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“Where do you paddle?” I asked.
“Lake Erie, most the time.” Peter said.
“Lake Erie? In an open canoe?”
“Why not? It’s the water that’s closest to me.”
Peter and I were part of a group on a canoe camping trip in Pennsylvania. He was an excellent paddler. Still – Lake Erie? A lake which has routinely devoured everything from dingys to ore carriers?
I thought Peter was a little eccentric, but he had a point. I normally drive an hour to go to my usual paddling spots. Lake Erie is only twenty minutes from my house. I explained the logic to my wife. She explained – in turn – that she would hide my pants and shoes if I made a move to put the canoe on the car and head for the lake. “Lake Erie? Are you nuts?”
Paddlers cannot look at a body of water without wondering what it would be like to paddle it. I had seen other people paddling in the lake. Why not me? Then one day after visiting one of the lakeshore parks, I noticed a road running along a railroad track with signs pointing to Whiskey Island – named after the whiskey runners from Canada who used it as a their Cleveland destination during Prohibition and the days of Elliot Ness. I decided to do some exploring.
I did not find Elliot’s ghost with a Tommy gun waiting to arrest some phantom whiskey runners, but I did find a marina behind a break wall and next to the marina a tavern. Then I found a beach just beyond the marina that was a perfect launch site. Later I showed Mike, a friend who kayaks, my find and it was love at first site – especially with the tavern thrown in. The deal was done. The next weekend we had clear weather, we would do it.
Finally, we got a decent weather forecast. We decided to take an early evening paddle. My wife gave up on trying to save me from my folly, and kissed me goodbye and told me to call when – or if – I got back to shore.
Mike was late. I was anxious to embrace destiny and feared that if I waited for him I would chicken out. So I shoved off from the beach, but stayed close for when he showed up.
The first thing you have to learn when you paddle a lake like Erie is to disregard all previous assumptions you have made about flat water paddling. Do not worry about waves. Worry about ocean like swells. After surviving a cresting swell that almost capsized me, I realized this was not paddling. This was bull riding.
What followed was an emergency session of extreme paddling improvisation, where I cut and spliced every stroke and technique I had ever learned, used, seen or forgotten. This was not only a test of my skill. It was a test of my canoe as well. I had had my doubts about taking my little Bell Morningstar out on the lake, but found its nimbleness to be an asset in either riding or maneuvering around the swells. I was starting to get used to the lake, when I heard Mike hailing me from the shore. In a few minutes he pulled alongside me in his kayak.
We paddled out to an abandoned old Coast Guard Station and found it a great safe harbor and resting place for when you needed a break from the rocking and rolling of the open water. Off in the distance we saw a mixed paddling party made up of both sea kayaks and canoes. It was good to know that if we were nuts for being out here, we were not alone in our affliction. We watched freighters coming and going on the Cuyahoga and then with the tavern and its cold beer calling, we put ourselves out into the bay and hitch hiked back to shore on the incoming swells.
Putting up our boats, we proceeded to the tavern to watch the sun set over the lake, drink beer, talk about the trip and relish our post testosterone high. Before wallowing too much in machismo, however, we made sure to call our wives to let them know we were safe and sound.
Lake Erie is Cleveland. We look forward to watching it ice over in the winter, and there is no more pleasant way to spend a summer evening than to stroll along its shore at one of its parks. But that is knowing Lake Erie as a spectator. Shoving off for my first trip, I became an intimate with the lake. It will probably not become one of my favorite venues. I paddle for exercise and relaxation – not because I want to go mano a mano with Lord God Jehovah. There is a particular itch, however, which only big water can scratch. It is for these times that I will keep Lake Erie in mind, and make no mistake about it. I will be back.
-- Randy Cunningham is a Cleveland essayist whose work on the environment and paddling has appeared in Earth Island Journal, Canoe & Kayak, Paddler and Nastawgan: the Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association (Canada).
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