A Walk On The Shore

To walk on the shore of Lake Erie is to experience something quite different from Chautauqua Lake or an ocean beach or anywhere else I can think of. There’s something special about Lake Erie. Maybe it’s the idea that we are on the edge of a country, looking across 60 miles to another country.

Or maybe it’s seeing the great ships passing far out on the lake as they steam westward to other Great Lakes, perhaps all the way to Lake Superior, sailing between two countries as they move. Perhaps it’s the international element that makes it special. But it’s not all.

Lake Erie is the 11th largest lake in the world, carved out by glaciers. The Erie Indian tribe named it though the full name is “erielhonan” which may mean “long tail.” The lake is 210 feet deep at its deepest point. It touches four states–New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, and the northern border is Canada.

My grandchildren stood agape when I pointed across the calm waters one day and told them, “that’s Canada over there! Imagine!”

For one thing, the rocks, the stones, the very geology, is extraordinary and ancient. When you walk at Point Gratiot for instance, just west of Dunkirk, you can view the black shale outcroppings that jut out of the cliffs like a weird old natural Amphitheater. Visitors can view the stories and stories of shale that seem to be a view into the past. This shale formed here in the Devonian Age, some 360 million years ago. You can examine the rocky bluffs looking back into the very face of time.

The beach itself is a marvel in places like Point Gratiot or Barcelona Harbor. The stones are small and round and smooth. You can find, if you’re clever, rocks of every color.

I came home with six rocks, smooth and rough–a sulfurous orange one that flaked into my hand, a flat shale, a rough conglomerate, a red one, a blue and tan striated one, and a speckled pink one. But It’s not just the rocks. It’s the beach glass too, on some beaches more than others, in every hue, color and tint, each one a treasure. If you don’t bring a bag, your pockets will overflow with little gems. They are all beach finds — little marvels.

Another thing that makes a stroll on a Lake Erie beach wondrous is my own memories. I remember learning to swim there in the arms of my parents. I remember the taste of a wave in my mouth and nose and scraping my body against the rocks as I body surfed to shore. I learned to love water on those Lake Erie beaches. For all the picnic tables and parking lots nearby, I feel a wildness there, something primitive and amazing.

I remember too staying in the cottages by the lake, somewhere just east of Barcelona. We would walk the long, straight rows of vineyards in the afternoons, the sun hot on our backs. My family often stayed in homely cottages, little wooden cabins with rough beds and spiders in the corners. I recall how quiet it was at night, utterly silent, how it felt to wake in the dark and hear my parents breathing across the room.

In the mornings we would walk through the forest, careful to stay on the paths and avoid poison ivy. At the end of the path were steep stairs leading down to the brown beach, always damp somehow. We would spread our blankets and set down the wicker picnic basket full of little delicacies and cold lemonade. There was something about those days of childhood, summer days, the sound of waves, the utter silence of dark nights, the long walks through vineyards, that made them unforgettable and delicious forever. And I never forget the sense of wonder walking amidst those towering trees that made their own chorus of wind and motion and sound.

It’s all these things that make a walk on the Lake Erie shore a marvel. On the beach we find wonders: polished glass, stones like runes in one’s palm, our own memories.