With summer in Erie not but a memory, many people are headed indoors for activities. However, there is much fun to be had around the area with outdoor activities that last through the fall and long into the winter months.
One place that outdoor adventurists turn, even as the leaves begin to fall and warm days give way to cooler ones, is Presque Isle State Park.
Presque Isle is a 3,200-acre peninsula on the coast of Lake Erie that boasts sandy beaches and various summer recreational activities from swimming and boating to hiking and in-line skating.
Many area residents and visitors enjoy not only these summer activities, but also winter activities. Visitors to the park have also been known to enjoy looking at ice dunes, formed when water spray from the lake freezes on the shoreline, creating icy, hill-like formations.
Some of the winter activities range from hiking, to cross-country skiing, admiring ice dunes, ice fishing and even a lesser-known sport called ice boating.
“For people who don’t know anything about ice boating, it’s like flying in a jet without leaving the ground,” said local ice boating enthusiast Matt Niemic.
Historically, ice boating was a means of transportation in Nordic countries where other paths over land were too treacherous to travel in winter months. It was the fastest man-made vehicle until the invention of the airplane.
As some of these Nordic people began to come and settle in the United States beginning in the mid-1800s, they brought these ways for traveling on ice with them. Now ice boating is seen more as a leisure sport than a mode of transportation.
The boats made today come in many different styles, but they all have some common features. The boats are steered by a sail, as Niemic described, similar to a small sailboat. The bottom of the boat features two parallel, chisel-shaped blades and varying styles of fuselages.
Niemic said he favors the two-person variety, called a sweet sixteen, since it is fun to take someone with you when you’re enjoying the sport.
“I really have a good time if I can take one of my friends or someone with me that’s never been in an ice boat,” Niemic said. “We usually start on the ice somewhere around the Yacht Club and try and make it to one of the bars right down on the Bayfront to have a drink. I would consider that a successful run.”
According to Niemiec, as long as the ice is thick enough for ice fishing, around four inches, it is safe to go out on the ice and enjoy ice boating.
One of the most popular styles of ice boat is called a DN, standing for Detroit News. At one point the newspaper hosted a competition for the design of one of these boats. The winning design was created for one person, light, inexpensive and very fast. These boats typically travel at speeds close to 100 mph, compared to Niemic’s two-person boat, which travels closer to 70 mph.
Locally in Erie there is a small group of enthusiasts who enjoy ice boating. According to Niemic, there are approximately 46 boats in the area, with most of them being connected to an organization at the Erie Yacht Club.
One historic ice boat is even housed at the Yacht Club and it’s connected to a prominent Erie family.
Charles Strong, a central historical figure to the city of Erie who once owned Old Main on the campus of Gannon University, commissioned that an ice boat be made in the late 1800s so that his wife Annie could have a form of winter entertainment.
“I’ve seen the Strong Family boat a few times,” Niemic said. “The club only brings it out in perfect conditions, which we don’t see as often as I would like.”
Niemic also said that although the sport of ice boating is a lot of fun and an adrenaline rush, it is important to always be aware of ice conditions, wear a helmet when participating in the sport and not to go out on the ice alone.
Niemic has had his share of accidents while iceboating. In one of his accidents he said he hit a pile of slushy ice while turning. This resulted in a broken thumb and several broken ribs. “Ice boating is a fickle thing,” Niemic said. “Some who enjoy the sport will travel all over to find the perfect ice conditions. I like to enjoy what we have here in Erie.”
If ice boating is too adventurous, another event for the brave is held in conjunction with Presque Isle. For those who are willing to fearlessly jump into icy waters for a good cause, the Polar Bear Plunge may strike a fancy.
This event is hosted by The Special Olympics and is one of the biggest fundraisers put on by the organization.
In the Polar Bear Plunge, participants raise money to be able to run or jump into cold water. The event in the area is held in the waters of Lake Erie off Beach Seven at the park.
According to Jessica Kury, a representative from Special Olympics Pennsylvania, there are nine of these events across the state, but the event in Erie is the only one to be held on a beach.
“The beach gives an amazing element for participating in a plunge and is a fun environment to interact with Special Olympics athletes,” Kury said. “November in the lake is fun in and of itself, adding an extra layer of uniqueness. It’s fun, cool, zany and an absolute blast.”
The fourth annual event will be held on Nov. 17 at Beach Seven for those willing to brave the waters, which according to Kury, are typically around 45 degrees.
For those looking for a little more laid-back recreation, ice fishing may be a sport that would be of interest.
On winter days when ice conditions on Presque Isle Bay are conducive to the sport, many go out with their augers, tools used to make holes in the ice and attempt to catch fish through these holes.
Jeremy Scott, a local ice fishing sportsman, said that the sport is good for people who like to be outdoors in the winter, but might not necessarily like skiing or snowboarding. “It’s almost like playing a video game,” Scott said. “We typically drill two holes and put a camera down one so we can see the fish, then put the rod down the other and see if we can get the fish on the line.”
For Scott, going fishing is a family event. He and his wife have two young daughters who also enjoy the sport. “I really like to take them out more for the experience than anything else,” Scott said. “We just try and stay warm in our shelter on the ice. I’ll bring out a grill and grill up some hot dogs. It’s an absolute blast.”
Ice fishing is popular in the area on Presque Isle Bay, but many also enjoy the sport on frozen ponds and creeks.
For those looking for a little more of an edge of competition for the sport, there are several ice fishing tournaments in the area.
One of the most popular tournaments is the Western PA Hardwater Tournament Series, which is a multi-location event that challenges fishermen to different venues of ice fishing in the northwestern part of the state.
The dates for the event in Erie are subject to change, but are currently scheduled for Feb. 16-17, 2019, and will take place on Presque Isle Bay. For more information on the tournament and other locations in the series, visit the tournament’s Facebook page @WesternPAFishing.
Scott, however, said he doesn’t participate in many of the tournaments and tends to fish more for fun.
“Everyone should ice fish at least once,” Scott said, “even if it is just for the experience.”
Ice skating is another frosty activity that many locals find appealing on a cold winter day.
When the bay between the mainland and peninsula freezes it creates an environment many enjoy skating on or use for playing ice hockey.
Waterworks Pond, close to Beach Seven, is another location favored by locals for ice skating. Ice in these locations is safe for skating as long as it is at least four inches thick.
Throughout the year Presque Isle also hosts various events with some of the park naturalists. One of these events included a gathering centered on cooking.
Participants paid a small fee and were able to learn cast iron cooking and camp fire management survival skills from Jared McGary and Brian Gula, two of the naturalists at the park.
The event was held in the Rotary Pavilion at the park, near Beach Six. Inside the pavilion felt much like a cabin tucked deep in the woods, complete with rustic, wood details and benches surrounding a large brick fireplace.
McGary and Gula worked together to give a brief summary of fire safety before giving a seminar to a small group of mostly older people.
They worked together to teach the group how to cook a pasta-based goulash dish, dinner rolls and a pumpkin cobbler dessert. Gula said that he absolutely loves to cook over an open fire and really enjoys any opportunity to share his passion with others. Part of the fun, he said, is getting ash into the food when it’s being cooked.
“Any time you are cooking outside over an open fire it’s all MacGyvering,” Gula said. “It’s not an exact science, there is a lot of play in it.”
McGary shares this passion for cooking over an open fire, and even told the group a story about the first time he cooked for his future mother-in-law.
“I wanted to show her how I learned to cook by preparing a nice, cast iron cooked meal for her,” Gula said. “But, I accidently burned the food the first time I tried to cook the meal. She let me try again and the second attempt came out perfect. Honestly after that I’m really surprised she let me marry her daughter.”
While McGary and Gula were teaching the audience how to cook the meal, an already prepared version of the food was served to the group so that they could get a taste of how food cooked over the fire in dutch ovens tasted.
Patty Brooks, an attendee of the event from Pittsburgh, said that she had no idea what to expect when she tasted the food.
“It’s actually quite fascinating that a meal like this can be cooked over a fire,” Brooks said. “To me, it tastes almost like something you would cook in your kitchen, just made in a pot that’s been around for many years and has many stories to tell.”
Brooks and her husband were visiting Erie on a three-day trip when they stumbled across the park program.
“I didn’t know the park offered programs like this but I found it to be very interesting,” she said. “We would definitely make another trip to Erie sometime in the future just because the area is so beautiful.”
According to Gula, this was the last planned cast iron cooking event planned for the season, but one is typically planned in mid-spring and another for Mother’s Day.
Emily Sauer, a student at Gannon, describes a different type of activity she enjoys in the fall and winter months at Presque Isle.
“In the fall I like to drive around and take in the beauty of the changing leaves and all the colors,” Sauer said. “In the winter I like to drive around the road loop at the park. Sometimes you can see owls and it’s a positive way to relieve stress.”
Overall, the park offers a wide variety of fall and winter activities, which are enjoyed by many people with many interests.
Throughout the winter months many activities hosted by the park are held at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, located at the entrance to the park.
Some of November’s events include a veterans appreciation even with a tour of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Erie, family STEM night and various hiking events. For a full list of events, call the park office at (814) 833-7424 or visit Presque Isle’s website at http://events.dcnr.pa.gov/presque_isle_state_park
By Julia Fulton