Turtle Island Pt. 3: “The Lady of the Lake”

RETURN to part 2

I had a nagging feeling on my way home that I probably could have easily gone past the area of ice at the south end of Woodtick Peninsula that I got sketched-out about and made it to the island, or at least a lot closer. After I returned home safely from my mission to Turtle Island, Rutabaga and I discussed it quite a bit. She made the point that I could try again. Indeed, conditions indicated that the ice would continue building in thickness until 1600hrs tomorrow, January 10th. I did have time for another try, if I dared. I would obviously need snowshoes if I was going to try hiking the Woodtick Peninsula, so I finally broke down and bought some. I knew I should own some anyway.

The air temp would be rapidly climbing above freezing in Toledo by 0700hrs however, which made me very nervous. Yes, I would be less likely to succumb to exposure during my hike, but nobody wants to see melting going on while they’re walking on “passably thick” ice, miles from land. Also, winds would be increasing to 10 knots, whereas during my attempt on the 9th, all was basically calm. If I got a predawn start this time like I wanted to in the first place, I could plausibly be back on land by 4pm when the ice would cease building and begin degrading. I woke up at 6am and checked the GLCFS forecast data again, and it still looked positive up to 1600hrs. I quickly repacked my truck and headed south to Luna Pier. Here was the view from the beach access by the power plant:

Visibility was drastically reduced, but I could still barely make out Turtle Island as a blip on the horizon. Though I still only gave this mission a 50% chance of success, I nonetheless donned my snowshoes and went to work. Before I hit the beach however, I was halted by the sight of something that had evaded my notice yesterday; immediately behind the power company’s property fence was what looked to be a decorative stone pier, like what would form the gateway to someone’s fancy estate:

I figured that since there was such a good chance I would not be exploring anything else today I might as well take a closer look, and snowshoed my way through the deep drifts for a better look.

I’ll be damned…look at that.

To consider the very swankily art-deco flavored gate piers, and their location on lakefront, one would automatically assume that it was the entranceway to the grounds of some rich man’s former mansion, but this is not the case. When I mentioned the hoarfrost-glazed piers to Rutabaga she immediately asked me, “Did it have an ‘LL’ on it? Oh yeah, that’s the old Camp Lady of the Lake,” but she didn’t know anything else about it other than it might’ve been an old church camp, and that it ceased to exist when the lake flooded it out decades ago.

I have not been able to find much hard historical documentation online about Camp Lady of the Lake, besides the usual anonymous chatter. Some of it backs up the assumption that it is a church-related camp for orphans, and some of it makes the usual ghostie claims that it is haunted by children who were drowned or murdered there or by the infamous lake sisters, “Seaweed Mary” and “Seaweed Ellen.”

The lake sisters were invented by camp counselors to scare the kids, who would sometimes sneak into their cabins at night and leave seaweed behind to show that the sisters had been on the prowl. It also sounds like there was once at least one main structure in ruins there, along with cabins, and that it was run by Saint Anthony’s Villa of Toledo, but any remaining structures were likely torn down when Consumers Power took ownership of the land. Though it is also possible that they were simply allowed to molder into the wetland that has taken over, and that I could not see them because of the tall weeds and deep snow.

In the May, and June, 2010 issues of the Catholic Chronicle, the history of Camp Lady of the Lake was memorialized, on the 70th anniversary of its opening in 1940. The camp consisted of 55 acres of land and more than a half-mile of shoreline. It was the summer home of up to 300 children, age seven to 16. There was a mess hall with attached chapel, and a Marian grotto, where “Ave Maria” was sung every night by the campers before bed.

The first photo in the June article is dated 1941, and shows the gate piers I saw in blazing white, with the Marian grotto appearing in the distance. Today, that area is underwater; the shoreline now starts just a few yards beyond the gate piers…and I have to wonder if the grotto is still sitting out there on the lake bottom, attended by the weedy caresses of the pale, magical Lake Sisters and their aquatic familiars?

The camp also seems to have been connected to “Operation Pedro Pan”…I mentioned this briefly in another post about the Holy Family Orphanage in Marquette. It was a joint mission between the Catholic Church and the CIA to get children out of Cuba after Fidel Castro declared he would be taking Cuban children to Soviet labor camps and military schools, which preceded the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

One hundred of these refugee Cuban children ended up at Camp Lady of the Lake in the summer of 1961, sent by airplane with instructions in English pinned to their chest on where they were to be sent. They had a terrible time adjusting from the warm Caribbean waters of their homeland to the comparatively icy waters of Lake Erie, as swimming was a twice-daily mandatory activity.

Camp Lady of the Lake closed in 1969. “Camp Lady” was actually preceded by another lesser-known and even more eradicated Camp Navarre, which was founded on the southwestern side of Vineyard Lake near Brooklyn, Michigan in 1925. It closed a few years after Camp Lady opened.

But I knew none of this at the time, and spent only a few minutes looking at the ruined gate piers before beginning my long trudge down the shoreline of the Woodtick Peninsula.

As I walked I could tell that the quality of the ice here was obviously quite poor, but I still held out hopes that it would improve as I made my way beyond the wastewater outlet of the power plant. It would be a couple miles before I could judge this however.

As you can see the plume of bathwater generated by the plant’s warm discharge was extremely vast. Here is an extreme-zoom view of my target beyond this impassable obstacle:

I came across the water outlet much sooner than expected. It was also decorated with multiple warning signs reminding humans not to be stupid:

This was the narrowest part of my path down the peninsula, which I knew would be difficult to pass in snowhoes due to the rubble, and just as difficult without them due to the deep snow. The steep wall held more angry signs warning me of MOVING MACHINERY and NO TRESPASSING, and that this area was monitored by cameras.

Clearly this is not an encouraging sign to see the lake totally liquid for such a huge area, but I had to keep going, just to be sure. For what it's worth, I believe these photos are hard evidence that this powerplant is in flagrant violation of environmental laws dictating that industrial discharges into waterways may not exceed a temperature difference of 5°F.

Just throwing that out there...seeing as this one happens to immediately border a designated wildlife refuge. I'm not quite qualified to make a call on whether this water temperature violation may have played into the formation of that giant algae bloom that resulted in the city of Toledo's municipal water system being completely FUBAR'd in the summer of 2014, but I certainly won't stop anyone from speculating.

Anyway, there was still another three miles to go before I reached the end of the peninsula. Immediately past the outlet, I saw a spot where snowmobiles have turned around. Apparently this is the choke point for them too:

This continued to be the scene for a long, long ways:

A makeshift shelter (or duck blind?), about a mile later:

Looking back at the fading silhouette of the power plant where I had started from:

Granted, the ice seemed to be getting slightly firmer, but it was still rife with brown sticky spots like bruises on a sketchy banana:

Finally, after seeing plentiful snowmobile tracks on this iffy-looking ice, I decided to try walking on it myself. After all, I’m only inches from the safety of shore, and if I’m going to break through, I’d want it to happen now, where I can get a feel for what it will realistically involve, and while I’m still within a modest retreat back to the car.

I was surprised to see just how sturdy the mushy areas really were. I was also doing this to rebuild my confidence and acclimate myself to the idea of walking on ice, though to be sure I had no intent of walking on messy stuff like this more than a few feet from land.

Another mile or so down the road I could say that I was starting to see areas that were looking much better, but it was undeniable that the power plant’s influence was still very much in evidence.

Worse yet, immediately beyond the soupy areas was a continuous wall of shattered ice running parallel to the shore, and I could not see much on the other side of it, which did nothing to help my recon. Occasional gaps in the razor sharp rows of teeth showed just more and more hedgerows of rammed ice slabs, upturned like bitter palisades.

I had been following the tracks of a fox or two, and even a coyote or large dog, and at one point I was looking out to sea and saw a blip of what I initially thought was a bird but then realized was definitely a canine creature moving around. He appeared to be watching me as well, having long been alerted to my presence by the sound of my crunching snowshoes in the stillness of this unexpectedly wild land.

I was beginning to get thirsty, and even though I had a limited amount of water due to the aforementioned concerns of weight and keeping it from freezing, I decided to break soon and have a light lunch. It was a balmy 30-something degrees, and even though a bit of a breeze had picked up from the south, I was quite warm and had most of my spacesuit unzipped. I didn’t want to start sweating, as damp clothing can become fatally hazardous even in “warm” temps like these.

I was almost to the southern tip of the Woodtick Peninsula, and was still seeing plenty of mushy brown spots on my ice. I expected that this would continue, so I started hypothetically looking for any area in which I could plausibly find a usable path between any of these spots to get to the fracture line and go see what lay beyond. There were a couple spots where I could theoretically do this, but I was still not to the end of the peninsula; if I left land now, I would have a longer path than the nominal two miles measured from the south tip, and I could not be assured of finding the same safe way back to land amongst the ice. One of my worst fears was of getting out there and then being unable to find a safe way back to land.

While slowly chewing the sparing bites of the pizza bread I had brought for lunch I weighed these variables and many other things in my mind (such as whether my last meal on this earth was going to be pizza bread). Mainly I didn’t want to eat too much and have my body start switching to sleepy, digestive mode; I needed to stay hungry and alert for now, which would also reduce my water consumption. I took a fully zoomed-in shot of my target, now two miles due east of my position…from this higher position where I was standing on the shore, I could see over the first wall of ice and it looked like the ice was sound beyond it:

So close, and yet so far.

CLICK for part 4


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