came back on deck after my four hours off. We were now over eighty miles from our start point at Port Dalhousie, two thirds of the way down the lake making good time with such light wind. By 9 am Main Duck Island, our next destination was just nineteen miles ahead.
Sometimes the island appears in clear weather as a series of small dark dots that rise above a sharp edged horizon and then coalesce into a low solid line of tree tops joined by land. And other times, as happened on this morning, the low lying land simply solidifies out of the haze about five miles away as a faint blue smudge in front of the boat. Always I feel a little lift of joy when I first sight it. To me Main Duck has always seemed like a sort of Brigadoon, a slightly magical place that exists just for one fair summer day before it vanishes astern and disappears again from my world. This summer we had picked almost the longest day of the year to visit and linger by its pebble beaches and to walk its shoreline ledges.
I have visited this place dozens of times since Ariel and I first voyaged here in 1980. I never tire of the place and always leave it with regret. Yet when I try to describe it to a land lubber I have difficulty capturing it's appeal and fall back on clichés like "it's just a neat place". There is really very little here. Perhaps that is much of its appeal.
Main Duck lies about 20 miles south of Kingston and about ten miles east of Prince Edward County's long out thrust arm of Point Traverse. It mostly consists of stone. When the glaciers spread south they scraped the layers of limestone here clean of soil, leaving bedrock and a few pockets of thin earth behind. The whole island is tilted gently north-south reflecting the general lay of the land in the lake's northeastern corner. The geologists refer to this slant as "regional dip" and Galloo, Grenadier, and Stony Island and Point Peninsula and other lake headlands all display the precise same tilt. Main Duck tapers off underwater on its south side at the same angle so you can wade many yards out and still be in waist deepwater. Even a half mile offshore the shoals reach out to threaten the unwary vessel that cuts the corner here.
But on its north side the outcrop of rock that forms the island drops away sharply in a nearly vertical underwater cliff. You can sail around its bold high point close inshore with eighty feet on the fathometer. The island's north side is also quite irregular and is indented by several large coves that make fine deepwater anchorages in calm weather. This asymmetry lends to the hint of mystery about Main Duck. It's different from the other islands in this part of the lake. Galloo, Stony, Little Galloo they all line up with longer axis running northeast southwest and have smooth coasts with little in the way of protected anchorages to welcome the overnighter. Not so pork chop shaped main Duck.
But none of these coves is a good all weather anchorage. When the wind goes north you find yourself on a lee shore and more than one yacht has ended up in a situation like the hapless little coal carrier John Randall whose bones are still visible lying in a few feet of water in the largest island cove. Main Duck does offer one inside all weather harbor. (Perhaps that's why it's the Main Duck as opposed to the False Ducks and the Ducklings of lake lore.) Once past its narrow entrance your yacht lies within a completely sheltered little pond fringed by cattail and with a soft mud bottom. A narrow strip of gravel separates this tranquil marshy little backwater from the windswept open lake. Here even deep draft Titania can consort with muskrats and snapping turtles while a boat length away bullfrogs bellow from shore and a blue heron stalks his dinner.
We eased Titania into the little harbor on June 25 and anchored by gently shoving her keel into the mud and then dropping the hook. We then decided to go for a hike, a timeless pleasure here, and once ashore found the landscape unusually lush and green, thanks to abundant rains. Spring lingers here on a small island surrounded by cool lake waters. The lilacs were still in bloom along the shore where once a fisherman's cottage had stood. We set off down the foot path that less than twenty years ago was a road around the little anchorage. Before us a carpet of grayish green drought tolerant cinquefoil grew in the compacted thin soil of the one time road bed. The flowers were all open for the morning sun and the cheerful glow of gold outlined a yellow flower road before us. Further on giant white hogweed flowers loomed over the grass and vegetation, their saucer like shapes floating over the land looked a bit like distant UFO's. How the hog weed seeds had traveled over 12 or more miles of open water to reach the island? Had they floated like mangrove sprouts or did they fly on a gale to the island?
June is the time of reptile passions and on the stone walls of the old roofless structure by the dock we found two pairs of garter snakes cuddled up in each corner of the ruins. Their coils and curves draped over one another in a careless easy sensuality. Their two heads were up side by side as they eyed us warily. Their stripes glowed as bright as butter. In the east facing side of the end wall, we spotted several more single snakes lying in sunlit crevices and crannies. They were warming up after a chilly night before they slid off into the grass to hunt whatever it is little snakes eat for dinner.
Wherever we went that day we kept running across turtles looking for nesting sites. Mostly painted turtles and snappers, they were on beaches, in cleared grassy areas, by the path and along the shore. Frequent areas of scratched up earth appeared to be aborted nest attempts and several times we detoured around turtles laying eggs. As we picked our way through the tall grass at the end of the harbor, ever alert for stepping on a snake or turtle, surf murmured on the gray shingle shore a few yards away and a cool breeze moved over the land. Now and then a bullfrog held forth and I paused to listen to thee stillness surrounding us.
Mixed in with the murmur of the surf I kept hearing faint plaintive cries, keenings and what sounded like distant shouts. I suppose it was only the voices of gulls, but I kept wondering about the shipwrecks around the island and the lost rum runners fishermen and mariners cast away on these ledges during storms calling for help with no one to hear them.
Part of the appeal of Main Duck for me, is the ease with which the amateur naturalist can observe wildlife here. While only the toughest and most tolerant creatures can co-exist with the humans on Toronto's islands, here wild creatures live in a lightly used land (at least early in the summer before bass season opens).Perhaps like the Galapagos, wildlife here shows a charming innocence as to how dangerous humans are. A snake will lie on the dock right beside you if you keep still, and the snapping turtles will swim right up to the boat to check out that interesting smell coming from the sink drain after you drain tuna juice off the can. I once stood on the dock and watched a fish go to sleep. I'd never seen a fish take a nap before. The ten inch small mouth bass swam slowly out from under the dock into the open water shallows of the anchorage and then settled into the soft gray silt looking just like a dog flopping down into a comfy bed. It worked out a little hollow in the mud and then it was very still. I'm sure it was taking a snooze.
Later that day we watched a loon fishing in the anchorage diving and coming up just a few yards from Titania, ignoring us as it went about its business of finding dinner for itself and its youngsters. And another time while sitting on the dock I saw a muskrat swim under the structure with a mouthful of vegetation. Peering between the boards I watched as the baby about 4 inches long swam to meet its parent for mealtime directly beneath where I lay. There is probably no other freshwater mammal cuter than a baby muskrat viewed from a foot away.
The mile and a half hike out to the lighthouse takes you past a curious landscape. The nearly flat low lying island's thin soil and frequent large areas of bare bedrock don't lend themselves to rapid re-vegetation. Once mostly forested, later grazed, large areas remain tree free after being fallow for many years. Today they form little savannahs of prairie like grass. These "barrens" are similar to larger mainland areas where unique and globally rare plants and insects are known to reside. The trees that do grow often seem to sprout right from stone. There are few traces of the island's century long human habitation in the island's interior, a few bits of rusty machinery and the rutted road worn down to bedrock by the light house keeper's truck being the only obvious signs of usage. But the island has long been a place of keen interest to humans. Undoubtedly it was used by the Indians as a fishing outpost and stop over while later settlers farmed and grazed it. Two of the best known island owners were Claude Cole and John Foster Dulles.
The earlier of these known widely as King Cole, was a colorful strong willed overlord who lived on Main Duck for thirty years in the summer. He leased the land around the small harbor to a dozen or so fishermen and a number of them worked and lived here with their families during the warmer months netting lake trout and whitefish. Old photos show their camps and net reels along the shores flanking the approach to the little inner anchorage.
A newspaper account states that Cole went first to the islands as a hired gun, given the task of clearing the island of wild cattle. He took his sailing skiff and rifle over and did the job, but then decided to stay and try his hand there at farming. After several years he purchased the island outright for 1200 dollars and experimented with racehorses, cattle, and buffalo. His main profits came from his fishing rights though he is also said to have been in sympathy with the bootleggers who used Main Duck as a stopover. He ran a husky wooden fish tug back and forth between Cape Vincent and the island and says historian Willis Metcalfe his wife Annie was an able helmsman as well, often taking the tug with its load of fresh fish into Cape Vincent.
the Coles wintered on the island a few times and in later years left the farm in the care of their son Cecil, his wife Edna, and various other companions. Besides looking after the stock the caretakers also cut and stored ice for next summer's fishing season. In the winter the only means of communication between the isolated island and the outside world was by letters sent over to the mainland on small rafts equipped with evergreen branches for sails. A February 9 1933 item in the Watertown area paper reported on word received from the island by Mr. And Mrs. Cole. It read in part;
Dear Father and Mother, The wind is down the lake and blowing hard so we are sending a raft and hope someone will find it soon. We had a fine run up and found everything fine here. There is just a little ice in the upper end of the pond. Cecil ran the tug up in the mud and has her engine nearly laid up for winter. Clifford had everything in good order… We had heavy wind, rain and sleet last night… we'll be looking for dad and Bill Stanley early in the spring. P.S. Cecil says to bring some cigarettes-he may be short by March. Signed Cecil and Edna
Another later letter written by Edna about six weeks later was also recovered. On that January day in 1933 she wrote to her in-laws Well this is almost a summer's day so we'll send you a letter to tell you we are all well except Mary. She seems to have the mumps. There is very little ice in the pond...Cecil and Clifford built a new ice sled in case we get some cold weather. It doesn't look that way now. Hope you are all well. The men are in a hurry so good-bye. Love to All Cecil and Edna.
Getting back and forth between the island and the main land then as now could be a challenge. In the spring of 1919, before the Coles had built their own vessel, King Cole hired a boat for the first trip of the season. He took along a couple of fish hatchery workers who planned to release a number of fish fry and they set out from Cape Vincent one calm mild late March morning. But March weather is fickle and after reaching the island to check on the care takers and releasing the fish they decided to head immediately back to the mainland as the wind was picking up.
About an hour from safety the engine quit. According to the news story the carburetor went wrong. The men "took the engine down and started to repair the wrong" but before they could finish the job it was too dark to work. Rolling and bouncing around in the increasingly cold wind they opted to anchor. It snowed and blew all night and no one got any sleep. Says the local paper three of the four "experienced the sensation of seasickness though all were trained sailors." They stuffed old rags into one of the fish hatchery cans and soaked them with kerosene and burned them for warmth and at some point their anchor line broke setting them adrift. After a miserable night daylight finally arrived and the engine was speedily "made right" so they could get home.
Though that particular passage had a happy ending others ended near the island under less fortunate circumstances. There are legends concerning a small French warship enroute to Fort Niagara with supplies and a pay chest of gold for the troops that was wrecked in late fall here around 1750. The story goes that the following spring searchers found on Main Duck a row of fresh graves, the last of which was empty. Presumably the man who had buried his fellows had dug his own grave, then perhaps wandered off to die alone. The gold if it ever existed was never found though history holds that a large boulder marked with a date and an arrow marked its burial spot. If that rock is still there it's too well concealed in the brush and shrubbery for me to find it.
Two twentieth century ships left their bones upon the shoal pointing west from the light house, the Sarniadoc and the Hickox, and some of those rusting remains are clearly visible yet today. Another visible reminder of the lake's wrath lies in School House Bay, the wooden ribs and planks of the100 foot steamer Randall that sank in 1920. She had anchored here for shelter on November 16 only to have the wind shift into the north and drive her ashore. One account says her stern hit a rock and her engine lifted up and she broke in two. The crew of four scrambled forward where the bow was still above water and remained there for ten hours washed by heavy seas and lashed by a November northeaster.
The ship's company finally made it ashore by means of a hatch cover and were found by one of the light house keepers. The four men stayed with the lighthouse tenders for nine days before they were picked up. Ironically a year and eight days after the loss of the Randall her Captain went down while in command of the City of New York. His wife and ten month old daughter went with him. Today rounded polished lumps of coal still wash up on the island's beaches.
For more on Main Duck watch for Passages On Inland Waters a new book by Capt Sue available spring 2004 from Silver Waters Sailing 12025 Delling Rd Wolcott NY 14590