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Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

It was mid June, and the air was thick with bits of soft whiteness, the ground inches deep in it. Drifting about a rich blue sky on this warm late-spring morning were fluffy down and seeds from the thousands of towering cottonwood trees that grow beside the Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail, a 280-mile designated scenic drive along the state’s northern edge.

A summer “blizzard” wasn’t our only surprise over the three days we devoted to this drive. We were also surprised at the thousands of acres of wildlife refuges along the lake and enjoyed the miles of hiking trails and first-rate interpretive centers they include. As one might expect in such an area, bird-watching opportunities abound, with hundreds of migrant and resident species.

This fine drive begins at tiny Bono – just a dozen miles east of Toledo – and runs east, hugging the lakeshore, to the town of Conneaut at the Pennsylvania border. At Bono, we stopped briefly off of Ohio Highway 2 to check out Carol’s Country Charms and the Waterfront, a quaint shop. We meandered through knick-knacks, lawn ornaments and all sorts of crafts before continuing to Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.

In the early 1920s, the 702-acre marsh, a remnant of 300,000-acre Great Black Swamp that once bordered most of western Lake Erie, was tamed with dikes and drainage canals to become Metzger Farms, a truck farm. But in 1929 the lake broke through and flooded the area. It soon reverted back to marsh area and once again became a stop for thousands of ducks and geese along their spring and fall migrations.

Later, Metzger Marsh Duck Club, among other duck-hunting clubs along the lake, was established here, lasting into the early 1950s when the remaining beach barriers eroded away. In 1955, the Ohio Division of Wildlife bought the marsh, and 42 years later that group and others – including the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station (its steam-oozing cooling tower visible just to the east) – completed the “coastal marsh restoration,” a placard reads.

Today, a concrete pier jutting far into the cobalt-hued lake is popular for fishing. Josh Mulkey of Toledo, among several dozen others casting lines this day, said he’s here every weekend “for catch and release.” Others were filling plastic buckets of water with wriggling catfish and perch.

With our dogs (on leashes), white moths and blue dragonflies swarming around us, my husband, Guy, and I walked the well-groomed trail that winds between thick stands of mulberry trees, cottonwoods and flower-jeweled grasses paralleling the lake.

Our next stop was Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Ottawa NWR), a 9,000-acre collection of lands that includes Ottawa NWR, Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge and West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge, hunched like a tortoise nine miles offshore. The island is not open to the public.

Jack Volker and his wife, Janet, have been volunteers here for 10 years and head the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Association. Ottawa NWR, explained Volker, combines marshes, open water, wetlands and grasslands and is managed to provide habitat for a wide variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, migrant songbirds and other animal and plant species. At the environmentally friendly “green” visitor center, extensive exhibits tell the area’s story, from 600 million years ago when Ohio lay south of the equator and under sea water, to development of early hunting clubs by 19th-century conservationists and the 1975 designation of West Sister Island as the state’s only Federal Wilderness Area. A small theater presents the 15-minute video, “A Conservation Tradition.”

The center also offers a host of events including International Migratory Bird Day in May, National Wildlife Refuge Week in October, frequent guided bird walks and popular auto tours through seven miles of the refuge normally closed to the public.

A drive along the route reveals a magnificent world of tall cottonwoods, cattails and rushes in pink bloom, fields of yellow and purple wildflowers and dogwoods with clusters of tiny white blossoms. Ottawa NWR is among the top-10 birding spots in the country, where we saw trumpeter swans, great blue herons, cormorants and black-crowned night herons. For information about the Ottawa’s programs call (419) 898-0014.

Adjacent the Ottawa to the east is 2,000-acre Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, similarly abundant in plant and animal life and a premier bird-watching site with a checklist of more than 300 species. Exhibits at the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center preserve pioneer history of the area and include dozens of duck decoys (a hunting club was once here), mounted specimens of mammals found here (mink, fox, river otter, northern fox squirrel and white tail deer) and hundreds of mounted raptors, ducks, shorebirds, songbirds and others. Aquariums hold fish, water turtles and snakes.

Outside the center, which is also home to a wildlife-research station, is a half-mile tree-canopied walking trail and a 42-foot observation tower. We recommend both. There’s also a bird trail and boardwalk, popular in the spring for watching migrating warblers and songbirds. For information call (419) 898-0960.

Thirteen miles east on Highway 2 is Port Clinton, a lovely lake town of fine old homes, fish markets and a drawbridge across Portage River, which spills into Erie here. Among the attractions is a drive-through African Safari Wildlife Park, where the slow-moving autos attract animals like zebras, ostriches and giraffes. For information call (419) 732-3606 or visit www.africansafariwildlifepark.com.

Catawba Island arcs into the lake just east of town. Gracious homes on manicured lawns are set along a loop road, Ohio Highway 53, and at the tip of the “island” – which appears more a peninsula, though just barely – is Miller Ferry Dock, where auto ferries (RVs are allowed) depart for the 15-minute crossing to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island. It runs every half hour in summer, with the schedule varying according to season. For information, call (800) 500-2421 or visit www.millerferry.com.

We leashed up our dogs for the ferry ride, and then we rented a one-seat golf cart for an island tour. Among the many attractions are the Chocolate Museum, Heineman Winery and Crystal Cave, Museum of Island Life and dozens of shops and restaurants – but most importantly the Perry Monument and Visitors Center. We toured these separately, as dogs aren’t allowed.

Set on a spacious greensward, the Perry Monument is a 352-foot Greek Doric column opened in 1915 to commemorate the commodore’s defeat of the British in the Battle of Lake Erie 102 years earlier. We climbed just 37 steps, then took the elevator for a $3 ride to the top. The nearby visitor center features a 30-minute presentation of the battle, paintings, a diorama and other displays, gift shop and statue of Perry. For information call (419) 285-2184 or visit www.nps.gov/pevi.

From Miller Ferry Dock, the scenic drive continues along Highway 53 to Ohio Highway 163 east, another loop road. We suggest a short side trip north on Ohio Highway 269 to East Harbor State Park, where on a grassy field a large rectangle of naked limestone is scored with parallel diagonal grooves.

To continue, return to Highway 163 and drive east to picturesque Marblehead Lighthouse. Built in 1821 on a shore of jagged boulders, it’s the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on Lake Erie. Originally 50 feet high, with 15 feet added in 1897, it is open for tours – 77 steps to the top – from the day after Memorial Day through the Friday before Labor Day. The beacon, electrified in 1923, can be seen for 16 miles. Our guide John Shiets added that the lighthouse was bought from the federal government in 1998 to become Ohio’s 73rd state park. For information call (419) 734-4424 or visit www.ohiostateparks.org.

From the lighthouse we could see Popular Cedar Point, a 364-acre amusement park and roller-coaster lover’s paradise. It’s located six miles southeast at Sandusky. To get there, take 1 Cedar Point Drive off U.S. Highway 6 in Sandusky. For information call (419) 627-2350 or visit www.cedarpoint.com.

We continued on, turning left at South Gaydos Drive onto a causeway and high bridge (have the exact $2 for toll as the guard arm is automated) to reach Johnson’s Island and the Confederate prison site and cemetery. Placards at the site explain that in 1861, when it was apparent the war would not soon be over, unpopulated Johnsons Island in Sandusky Bay was chosen for the 16-acre stockade, hospital and 12 two-story barracks for some 2,800 prisoners. At war’s end they were transported to the mainland and released.

There’s a lonely sentinel at the mouth of the Black River accessible only by water called the Lorain Breakwater Lighthouse, and visitors can visit it through the Moore House Museum run by the Black River Historical Society. Museum exhibits tell the story of the lighthouse, the town, its two centuries of shipbuilding and much more.

Trustee Frank Sipkovsky explained that the lighthouse, built in 1917, was at least the third lighthouse to stand guard over Lorain Harbor, and that the first light here was simply a lantern hung on a pole at the edge of Lake Erie. The current structure, of concrete with 10-inch thick walls to withstand the lake’s battering, was dubbed “the jewel of the port,” he said. It was manned by the Coast Guard until 1965, then decommissioned and slated to be torn down the following year. A citizen’s committee led by Wayne Conn rescued it.

Since then, much work has been done to the deteriorated building and its base. Special cruises to the lighthouse may be offered by the Port of Lorain Foundation. For information call (440) 204-2269 or visit www.lorainlighthouse.com.

Last stop on our journey along this designated scenic route, according to our road atlas, is Avon Lake, population 22,000. The name is a shortened form of Avon on the Lake and is currently part of sprawling Greater Cleveland.

A sign outside a building for TrueNorth Cultural Arts (about 15 minutes south of Avon Lake) sounded inviting, so we stepped in and met Richard Fortney, the center’s director. He explained that TrueNorth offers classes in the arts and holds frequent dance and theater productions, symphonies, art exhibits and more. For information call (440) 949-5200 or visit www.loraincountymetroparks.com.

Because we had been following the coastal trail, Fortney thought we might also be interested in another relatively new “trail,” that of Lake Erie Shipwrecks. A brochure explains that the shallowness of the lake, plus shoals and reefs make “navigation a challenge in the best of weather conditions.” (www.ohioshipwrecks.org)

Consequently, wrecks have been many. More than 1,700 vessels lie at the bottom, though only 277 have been found. The brochure lists 28 along the Ohio coast, indicating type of vessel, dimensions, cargo, year of the wreck – and “diving specifics.” We haven’t tried that yet, though it sounds exciting, so who knows? In any case, it’s a story for another time.

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