Weather on the lake

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

Global warming has come upon us rather stealthily so that what we have come to accept today as normal is anything but when one looks back into past decades.

From the perspective of my age, I can well recall winters past when the cold weather started early and endured for months, and when thaws did occur but were apt to be brief, with the cold rapidly returning.

The focal area for my recollection of how winters were many decades ago when I was young is a section of Erie waterfront running from the Erie Yacht Club near the head of Presque Isle Bay and extending west to Forest Park Beach which is located on Lake Erie about two miles from where Presque Isle State meets the mainland.

We had a cottage at Forest Park Beach, which my father, who came to the U.S. from Sweden at age 9, dubbed “Valhalla” (Viking heaven). Our less-vain German immigrant neighbors, who were from Pittsburgh, called their somewhat smaller place, “Wald de Hut” (“Hut in the Forest”) as their cottage was nestled under the tall trees that grew on the bank of the lake.

(All the cottages in this area were destroyed in the early 1970s when the lake’s waters rose. My father had sold “Valhalla” well before then.)

We had a small grassy lot next to the cottage that was separated from the rocky beach by a low hedge. Each winter, my father (who was an accountant at Griswold, the Erie maker of cooking ware) would haul driftwood in off nearby beach areas which we would saw and split up onto firewood for use in the cottage’s fireplace on cool summer evenings.

His “labor party” was me and my older sister, Ruth.

These were pleasant winter outings, which we enjoyed on weekends and holidays, usually regardless of that day’s weather, and their memory certainly gives me a “then and now” perspective of how the lake has reacted to weather.

In those days the lake shoreline froze up early, and by Christmas, there would be impressive ice dunes all along the shore caused by waves hitting the beach in sub-freezing temperatures. By January, there would also be ice out in the lake as far as one could see, as the movement of the ice down the lake to the east was partially blocked by the state park.

One winter we even walked out onto the lake and skated on a large patch of smooth ice.

I haven’t been down on the beaches west of Presque Isle for years now, but I do know that given our much warmer present-day weather patterns, the winter scene there now would be far less like the Arctic than it was then.

In years now well past, Presque Isle Bay would freeze up quite solid, with up to a foot of ice covering its surface.

In the mile or so of water separating the Yacht Club from the state park (site of the past swims organized to celebrate the bay’s restoration) there would often be scores or more of ice fisherman trying their luck in that deepest portion of the bay, and ice boats would sail out from the Yacht Club or from the bay shoreline to the east.

What I remember most vividly from those days when the bay was covered with solid ice was that when quiet weather conditions allowed, the surface of the ice would freeze smoothly, and one could skate for miles without fear of a tumble even while dodging if need be, the occasional ice fisherman.

The ice would be so clear that one could see the pressure fissures that extended down from the surface, and the expanding ice would give off loud retorts (much to the alarm of a skater) as the freezing advanced.

I haven’t been around the bay much in recent years except for that now discontinued swim, but I do know that given our much warmer present winters, there couldn’t have been the crowds of ice fishermen out on its surface that there were in those earlier years, and there certainly couldn’t have been any ice skating of the quality that I recall so well. Ice boating on the bay must also be largely a sport of the past.

Of course, winter visitors to Erie can now enjoy the casino.

Closer to my present home in Ohio, when I came to Youngstown in the early 1970s, there would often be a couple of weeks during the winter when ice skating was allowed on lakes Newport and Glacier in Mill Creek Park., and the park even kept warming fires burning at the skating sites. It has now been many years since there has been any skating on those lakes.

Cross country skiers also used to make good use of the park’s 36-hole golf course, but opportunities for this have now declined a great deal.

Our present winter weather does include those occasional frigid polar vortexes, but they may be ominous signs of just what global warming has next in store for us.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.