Turtle Island Pt. 1: “The Best-Laid Plans”

In your mind you tell yourself that you’ll just simply keep an eye on the ice in front of you, and if you see it start to look questionable, you’ll just turn around and go back. You tell yourself that if you hear it start to crack or feel it move under you, that you’ll jump back out of harm’s way before it caves in. At least that’s how it would work, logically. And all the weather data you looked at beforehand seemed to point unequivocally to sustained safe conditions. But when you’re two miles offshore into one of the mighty, unforgiving Great Lakes, with a mere six inches of ice separating you from supercooled water, and there are sub-surface currents moving beneath it potentially eating away at the ice that you already walked across a mile ago, you realize that you are quite literally in the hands of fate.

Note: This first episode of this five-part series is essentially just a big long disclaimer meant to illustrate why no one should ever attempt to do what I did. The actual adventure begins in part two, but I really recommend reading this anyway.

Turtle Island was another one of those little holy grails that had tantalized me from afar for years, ever since I had learned about it. Not only did the tiny islet have an abandoned lighthouse on it, along with several other intriguing structures, and behind it all a beguiling history, but the long disputed Ohio-Michigan state line also bisects it, and it represented Michigan’s southeasternmost corner.

From jkflavell
But before I begin the adventure, let’s have a little context.

Look at a map of Lucas County, Ohio...the part of the southern boundary of that county that is a straight line actually follows what would likely have been the Michigan-Ohio boundary if history had played out differently. The reason for this is that Ohio created Lucas County as a move to claim the land in the disputed “Toledo Strip,” which was the slice of land between where Michigan and Ohio each believed their border to actually lie.

During the events leading up to the Toledo War in spring of 1835, Ohio officials quickly sneaked up into the Toledo Strip to hold election proceedings there (in a shack in a farmer’s field if I recall correctly) as an act of laying claim over the disputed land. Michigan subsequently dispatched militiamen to remove any party conducting illegal governmental proceedings, and the Toledo War officially began. The Battle of Phillips Corners in April of 1835 basically consisted (based on varying accounts) of the Michigan militiamen firing a musket volley over the heads of an Ohioan surveying party as a warning shot, before reloading and taking direct aim. The illegal surveyors were already in an extremely hasty retreat to the real state border however. Nine Ohioans were taken prisoner at the Tecumseh Jail.

Months later, Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Wood was killed in Toledo while making an arrest on an Ohio agitator named Two Stickney. This resulted in incensed Michiganders raising a posse, who encountered and engaged another armed posse of Ohioans along the Maumee River that July. The Ohio company retreated back across the river and musket fire was again exchanged, but no casualties were reported. Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason demanded the extradition of Two Stickney, but Ohio Governor Robert Lucas refused the order. Ohio later illegally created Lucas County out of the disputed territory naming it after the current Ohio governor, and continued holding court there to give the new county government the pretense of legitimacy. The resolution of the Toledo War was made a stipulation of Michigan’s longstanding petition for statehood being granted by the federal government in 1837, and Ohio was unfairly awarded the Toledo Strip.

Now, originally the water boundary between Michigan and Ohio over Lake Erie was a straight east-west line running to the Canadian border, as one would naturally expect since that is how the land boundary was. But according to the book The Toledo War by Don Faber, in 1844 the Army Corps of Engineers for whatever reason decided to strike the water boundary at a 45-degree angle to the northeast from the north cape of Maumee Bay, running thence to the Canadian line.

From lib.msu.edu
Somehow, Michigan apparently did not challenge this, and there it stood until 1846 when the borders of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio were refined under the Clayton Bill. In 1889 however there were still problems with many borderland residents unsure who to pay taxes to, and the federal government was asked to step in and resolve the issue. They refused, bullheadedly responding that the matter had been closed long ago. In 1915, Ohio and Michigan jointly sponsored another survey to determine a permanent boundary once and for all, and place an “imperishable” marker monument. At the conclusion of this survey, on the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Phillips Corners, Governor Woodbridge Ferris of Michigan and Governor Frank Willis of Ohio met at the new state line marker stone and tersely shook hands.

The terminus of the new state line’s land boundary was to be at the very southern tip of the Woodtick Peninsula, also known as the North Cape of Maumee Bay—which meant that Michigan effectively ceded the fought-over Toledo Strip once and for all, since the original border as drawn in the c.1787 Northwest Ordnance put the state line at the mouth of the Maumee River, a few miles to the south. As a result of this, a couple small peninsulas of land were isolated from the rest of Michigan by the new state line, one of which was inhabited and has become known as the so-called “Lost Peninsula,” because there is no way to reach it except by water or by going through Ohio:

In 1922, Ohio had another survey done to determine the exact location of the water boundary, at which time they drew the state line due east from the marker that had been placed in 1915, apparently forgetting that the line had been angled in their favor since the Army Corps of Engineers had drawn it in 1844. Michigan now controlled the entire northwest end of Lake Erie, including Turtle Island. Ten years later, in 1932, Ohio must have finally realized their mistake, and resurveyed the water boundary so that it was drawn to a 45-degree angle again, like it had been in 1844.

The reason for this resurvey was that it would award the 200-square-mile triangle of Lake Erie bottomland in question back to Ohio…bottomland that a few years later was speculated to be rich in oil and gas. Go figure. In 1947 Michigan again contested the swiping of their territory by Ohio, but when the 1952 USGS Quadrangle map of the area was published, it still showed the line to be skewed at 45 degrees in Ohio’s favor, and it has remained that way ever since, with Turtle Island being bisected by the state border.

To be super technical, if officials had adhered to the original c.1787 boundary line prescribed by the Northwest Ordnance that would have run due east from the southernmost point of Lake Michigan, the cities of South Bend, Elkhart, and Toledo would have all been Michigan cities, as well as a sliver of Gary, Indiana; and if the water boundary had been properly drawn thus continuing due east over Lake Erie to the international border, the Ohio holdings of West Sister Island and all those around Put-In-Bay would have also been Michigan’s. Juss sayin’. For what it’s worth, the Indiana-Michigan border is still in dispute to this day.

Anyway, in 1965, Governor Romney of Michigan and Governor Rhodes of Ohio again met at the 1915 survey stone at the Lost Peninsula to shake hands for the 50th Anniversary, and to place an additional plaque that contained the words “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” Just one year later, Michigan filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court over the disputed “Lake Erie Triangle” but yet again, the federal government sided with Ohio. Conflict arose once more over the bottomlands in the early 1970s, with both states laying claim to it, possibly in response to the gas crunch that occurred at that time. Again, the federal courts inexplicably sided with Ohio.

*  *  *

I had originally planned to reach Turtle Island by boat, but the fact that I would need to coordinate the free time to do a day-long excursion for this with the promise of sustained good weather, and the free time of at least one other shipmate, one can see how hard of a mission it would be to line up and execute. Not to mention there was a fair chance that my little 14’ boat was just not big or strong enough to handle leaving the protection of Maumee Bay. For many years I had been considering some sort of mission like this to Waugoshance Shoal in northern Lake Michigan (which also has an abandoned lighthouse on it) but the presence of treacherous currents and other hazards had kept me from chancing it.

So when a severe cold snap struck the Great Lakes region one January, I decided to consider walking across the ice to Turtle Island instead. The temperature had bottomed out at -14F during this period, not including an abominably low windchill. The weather stayed well below zero in Detroit for more than 24 hours and though this resulted in good ice conditions at the western end of Lake Erie and the northern end of Lake Michigan, a long hike across the ice to either of the abandoned lighthouses would be prohibitive in these conditions. The round trip hike to Turtle Island and back measured between eight and 10 miles, depending on the route I decided on.

It was so cold in fact that I could not leave my house for an entire day, simply because I could not risk starting my truck until the temp climbed back above zero. So I stayed in and spent my time studying meteorological charts and forecasts from the NOAA, Google Earth, nautical charts, and working out what gear I would need to bring with me to safely complete such a trek. In my studies of the new Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System (GLCFS) online data and charts, I was able to better evaluate the real factors in play affecting ice conditions on the lakes.

I was convinced that January 9th would be the best day for conditions. I was not just looking at the ice thickness, I was looking at water and air temps, surface currents, winds, ice concentration, ice velocity, etc. The GLCFS had models both tracking current conditions and forecasting future ones for all of these categories. By weighing all these results together as a whole, I was able to determine that the best days were the 9th and 10th, and that overnight on the 10th to the 11th, conditions took a sudden turn for the scary as things started to warm up drastically and start moving again. If I didn’t make a move before that, I would definitely lose my window of opportunity, because it was due to be 40F and raining by the weekend.

Ice thickness on Lake Erie’s western end was currently 16-20 inches, building to 20-24 inches by 1200hrs on the 10th, but beginning to recede slightly by 1700hrs. I don’t want to be out there while the ice is deciding to reduce…I want to be out there when conditions are still favorable to building it…right? Surface water temps thankfully would remain below the freezing mark for the entire 120-hour prediction range. Atmospheric temps would be 10-16F on the 9th, and jack up to the 30s by the 11th. Winds seemed to be 2 knots to calm on the 9th, increasing to 10 knots by the 12th. At about 0400hrs on the 11th, the ice velocity table showed signs of increasing from nil to whatever blue means on the chart (probably the minimum measured amount, which is 1 centimeter/hour).

I am not 100% sure what is meant by “ice velocity” anyway, but it scares me; I don’t want it to be moving at all. If I had to guess, I would say that it refers to the movement of sheet ice across the lake's surface due to pressures exerted on it by regional weather systems and water currents. I don’t know exactly what is meant by “ice concentration” either, but it was currently at 100% (which sounds positive), and would remain that way until 1600hrs on the 11th, at which time it would slip to 99%. Which still sounds pretty good, but the fact that a reduction would be getting underway did not make me feel comfortable. There was a more sudden change predicted after 1700hrs on the 12th. I don’t like the idea of "sudden" things happening to ice I am standing on.

Also, this data was just a hypothetical forecast automatically generated by a computer, based on sensor-collected data; it wasn’t like some guy was standing out there with a drill and a ruler every ten feet. If nothing else, I was determined to go out and look at conditions myself, even if I didn’t go ahead with the mission. I planned to evaluate my progress every couple hundred yards and make decisions on whether to keep going.

I kept monitoring these GLCFS forecast models, which seem to be updated twice daily, to see if any major changes were noted, but everything seemed to be holding steady. Until Rutabaga kindly pointed out to me that I had neglected to notice the ice measurements in the forecasts were delineated in centimeters, not inches. Instead of being 16-20 inches thick like I thought, it was probably more like 6.5 inches thick. I instantly scrapped the whole idea. No way was I going to walk out two miles into the lake with a mere six inches of ice between me and the grim reaper’s arms.

She tried to reassure me however that even four inches of ice is plenty thick to walk or even drive a car on, according to the DNR. But what happens when the warmer eastern half of the lake decides to turn over suddenly, or the Detroit River frees up, and sends all those big thick plates of ice to Cleveland?! They’re still six inches thick, right? Shit, there might even be a chance that a Coast Guard icebreaker could come busting through to clear the Toledo Channel.

Then of course there was the matter of clear ice vs. “white” ice…. Clear ice is much stronger, but when ice is formed out of snow, or a thaw and re-freeze, it is called “white ice” and the DNR says to double the thickness ratings of clear ice for the same safety on white ice. At any rate I decided I would still drive down there and look firsthand at the situation in the morning, regardless.

This is an NOAA nautical chart showing the area I would be travelling in to Turtle Island…my compass is centered over Turtle Island itself, with the angled Michigan/Ohio state line cutting right through it:

The port of Toledo is at the bottom left corner, marking the mouth of the Maumee River. The Woodtick Peninsula juts down from the north. To give you some scale, this map section is about eight statute miles across from left to right.

Here is a zoomed-in view, showing the area I would be departing from:

Michigan’s Lost Peninsula is shown at center, bisected by the state line, and US-24 runs along the left edge of the page. My goal was to find a place I could park on the Lost Peninsula, and begin my hike from there, but failing that my backup was a public boat launch off US-24 near the Hooper Run. I feared that based on the Google Earth view the Lost Peninsula’s shoreline might be all private marina property. But if I could get there, I would be shaving two miles off of my hike, as compared to my backup plan. As you can see, all the depth soundings of the Maumee Bay are pretty shallow, with nothing over six feet until I get to the open waters of the lake.

Now, with the map oriented to north:

At any rate my plan was to head for the southern tip of the Woodtick Peninsula then make a straight course (if possible) of about 61.5° for Turtle Island, which you can see the state line slicing through in the above pic. My return bearing would be 241.5°, or failing that, I knew that anything close to due West would put me on terra firma. Of course chances were extremely good that I would be able to see the island clearly and not need to walk by compass.

But, in the event that whipping snow, fog, or extreme glare were to hamper my visibility, I knew my bearings before setting out. You can also see that water depths reached nine feet and that the island itself sat on a four-foot shoal. But for what it’s worth, if I broke through anything deeper than three feet I would be f@#$ed due to exposure, even if I did manage to climb out. Not to mention I could become stuck in the deep marsh muck that made up the bottom of Upper Maumee Bay.

An adult fully immersed in water while wearing heavy winter clothing will retain about 60 lbs. of water in that clothing while trying to climb out, and I would be wearing a small backpack as well. The DNR recommends carrying ice picks at all times while on ice, one for each hand, so you can use them to claw your way back out of the hole. Two small screwdrivers also work for this, which is what I had. Speaking practically, if I fell through the ice at any point beyond say, a couple hundred yards off the Woodtick Peninsula, it would mean certain death.

The temperature was just over 10 degrees when I set out on the 9th and in this weather, hypothermia would strike me down before I had a chance to get back to land and build a fire, assuming I could even find good wood under all the snow. Yeah, that whole climbing the mooring rope thing to get on that freighter last year was pretty death defying, but I was only in true mortal peril there for about a total of two minutes. On this mission, I would be in potential mortal peril for several hours. I would have to have my head screwed on pretty f@#$ing righteously for this one.

After I had firmly convinced myself with all my charts and forecasts that conditions were now good to attempt a hike across the ice, Rutabaga then reminded me of something else that I hadn’t thought of—industrial outlets venting warm water into the lake, which could undermine the ice. Obviously Toledo itself probably had plenty of that going on, but up near my path to Turtle Island, the nearest industrial facility was a Consumers’ Power plant on shore at Luna Pier. I measured it to be at least 3.7 miles away from my intended path, but Rutabaga noted that the channel along the western edge of the Woodtick Peninsula could be carrying warm water south directly into my path, and that the very first part of my trek could be the most dangerous.

The list of gear I would be bringing with me included:
Spare camera
Three camera batteries
Two meals worth of food
A little chocolate
One bottle of warm water
Ice picks
Fire starter (a lighter, waxed newspaper rolls, and a trioxane tab)
Spare clothing
My super-duty Carhartt winter spacesuit
Mini first aid kit
Chemical hand warmers

I debated bringing my hiking staff, grappling hook, or rope, but I decided these would only be useful if I had a partner anyway. I wanted to have as little extra weight on me as possible, both to reduce chances of breaking through the ice, and to increase my likelihood of being able to pull myself out while waterlogged. I was afraid I was bringing too little water for such a long trek, but if I had brought any more canteens they would have froze solid by the time I tried to drink them. I figured with the one aluminum bottle, I would keep it inside my suit to keep it from freezing, and if I ran out I could put snow in it and let it melt while I walk. Or I could also stick the metal bottle over a fire if I had to. My cellphone might very well still get a signal on or near the island, so I figured that in a worst case-scenario if I got stranded I could call the Coast Guard, but I didn’t even want to think about what kind of shit that would put me in.

CLICK for part 2

The Toledo War, The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry, by Don Faber, pg. 178-179
“A Brief History of Turtle Island,” by B. Achinger
Toledo Times article, dated October 8, 1936
"Erie Township seeks bids to remove buildings," The Toledo Blade, May 29, 2008

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