Two years ago, I took Karen for her first trip to Put-in-Bay. We set up our tent in the South Bass State Park Campgrounds. We had a site right on the edge of the cliff overlooking the western basin of Lake Erie. The first of two nights we were there we experienced a terrible thunderstorm. Our tent was old and we didn’t have the right cover. We got so wet that we packed up a day early and headed home.

We did manage to rent a golf cart for a couple of hours and tour the island, but we needed to get off the island as another storm was brewing. So much for Karen’s first trip to a place I had been visiting since the 1970s. First with my parents, then with friends, and even my daughter several years ago.

If you don’t know what Put-in-Bay is, it has been called Key West North. If you don’t know what Key West is, please use Google at this time. It’s called this because of its island vibes and Caribbean feel. The island entertains over 750,000 guests during its tourist season.

You can only get there by boat. (or plane, but who can afford that?)

Since 1903, the Miller Ferry has been transporting vehicles and passengers from Catawba Island to the south tip of South Bass Island. The town of Put-in-Bay is still a two mile walk. A walk my parents made us do the few times they took us there. Now the area around the dock has added several golf carts and bicycle rental places. A golf cart is how you get around the island.

So, this year, we decided to try again. We reserved a campsite as early as you can since they go quickly early in the year. It takes us two hours from my place in Madison to the Miller Ferry dock in Port Clinton. We anxiously watched the weather forecast for two weeks leading up to the trip. All indications were that we were going to get wet again.

This time we had a brand new tent.

We once again had a nice, but tight, spot overlooking the western basin of Lake Erie on a 50 foot high cliff made of glacial rock. This time we got the tent erected and were able to drive into town for dinner before the first storm hit.

We sat in the Boathouse Bar & Grill, a place we had eaten two years before, and watched them close the glass storm doors as the thunder and lightning started, with high winds and heavy rain to follow. High winds turned into a confirmed tornado touchdown somewhere on the island. It knocked out the power for a bit and the TVs for the rest of the night.


Here’s what we saw from our table:

We used a quick break in the weather to walk around the square and grab another drink at the Beer Barrel Saloon, home to the world’s longest bar. I remember it in 1987 soon after the original building burned down as a very large gravel area under a very large circus tent filled with picnic tables.

We got back to the campsite just in time as the second set of storms were set to hit. They hit hard. From about 9PM to 2:30 AM our tent shook from the high winds coming off the lake. We could see the flashes of light caused by the lightning, but not the streaks themselves as we battened down all of our tent hatches. We’re pretty sure the high winds were forcing the rain drops through the tent fabric. You can see them reflecting in the video.

More than five hours of that made us question our sanity, but making a run to the car just might have been worse with all the trees around. Our tent was well staked and we had lots of weight inside.

We obviously did survive, even though you can hear Karen questioning if we would in the video.

It was followed the next morning by a futile attempt to keep a fire going in that breeze and resulted in our campfire coffee being pure water after an hour of trying to get it to percolate. We also didn’t get to cook any of the food we brought since it would have just ended up being filled with ashes, so we found a great breakfast place downtown.

It was a beautiful day and one where we got to fully explore some of the historical and cool sites of the island. And of course, visit a couple of our favorite wineries there.

We stamped off another National Park by taking a rickety old elevator up 317 feet to the observation deck of the Perry Monument where you overlook the bay and the area where Commander Perry’s Navy defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the war of 1812.

If it were a clearer day, you’d be able to see the rides at Cedar Point.

I’ve been coming to this island for more than 50 years and I had never gone into the Crystal Cave. We remedied this with the 40 foot descent into a cave created by the largest geode in the world. It’s more than 30 feet wide at its largest. The ticket also came with a tour of the Heineman’s Winery founded in 1897. Plus a cup of wine, it’s plastic because we take it outside.

After a thorough tour of the island, which included a couple of nature trails where we found a kids story and a great panoramic of the lake, we found dinner where we had some great lobster bisque.

We caught a really nice sunset on an extremely smelly beach. There were lots of dead fish among the rocks.

And then one of the weirdest things ever happened.

As we were sitting about 30 feet away from our tent, enjoying the now quiet lake from our cliff side site, we heard a strange noise. After Karen asked what I thought it was, I jokingly said, “sounded like a dolphin.” She didn’t like that I had just laughed it off when she saw the tent move. Apparently, a racoon found that we had not quite zipped the tent all the way closed at the bottom and had helped himself to a loaf of unopened bread from inside. (He also helped himself to a bite out of the burger buns through the plastic.) We eventually had to scare it away while it was drinking from one of the puddles that had pooled in the tent tarp just outside of where we had laid our heads for the night.

So, I guess the dolphin-like sound was the sound of the full loaf of bread squeezing through the zipper of the tent door. But the really odd thing was we couldn’t find a trace of the bread or the plastic the next morning.

After a much better night’s sleep, we grabbed breakfast at another good place then struck camp.

We were going to take the Jet Express over to Kelly’s Island because Karen had never been there either, but we saw another thunderstorm heading in over the lake. We knew our time on the island had come to an end. We confirmed our decision as it started to rain while we were in line waiting for the ferry back to the mainland.

Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to warn my brother about the impending rain as we ran into him and his wife boarding the ferry for a day on the island.

So, who knows when we’ll try camping again. It may take us days to get this gear dried out and cleaned.

Below are all the above plus more images in a handy slide show.