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It might have been three, maybe even four centuries ago, long before the Buckeye State was a state, maybe even before the Northwest Territory was a territory, or the Western Reserve was a reserve.
Who was that adventurer? An Erie tribesman who hoped to find more fish to feed his family? Or a mischievous Wyandot girl who escaped a blazing summer sun by taking a chance on a calm day on Lake Erie? Or a French or English trader-trapper who scouted the peninsula for beaver or other potentially profitable pelts?
No one knows for sure: That lucky explorer is lost to history, but was on to something good. Since at least the early 1800s, thousands upon thousands of boats have bobbed in the waters of Lake Erie around Cedar Point. Many of them must have been canoes and kayaks and rowboats - after all, paddles and oars have been around much longer than outboard motors. The captains of those craft have watched the 364-acre peninsula transform from wilderness to fishing camp to bathing beach, from stands of timber to a summertime resort with comfortable beds and man-made mountains of wood and metal, owned by a company whose stock trading symbol is FUN.
I don’t know who made the first paddle trip around Cedar Point. But on July 8, 2007, under a sunny sky, with favorable winds, I made my first paddle trip around Cedar Point.
On my photocopied chart I had plotted a clockwise course running at least 14 miles around the spit of sand. It looked adrift, like a giant raft pulling taut against the connector roads that kept it tethered to the mainland. In simple terms - because I don’t know the technical ones - a southwesterly wind would help my cause. Heading around, if I capsized on the windward side, the breeze would blow me to shore; and if I tipped on the leeside, I would be in calm water, the peninsula acting as a wind break. By staying close to land, my kayak always would be a quick swim from shore. With dozens of boats motoring nearby, a rescue always would be close at hand.
So I skipped the roller coasters and started from the shade at Sandusky’s Big Island-Pipe Creek Wildlife Area. There was no admission booth, no turnstile, no line, just a gravel parking lot and a lone picnic table and a garbage can watching me set off. In the back bay, powerboats carved vectors on the surface while water skiers fanned white rooster tails behind them. Glaring hot sun dulled the hues of summer and the breeze offered little relief from the heat.
I headed for the northernmost bridge under the Cedar Point Causeway. This man-made elevated driveway is the shorter of the two connector roads; when it was built, it walled in the west end of the marsh that is known as East Sandusky Bay. Under its bridges the bodies of water trade places, with waves bouncing and slapping high fives as they jog back and forth. In a few moments my orange kayak nosed out into Sandusky Bay. I was not alone: On the southern break wall of the Cedar Point Marina, a flock of seagulls looked shifty and annoyed as they spied my progress.
In the bay one- to two-foot chop blew by me and bounced off the limestone boulders and rip rap. Steady as she goes. After a few minutes I paddled into the calm of the marina for a break. I rested in the lee of Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant, taking deep draughts of cold water from a recycled Gatorade bottle. Several people waved and giggled at the goof splashing around in what looked like a giant floating carrot, but most walked to and from their meals and boats, paying no attention.
Outside the marina, Sandusky Bay greeted me with the bump of boat wakes and wind-driven waves. I turned right, heading north around along the western edge of the peninsula. On shore the coal-fired locomotive of the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Rail Road chugged and tooted, and I swear a woman aboard looked out and snapped a photo of me. No doubt she thought it would help with identification purposes - or perhaps end up on the evening news!
Along that western shore, the Millennium Force roller coaster reaches 310 feet into the sky. The silver and purple skeleton of its first hill paid me no mind, and I scuttled past it like a garter snake might slither by a brontosaurus. Further north, the scarlet tracks of the new Maverick coaster dared riders with a first hill that leaned forward past vertical, the profile of a breaking wave. Beyond that, the criss-crossed beams of the Mean Streak formed a dark lattice at once bony but impenetrable as any haunted forest. Finally I passed this shoreline and neared the docile haven of the Lighthouse Point camping area.
Rounding the corner of Cedar Point, I looked out to the open waters of Lake Erie - and the mother of all break walls. The 5,000-foot long pier runs from southwest to northeast, jutting out at a right angle from the northern tip of the peninsula. Cedar Point doesn’t show this wall on its official map. The park doesn’t own it. Rather, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains it to mark the navigational channel that freighters use to reach the Port of Sandusky. Many recreational craft follow its length with a parallel course heading from bay to lake or lake to bay.
This mass is a linear pyramid of limestone stacked up from the bottom of Lake Erie. Every block must weigh thousands of pounds. It is solid. Relocated bedrock carved out, deposited, settled, immovable. Its surface is pocked with the grooves of water splashing and flowing, perhaps a few cracks from freeze and thaw cycles. It stands firm against the worst storms of Lake Erie’s western basin.
As I paddled along, boat wakes rolled in from the left to pound my portside. Then they passed, bounced off the break wall and came back for a swing at my starboard. Some seas doubled up on each other, some canceled each other, leaving me no choice but to turn around or run the gauntlet of smiling boaters overhauling me on the left and gulls, blue herons and cormorants standing still atop the wall on the right. My nautical supposition was correct, or lucky, but either way the southwest wind was at my back, nudging me along.
Eventually I made it to the end of the break wall and found the most confused seas I ever experienced. The surface was as wound up as 5-year-old who just ate his weight in cotton candy, with saltwater taffy for dessert. The surface didn’t know where to go, so some of it loitered, some dashed, some went up, some dropped down, some turned toward the shore, some rushed out to sea. Here, the only pattern was, there was no pattern. I rounded the point cautiously, coming into the lee of the peninsula and break wall, and there I and earned my reward.
Now the peninsula blocked my wind. Almost a mile away, Cedar Point stretched out before me, a shimmering summer city with hazy edges, fringed with a gold beach, set on a field of aquamarine water flecked with diamonds of sunshine and pearly shells of boats at anchor. The breeze cooled me as I angled toward shore and paddled past the Sandcastle Suites, the orange tracks of the Magnum XL-200 coaster, the classic Hotel Breakers, then the Wicked Twister with its huge yellow tentacles reaching upward, and the Giant Wheel, a ride for the ages. The park gave way to the private homes along the Cedar Point Chausee, the sand spit now built with houses and the other connector road to the park. There I beached my boat to stretch my legs and swim.
Paddling again, Lake Erie lie down and challenged me with little more than a sheet of calm blue. Following the white marker buoys strung along the shore, I found my rhythm and kept an easy pace for miles. Sandusky’s millionaire row drifted by on my right, with swimmers yelling and splashing near the beach. Further out to my left, the Sandusky police boat sped along.
Soon I came to Point Retreat, the bastion of white condominiums whose lighthouse punctuates the eastern end of the Chausee. A few boats and personal watercraft ruffled the water, but I rounded the end easily, then landed for another chance to stretch my legs.
Back in my boat, we crossed under the bridge that holds the Chausee to land. From the northeastern corner of East Sandusky Bay I could see its far western edge. My point of departure now was my destination, several miles and a headwind away. My course made a loop out and back like so many of Cedar Point’s roller coasters. The peninsula had become the backdrop for another fond memory of sun and water along a sandy shore.
Generations ago, when that first somebody floated something around Cedar Point - I bet that lucky explorer finished the trip and smiled.
Note from author: On summer weekends, expect heavy boat traffic of all sizes and speeds. Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie can get choppy fast. On their best behavior, they will accommodate beginners, but this is not a trip for first-time paddlers.
“Cedar Point: The Queen of American Watering Places,” by David W. Francis and Diane DeMali Francis (1995 revised edition), is an admiring, candid and thorough biography of the amusement park. Its old-time photographs will make you smile. This book is required reading for anyone interested in Cedar Point specifically or 20th century American amusement parks in general. It is published by Amusement Park Books Inc. of Fairview Park, Ohio. It is on file in the Sandusky Library.
For nautical navigation purposes, “Recreational Chart 14842: South Shore of Lake Erie” is indispensable.
For land navigation purposes, the official highway map of the Erie County Engineer’s Office is a helpful reference. It is available free through the engineer’s office; visit www.erie-county-ohio.net for more information.
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