For those of you who are used to lakes that are just ponds with delusions of grandeur, that you can see to the other side of no matter where on the shore you stand, let me clarify matters: the Great Lakes are inland seas, with all the power and complexity implicit therein. When you're on the Erie shore, you know you're in the presence of powerful water. There are even freshwater versions of many ocean species. (Muskellunge = barracuda that doesn't need to breathe salt.) Before I saw Erie, I could feel it.
When I got to it, I wasn't looking for it. I was looking for a pavilion, the kind that is composed of a one-story building with a roof and a floor but no walls, just posts, usually with picnic tables underneath, often with electricity and possibly a snack concession. They are found in public parks. I was looking for one because it was drizzling and I wanted a dry place to make and eat lunch other than the car. In Conneaut, Ohio, the pavilion was at the beach, so that's where I went. But once I saw the beach, I couldn't not walk down to the water. And once I was there, I wanted to stay there, drizzle or no.
The lake is vast but, most of the time, gentle. The loose rocks that lie among the sand tend to be slate and shale, so they tend to be flat, and there are lots of them. If skipping stones over the water were an Olympic event, this is where the U.S. team would come to train. If I wanted to regain this obscure skill from my childhood, all I'd have to do is come here every day for, oh, say, a couple of weeks. But I have other priorities, so I drove on.
It's been a long time since the river burned.
My college boyfriend grew up in Akron, Ohio, not too far from the Cuyahoga River, famous for being so polluted that it caught on fire. Twice. (Actually, I think it was more times than that, but twice in our lifetime.) He had cousins in the suburb of Cuyahoga Falls, quite close to the falls themselves, and from them he heard that the fire was the least of it. The river always stank of chemicals and was often some unnatural color.
“You can tell when the factories upstream are cleaning their equipment,” I remember him saying, “because they dump the wash water straight into the river, and when it gets to the falls, it foams up thirty feet high. You can tell how high afterward because, where that foam touches the leaves on the trees, those leaves die. And you can't let your dog out. They love to play in the foam, but then after that, they get sick.”
Last Tuesday, I visited the riverside stretch of the Cleveland Metropark system. There were signs guiding visitors to fishing spots. The river itself, well, it wasn't crystal clear straight to the bottom, but that was because it was a bit flooded. Been a lot of rain in northern Ohio lately. Leaves of riverside trees and shrubs trailed in the water, which was opaque with mud, but it was just plain natural mud, pretty much like it would be carrying if this area had never been industrialized. Little brown birds with white bellies, members of some species that lives by catching bugs in the air, flew just above the surface, indicating a healthy insect population. There were swirls on the surface that suggested fish activity just below, possibly also feeding on insects. It looked to my barely environmentally literate eyes like a healthy river.
Randy Newman wrote a song about the river, back when. He titled it “Burn On.” It didn't, and that's a good thing.