It's All Good on Lake Erie
He ended his chart briefing on point: "Great Lakes bottom holding is great, better than the sand of the Caribbean and the mud of the Chesapeake, and the anchor comes up easily," he said, adding with pride: "This is kind of the spot."
Well! We quickly weighed our options and pointed our bow north, after a provisioning run to a nearby supermarket-provisioning is way too easy here-and a passing rain shower. A late setting sun meant that we had lots of daylight with which to work, so heading out into Sandusky Bay at 1900 to a nearby anchorage wasn't a problem.
Off to the Islands
After an hour's motorsail north in faint wind, we rafted up alongside a power cruiser at the Kelleys Island Seaway Marina, and by dark we were installed at the Village Pump, hearing tales from part-time resident Mike Brown about how the lake freezes over in winter, ferries from the mainland shut down, and a few of the brave 300 souls who live on the island year-round take to the ice roads to get back and forth to the mainland. It gave me pause as I hungrily munched on sweet, locally caught perch and walleye.
Early Sunday morning, I sipped strong, fresh coffee in Panacea's cockpit while I took in the neighborhood, a lively mix of powerboats, sportfishing boats, and sailboats. Nearby was Allen Murphy, of the Ted Irwin-designed Endeavor 32 Kelleys IV, who explained that rafting up presents plenty of opportunities to make new friends, as he'd done during this and previous sailing seasons.
Murph, as he's known in sailing forums and blogs on the Cruising World website, learned to sail when he was in the Boy Scouts, and it stuck; he went on to race in college and sail dinghies on various lakes. He's owned a couple of Catalinas, and he keeps Kelleys IV farther east in Erie, Pennsylvania, the boat's hailing port.
Keeping the boat in Erie means that if he wants to sail to Canada or to the western shore, he has to set aside at least a week's time or leave the boat at a marina in Ohio and commute back and forth by car for weekend sailing. But that's fine, as it's all part of the plan Murph has to one day retire to the liveaboard life. To that end, he's spread his wings and chartered bareboats in the Florida Keys, the B.V.I., the North Channel of Lake Huron, and in Australia's Whitsunday islands.
"In general," Murph said, "most sailors everywhere are quite friendly and wonderful to meet and know, and Lake Erie island sailors are no exception. There's a variety of fun and sailing to be had throughout the islands, including sails to Canada, and it makes western Lake Erie a terrific cruising ground."
With those words in mind, we were eager to have a look around, and we left the marina on foot to find some rental bikes. Lean and toned people in breathable fabrics were stretching their legs all over the town center on this sunny Sunday morning, and it didn't take us long to figure out that this was an outdoor service in worship of the running shoe: We'd stumbled on a big annual occasion, the Kelleys Island Road Race. If they weren't stretching, people were lining up to watch the big run-and-walk event.
We moved away from the crowds, got the bikes, and rode north, intent on a stop at the beach at Kelleys Island State Park as well as a visit to the Glacial Grooves, a U.S. National Natural Landmark. The limestone bedrock grooves, which are fenced off, are impressive evidence of the southward movement of the ice sheet that covered North America 18,000 years ago. They contain marine fossils that are 350 million to 400 million years old. The Ohio Historical Society proclaims the landmark the largest collection of easily accessible grooves in the world.
As we continued cycling in an easy, flat loop around the island, a landmass of 2,800 acres with an 18-mile shoreline, we followed a dirt road to the beach, where we caught up with summer resident Gretchen Sharkey and her two boys, 5-year-old Daniel and 3-year-old Andrew, who were playing on the sand. Gretchen, who's a high-school teacher in Cleveland, loves her summer home.
"We use it all but three months of the year," she said, looking out over the water and adding: "Right here, now, it's about as good as it gets. I could sit here all day. In Cleveland, we live for the summers."
And then it happened. In plain sight, a snake poked its head above the shallows, and slithered ashore. "Oh, there's a second one, boys," she called to her kids. "Oh! There's a baby behind it."
Mike and Katie ran to take pictures; I stood there, stunned. We hadn't sailed but a few miles north, and evidence abounded that Dave Bello's fictional snakes were more than a tale.
As the kids and Mike and Katie oogled and danced around the reptilian wonders, Gretchen took it in stride. "If you have a real phobia of snakes," she said, "I guess this isn't the best place to be."
Then she passed on a tip: A woman called the Island Snake Lady conducts a count of the water snakes and writes a column for island newspapers called Ask the Snake Lady. I had to find her.
In real life, the Snake Lady is scientist Kristin Stanford. Like Reutter, she works out of Stone Lab, where she's a research associate and earning a doctorate in biology, focusing on the water snakes. She's studied the Lake Erie water snake since 2000, and she's also in charge of helping the snake population rebound until it can be removed from endangered and threatened lists.
In the late 1990s, a population count estimated that only 1,500 to 2,000 remained. Today, some 12,000 to 15,000 water snakes thrive, feeding off a steady diet of the round goby, an introduced species that's harmful to the survival of native fish, especially smallmouth bass.
To get at those numbers, Kristin's mission is multi-faceted and involves tagging and monitoring the population in its habitat. I didn't ask if it's brought her fortune, but it's definitely brought fame: the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs show declared her job to be one of the grubbiest around. "I've been bitten thousands of times," she says. "It's nothing more than a scratch. Usually I have fresh bites."