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Canada’s South Coast: Windsor and Essex County

Windsor's waterfront as seen from Windsor Premiere Cruises. Caesars Windsor dominates the skyline and the old train ferry ramps are in the foreground / Photo- Steve Bull

If you’re a regular reader of BoatBlurb you’ll know that I keep my boat in Toronto Harbour. But while Toronto is my hometown both of birth and my present locale, for the better part of a decade I also called Windsor, Ontario home. In fact, it was such a formative period of my life I’ve referred to it as my “adopted hometown” for nearly 20 years now.

I attend the University of Windsor and returned to begin my on-air career with CBC News in Canada’s southernmost city, but despite having three distinct coastlines, I hadn’t really explored it by boat until this past summer.

The beauty of the region is that it’s got nearly everything you could ask for in freshwater boating. You’ve got big water of the Great Lakes to sheltered rivers and streams for paddling.

Over the course of two days, my mission was to explore as much of it as I could in as many different ways as possible.

Starting on the south coast with Pelee Wings, I had several options in theory, but only one meteorologically. By that I mean the wind decided that Lake Erie would be a little too bumpy for my comfort level. Luckily, it’s a short scoot into the mouth of Sturgeon Creek. In fact, it’s close enough that if you didn’t want to make the paddle from the mini-harbour at the sandy beach of the Pelee Wings kayak racks, you could portage a short stretch and launch directly in the creek itself.

If you find the name unusual for a paddle sports rental, tour, and lesson company, you’re not alone. I thought the same thing. But there’s a good explanation for it: they didn’t start out doing this. Instead, the origin story is connected to the southernmost point of mainland Canada, Point Pelee. It’s a birdwatchers mecca, and Pelee Wings began outfitting birders and remains a major retailer for binoculars. But people wanted to watch the birds from the water, and so the paddle “department” was born.

Whether you’re a newbie looking for lessons or an expert, they can sort you out. They even do tours. A little over 12 nautical miles south you find Pelee Island, the southernmost community in the country, and one that is theoretically reachable by kayak (but is best left to highly experienced paddlers). If you want to visit I’d recommend you take the ferry, which takes cars and allows you to trailer a boat across. Confirm with Scudder Marina on the island before you do that to make sure they can accommodate you and the ramp is available. On the north shore of Essex County is the biggest lake Larger than Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia, and nearly as large as Lake Champlain that bisects the New York and Vermont border. But because it's tucked between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, its much larger cousins, it is often overlooked. But not by the locals. They know this is an ideal boating lake.

Lake St. Clair is shallow which means it’s on the warmer size. On the downside, that means you really have to pay attention to the charts if you’re in a larger boat. On the upside, it’s largely a sandy bottom so if you do run aground, it may not be catastrophic. That being said, it's always better to avoid those things altogether, so be sure to review charts and, worst case, if you’re in a deep-draft vessel just stick to the shipping channel that connects the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. If it can handle thousand-footers, it can handle you.

If you don’t have your own boat, you can rent one from RAW Watersports or, if you want to engage full relaxation mode, you can opt for the guided pontoon tour with a captain.

They will take you to Peche Island, a 86-acre low-lying island that is just on the Canadian side of the dotted line on your charts marking the international border with the United States. It’s currently uninhabited, but that wasn’t the case 140 years ago. Back then, distilling magnate Hiram Walker – of Canadian Club Whisky fame – built a 40-room summer mansion, a stable, and a greenhouse on the island. It burned down in 1929, but the ruins of the foundation remain for you to explore.

It's only accessible by water but the City of Windsor operates a shuttle (for a fee), or you can boat or paddle across on your own. Kayaks and canoes can get right to the marshy interior while larger boats can tie up at the dock or mooring wall and make use of the picnic tables.

Now to the important stuff: pizza.

Windsor Pizza is a thing. There’s even a documentary about it! The team at RAW Watersports has this down to a science. You see, there's a pizza place that backs onto the Riverside Marina and the Windsor Yacht Club with transient docks right by the carry-out door. You can call ahead and pick up your pie en route to Peche Island – which is exactly what we did.

There’s a floating dock and a mooring wall that allegedly has deep draft access. Double check with the locals and go slow, though, as I wasn’t able to confirm this in our shallow-draft pontoon. At the island there are picnic tables and a covered patio area to give a break from the sun. Most of the island is shrouded in tree cover, though, so if you’re like me and are prone to burns, this is a nice outdoor spot without getting baked by direct sunlight.

If you want a more hands-on, slower-paced way to explore Lake St. Clair, you can give stand-up paddleboarding a go with Urban Surf. In the last 5-10 years, standup paddleboarding has exploded in popularity, only surpassed by pickleball and foil boarding it seems in terms of buy-in from the masses. But, Urban Surf isn’t riding the wave of popularity. Instead they are one of the “OGs” of the sport, having been in the business for more than 12 years.

They were the perfect partners to help me overcome my reluctance. I had a single stand-up paddleboard experience a few summers back that did not go well. It was unstable and felt impossible. I’m no Olympian, but I have great balance and a lifetime on the water so I figured there had to be an issue. As it turns out, size matters.

Chris, the owner of Urban Surf, busted out the biggest stand-up paddleboard I’ve ever seen. The kind of thing that even for us who are larger-than-we-should-be will feel stable and confident using. It worked! We paddled our way down the river into the lake for a perfectly timed sunset.

The fishing is incredible here as well, whether you’re going for salmon on Lake Erie, perch, bass, or chasing down a monster musky on Lake St. Clair. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to try fishing – there’s only so much time and far too many options here! But, I did have a good chat with some pals who assured me I was missing out and made me promise to return.

Teen fishing phenom Averie Rose – who, incidentally, is the daughter of the cinematographer of this episode – shot an entire episode on the lake and catching some absolute monsters.

For there to be fish to catch, you need a health fishery which, in turn, means a healthy ecosystem. A little ways down the Detroit River, just past Windsor, is the town of LaSalle, Ontario. Here you’ll find the Freshwater Ecology Research Centre which is part of the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Great Lakes Research. A mouthful, to be sure, so acronyms reign supreme and you can refer to them simply as GLIER (“gleer”) and FERC.

There’s too much to list, but in a nutshell, FERC is trying to ensure the Great Lakes basin, from the tributary streams up to the open water of Lake Superior, remains vibrant and healthy. They have worked hard to rejuvenate the sturgeon population in the Detroit River, work to ensure salmon stocks are at ideal levels, and are the final saviour of the Redside Dace.

These little fish, the size of a minnow with a distinctive red stripe along the side (hence the name), are on the brink of extinction. Dr. Trevor Pitcher who heads up FERC told me there are many reasons why you want to save any animal, but these efforts can be summed up in two main outcomes. First, smaller animals like this are strong indicators of the health of an ecosystem and if they have a robust population you know the overall environment is in good shape. Second, nature doesn’t generally do well being manipulated and told what to do, which is why captive breeding and reintroduction of any species is so difficult. If they are able to raise a healthy population of Redside Dace and can establish new self-sustaining populations in the wild, there will surely be lessons learned that can translate to other species.

Of course, sometimes the best boating experiences are ones where you don’t actually have to worry about any of the boating. So if you’re done with your kayak and SUP tours, have done your pizza picnic by pontoon on Peche, caught all the fish you want, you can leave it all to Windsor Premiere Cruises and enjoy a cruise along the Detroit River -- whether it’s a sunset dinner cruise, a midday sightseeing cruise, or a private event.

The province of Ontario has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to boating thanks to its 250,000 lakes and rivers. Essex County embodies the best of those with the range of activities here. From nature-loving kayak tours to a “booze cruise” past the skyline of Detroit and everything in between, my adopted hometown has something for every boater.

And pizza. Don’t forget the pizza!

You can watch the full episode "Windsor & Essex County- Canada's South Cost" below:

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