Two 17-foot canoes glided toward each other along the brown, muddy water of the Old Woman Creek estuary on a warm July night. When they stopped Kathryn Young, seated in the front of one of the canoes, handed a fragrant water lily to Judy Ishmael, seated in the next canoe, and encouraged her to take a whiff.
It was just one example of people getting to know the estuary in an up-close-and-personal manner. Folks like Young and Ishmael are able to enjoy that experience by taking advantage of free canoe trips through the estuary offered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The trips are designed to inspire stewardship of the estuary and the wetlands, said Frank Lopez, manager of Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve.
“We’re trying to find different ways for people to appreciate wetlands,” Lopez said. “To be a good steward you have to love the wetlands.”
Old Woman Creek is a freshwater estuary. The 573-acre area is also home to the DeWine Center for Coastal Wetland Studies.
An estuary typically is found where a river meets with saltwater. A freshwater estuary is found where creek water meets with lake water to create a third water type that is chemically different from either the lake or creek water. Old Woman Creek is one of 27 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the country and the only one on the Great Lakes.
Lopez — a balding man with a round face, glasses and graying slightly at the temples — serves as guide, water safety director and curmudgeon for the trip.
Thursday evening’s canoe trip was scheduled to take off at 6 p.m. By the time everyone who was scheduled to go on the trip arrived and all the canoes were in the water it was 6:30 p.m. Most of the canoes carried two-person teams.
About 10 minutes into the trip, Lopez called for the eight or so canoes to stop. He explained that what happens in the estuary is controlled by what happens in Lake Erie. For example, water levels in the lake have dropped in recent years. As a result the water level has dropped in the estuary and creek, causing an influx of giant reeds. That’s bad news, because the plants are non-native and can negatively affect the biodiversity and ecological stability of coastal wetlands.
“Remember, everything in ecology is connected,” Lopez said, echoing a lesson he learned from a college professor.
A little farther up, the flotilla of canoes stopped again to take a look at Star Island, the site of a winery in the 1930s. Aerial photos show the island resembles the point of a star, Lopez said, hence the name. But when Dust Bowl conditions hit, the owners packed up shop and headed to California.
Canoes must be navigated through lily pads and past logs that have fallen into the creek. While doing so, canoeists can spot water striders, little black bugs that zigzag across the water’s surface. At the same time, one can see birds such as majestic white egrets and colorful kingfishers searching for meals.
A little further down the creek Lopez again stopped the canoes to catch sight of a bald eagle perched in a distant tree.
The most interesting part of the trip may have been when Lopez explained how Old Woman Creek got its name. Legend says it was named after Minehonto, who was so distraught over the death of her daughter, Wintasta, she threw herself into the waters of the stream and drowned. The creek was named “Stream of Minehonto,” but white settlers who learned of the legend dubbed it “Old Woman” because they had trouble pronouncing Native American names, Lopez said.
The trip was supposed to be one hour out and one hour back, so there was not enough time Thursday to reach Ohio 2, another 1.5 miles upstream.
“We’ve made what is three-hour trip into a two-hour trip,” Lopez said. “The last one back is a unicellular organism.”
Young, a retired government employee from Michigan, barely contained her enthusiasm for the creek following her experience Thursday.
“It was absolutely invigorating to see it from the water, and the canoes are so nice and quiet,” she said.
Ishmael, who canoed with her husband, also enjoyed the trip but was disappointed she did not get to see the eagle.
Lopez said he’s happy any time he can get folks to learn about and enjoy the estuary.
“The thing I enjoy the most is we make a lot of friends,” Lopez said.
Want to go on the canoe trip?
WHEN: 6 p.m. July 24, Aug. 14, Aug. 28 and Sept. 25.
WHERE: Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve, 2514 Cleveland Road East, Huron
COST: The trip is free, but pre-registration is required. There are a limited number of canoes and flotation devices available.
INFO: Call 419-433-4601