The sun glistened off the bright blue lake as its waves crashed onto nearby sandy beaches. Couples rode together on tandem bicycles, dogs hiked alongside their owners and tourists stopped to enjoy a juicy burger at a diner sporting statues of “The Simpsons” characters. This was just some of the imagery that could be seen while visiting Presque Isle State Park.
The sandy peninsula jutting into Lake Erie has been a place of fun and relaxation for many since it officially became a state park in 1921. Emily Beck, the director of tourism development at Visit Erie, said that the most popular attractions at Presque Isle in the summer are the lake itself and Waldameer Park.
In the winter, however, shopping, wineries, breweries, Splash Lagoon and the Presque Isle Downs Casino flourish instead.
Steven J. Ropski, Ph.D., an alumnus of Gannon University and current professor of biology, has been described by students as “Mr. Presque Isle.” He has been working with and conducting research at Presque Isle State Park since his time as an undergraduate student nearly 40 years ago.
Although he spends a decent amount of time at Presque Isle as a tourist, Ropski spends even more time there as researcher and teacher. He said he takes students to the isle on field trips approximately three times a semester.
One of the things he enjoyed doing the most with students was taking them on a hike to Gull Point whenever he could. However, the trail has been impassable due to high water levels over the last year and a half.
“You get maybe 30 or 40 yards down the trail and you’re in 3 to 4 feet of standing water,” he said. “They’re worried that if these lake levels stay high, there might be a little channel that develops.
“Gull Point might become Gull Island because there will be such a big divide there, which would be such a big change in geology.”
He made note how much his students were amazed when he took them out on these field trips. Most of them knew a few of the beaches, but had no knowledge of the 25 miles of trails that stretch beyond them.
Ropski said that many students who live in the area don’t think Presque Isle has anything more to offer than just going to the beach, when there is actually so much more to do. Besides student-oriented visits, Ropski has been participating in various research projects every couple of years for nearly 30 years, mainly dealing with bats and small animals.
His most recent project has the professor working very closely with Tom Ridge Environmental Center and its habitat islands.
“What we found was that they basically have a forest in the parking lot,” he said. “Everything you’d expect to see in a forest, in terms of mammals and birds, is in the Tom Ridge parking lot.”
The center was built with the intention of making it as natural as it can be. Ropski said he has seen coyotes and even a black bear in the parking lot, further showing how different and atypical the lot is.
Climate change and turbulent winters have played a large part in the development of Presque Isle over the past few years. Ropski said that the peninsula is constantly undergoing changes due to these natural forces.
He began by discussing the previous winters in Erie, saying how they were much milder when compared to four years prior when the weather was very intense.
Essentially, the water levels have increased because of all the melted snow from those harsh winters.
“We’re literally seeing high lake levels this year because of really bad winters two years ago in Michigan,” he said. “All the water takes maybe 18 or 19 months to flow through the Great Lakes and get to us.”
Ropski also said that the lake not freezing over caused Erie and nearby locations to get harsher storms in the winter.
“So, if we have a milder October and November, and Lake Erie doesn’t freeze again, when we do get lake effect snow we’ll get these crazy blizzards,” Ropski said. “We won’t get as much snow, but the ones we get will be big.”
In terms of revenue, Presque Isle brings approximately $1.2 billion a year to the Erie area via direct spending from consumers in hotels, restaurants and attractions, Beck said.
Maurice K. Goddard initially set up the state park system in Pennsylvania nearly 100 years ago and wanted it done so there was a state park within a 45 minute drive of every major city in the state.
This means a majority of Pennsylvanians are only 45 minutes away from a free state park that they can enjoy and have fun in. Beck said that according to Presque Isle’s counting system, the park has nearly 4 million visitors per year, half of whom travel to the park from out of town.
Ropski attributes this to people using Presque Isle year-round because it’s so accessible.
“I want people to know how insanely lucky people in northwestern Pennsylvania are to have this for free in their backyard,” he said. “They can go out there every day and use it and have fun and not have to pay a fee.
“Every day you could go out there and do something or see something different, and I think that’s really cool.”