Pelee is an island of bicycles. This was how I got to know it, lurching around the place on an old bike lent to me by my organic farmer hosts, Colin and Jennie Wiebe.
For a week, I helped out with the harvest and got to know the remote farming community located roughly in the middle of Lake Erie, an hour and a half by ferry from the mainland.
About the size of downtown Toron-to, Pelee is just small enough to be biked comfortably. Tourists rent bicycles; residents own stacks of them. Mind-boggling to a Torontonian like me, bike locks are unknown.
The island is best known as the southernmost inhabited place in Canada (only small, unpopulated Middle Island is south of Pelee) and as the site of the nation's first winery. The famous Victorian wine house Vin Villa served as a gathering place for revellers, a wine cellar and an apartment building until it burned down in the 60s.
Old photographs show stern, bearded men posing beside stacks of barrels. Today, the Pelee Wine Pavilion is the wine house's modern-day equivalent. And the wine, from grapes grown on the island (although unfortunately now made on the mainland), is excellent.
I stayed in a crumbling farmhouse at the north end of the island rented to the organic farmers and used to house the farming volunteers. It was spacious compared to my apartment in Parkdale, but just about saturated with crickets and daddy-long-legs. After each day's work picking in the field, I headed out by bike to new corners of the island.
Meadowlark Organic Farm, known locally as the demo farm, was started by the Pelee Island Heritage Centre and grows over 70 varieties of veggies and herbs and also raises bees for ho-ney. (The Heritage Centre is a museum in the old township hall, stuffed chock-a-block with arrowheads, old farming implements, taxidermied animals and model ships.)
A few years ago they secured funding for the farm, but not enough for a farmhouse. As a result, the Wiebes and their two young children live in a rented house off the farm and are unsure about the future. They hope to see the farm become commercially successful, but Pelee's remoteness makes it time-consuming to export to the mainland. At present, they sell nearly all their crops at a roadside market on the island.
Pelee is beautiful, but it soon became clear to me how uncertain the future of its community and economy is.
Only about 200 people live year-round on the island. The three-month period every winter when the island is iced in and only accessible by plane discourages most. Land is relatively cheap, but jobs are hard to find.
I biked to Fish Point, where a long stretch of sand extends unbelievably far, about half an hour's walk, out into the lake. On the opposite side, Lighthouse Point sits beside a gorgeous bird-filled marsh formed in the 70s when a storm broke the seawall and flooded part of the island.
In fact, the island was once a few rocky outcrops connected by a marsh, but since it was drained in the 19th century it's been a flat stretch of rich farmland, supported Dutch-style by a network of dikes and canals.
The island, once quite densely populated, was home to 100 farms growing tobacco, grapes, wheat and all types of vegetables.
Today, due to rural depopulation, three large farms now take up most of the island. They grow mainly Roundup-ready soybeans.
However, in the summer, the island plays host to an influx of tourists, mostly from the U.S. In the fall, they return for the raucous pheasant hunt.
The 18 children at Pelee's tiny schoolhouse are kept inside for recess during the hunt. The bullets, I was told, tend to fly indiscriminately.