My Ohio: Messing About in Boats

Two brothers’ Lake Erie adventures began in a leaky motorboat held together with marine putty and hope.

My infatuation with Lake Erie began at an awkward age. As a pre-teen I was skinny, bookish and short, with a touch of asthma and a personality that veered wildly between shy and obnoxious. To be fair, though, Lake Erie wasn’t at her best in the early 1970s, either. This was a time when the Cuyahoga River burned and a mercury contamination scare led to a fishing moratorium.

Still, my friends and I overlooked the algae blooms and dead fish and caught rides to the Lorain Municipal pier. The locals called the place “Hot Waters” because the pier lay in the shadows of an old coal-fired power plant, which siphoned lake water for some mysterious industrial process and then returned it, warm, to the lake. This created a year-round ice-free zone. Even when ice coated the lifeguard chairs at Lakeview Park, at Hot Waters we caught catfish and carp, their bodies slapping against the steel riprap as we hauled them out of the water. In summer we fished for perch, gulls wheeling overhead, their mewing competing with the crashing sound of the Great Lakes ore carriers emptying their cargo holds nearby.

Not exactly nature at its most idyllic. Still, I loved the Lorain County lakeshore. The New England look of its homes and lighthouses. The sunsets and storms. The sight of brightly colored sails on a windy day, the water speckled with tiny whitecaps.

So I was thrilled when my brother Rick, three years my senior and blessed with a whimsical confidence I lacked, brought home a motorboat. It was a battered wooden Lyman he’d rescued from a neighbor’s barn. More shipwreck than seaworthy, it surely gave my mother night terrors. And it was just the first in a series of small leaky runabouts we launched into Lake Erie, powered by balky Evinrude outboards and held together with marine putty and hope.

“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” the Rat tells the Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. It certainly seemed so to me. The boats were slow and they weren’t pretty. We spent as much time trying to fix them as we did on the water.

But when Lake Erie was calm, the skies were Kodachrome blue and the motor was actually running, there was nothing that left us feeling quite so free as chugging out past the breakwater at Hot Waters, putting the historic Lorain lighthouse to our backs.

Usually, we had no destination. We’d go out a ways, fish for a while, maybe swim. Being young, I didn’t fully appreciate how rare such a day would be.
Girlfriends and jobs already competed for our time, and Rick’s eventual departure for the Army ended the boating adventures. The last of his fleet spent its remaining summers in the yard behind our parents’ house, the grass growing high around the trailer wheels.

Today, the power plant at the Lorain Municipal Pier has been razed. I guess that means the water is no longer warm, although the sign above the old bait shop across from the boat launch still says “Hot Waters Bait and Tackle.”

The city, having lost so much of its industry, is trying to build a future on its lakefront. Condos and boat slips line the Black River, and this year, at the annual Port Fest, the city is launching a new event. The Black River Kayak-A-Thon will launch upstream of the steel mill and carry paddlers to the point where the river empties into the lake.

I’m thinking I may take my kayak and join in, and when I reach the old bascule bridge I might just paddle on into the lake, setting a course for the Lorain lighthouse. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the sky will be a Kodachrome blue and I might see a couple of young men, maybe brothers, in a leaky runabout held together with marine putty and hope, headed for open water.

Randy Edwards is a Columbus-based freelance writer.