The tranquility envelops you as soon as your kayak slides off the sandy launch area into lagoon waters warmer than a child’s bath. Sure, there is the clamor of tree frogs, the plop of a turtle sliding into the water, the occasional chattering call of a belted kingfisher — or one of the other 300-plus species of birds found on Presque Isle.
But the serenity of the inner-peninsula lagoons at one of Pennsylvania’s most visited state parks is tangible; being on the still waters of the lagoons at 6 a.m. is an amazing experience. Gliding a kayak into the serene, secluded lagoons of Presque Isle means revisiting one of my favorite places in Erie from a whole new perspective.
Joined by friends Carin and Mark Stuart, I explore the lagoons on a slightly chilly August morning. As we meander through the winding waterway, we draw the attention of a beaver enjoying a morning swim, and gasp at the awesome sight of an airborne and graceful but shockingly large Great Blue Heron (its wingspan is 6 to 7 feet) passing over our heads. We watch the sparkling raindrop effect caused by tiny silvery fish breaching the glassy lagoon surface in search of insects and scan the depths of the murky water for bigger fish hiding in the underwater foliage. We even watch the swooping antics of some of the 89 species of dragonflies and butterflies found on the peninsula.
We quietly paddle the lagoons for hours, and see only one other kayaker — no outboard motors allowed here. The waterway presents the perfect place for beginning kayakers. Shallow and calm, the lagoons are user-friendly, even if you’ve never dipped an oar in before. Scared of falling overboard? Have no fear: Between your life jacket and the narrow channel, you are never more than a short, easy swim to land. In fact, decades ago, the lagoons were but a series of shallow ponds only a few feet deep, and it was only with the help of a dredging boat that they become the quaint straits they are today, meandering through the heart of Presque Isle peninsula.
With kayak rentals available throughout the summer (call to check on availability and rental times) right on the lagoon shoreline ($15/hour), it is easy to grab a paddle and explore at your own pace. It’s a strange realization that downtown Erie is only 20 minutes away; set off from shore, and catch site of water lilies, baby turtles sunning themselves on partially submerged logs or small Green Herons stalking minnows among reeds that line the lagoons.
School may be out for the summer but visit the Tom Ridge Environmental Center (and watch something on the four-story-high Big Green Screen) before heading out on the water to learn about the cranberry bogs that used to grace the lagoon shores. And hear about the old tall ships put to rest on the bottom of Graveyard Pond, just under the bridge south of the livery docks.
Melissa Baggam, an environmental interpretive technician for the park, provides some good tips to start you off: Follow the lagoons to the right from the livery launch point, and you’ll emerge at the peninsula’s bayside marina, about a mile down the waterway. There you can beach your kayak for a quick picnic and bathroom break. Watch for several species of eagles, hawks and Osprey. (Know how to tell the difference? A flying eagle’s silhouette creates a horizontal line; an osprey’s forms an M shape.) Other commonly seen birds include the Caspian Tern and those chattering belted kingfishers, which hover over the water (often in Graveyard Pond) and can dive as deep as three or four feet into the water to scoop up fish. She also cautions kayakers not to be surprised if they are joined on an early- or late-day outing by whitetail deer. Excellent swimmers, deer often ford the lagoons as a shortcut from one side of the peninsula to the other. The good news is there isn’t much in the water that can hurt you, although Baggam recommends staying away from snakes. While the Northern water snakes found in the lagoons are not poisonous, they can be aggressive. Visitors who enjoy fishing should pack their rods; fishing from kayaks is growing in popularity. Found in the quiet lagoon waters are large mouth bass, carp, blue gill and more, depending on the season.
Whatever hobby pulls you to the peninsula, take the time to immerse yourself in the tranquility of the lagoons, even just for an hour. There’s a unique sensation of being somewhere exotic and unspoiled, but you’re never more than a few strokes from civilization.