Peche Island. The one time Ontario provincial park was transferred to the city of Windsor in 1999 and has remained virtually untouched over the last 20 or so years.
Located on the Canadian side of the Detroit river, the 86-acre island is slightly more than a mile east of Belle Isle at the river’s opening to Lake St. Clair. Visitors have frequented the island for decades — they have terrific views of the Detroit skyline and enjoy a wide sandy beach and shallow river bottom. It has been a popular party spot, but stiffer maritime laws on boating and drinking have minimized that activity. Man-made channels have been cut through the island to ensure a fresh water supply and vegetation and unique forests have been kept and maintained.
Peche Island is a virtual gold mine for nature lovers. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles can be spotted on tree tops or in the nesting platforms which have been built by the Essex County Field Naturalists’ Club, while anglers have a plentiful supply of muskie and walleye, bigmouth bass and perch to choose from. Various species of ducks also call the island home and can be seen throughout the year.
During the 1700s, the island was occupied by a number of families. In 1883 it was sold to Hiram Walker’s sons. The liquor baron himself used it as a summer retreat and tried for many years to develop it. He built the canals and bought yachts for travelling to the island from his office on the mainland and for cruises and parties on the river and lakes. He built a 40 room mansion, planted trees, established an orchard and constructed a greenhouse to cultivate flowers. He added a golf course, stables, icehouse and a carriage house. A generator to supply electric power rounded out the amenities. Unfortunately, the entire empire came crashing down in 1929, when it was destroyed by a fire. The only visible evidence of this once thriving enterprise is the ruins of the Walker estate.
In the ensuing years, the island ownership changed numerous times. One of the owners had prepared ambitious plans to build an amusement park as part of a $30 million resort. The work had been slated for completion by 1972 but through mis-management and stiff opposition from neighbors and local politicians, that project also went the way of the Edsel and the island was put up for auction. Eventually the Canadian government owned it…then the province, and finally the city of Windsor which bought it from Ontario for a reported price of slightly more than a million dollars. Today, outside of the rare wildlife, unusual foliage, docking facilities, picnic tables and well maintained washrooms, the island is a quiet place…a far cry from days gone by. Incidentally, more details about this fascinating piece of property can be found by logging onto the Peche Island website.
One of the island’s greatest supporters and visitors for the past 50 years is Chris Kulman. He says the biggest change he’s seen is the amount of erosion that’s taken place, particularly along the western sections and the southern shoreline. Hiram Walker, he recalls, had built a cement barrier along a large portion of the beach to prevent erosion and lately the city has been dumping huge rocks on the beach to prevent the water from destroying the land.
Kulman says the island was a great place on which to party and have picnics at a time when customs rules were a little more relaxed than today…and swimming was allowed. Since the Windsor shuttle began running, swimmers are now prohibited from entering the water for their safety. “I think back on weekends,” he says, “when there were up to 200 boats anchored along the island, as visitors took advantage of its natural beauty. Now, you’re lucky to see 10 or 20, with many of the areas overgrown with weeds.” At one time, power boats were even allowed on the island’s canals, but that too has changed. Outside of improvements to walking trails, the island hasn’t changed much in the past half century. Washroom facilities have been on the island for about 20 years along with a covered pavilion just outside the main docking area. “After 9/11,” Kulman adds, “police kept their four-wheelers inside that pavilion and patrolled the area day and night looking for possible terrorists. We could hear them and see the lights from our building, which is just across the river.”
Today the city of Windsor’s new shuttle service to and from the storied island is gaining in popularity. For $5, visitors can board the pontoon boat at Lakeview Marine and head to the island for an hour, or a day of relaxation and exploration. The first shuttle leaves the Marina at 10 am and continues every hour, on the hour until the last departure from Windsor at 2 in the afternoon. The last shuttle leaves the island at 3:30. Travellers are urged to register in advance, since only 6 passengers are allowed on board for each trip and the spaces do fill up fast. The shuttle operates three days a week, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday between June 27th and October 3rd. You can book a ride by calling 519-948-3383.
So why not pack a lunch? Grab the fishing gear, but leave the adult beverages at home. Pack up the kids and book the short ride to Peche Island…a great place to recharge and get away from humdrum of the everyday world. Become a pioneer and explorer for the day. As the old saying goes: “just stop and smell the roses.”