Escape the Urban: Island Hopping

17 Jul

I live on an island but I rarely paddle directly off of it. Why? Why strap the kayak to the roof of the van and drive it around Western New York when I can drive minutes or (literally) seconds away to one of the many launch sites closer to home? Sometimes Dorothy is right.

So last weekend my escape wasn’t nearly so far away. I am embarrassed to admit that until this outing I had never paddled out to Strawberry Island, the most well known uninhabited ring of dry earth directly off north Buffalo, passed by a hundred thousand commuters every day along the 190. While I would not call it a popular destination, or the most accessible spot, it is certainly well-trod by the local kayaking and canoeing community. No, I would advise against renting a boat from BFLO Harbor Kayak to try to make the trip – the Niagara is mostly one-way under the Peace Bridge unless you wish to access the lock at Black Rock. But owners of their own craft routinely seek out this refuge in the widening Niagara River. My turn finally came last Saturday.


I put in my kayak at the semi-hidden launch site in Beaver Island State Park. Isolated on the south-east tip of the park at the end of the River Lea access drive, you can’t beat the road-side parking and short haul of your boat to the water. Unfortunately, this time of year you owe New York State $7 in entry fees for the privilege of this three minute use. Be smarter than me, and use the new launch site on the East River Marsh just north of the park. Built with wildly appropriate Niagara River Greenway Commission dollars (this is exactly what the fund was for), this launch site lengthens your trip slightly but is free and easy to access. No brainer for me next time.

After my recent humbling in a borrowed kayak, I was determined to not land myself in trouble in a second straight outing, especially with my own gear: my 13 1/2 foot rig, my vest, my carbon-shafted paddle, my throw rope, my fault if I take on water in this placid section of the river. Make no mistake – the Niagara often is paired with the adjective “Mighty” for a reason. But on the right day the paddle to Strawberry Island can be as serene as the gentle snores of a Labrador sleeping in the sunny spot of your living room floor. I chose a calm dry afternoon, as brilliant and sun-soaked as any we’ve had this marvelous season, and easily paddled against the gentle surge on lapping water so clean and clear that I imagined I could touch the bottom even while in the midst of my crossing.

In a long boat and paddling at a strong pace you can cross to Strawberry Island is less than fifteen minutes. But why rush? I was in the mood to savor that blessed interface of warm air and cool water, a tension whose surface I now smoothly glided across, my prow cutting a V through the event horizon itself. Plus, I was enjoying the anticipation of what discoveries I might unearth upon landfall. The very concept of the uninhabited island has always intrigued that Peter Pan portion of my brain that will never grow up. What secrets are hidden on this U-shaped spit of mud and tree?

Would you believe the answer is a Common Tern breeding ground?

And much else besides. I heard the raucous squawking and general alarm raising as I approached the north-western most finger of crushed rock artificial beachhead. It was only as a drifted closer in the shallowing water (one the true delights of individual kayak travel) that I noticed that the grounded flock of birds making all the racket were the Signature Bridge’s age old nemesis, raising its young in plain view of its defeated enemy.

I eased around the point, lowering the aviary anxiety level, and entered the glass-smooth water of the inner bay, disturbed only by the fishing lines of two lazy boaters. Exiting and moving into the main river again, I circumnavigated the entire island, discovering duck blinds for fall hunters and docked powerboats on the few accessible shores, sun-bathers stretched out on the upstream sandy beaches, looking straight down the river to the downtown core.

Paddling around Strawberry took far longer than the cross-water trip to it, but still being in the mood to explore, I ventured to lesser known Motor Island instead of heading directly back. Motor Island only exists because Strawberry Island blocks and diverts the worst of the Niagara River’s erosive force. Sandwiched between the power station and an untraveled portion of Grand Island, many locals may not even be aware Motor Island even exists. It is not obvious from any freeway – look quick at the northbound 190 turn or you’ll miss it. If it is such anonymity that allows its wildlife secret to endure, then I should apologize now for breaking the spell.

A hundred yards out from Motor Island I saw several Great Blue Herons plying its beach. I am a fan of these stately stilt walkers as their presence indicates a natural barrier of entry has been breached; spotting one may not indicate pristine wilderness, but it does show a depth of natural setting beyond the level of the average backyard or well-trafficked park.

Usually Great Blue’s are solitary stalkers; only occasionally do I see what I assume is a mated duo. Here were several bright specimens all together. Unusual behavior, I thought. Fifty yards out I spotted several more. 10 herons. Then 15. Wait, there are more in the trees. Twenty or thirty at least! The latent birder in me exalted.

As I approached the shore a dark shape lifted skyward from a low branch to my right. Suddenly I realized there were waves of darker shapes moving in the shadows, beyond the brighter markers my sight was initially drawn to. Now I could see that what I assumed were blue herons bleached light in my eye by the dazzling sun weren’t herons at all. Tall, fully white, orange beaks, same crook-necked flying posture: Great Egrets, I would find out later after looking them up. 

I took a tally again: forty egrets at least on this island, and that many herons as well, blending more easily into the shaded wood. In other words, as many herons and egrets as I had ever seen in my life in total were now crowded onto one island directly in front of me. It was magnificent.

Working my way east around the southern edge of the island, I spotted huge nests in the tops of the cottonwoods that dominated the central core of the island. There in the shadow of the coal power plant was a clump of trees overloaded with Christmas ornaments, laden with fifteen massive nests per. A huge nesting area, only slightly off the beaten path, and within the main traffic route for pleasure boaters leaving marinas on Grand Island and in the Tonawandas.

The dichotomous coexistence was inspiring – maybe we humans will figure this out someday after all.

10 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Island Hopping”

  1. RaChaCha July 17, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    If that Ohiojacking of Great Lakes water had happened, the lower water levels would have made all this so much easier — you’d be able to just walk to all these places!

    Wow, didn’t know there’s a rookery on Motor Island. Ones I’ve seen look almost prehistoric, with the giant nests and birds flying around that look the size of small aircraft — a cool thing to see.

    For folks especially interested in Strawberry Island, there’s a great info kiosk along that River Lea access road — much of its content is on the website of Chuck LaChiusa (who lives on The Island):

    And may I add that for anyone wanting to check out the waters around southern Grand Island, “Paddles Up! Niagara” at the end of this month offers a great opportunity:

  2. Brian Castner July 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    ‘Prehistoric’ is exactly the right word. I wish I had thought of it.

  3. Leo Wilson July 18, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    This is a pretty impressive thing, Brian. I don’t think I’d fight the Niagara’s current in a kayak even on the most coalm day.

    The downstream eddy of Strawberry Island is one of the best places for muskellunge, too, if you’re a fisherman, and they aren’t there because there’s no other fish.

  4. RaChaCha July 18, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Brian — thanks! Will you be paddling in s’up–?

  5. Brian Castner July 18, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    @ Leo – Not too impressive, actually, I’m sorry to say. I’ve learned the hard way not to fight the worst of the current, and the east channel is much tamer. I should throw in my line next time I paddle up there – it did look promising.

    @ RCC – I haven’t before, but I should. Are you?

  6. Pauldub July 18, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    The East Marsh site offers some pretty decent fishing before the weeds come up on the river side of the wall. Caught one of Leo’s Muskie friends there a couple of weeks ago. Now it’s panfish and a great place to take kids so they can learn to drown worms properly.

  7. RaChaCha July 18, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    Planning to be there to check out the event, but being boatless I’d have to team up with someone to paddle. How about a bipartisan canoe entry–?

  8. STEEL July 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    I wanted you to step off and explore the island. How about a trip to the northern island next?

  9. Brian Castner July 26, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    Funny, I did too, until I realized I could see every square inch from the boat. Northern island = Navy Island?


  1. Escape the Urban: Local Beach Bum « - August 7, 2011

    […] as nice as lakeside beaches, but the extensive park has bike trails, loads of picnic benches, a kayak/canoe launch, and the River Lea home to tour to make up for […]

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