An excursion took us out to Harsens Island yesterday, a place of ample space and splendid isolation at the north-eastern tip of Lake Saint Clair. We go there now and then at intervals of a year or two or three, sometimes when visitors from Europe stay with us. It has a sort of muted magic. Beneath its vast sky, at its southernmost tip, its Finisterre, vast Lake Saint Clair stretches endlessly on and very faintly, in the very far distance, rise the rusting towers of once great Detroit.
Harsens, together with Dickinson island to its immediate west and Walpole Island, in Canada, to its immediate east form the delta of the St. Clair River as it enters the lake, passes through it marking the border between the United States and Canada, and eventually enters Lake Erie. (Another post on Lake Saint Clair is here.) One of the activities Harsens island offers is freighter-watching at close range. The St. Clair river, believe it or not, carries more traffic, I am told, than the Suez and Panama canals combined! True. Almost anywhere from the shore of Lake Saint Clair, one can see that traffic flowing, this way, that way. At Harsens island one feels as if an out-stretched hand can touch those slowly moving vessels. But somehow, what with wars fought to keep them open, Suez and Panama seem a lot busier. Well, they are not.
A Dutchman, Jacob Harsen bought the island from an Indian tribe in 1779. The tribe’s identity is shrouded in mist. The community formed there early was known as Sans Souci—but while that name survives to mark various stores, schools, a museum, and other facilities, the settlement itself is part of the township of Clay, centered on the mainland. When police must urgently visit Harsens Island, they too must wait for the ferry to take them across the channel—like all visitors. The island is ringed discontinuously with homes at its shores. The central portions are wetlands. The chief activity of the island has always been tourism, mostly. Back in the days of steam a destination spot for sightseers from Detroit. Fishing. Birding. Nature watching—and of late, kite surfing. As we reached Land’s End late in the afternoon, three young men were valiantly trying to kite-surf in the shallow waters to the immediate west and south of where we’d parked to mark the last day of summer. The wind, alas, would not cooperate. Good-bye Harsens—until the next time.