Attitudes toward Lake Erie are most definitely generational. While I was growing up in Cleveland in the 1960s and 1970s, Lake Erie was terrifying. Scientists called it a “dead lake,” killed by decades of pollutants making their way into its waters. This included pollutants from factories, waste from city sewers, and fertilizer and pesticides from farms. It stank. It looked nasty. And yes, the Cuyahoga River, which streams directly into Lake Erie, caught fire many times.
My mom told me that if I went into its waters, I would get very sick and probably die. And I believed my mom.
If that wasn’t incentive enough to forgo skipping down to the beach and frolicking in the waves, there was the dead fish. Their carcasses formed an erratic barrier between the sand and entry into the brown and green, oozing water. Want to dip your toes in the water? Step over the rotting, one-eyed dead fish first.
I can’t get those memories out of my mind, even though environmental cleanup efforts in the last 45 to 50 years have brought Lake Erie back to its glory. Its waters are beautiful, its beaches clean and fish (amazingly enough) are plentiful. In an ironic way, it was good that Lake Erie got so bad. It woke up a whole generation (my generation, thank you very much).
“Lake Erie's mess helped inspire the formation of the EPA in 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972. Things got better; Lake Erie became a hub for fishing and recreation, and is considered the ‘Walleye Capital of the World.’ To be able to consume fish from the lake at all, much less swim in the water, is a major achievement in just a few decades,” according to a story I read in “Wired.”
But I can’t forget the lake of my childhood. It’s been burned into my brain that Lake Erie beaches are potential death traps and not recreational playgrounds. I have a vivid memory of going to Huntington Beach one day when I was about 10 with one of my sisters (I was her “safety pass” to get out of the house, meet friends on the beach and smoke cigarettes) and holding my hand over my face to stop from smelling the water.
I did not let my aversion and fears prevent me allowing my children, now 22 and 25, from enjoying Lake Erie. During winters, we drove to parks overlooking the lake to admire its whipped-up fury or frozen splendor. In the summer, I took them to the beach … a lot. We watched the sunset from Lakewood Park and strolled the pier at Bradstreet’s Landing, avoiding the anglers throwing their lines into bluish-gray waters.
They grew up loving Lake Erie and I love that they love it.
But don’t ask me to actually join them in the water. Or stop cringing when I see them putting their heads under the water.
My mom told me I might die. And I believed my mom.
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