Actually a scheduled vacation day, this adventure has all of the glorious feelings of adult hookie…sunny Friday, skipping work, freedom. And no matter that we’re both fifty-plus seasoned “professionals,” my friend and I talk and laugh like school girls on our one-hundred-thirteen mile journey to our destination, Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania.
We begin at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, an impressive and aesthetic “green” building. With its featured tower, it stands tall in stunning contrast to the antiquated, adjacent amusement park, calling attention to the beauty of the Lake Erie shoreline. Stepping inside, we are immediately immersed in nature. There are programs, exhibits (a shipwreck one currently on display), IMAX theater, cafe and shop. We are delighted to step around field trip children playing hookie with a purpose; laughing while learning.
We stay for lunch, joined by welcoming staff members whose passion for their mission shines. They describe the Center and services, praising the accolades of volunteers who comprise most of the workers. Afterward we take in the exhibits and a tower view (a visit to the top renders a 360-degree look at Lake Erie and Presque Isle via a glass-enclosed platform) and “donate” in the “not your father’s cheesy souvenir” gift shop. The atmosphere is one of a collective tribute to Mother Nature.
Our guide for the park is a long-time friend of my friend and a local, so our tour features personal experience and backstory, adding energy to the experience. From the moment we enter the gates, I feel like I’m in an enchanted land. Forests hug the main road, and the fauna keeps changing; evergreens, deciduous, shrubs. The peninsula encompasses thirteen miles of roads, twenty-one miles of recreational trails, thirteen beaches and a marina. Reflecting the nature shop theme, there is something intriguing for everyone. Bicyclists, fishermen, boaters, swimmers, historians and birdwatchers all are at home in this surreal environment. Its 3,000 acres feature a lighthouse, bay, lake, beaches, lagoons and historical monument.
Our visit precedes the tourist season (averaging four million visitors a year), so we are able to leisurely navigate the main road, heads moving back in forth in unison like tennis spectators as our guide points out best fishing spots, places to rent bicycles, moor boats, watch concerts. Because the trees are in bud stage, we are afforded a full view of the lake, lagoons and bay. A few fishermen are out and water birds are plentiful. We disembark at Crystal Point, the location of Oliver Perry’s monument (rising above Misery Bay) for a stroll that is anything but. As our friend explains the significance of the name, I become conscious of the extraordinary calmness of the water and our lowered voices, and take a grateful moment to appreciate this space in our time.
On the far side of the bay, the signature houseboats of Presque Isle form a cluster of floating dwellings where occupants reside in season. Accessible only by boat, they offer a different way of experiencing cottage life. We drive around to get a closer look at these tiny houses. Intrigued by their quaintness, I pummel our leader with questions. When they’re answered, we head back up the peninsula, and I am awestruck by the foreign sight of deciduous trees jutting out of sand dunes. This tropical beach girl can’t grasp the concept of these palm-tree imposters pretending to belong; yet their mighty persistence convinces me in an exciting way. We also pass the lighthouse. This too is unique in stature. It is not standalone; but attached to the lightkeeper’s house, the structure and setting resembling more of a serene chapel, a true beacon.
This side of the peninsula reveals a groundhog on the side of the road, view of the waterfront pedestrian path and the bench on the beach where our guide occasionally sips his coffee at sunrise. As we exit the gates, this idea appeals and sparks in me a reminder that I’m only two hours away from home. There’s something to be said about spontaneity. See you at the beach.
Mary Clista Dahl has been exercising her passion for pouring out her heart and soul on paper from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. Her desire to promote joy, love and compassion through the written word, combined with a perpetual calling to help, have become the foundation for her life’s work, Capture Life Writing. A people and nature lover, Mary receives most of her inspiration by connecting with the outdoors and others. After more than thirty years of assisting college students with their life and career paths, she is transitioning to her idea of heaven on earth, spending time with friends and family and playing at the nature preserves and beaches of Florida. Besides taking nature walks, her greatest joys come from being a Mom, encouraging others and being a lifelong listener of the most gratifying statement ever, “Have Mary do it, she likes to write.”
Photos by Mary Clista Dahl