It's All Good on Lake Erie
"I'm ready to get into the water," says Katie Lovett, fellow crewmate aboard Panacea, the Catalina 36 Mark II we've taken out from Sandusky, Ohio, for a four-day bareboat charter in the islands of western Lake Erie.
"OK," says her brother, Mike. "I'll go on snake watch."
Katie takes a dip into the lake's cool, refreshing waters at Manila Bay, at the southwest corner of North Bass Island. It's an idyllic anchorage. We've got the place to ourselves, and we're surrounded by emerald foliage.
Cottonwoods are in bloom, releasing dainty, miniature tufts of puffy white as far as the eye can see. Fair and gentle breezes blow from the east. Human-made sound other than ours is absent for miles, making the late-spring chorus of song from migrating birds resting at this major North American flyway nearly overwhelming. The sun is shining bright; clouds barely smear the sky.
At this point in a near-perfect mid-June day on Lake Erie-Lake Erie, that unfortunate 1970s metaphor for all that can go wrong in an industrialized society-a perfect foil arrives on cue. It pokes its cobra-shaped, but relatively harmless, reptilian head out of the water and slithers silently within six inches of Katie.
She shrieks. Suds and shampoo fly everywhere. She's up the swim ladder in a jiff, and she still needs to rinse off.
And she will, by dropping back into the lake. For the plain truth is that Katie and Mike, a colleague of mine who's an associate editor at CW's sister publication, Sailing World, love everything about the lake. It's here, in these islands and in Cleveland, where they and their parents lived and sailed, that they spent their childhoods swimming and racing and getting into mischief.
So they're eager to show me that the polluted Lake Erie that I'd heard about as a kid growing up north of Pittsburgh isn't the Lake Erie they know. After all, this, the shallowest, most southern, warmest, and most nutrient-rich of all the Great Lakes, supplies more fish for human consumption than any of the other four combined; it's the largest freshwater commercial fishery in the world.
It's a case of what researcher Jeffrey Reuter, the director of Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory, a biological field station devoted to the study of the lake, describes as the "50 and 2 rule."
"Lake Erie has 2 percent of the water and 50 percent of the fish," he says. "Lake Superior has 50 percent of the water and 2 percent of the fish."
All this good news of environmental viability includes an increasingly thriving habitat for freshwater snakes. The smallish, slender serpent, whose brethren we'd encounter aplenty while we sailed, isn't a symbol of temptation, evil, or foul waters. The Lake Erie water snake is a sign of health, of rebound, of restoration; it's evidence that humans can indeed save what they once nearly wrecked for all of time to come.
Indeed, Ohio tourist promoters for the Lake Erie Shores and Islands (www.shoresandislands.com) might bristle at the snakes' rightful place in regional history, preferring instead to focus on the attractions, manmade and natural, of a key U.S. domestic summer-recreation area, known as much for the splendors of its abundant woodlands as it is for amusement parks and recreational fishing grounds.
But Thomas H. Langlois, of the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Ohio State University, hastens to dole out perspective in Amphibians and Reptiles of the Erie Islands. "Near the western end of Lake Erie, there is a series of islands which were so notable for their snakes when the Jesuit explorer Bonnecampe visited the region on October 5, 1749, that he referred to them as 'Les Iles aux Serpentes' (the islands of snakes)," Langlois notes in the academic text.
These features were undoubtedly observed before development, habitat destruction, and human persecution-that's biologist terminology-caused the water snake to gain federal status as a threatened species and classification by the state of Ohio as an endangered species.
Origins of a Charter
Such is the type of knowledge you gain when you bushwhack into new chartering territory. I'll point out here that snakes never entered into the conversation when Dave Bello of Fair Wind Yacht Charters told me he was eager to get me sailing on the lake. At boat shows, I'd stop by his booth to chat, and he'd put forth an invitation, oft repeated, to explore the islands on a bareboat.