Nature's Ways

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Presque Isle and Why I Love It

Long ago when the People first settled along the shores of Lake Erie, the Great Father laid down a few rules. He gave his people permission to hunt and fish and grow the things they needed on the land. “But,” he said, “do not go out far on the waters to follow the sun when he goes to bed at night, for he does not wish to be disturbed.”
So the Eriez Indians, as they called themselves, grew their maize and trapped the beaver and hunted the deer on the land. They ate young catkins and made flour from the roots of the pussy willow and certain water lilies. They threw their nets out from the shore and caught as many fish as they needed. Life was peaceful and food was plentiful.
Yes, life was good, but as always there are some who are not content, or who have more than their share of curiosity. And so it was with this tribe. Two braves who had more time on their hands than they needed decided to build a canoe, just to paddle along the shore, you understand. And so they did for a while. They caught large sturgeon and watched the sun go to bed every night before paddling in to shore. But one night their curiosity grew too great, and as if drawn, they began paddling toward the west as the sun went down. Further and further the sun sank, and further and further they paddled without thinking. The Great Father became angry at their disobedience and summoned a great storm. Soon they were being tossed like a leaf on the great waves, and were thrown into the water.
“Great Father,” they cried out, “we are sorry we were so heedless, please forgive us!”
Well, the Great Father heard them and took pity on them, and he threw down his arm to shelter them from the waves. The waters calmed and as the braves climbed back into their canoe, they called out promises to never venture so far out upon the waters again. And they kept their word.
That is how the legend says that Presque Isle was formed in Lake Erie. And to this day the storms on those waters can get mighty ferocious, so it is best to take care.

As I finished telling the legend, we heard something thumping along the bottom of the pontoon boat, then a large snapping turtle swam out from underneath. I restarted the motor and continued the tour of the lagoons of Presque Isle State Park.
It was July of 1990, and I was completing seven weeks of volunteering at the peninsula for college credits. My daughters were grown and I was going to graduate the next year at the age of 39, but needed to get three credits in over the summer to complete my degree requirements. It was a perfect way to earn them, being out on Presque Isle, running pontoon boat tours, fishing for perch and bass to keep the freshwater tank at the Nature Center stocked and taking visitors through the Center. There were other students volunteering as well as many others laboring simply for love of the park.
I had just finished a geology course at Behrend University, taught by Professor Eva Tucker, or “Tuck” as he was affectionately called by his students. We had leaned that when the glaciers receded, they left behind a moraine that became the core of the peninsula. As the huge glaciers retreated further, the meltwater formed Lake Erie and the other four Great Lakes. Wind and wave action served to add sediment to the moraine, and caused it to slowly migrate eastward until it reached its present position, at times becoming and island and at others, a peninsula. In the early 19th century, the Army Corps of Engineers stabilized the neck of the peninsula, permanently closing in Presque Isle Bay.
Today beach erosion on Presque Isle is controlled by a series of rock break walls and sand replenishment by the Corps. The sand is now dredged from the bottom of Lake Erie, taken to the North Pier, then trucked to wherever it is needed. Replacing the sand lost to erosion contributes to the continued eastward growth of the peninsula at Gull Point, an important stopover on the Atlantic Flyway migration route. Indeed, the whole area is a magnet for birdwatchers and over 300 species of birds have been documented at Presque Isle, from songbirds to raptors to waterfowl. Gull Point is a resting and nesting area on the eastern end of Presque Isle. It is in constant flux, growing from the constant addition of sand drifting from the beaches to the west. It has been set aside for the protection of the birds as a State Park Natural Area, and is off limits to the public from April 1 to November 30. It can be viewed from the Gull Point Hiking Trail. Bring comfortable shoes and binoculars!
The first people to live in the area were the Erie or Eriez Indian tribe. They settled in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, but were conquered in a war with the Iroquois between 1654 and 1656. Those not killed were absorbed by the Six Nations or dispersed, leaving the area around the peninsula wide open for the next group to arrive, the French fur trappers. They found a land rich in beaver, but due to extensive trapping, that animal was wiped out until replaced early in the 20th century by some that were brought in from nearby Ohio.
The French and British traded occupation throughout the 18th century, with George Washington himself coming to the area while in his early 20s to assess the situation. We studied a letter in French class at Behrend University of Penn State in Erie, PA, written by Washington to the commander of the French garrison, politely asking for the withdrawal of his forces back to Canada. The French and Indian War ensued, with the British assuming final possession of the Erie area at the end of the war.
That wasn’t the last time war touched the Erie area. During the War of 1812, the American Naval forces under the command of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry were stationed in Little Bay, at the eastern end of Presque Isle. Six of the eleven ships in the fleet were built from the trees growing on the peninsula. It was to here they returned after the battle in Put-In Bay in nearby Ohio. Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, was heavily damaged during the battle, and he transferred his flag to the brig Niagara, before defeating the British fleet. The American fleet then returned to Little Bay for the winters of 1812-1814. The men suffered greatly from smallpox and the cold. The ground was too frozen to bury the men who died, so their bodies were weighted down with cannonballs and sunk under the ice of the nearby lagoons, in Graveyard Pond. Little Bay was thereafter renamed Misery Bay. A newly-refurbished monument now testifies to the bravery of the Commodore and his men.
The Niagara was sunk in Misery Bay, then raised in 1912 and rebuilt to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle. It was then rebuilt again in the late 1980s, sistering some pieces of the original ship to timbers of the new one. It is now Pennsylvania’s flagship and goodwill ambassador.
Nowadays, Misery Bay is a tranquil fishing and picnicking spot. My family and I spent hours doing just that. A few years back, my younger daughter had reeled in her line so that the hooks and worms dangled just above the surface of the water, then turned to get something to eat. I heard a huge splash and then my daughter screaming. I ran over, fearing she’d fallen in! To my surprise, she was hanging on to a broken pole and a large lake trout was thrashing around in the water on the end of her line. I grabbed the other piece of the pole, but the fish managed to break the line before we could figure out how to land him and swam away, trailing her crappie rig behind him.
Over the years I’ve found May and June to be the best times to fish in Misery Bay, before the weeds grow to the top of the water. But if you are lucky enough to have a boat, the walleye and perch teem in the cold water trenches out in the lake. And at the end of the peninsula toward the Coast Guard Station you can fish off the large retaining wall forming the channel between Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie. The other side of the channel is accessible off the new Bayfront Highway. There are marinas on both the peninsula and the mainland, and public boat launches as well.
Presque Isle is a unique example of natural succession, all contained within the 11 miles of peninsula. At the western end is climax forest of hardwood and pine. As you continue eastward, the land becomes younger and next you pass through thicket and sub-climax forest. Continuing east, there are old ponds and marshes, then areas of dunes and ridges. Next you can see sand plains, new ponds and lagoons, and then the newest area, created by drifting sands and changing continuously, is Gull Point. There are miles of hiking trails as well as an all purpose trail popular with runners, walkers and slow-moving cyclists.
I spent only four hours on the peninsula one Easter morning and wasn’t able to even begin to count the number of birds I saw. Ducks of all kinds, geese, coots, loons, several types of seagulls, swans and plovers were dabbling, diving, scurrying, squawking, honking--the activity and the din was unbelievable. There were also woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, robins, starlings and all kinds of small sparrows and warblers, as well as a great horned owl and great blue herons. Juvenile bald eagles were seen this spring, and some osprey as well. A snowy owl spends a large part of each winter at Presque Isle, too. I’m just a rank amateur at bird watching, but I filmed as many as I could in order to identify them later to add to my life list.
One thing I do know, though, are mammals, and we’ve seen deer, opossum, raccoon, red fox, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and voles, but we haven’t spotted the family of coyotes that moved in two winters ago. Early one of the mornings of my internship I was cleaning life vests on the pontoon boat in Graveyard Pond. It was foggy and perfectly still. Out of the mists stepped two deer, and I thought of unicorns and magic. I don’t know if they were startled, or had planned it, but they suddenly leaped into the waters of the lagoon and swam to the other side, leaving a “V” of ripples behind as the only proof they were ever there. It is one of my favorite memories.
One day while fishing in one of the lagoons near a bridge, we saw a bowfin with a strange shadow under it, even though the sun wasn’t shining. When it got close enough we realized it was a black cloud of baby fish, staying close for protection. I had heard of very few fish who protected their young, and still have never heard of bowfin doing this. But there’s still so many things I don’t know…
I do know a few other things, though. The beaver at the peninsula don’t have any running water in which to build dams, so they build their lodges up against the shore. Unfortunately, they proliferated rather too much, and the poplar trees were being chewed down at an alarming rate. Professional trappers are permitted to cull the population when it gets too large for the available habitat now.
Presque Isle plays host to over four million visitors a year, who come to swim or sunbathe on the seven miles of beaches, play volleyball on the sand courts, picnic, fish, bird watch, hike, boat, water ski, fly kites, or anything else one can do in or near the water. In 2002 the Park Service decided to allow surfing and windsurfing as well.
Presque Isle is one of the best-kept secrets in Pennsylvania. The locals hope it stays that way!

To learn more about the park and the Erie area, check out my blog at or and click on Presque Isle State Park.