|Carol Ward, park naturalist at Cleveland Lakefront and Headlands Beach state parks, finds herself in the ideal place to blend her talents and interests, and share her enthusiasm for nature and the outdoors.
When Carol was a child growing up in Lakewood with Lake Erie as her playground, she dreamed of a career training dolphins at Sea World.
Little did she know when she took up SCUBA diving while in college, pursuing her bachelors degree in biology, that she would be educating people rather than dolphins, and exploring the depths of Lake Erie rather than swimming with Shamu.
Carol started her career at Cleveland Lakefront in 1997 as a radio dispatcher, and in 1998, she put her SCUBA skills to work as a founding member of the park's new dive rescue team.
Over the years, Carol's work on the dive team has brought hope and comfort to tragedy-stricken families, and her fascination with forensics has been a help to investigators, as well.
Since Carol became the park naturalist in 2001, she has helped to put Headlands Beach and Cleveland Lakefront on the map as parks that offer not just great beaches, but genuine adventures in nature.
The programs Carol offers at the parks reflect the diversity of her own background, from active outdoor pursuits, like the naturalist-led canoe trip on Euclid Creek in October, to hands-on education, like the ice safety workshop in February.
Carol is committed to the parks, the community, and her personal goals to get families together in the outdoors, cultivate an appreciation for nature among adults as well as kids, and debunk some urban legends regarding Lake Erie (there really are no sharks!).
Headlands Beach is a delightful mile-long ribbon of shoreline framed by the pounding surf of Lake Erie, the shifting sands of Headlands Dunes and the waving grasses of Mentor Marsh. During the spring and fall migrations, the headlands are a birder's paradise. In the height of summer, the beach is a swimmer's oasis and a beachcomber's delight. Anglers are ecstatic over the fall steelhead run from the great lake to the Grand River, and butterfly lovers rejoice over the monarchs that congregate here each autumn.
Today's sparkling lake and sandy beach are the products of ancient ice and water. Thirteen thousand years ago, northern Ohio was covered by a vast inland sea stretching from western New York state to northeast Indiana. The sea was created by the melting Wisconsinan glacier and shaped by the retreating ice, which left behind thick ridges of sand in its wake and exposed new outlets to drain the water, thus shrinking the sea to form modern Lake Erie and its environs. Over the last thousand years, the lapping surf and pounding waves of Lake Erie and the swiftly flowing waters of the Grand River have sculpted the unique headlands landscape of sand, forest and marsh.
Natural treasures abound here, on the land, in the water, and far below the surface. Just beyond the sand, the headlands are forested in a variety of hardwoods which historically included chestnut trees, as well as maple, oak, elm, hickory, walnut, cherry, tulip tree, beech and ash. The dunes harbor a surprising array of plants native to the Atlantic coastal plains, such as sea rocket, beach pea, seaside spurge, beach grass and purple sand grass. These rare plants hitched a ride at the close of the last Ice Age as the ancient lake shrunk away from its ocean neighborhood. When the Grand River wriggled out of its ancient bed and carved itself a new channel hundreds of years ago, the soggy soil it left behind blossomed into the forested swamps and grassy wet expanses of Mentor Marsh.
Pockets of natural gas are abundant in the shale beneath the sand and clay soil, while deep under Lake Erie, veins of rock salt are embedded in the limestone bedrock. Since 1959, a cavernous salt mine 2,000 feet below Lake Erie near Fairport Harbor has faithfully supplied huge quantities of rock salt for ice removal, contributing to Ohio's ranking as the nation's third largest producer of the precious mineral. The natural gas has warmed the homes in the area for generations, and for hundreds of years the pressurized gas has created a sensation in the form of a bubbling, flammable spring welling up through the lake east of modern-day Painesville. In the 1600s, the Erie Indians considered the mysterious phenomenon to be a sacred omen, while modern-day Painesville residents recall amusing childhood memories of pranksters lighting the spring on calm, clear days.
Although the proximity of the headlands to Lake Erie has a moderating effect on the extremes of temperature and heavy snowfalls that occur further inland, life next to the lake is not always calm and dry. The combination of northeasterly gales and water rushing into the shallower end of Lake Erie's lopsided basin can cause a massive sloshing movement, known as a seiche, that can quickly and dramatically inundate unprotected coastal areas. When the conditions are just right as Lake Erie's winter blanket of ice first forms, or begins to crack and break up, winds whipping across the lake may push chunks of ice into frosty piles rising ten to fifteen feet high along the shore.
Despite nature's occasional mischief, though, the spectacular headlands have enchanted millions of visitors for millenia. Through history, this area has served as a campground for revolutionaries, a relaxing retreat for the chief executive, and an idyllic childhood home for an ordinary family. Today, Headlands Beach is popular state park, and Mentor Marsh and Headlands Dunes are prized state nature preserves.
In November 1760, Major Robert Rogers and his Rangers camped on the headlands at the mouth of the Grand River on their dicey mission to take control of the French Fort Detroit during the French and Indian War. Their journey from Montreal was full of hair-raising adventures, from navigating fragile boats through the ferocious rapids above Niagara Falls and on the storm-tossed Great Lakes, to miserable marches through chilly swamps and bogs. Along the way, they endured gnawing hunger and the threat of ambushes by hostile Indians and their French allies. In contrast, the headlands offered a safe haven.
Rogers was so impressed with the area, he noted in his famous journal, "œThe land on the south shore of Erie has a fine appearance; the country is level, the timber tall and of the best quality; such as oak, hickory and locust; and for plenty and variety of game, it is not exceeded by any country in the world."
Not only did Rogers' Lake Erie campaign serve as excellent training for the Rangers who would later figure prominently in the Revolutionary War, it also put into practice Major Robert Rogers' greatest legacy; the military code of conduct and tactics for wilderness survival known as Rogers' Ranging Rules, which are still in use today by the Green Berets.
With the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Connecticut Western Reserve, a 5,000-square-mile chunk of northeast Ohio including the headlands, was surveyed by Moses Cleaveland. The tiny settlement of Cleveland was established in 1796 to serve as the northern gateway to the Ohio frontier. Before long, Mentor and Painesville were bustling villages, but the headlands remained sparsely populated by a few hardy farmers, isolated by the swampy land to the south. The isolation ended in 1856 with the construction of a corduroy road comprised of successive layers of logs topped by a new layer each time the road sunk further into the muck.
In 1876, James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, chose the headlands for his backyard when he moved his family to the countryside near Mentor. While serving in the U.S. Senate, Garfield and his wife, Lucretia, brought their seven children to the sprawling country home for a welcome respite from the hubbub of Washington and the distress of Garfield's Civil War experiences. The serenity of the area appealed to Garfield, who was born in 1831 in the wilderness outside Cleveland, the last U.S. president who could truly claim to be born in a log cabin. The family estate, dubbed Lawnfield by reporters who camped out on its huge grassy lawn during Garfield's presidential campaign, is now a national historic site.
In the early 1900s, the children of the Norton family spent blissfull summer days on Headlands Beach. In her charming memoirs, Margaret Norton Smith reminisces about collecting driftwood and shells, building sandcastles, swimming and paddling canoes on the lake. At night, bonfires dotted the beach as families gathered to watch the sunset, roast marshmallows and corn, and share stories and songs. Occasionally roving bands of Gypsies would alight at the headlands and camp in an old orchard that is now the park entrance. The fun lasted year-round with sleigh rides through the snow and skating on the frozen marsh.
In 1953, the designation of 126 acres of beach, forest and marsh land at the east end of the headlands as Painesville Beach State Park ensured that many of the Norton children's favorite pastimes could still be enjoyed by children for generations to come. The park was renamed Headlands Beach in 1955, and visitor facilities were added in the 1960s. Meanwhile, concerned citizens protested the mounting pressure to drain and develop the nearby marsh, and land was donated by two industrial giants to create Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve. Together, Headlands Beach, Headlands Dunes and Mentor Marsh capture and protect fine examples of the diverse and wonderous landscapes of the Great Lakes.