Gateway to the Great Lakes

Harsens Island

The 39-mile long St. Clair River is the international boundary between Canada and the United States, and divides into several branches at the mouth of Lake St. Clair to create the island-rich St. Clair Flats. Recognized as one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world, this crucial source of freshwater has created a distinct ecosystem surrounding the marshy islands that is home to an abundance of life — both in the water and on land. Harsens Island, the largest island and the crowning jewel on the American side, is a unique habitat in these waters and has become a destination for all those seeking nature at its finest.

Back in the day, Harsens Island was the playground for the rich and famous who arrived from the Greater Detroit area, shaded by large ornate hats, on steamers laden with steamer trunks and valises that were loaded by burly immigrants. The <>Tashmoo sidewheeler steamboat was famous for being one of the fastest ships on the Great Lakes in its time and one of its stops was Tashmoo Park on Harsens Island. This park offered visitors an escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of the packed, sweltering Detroit. Tashmoo Park had picnic tables, a baseball diamond, rides, as well as a casino and a dancing pavilion.

The island was finally named after one of its first settlers in 1960, James (also known as Jacob) Harsen, who purchased it from the Native Americans in 1783. It’s home to the great blue heron, snapping turtles, water snakes, game fish and other creatures that maneuver through the nutrient-rich waters. White tip deer, mink, and other warm-blooded mammals roam the island.

Harsens Island is the only landmass in the delta accessible by car ferry, which makes frequent runs to the island. It’s a popular spot year-round for those hunting and fishing, while others find it a serene location to relax and watch the birds and fowl that migrate back and forth to the mainland. There are also waterfowl and wildlife sanctuaries managed by the state of Michigan, which owns 75 percent of the island. These sanctuaries offer an opportunity to observe animals in a more controlled setting.

The Nautical Mile

Located in St. Clair Shores on Jefferson Avenue between 9 and 10 1/2 Mile Roads, The Nautical Mile District caters to the boating lifestyle of those arriving by water, with restaurants, shops and activities to suit all ages. Skirting the shore, it is a breezy walk to the district for those gaining access in kayaks, runabouts, powerboats, luxury yachts and fishing boats for a day’s venture ashore.

Galley lighting charms the walkways, with many of the area businesses embodying a nautical theme to create a lakeside resort atmosphere.

Jefferson Beach Marina and Emerald City Harbor are two facilities on the Nautical Mile offering boaters not only slips but also a wide range of activities to keep them busy all summer long.

In addition to utilizing the amenities found at the marinas, including covered slips, heated pools, service, parts and new boat sales, if a boater needs anything else there are more than 30 companies within the Mile.

Loaded with a wide variety of eating establishments, many have outdoor seating to allow for a natural dining atmosphere. The Beach Grille is a well-known hot spot, and with restaurants, including Rojo Mexican Bistro, there are numerous menus from which to choose. Mike’s on the Water and Brownies on the Lake are also great choices for families, with reasonably priced appetizers and entree options.

The Nautical Mile is also the place to book excursions. Both Infinity and Ovation Yachts have cruise and dine packages that make exploring the lake a “sit back, relax and enjoy the service” good time. Boat and fishing charters are also available, with bookings by day or weekend. Along with smallmouth bass, muskie and walleye, many game fish can be reeled in from fishing piers near the Mile.

Rental equipment of all kinds, including stand-up paddleboards and colorful kayaks, can be easily found at liveries, including the Great Lakes Surf Shop. This offers the opportunity for renters to explore the shore and have a keen perspective of the lake’s inhabitants. Lessons for those who dare to try something new are highly encouraged.

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Gateway to the Great Lakes

by Kim Racette
01-May-2016
Hosting one of the largest marina districts in the Midwest, Lake St. Clair is a boating and recreational treasure with shallow, warm waters, incredible coastal wetlands, protected wildlife habitats, and world-class sport and game fishing. It’s the gateway to two Great Lakes — north to Lake Huron by the St. Clair River and south via the Detroit River to Lake Erie — with festivals
and events in the charming towns along these shores all season long!
The Great Lakes, bordering the United States and Canada, are instantly recognizable on a map or from space, but look closely and you’ll see their nautical heart. For more than 6,000 years, gorgeous Lake St. Clair has been in the incredible position of not only connecting two of the Great Lakes, but also straddling two countries — somewhat like an inland seafaring United Nations.  

French explorers, who were led by Rene-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, discovered Lake St. Clair. They arrived on the feast day of Sainte Clair of Assisi in 1679, and so Cavelier named it Lac Sainte Claire. At 26 miles long and 24 miles wide, with a surface area of 430 square miles, it contains the largest river delta in the Great Lakes system. Entering into the watershed is also the Thames and the Sydenham Rivers from southwestern Ontario, and the Clinton River in Michigan. In an astonishing and complex environmental relationship that is dependent on a variety of factors, every two to 30 days, Lake St. Clair’s entire liquid contents are transferred between the two Great Lakes.

In many ways, Lake St. Clair still appears much the same as when the Huron Potawatomi Indians and other Native Americans saw it as they traveled about in their birch bark canoes. Early morning mists dissolve in the sunrise to reveal turquoise waters that still swirl and dance in different directions, leading to shores with soft sandy beaches, surrounded by stately forests that change color with the seasons. Migratory birds, sea creatures and other wildlife arrive and depart throughout the year in cycles as regular as the tides, and the cool breezes that arrive over the waters cleanse and freshen the air.

Sheer natural beauty, abundant wildlife, easy access to shops, internationally diverse restaurants and a hopping nightlife have made this area a recreational playground of unlimited possibilities. Brad Simmons, executive director of the Lake St. Clair Tourism Initiative, says that many first-time visitors are surprised when they arrive at Lake St. Clair.

“The lake is vast but the various ports and destinations are close to each other,” Simmons points out. “With 160 miles of shoreline, Lake St. Clair is Big Water, and yet it’s manageable enough to easily find your way around it.”

With the city of Detroit just 6 miles south, and with access to Canadian cities, including Windsor and those in the Chatham-Kent municipality, Lake St. Clair is both a destination and departure point for boaters. With waters in both southeastern Michigan and western Ontario, it is host to one of the largest marina districts in the Midwest, with public and private marinas, 2,700 slips and a bevy of historic yacht clubs. With more than 938,000 pleasure boats registered last year, Michigan is recognized as one of the top five boating states in the nation, with Lake St. Clair the pivot point to many of its greatest waterways.

President Amy Krueger Malow of Jefferson Beach Yacht Sales, whose headquarters is located at Jefferson Beach Marina, agrees that Lake St. Clair is unlike any other body of water in the world. “It truly is the heart of the Great Lakes,” she explains.

The ability to cruise two Great Lakes, the Flats and the Bays makes it a great home base. “Lake St. Clair has enormous exploration opportunities directly surrounding it for the big boats,” says Malow. “It’s a wonderful platform to moor and then take off to explore. You can head in several directions, including taking the North Channel to Lake Huron and heading towards the Georgian Bay or to explore northeastern Lake Erie — the chance to see new places from the water is endless.”

And many private marinas around the lake offer affiliate membership privileges.

“Boat owners like to visit other clubs, including fascinating historical ones like the Old Club established in the late 1800s on Harsens Island and the Grosse Pointe Marina in Grosse Point,” Malow says. Founded in 1914, the Grosse Point Marina along Grosse Pointe Shores opened in 1929 to members, and its 187-foot steeple still serves today as a navigational aid and beacon to those arriving in the area.

Take in the sights

Seasonal activities and events in the area surrounding the lake range from calm and  stately (Antique & Classic Boat Show and Parade), to sporty (Mitchell’s Bay Open: Live Release Bass Tournament), to high-octane and super-charged (The St. Clair River Classic and Offshore Powerboat Race). Annual events, including Aquapalooza and Water Warriors activities, are carefully organized. Docking early and departing late is highly recommended by those with the inside scoop; securing a spot to observe the festivities is a priority for yearly attendees.

Tracking alongside the lake in the small Michigan town of St. Clair Shores is the Nautical Mile, where activities abound throughout the year for landlubbers and boaters arriving via the municipal Lac Ste. Claire Harbor, Blossom Heath Harbor and seven other marinas along its length. It’s a must-visit 1.5-mile-long destination dotted with restaurants, stores and shops with a distinctly seafaring theme.

 General manager of Fishbone’s Rhythm Kitchen, Michelle Mark, points out that the Nautical Mile is a special place to spend time with friends and family. “There is a great small town feel here — very quaint — even though it is just a few miles from a big city.”

The large outdoor patio is a popular space, and with a cozy fire pit and outdoor lighting it is hopping all season long with those taking in the sights. “We like to say the party revs up as the sun goes down,” Mark says with a grin. “It is very romantic and a perfect place to end the day with good food and drinks.”

Anchor Bay on the Michigan shore and Mitchell’s Bay on the Ontario side are just a couple of the bays that are famous for their many species of fish that lazily follow the current, waterfowl that gather to nest and preen, and birds that swoop overhead.
Sail-maker and sailor, Jeff Pawsat, grew up on the lake and explains that the waters of Lake St. Clair offer all he and his fellow sailors need for a great day. “My dad was a member of the Detroit Yacht Club and I’ve sailed for over 30 years on the lake in sailing regattas and races, but it is never the same,” he says. “The unique variables from the St. Clair River and the bays, the swell of currents, the prevailing winds — each part of the lake has unique characteristics that make it a new experience each time.”

Pawsat has also participated in many of the runs from Harsens Island to Mackinaw. “There are so many races on the lake — during the day and at night — because there is such a plethora of yacht clubs here,” he says. “Obviously the bigger races are on the weekend, but for a sailor this is just an unbelievable lake to be near anytime.”

Get outdoors

Harsens Island is a destination that should not be missed while visiting the lake. The St. Clair Flats are located on the delta at the mouth of the St. Clair River as it flows into Lake St. Clair, and Harsens Island is the largest island in an amazing collection of them on the Michigan side. It is only accessible by car ferry and has a small resident community, shops worth exploring and superb picnic spots. Or, dock your boat at the full-service Sunset Harbor Marina, which offers a fuel gas dock and beach.

Large numbers of ducks and geese congregate in the shallow shores of Harsens Island, and owls and hawks are plentiful. In addition to sailing, Pawsat is an avid hunter and says the duck hunting there is a favorite for those who congregate in the fall. “We wouldn’t miss it because there is a managed DNR refuge, which makes the ducks plentiful,” he says.

Michigan DNR Parks and Recreation Division’s Bill Boik says that Lake St. Clair’s unusual set of attributes has long made it a fisherman’s paradise, with world-class sport and game fishing.

“With clean, shallow waters and its incredible coastal wetlands, it was recently cited as the No. 1 lake in the world for bass fishing, gaining both national and international recognition,” Boik says with pride. “Add the lighthouses, secret fishing spots and watching freighters go by on international routes — this is a unique area you won’t find anywhere else.”  

Caress Carpenter, Municipality of Chatham-Kent marketing and content assistant, resident attraction and retention, agrees. “Anglers can fish in the warmer, shallower openness of Lake St. Clair on the western shore, or choose one of several tributaries to cast a line for trophy-size muskie, pickerel, bass or perch,” she explains.

Original to Lake St. Clair is “standing” in the shallow waters, especially in the bays and around various islands.  Although shipping channels and marinas have been dredged for navigational and mooring access for the 3,000 or so boats of all sizes that cross through these waters each summer, the lake is on average only 11 feet deep. The water warms quickly, so it’s not uncommon, even early in the season, to see folks socializing in the waters with a beer or other cool beverage in hand. Anchor Bay — often called the “Poor Man’s Beach” in front of MacRay Harbor and Belle Maer Harbor — offers tranquil water and a soft, sandy bottom. Strawberry Island is especially popular with families, and Big Muscamoot Bay near Harsens Island is often the site of rambunctious parties, more appropriate for the younger set or those young at heart!

Explore the shore

For those visiting the area for the first time, the Lake St. Clair Circle Tour, the newest “Great” Lakes Circle Tour, is a wonderful introduction to all the local attractions. Simmons has been instrumental in establishing the tour.

“Some of the destinations will allow visitors to get out on the water, while others offer the opportunity to enjoy the views, tastes, smells and sounds from the shoreline,” Simmons says, pointing out that there is a map available online. “You’ll discover where fish are biting, how to book a leisurely cruise, the best place to enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the sunset, see the latest gear and boats, find a spot to have a drink, listen to live music with the kids, and so much more.”

The tour includes the local beaches, with Sandpoint Beach, Belle Isle Beach, Lake St. Clair Metropark Beach and Belle River on the lake in Ontario being just a few of the safe swimming areas that are easily accessible. The Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township, Michigan stretches over 1 mile of shoreline, with a 1,600-foot boardwalk, a 770-acre recreational facility with water slide and an 18-hole golf course.

One beachfront not to be missed is Mitchell’s Bay. “It is truly beautiful — quiet and charming with incredible views,” says Carpenter. “There is something for everyone in the whole family, and located just seconds from unique shopping and great local restaurants.”

If you get hungry while exploring the shore, there are close to 20 restaurants that have on-the-water dockage for patrons, including: Brown’s Bar on Harsens Island; Captain’s Landing in Mount Clemens; Decker’s Landing and Lounge in Algonac; and Sandbar Waterfront Grill in Belle River, Ontario.

The Lake St. Clair Circle Tour map also highlights the “best of the best” places to find routes for navigating to different destinations — be it by boat, car, RV, kayak or on foot. The deep-water marina on the St. Clair River, Algonac Harbour Club, is a great place to begin your boating adventure.

Just as Rene-Robert Cavelier first saw Lake St. Clair so many years ago, each year it is discovered by a new group of explorers, in addition to those who return annually.

“Lake St. Clair is just a great place to hang out at a favorite anchorage, visit the Nautical Mile, cruise up the Thames River in Ontario to the lovely town of Chatham or up the Clinton River in Michigan to the picturesque town of Mount Clemens,” Simmons says. “You can discover a little or a lot because everything is so close at hand.”

 

South Shore JUN17
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